SPOILER ALERT: These interviews contain spoilers from the Season 6 “Black Mirror” episodes “Joan Is Awful,” “Mazey Day” and “Beyond the Sea,” now streaming on Netflix.
Back after a four-year hiatus, the long-awaited sixth season of “Black Mirror” opens — fittingly — with “Joan is Awful,” an exploration of the dubious inner workings of a fictional streaming service called Streamberry.
Streamberry, which bears more than a passing resemblance to “Black Mirror’s” IRL producing partner Netflix, co-opts users’ lives to create AI-driven, CGI-rendered semi-fictional dramas without its subjects’ consent. Kind of like, say, “Inventing Anna” (which had the consent of the eponymous Anna Delvey, but not her erstwhile BFF Rachel Williams, who sued the streamer for defamation last year) or “The Crown” or “The Tinder Swindler” or “Narcos” or… you get the gist.
Giving viewers a glimpse into an entirely conceivable dystopian future in which, to butcher a Nora Ephron aphorism, “everything is content,” “Joan is Awful’s” fictionalized portrayal of Netflix — right down to the “tudum” sound that accompanies Streamberry’s logo — offers up the delicious sense that the streamer is finally getting a taste of its own medicine.
As befitting “Black Mirror’s” knack for fusing fact, fiction, present and future (see: the final mind-melting twist in “Joan is Awful,” which makes Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” look like an episode of “Peppa Pig”) the press junket for Season 6 was not unlike a press junket you could envision Streamberry organizing. A series of journalists from across the globe were summoned online into a maze-like series of virtual waiting rooms before being given mere minutes to bark out a few questions at the actors and then booted off.
Variety was allocated precisely four minutes to interview Salma Hayek Pinault and Annie Murphy (the stars of “Joan is Awful”), four minutes for Kate Mara and Josh Hartnett (who appear in Episode 3, “Beyond the Sea”) and a whopping five minutes for Zazie Beetz, Danny Ramirez and Clara Rugaard (Episode 4, “Mazey Day”).
Four minutes — or 240 seconds — is the kind of random fragment of time that makes you ponder the meaning of the universe itself. What can be achieved in four minutes? You can repeatedly ask a six-year-old to put on their shoes (without success). You can get halfway to orbit in a space shuttle. You can save the world, if you happen to be Madonna and Justin Timberlake.
If you’re a Variety journalist, four minutes is the exact time it takes to lob five questions at Kate Mara and Josh Hartnett before being cut off by a Streamberry — sorry, Netflix — publicist who, around the two minute mark, typed into the virtual chat box: “1 minute left. Please wrap up.”
2+1 = 4? That’s definitely some “Black Mirror” math.
Adding to the sense that Variety may have entered what Michael Cera, at the end of “Joan is Awful,” reveals to be Fictive Level One, just a few hours before the virtual junket we bumped into the creator of “Black Mirror” himself, Charlie Brooker, standing quietly in London’s Leicester Square in the shadow of a statue of William Shakespeare. He had come to participate in a rally supporting the WGA’s writers strike. Under the watchful eye of England’s best-known playwright
, there were no Streamberry PRs with stopwatches to usher Variety away , and Brooker seemed happy to chat.
“I worry for a living — it’s generally what I do— and I’m very worried about AI and the use of ChatGPT and things like that,” he explained of his support for the strike. “That’s a particular concern to me, so that’s why I’m here.” Did any of his worries about AI feed into “Joan is Awful?” “That was written and wrapped before ChatGPT and stuff like that launched,” Brooker replied.
Oh. So that was just him predicting the future again? “Unfortunately, in this case,” he said.
“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle entirely, but I do think they’re useful tools for writers in the same way photoshop is a useful tool for illustrators and photographers and so on,” he continued. “So I don’t know. It’s above my pay grade to know how you regulate it, what sort of agreement there is. But I think it needs to be” – Brooker jokingly contorted his voice to imitate some kind of sci-fi overlord: “controoolled.”
So there you have it. Read on to find out what else Variety managed to pry out of some of the Season 6 cast members in the time it takes to soft-boil an egg.
Oh, and if we have inadvertently ended up in an episode of “Black Mirror,” can Streamberry please note we’d like to be played by AI-generated likenesses of Blake Lively, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Yeoh.
“Joan Is Awful”
In “Joan Is Awful,” Annie Murphy’s Joan discovers that a massive streaming platform has launched a dramatic adaptation of her life, starring Salma Hayek. As her life crumbles, Joan resorts to increasingly drastic measures to stop the series — like housing several cheeseburgers, taking laxatives and relieving herself in a crowded church.
Salma, you play yourself in this episode. Did you give Charlie Brooker feedback on how you’d actually speak? And do you think you’re anything like the version of yourself we see on “Black Mirror?”
Salma Hayek: I did give some input on myself to Charlie: little details, like I’m dyslexic. But is this the real me? No, but it was so much fun to play different versions of what people think of me, and have a laugh at it and have a sense of humor about it, and then pushing it to the extremes. I’m also playing [Joan], as an even more extreme version of me. It was just so much fun.
Annie, what was your first reaction when you read the laxative scene in the church? Were you at all hesitant to go there?
Annie Murphy: No, no, no, there was absolutely no hesitation at any point about any of this. I got a call saying I got this offer. I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t care about what the role was or what the episode was. I just wanted to be a part of the show. It just kept ticking boxes, and then we got to that scene, and I was like, “Put me in! I want to do this!”
Hayek: Tell them about me!
Murphy: And then Salma was like, “Don’t ever put me in! This is horrible and disgusting!”
Hayek: Exactly the opposite reaction! Opposites attract!
Murphy: Finding out that I was gonna be working with Salma Hayek — Salma fucking Hayek — it was just a dream come true, for real.
The episode feels so timely, particularly as artificial intelligence is a hot topic in the ongoing WGA strike. Has it dawned on you how perfect the timing of this release is?
Hayek: Yeah, it’s kind of fascinating. It was already timely when we were shooting it. It’s only a couple of months later, and now it’s like, the fear is here. We’re not looking further in the future. Technology has caught up with Charlie! As it often does. — Katcy Stephan
“Beyond the Sea”
In “Beyond the Sea,” Josh Hartnett and Aaron Paul play a pair of 1960s astronauts in the middle of a six-year space mission. To keep sane, they can beam their conscious into lifelike replicasback on Earth. When murderous hippies kill Hartnett’s family and destroy his replica, the spaceman begins to break down. Out of sympathy — and self-preservation — Paul lends Hartnett his replica, but soon begins to suspect there may be something going on between his co-pilot and his wife (Kate Mara).
Josh, in the farmhouse scenes in which Aaron Paul is playing you inhabiting his replica were you there to advise him how you might act in his body?
Josh Hartnett: They didn’t allow me that privilege, no.
So you and Kate didn’t have any scenes together in real life?
How did you both get involved in this season of “Black Mirror”?
Kate Mara: This specific script was sent to me, and no one else was even attached yet so it was just the story itself — and I was immediately intrigued, because I love “Black Mirror.” I didn’t know anything about it, which was definitely the right way to read it because obviously there’s some big twists and reveals and things in the story. I was just really attracted to the themes of this one and the dynamic that my character has with both guys.
Hartnett: I was kind of the opposite. I would have done anything with “Black Mirror,” but I didn’t get a chance to read [the script] until a week before. I think it was my agents who had pursued them, basically saying “I hear you’re coming back to do something new —Josh would love to be a part of it.” And then they called me and offered me this role and sent it to me literally a week before we started filming.
Wow that’s a quick turnaround. What is your favorite “Black Mirror” episode?
Mara: The Bryce Dallas Howard one is my favorite [“Nosedive” in Season 3]. There are so many good ones, but I love her and her performance is so great in that. — K.J. Yossman
“Mazey Day” is set in the early 2000s at the height of sales for the paparazzi. Zazie Beetz plays a surprisingly sympathetic pap who wants to quit the business, but is tempted by a big offer from her tabloid peer, played by Danny Ramirez. The target is actor Mazey Day, played by Clara Rugaard, who appears to be going through a detox for drug addiction. But her actual affliction is far more sinister…
Your episode is the rare “Black Mirror” installment, in that it has a supernatural twist. Were you surprised when you read the script?
Zazie Beetz: Yes, I was surprised. But I also think it’s kind of cool to have an episode that’s a bit different and approaches the “Black Mirror” world from a different angle than what we’ve grown used to seeing.
This episode also shows the dark side of paparazzi. I’m curious if you based your performance on a personal experience? Or have you learned something from studying this world that made you feel different about paparazzi?
Beetz: I don’t get “papped” that often. But Danny and I watched a documentary called “Smash His Camera” about a paparazzi so named Ron Galella. And it’s a fascinating doc, I recommend it. It’s interesting the way he sees it as almost a craft It’s fun for him and he’s capturing culture and is part of the cultural moment. And he’s just so charismatic and loves rabbits and it’s very, very interesting. I think it puts an empathetic face on a profession that a lot of people do villainize, I suppose. And as an actor, I feel like I have to empathize with my character. So I certainly leaned into her motivations. And she also has her own moral questions about what she’s doing. So I hope it comes across as I’m not judging her, because I was trying not to.
What is your favorite “Black Mirror” episode, aside from your own?
Danny Ramirez: “Hang the DJ.” It blew me away when I saw it. It’s also probably one of the more hopeful ones, I think.
Clara Rugaard: I’m going to say “San Junipero.” We switch our answers every single time, because there’s just too many good ones. But there is such a tragic, hopeful, beautiful, romantic element to that. It really sat with me for a long time.
Beetz: I’ve been saying “White Christmas” but I have to say — well, Danny took it already, but I really like “Hang the DJ” as well. So I’m going to tack myself onto that one, too.
You all seem to like the hopeful ones. I like the dark, despairing ones.
Ramirez: I love those too. But there’s something beautiful about just breaking the simulation for true love. It’s just one of the best metaphors for finding true love. So it just stuck with me. — Jenelle Riley
Despite their brevity, these interviews have been edited and condensed.