The premise of Run, a new comedy-thriller series that premieres on HBO Sunday, is deliciously succinct.
Two college sweethearts, Ruby Richardson (Unbelievable‘s Merritt Wever) and Billy Johnson (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina), made a pact back in the day that, if one of them ever texted “RUN” to the other and received the same back, they’d drop everything and book it to Grand Central Station. Fifteen years after splitting up, with Ruby now married and Billy chained to an unexpected career success, they surprise each other by making good on their word.
But as these two ex-lovers pull out of the gate, on an Amtrak bound for Chicago, Run—which was written and created by the British playwright Vicky Jones—is still just warming up. As Ruby and Billy become reacquainted, all the while harboring secrets darker than they care to admit, tempers flare and sparks fly out—albeit rarely in the cutesy, heartwarming ways you might think, especially after another mysteriously motivated character (The Good Wife‘s Archie Panjabi) climbs aboard.
Defying expectations and subverting tone is second nature to Jones, best known for her work with Fleabag‘s Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who executive-produces Run and has a recurring guest role). Close friends and collaborators, the pair years ago founded and later served as co-artistic directors of the DryWrite Theatre Company. When they met up for a drink one day in 2007, a kernel of an idea for a one-woman play—about one character grappling with guilt, insecurity, and her own bracing, hyper-alert perspective on the world—blossomed into the bolt-from-the-blue success that was Fleabag. Waller-Bridge wrote and performed the play version, which Jones directed. By the time they adapted it for television, they’d been propelled into the upper echelons of the TV industry. From that vantage, they’ve continued to collaborate, teaming on comedy series Crashing and thriller-drama Killing Eve.
Run, which spans seven half-hour installments, is similar to Jones’s and Waller-Bridge’s past collaborations in its focus on flawed, funny characters coming to terms with extraordinary circumstances. With the world trapped inside amid the spread of coronavirus, Run is also exactly the kind of escapist fantasy audiences need more of right now—even if its leads seem unlikely to ride happily off into the sunset.
“They’re running toward each other and from themselves, on a train, funneling toward some form of destiny,” says Jones, speaking by phone about the series with Fortune this past Friday. “To me, that felt like a really interesting exploration of the self.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The first five episodes of Run bounce between comedy and thriller in this delightful, unexpected way. It’s difficult to pin down both where your series is going and who these characters, played by Merritt Wever and Domhnall Gleeson, really are. How did you find the tone of Run?
Well, we were just really ambitious to create something fresh. We knew that we loved and were inspired by [Richard] Linklater’s trilogy—Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight—and that was just a great starting point in terms of really being in on a relationship and all the tiny moments that can make or break it, how tenuous and delicate and fragile it can be. It’s [especially true] the first time people come together, or for the first time in a very long time. But we felt that story had already been done so well, that it needed a different feel, so we became very excited by the idea of making it into a thriller. It just felt like a huge, huge challenge, so as a result we just went toward it.
Obviously, there was this very Hitchcockian method, a mood in the room, that we really loved. The train was very inspiring for that—this nostalgic, old-Hollywood feel, and that cinematic experience of looking out the window. Of course, there was the excitement of having sex on the train. And they have that. [Laughs.] But there was also this sense they were encased in this dangerous, metal transport machine clamoring through the countryside. In a sense, you’ve already done something, gone somewhere, by getting on the train, so you can kind of switch off and meditate, focus on those tiny little microcosms inside. There’s that sense of dreaming, I suppose, when you’re on a train. We liked the idea of two people together, almost kidding themselves that they were in a parallel universe, away from real time and life, that they could get away with these few days taking time for themselves to figure out whether they could still be in love.
I guess a lot of it come from ideas we had about the pact and the train, and the desire to be fresh and have multiple genres impacting each other. It’s about staying ahead of your audience, which Phoebe is always very ambitious about. People are guessing up until the last minute, and you never know what’s going to come next. In this case, we were curious whether this was a thriller, a comedy, a romance, and what it was going to be next.
In terms of writing to stay ahead of the audience, as you’re saying, what experiences did you draw on from your time at the DryWrite Theatre Company with Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and just across your career, to create that suspense while placing it into a narrative where it would be surprising, without breaking the inner reality of the series?
I’ve always written for Phoebe. She’s always the person I wanted to impress and grab. Strange, now, that she’s all so wildly successful, and I’m like, “Thank you. Right? She’s a genius!” Because she could always guess the end of things very well, so it was a real challenge to write for her in a way where she couldn’t see what was coming. And that’s always her taste, as well. She always loves to pull the rug, to get the audience laughing in one moment and sucker-punch them in the next, out of nowhere.
In terms of keeping it believable, that’s really been at the forefront of my mind. Because if you want to be ambitious, to want to write a thriller element within a story as naturalistic as this, then you need to stretch them a little bit. So many things rarely happen to anyone. The question we kept having to ask was, “Yeah, but what if it did?” What if somebody did die in front of them? What would you do? What would you really do? We wanted to do our best to tell this story as accurately as possible about these two particular people, what they might actually do in real life. Hopefully, we stay with them, because they’re not able to behave like thriller characters. They’re their own beautiful, nuanced, fallible, funny selves during this terrible experience that happens.
Part of what makes Run so successful in that particular category is the fine work of your leads, Merritt Weaver and Domhnall Gleeson, both of whom I felt are playing very much against type.
I always loved Domhnall in About Time, so I saw quite as a leading man anyway. But he is such a shapeshifter, I think. What was important, to me, is that he was somebody who was so emotionally open and so human, so complex and unafraid of letting all that complexity shine through. I just knew that he was the person to play this role. I mean, you can really imagine what he’s like as your boyfriend. He’s not perfect, he has a lot of flaws that he wears on his sleeve, and the idea for the character was of this brilliant talker, a natural wordsmith, who’s got the wrong advice after they’ve split up with the love of their life. Billy’s become this guru, who has a crisis of conscience that’s triggered him texting “RUN” to her. He’s come very far away from himself. I needed someone who could be two very different kinds of people—a passionate, romantic, emotional person, and also a total douche when it comes to giving out crap advice, being very fake with loads of people. It was brilliant to be able to work with someone unafraid of walking that line, who could let the emotion take hold of him.
For Merritt, there’s nobody like her in my book. As soon as I heard she might be interested, I was just like, “Oh my god, please!” To me, it was so important that Ruby not be played by someone who had so clearly caught the Hollywood bug. She’s a person I want to watch and feel like being, a true mother who’s a very real person capable of tapping into this tapestry of human emotion. Merritt can access that like no other. And she’s so funny! She can come out with moments that just astonish me every time, with her wile and wickedness and funniness. She’ll do it just once and then the next time do something different, but equally incredible. The pair of them is the real trick.
You’ve worked across theater and television, but Run finds you wearing all these hats as a showrunner. What challenges did you face in that particular role?
It was huge. Being across absolutely everything, for a start, is a huge thing. And having a baby at the same time, well, it’s put my back out and there hasn’t been much sleeping. The hardest thing, though, is storylining, plotting out some elements of twist and thriller and action. That’s when you realize the people who do that are truly just geniuses, some of them. It’s so hard and what takes the longest. I had some great help from Jeny Robins, this amazing story editor; from Phoebe; from people who really do have those minds. But it was just so important we stayed true to these characters, that they behaved truthfully if something happened. It took forever, and the scripts were late as a result. Production was late and was threatened by all that, and that was really my fault. I just hadn’t gotten the scripts done in time, hadn’t made up my mind about the story. We threw out really big plot points that, thank God, we lost. But yeah, it was massive.
I love how modern Run feels, given this nostalgic, fairy-tale element the runaway story so often has. It might have been easier to set it in the past, or to have them inexplicably detached from their phones and unable to access the outside world. But you don’t do that, and there are all-important calls and texts that inform the twists and turns.
That was a huge thing for us. At one point, we’d thought they’d lose their phones very early on or throw them out the window. Maybe that’s part of the pact, that they throw their phones away. But then we thought, “Nah, they wouldn’t.” It really is your lifeline back to home, and I figured if Ruby didn’t have her phone, she wouldn’t be going in the first place.
Once we decided to keep them, I thought it was quite good for her, as an excuse, that she was available to be contacted all the time. She thought, “This is my time to choose myself.” Quite rightly, I think. She’s always chosen other people and even in this moment, she’s like, “I’m not completely gone! I’m still here!” And, of course, that gets tested, once the messages she gets are not that everything’s okay. We wanted to put the pressure on her, add to the guilt at what she’s left. There’s also a thriller element to getting creepy texts from numbers you don’t know. It all worked out really well in this sense that we wanted to keep it as real and relatable as we could, putting it in a modern context.
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