The set of Netflix’s new limited series Devil in Ohio isn’t the first time actress Emily Deschanel has crossed paths with executive producer Daria Polatin. Previously, the two attended the Boston University College of Fine Arts, where they both studied theatre. Though they lost contact over the years, they did keep tabs on each’s work. For instance, Deschanel bought the book Polatin wrote, which was what was adapted into the show. Deschanel said:
“Daria was studying acting, as was I, so I think we both imagined probably being in plays together, but not that she would create the show and write this show and create this whole world. And then I would get to play a part like this. No, not in your wildest dreams.”
Like its source material, the eight-episode series follows Dr. Suzanne Mathis (Deschanel), who decided to take in a young patient named Mae (Madeline Arthur), who has escaped from a satanic cult. While Suzanne does her best to protect the girl, Mae’s arrival causes friction with the rest of the family and puts all of their lives in danger as well.
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“Where you have someone who is escaping a cult background, and then that collides with a family drama where maybe things aren’t as perfect as they seem from the outside, and maybe there’s some things happening already in the family. And I found it fascinating to explore how fragile things can be, how fragile relationships can be, families can be, and even our own psychology or our psyche can be, and so how one element can come in and change things in a very impactful way.”
While the novel occasionally provides chapters with third-person narration, it’s primarily a first-person recollection from Jules, the Mathis’ middle child played by Xaria Dotson in the show. For the series, they got to open it up and look at the story through Suzanne’s eyes, which according to Polatin, was a lot of fun creatively. To crack open a whole new side of the story.
“The show is different from the book. So people who read the book will have some nice surprises for them as well. Not that you would skip the show because you know everything that happens in the book. But in case someone thinks that way, there’s lots of different things that happen in the show than the book.”
The Writing of Devil in Ohio
According to Polatin, she got the idea for Devil in Ohio, which is based on a true story, from her executive producer Rachel Miller. However, since the project isn’t a documentary, the writers freed them up creatively by using the true story as inspiration. When designing the cult on the show, the writers did their research and created a huge document of their ideology, terminology, and history, which they then gave to the heads of departments. Polatin said:
“We even wrote part of the Book of Covenants, their bible, and we wrote like bible stories because we really wanted it to—even though it is fictional, we wanted it to feel real and specific. And so we put a lot of thought and effort into making something unique and grounded and that we hadn’t seen exactly before because there is a lot of content about it.”
As a playwright, Polatin always approaches storytelling through the character’s psychology and how that drives the plot. As an actress, Deschanel works from the bottom up by thinking of the character’s history. So the two of them were able to work together to craft Suzanne’s character. Deschanel would receive scripts ahead of time and would pitch her own ideas. For instance, something that Deschanel came up with was Suzanne liking horses when she was little, and the writers used that piece threaded throughout.
“It was a really great collaboration because I’ve done and the writers have done a lot of work creating a really thorough character and giving Emily as much information as we had. And all our stories, some that ended up in the show and some that didn’t, but just sharing all this info with her so she could build off of it. Emily also did her own work as an actor to fill out the rest of the role.”
Like Mae, Suzane has some trauma in her past too. Deschanel found it fascinating to explore a character who works in mental health but still struggles with mental health issues herself, which the actress thinks can be common. One of the things that drew Deschanel to the story was how it approaches trauma, which she thought was authentically explored.
“It was always a hope to be able to adapt it. I mean, I loved writing the book, and I love writing, getting really interior with the characters and getting inside their heads, but the world was just so rich, and through writing it, I became really interested in Suzanne’s character. And so, moving into the series, I really wanted to look at why Suzzanne brings Mae home. Why she wants to help her, and how far will she go to help Mae.”