In case you forgot that Renée Elise Goldsberry is a multitalented thespian who can literally do it all, you’re about to get a reminder. It’s a frigid morning in New York City, and Goldsberry has flown in from Paris for a few days to discuss her new Netflix project. An astounding series based on the 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is a massive tale set in a future dystopian world where humans transfer their consciousnesses or souls between sleeves (bodies), but only the rich and powerful can truly live forever.
A tale of betrayal, love, sex, and fear, Goldsberry stands at the center as warrior Quellcrist Falcone an Envoy or member of the military who was killed in the series prologue. (Once your consciousness is destroyed you cannot transfer sleeves.) And yet, Quellcrist remains a guiding light and a safe memory for Altered Carbon’s protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs (played by Joel Kinnaman) a former Envoy, and the last of his kind. Kovacs is awakened and resleeved after 250 years by billionaire Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) to solve Bancroft’s murder. If the series sounds rich and complicated to you, that’s because it is, and even Goldsberry wasn’t sure what to make of it when she first received the script. “I did not know (the book) when this came across my desk,” she remembered. “I was put on a phone call with Laeta Kalogridis, who is the showrunner, and I wasn’t even looking for another job. I was kind of neck deep in Broadway doing Hamilton. I think, within three sentences she had me because she said, ‘My mission in life is to create worlds where the hero is a woman of color.’ I was like, ‘Where are we doing this?’”
Quellcrist is more than just a hero; she’s a warrior. Watching Goldsberry shed her Hamilton petticoats and vintage ’40 fashions from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for combat boots and guns was thrilling. “When you ask me about it, I start smiling because on paper that sounds really fun,” Goldsberry says laughing. “It’s always been my dream to be an action star. I can’t believe it took this long for somebody to ask me to do it.”
Goldsberry was enchanted by the world of Altered Carbon — a dark future that our society seems intent on speeding toward. “This is one thing that’s very unique about this world,” the Tony Award winner explained. “The technology that exists that creates this dystopia is that human consciousness can be digitized and put onto a stack. Bodies are sleeves, and the beauty of that is these things that we consider so connected with our identity — gender, race, age; they don’t mean anything anymore, they’re accessories. I love that about the show even though the access to this technology is not fair, so the world becomes a very dark place. The concept of that challenges us and all of these things that limit us and separate us from each other in the world that we live in currently. This character, Quellcrist Falconer, was a soul. She wasn’t a woman or a Black woman; she was just a soul. She was a soul with a particular mission, and she chose the body that she inhabits to do that mission. We’re saying that in the future, this powerful human being could actually choose to be a Black woman. That, to me, is mind-blowingly, revolutionary, and powerful and that’s the reason why I’m here. That’s the reason why it was so important to try to create a body that somebody would choose with all the combat knowledge. That was challenging but fun to do.”
Though it’s set 500 years in the future, Altered Carbon is a searing critique of our present world. “I think that’s the reason this genre exists and it’s so powerful (because) these writers look at the world that we have, and they extrapolate out,” Goldsberry reflected. “There are a lot of very disturbing things that happen in this world and not for the purpose of being sensational but to warn our society. One of the most important things, I think, that we can learn about this world is how responsible we are with the technology we create. Do we feel that we are responsible for putting checks and balances on the technology we unleash on the world? Do we feel that it’s important in our society to make sure there is equal access for everyone? Let’s imagine that some of our world leaders right now could live forever and just grow in power. The great equalizer, which is death, is gone. That’s a very scary thought, but it’s worth thinking about because there’s a warning in it that we need.”
Altered Carbon showrunner and series creator Laeta Kalogridis had quite the task cut out for her when she attempted to sell the project to studios. With Netflix, Kalogridis was finally able to bring her vision to life. “I think it’s interesting that we live in this time where so many people are choosing to do television,” Goldsberry said thoughtfully. “I think it’s because if you’re supported by Skydance and Netflix, and you can tell a story in 10 hours or 20 hours as opposed to telling it in six hours; like a trilogy. You can do the kinds of things that Leata did that I think make this world more relevant. If you read the book, Altered Carbon, the character I play, Quellcrist Falconer, is not fully realized in that (first) book. The beauty of it being Leata, who is a woman who is running the biggest sci-fi show ever is she might read this really awesome book and say, ‘I want to know more about that character, Quell. She’s not really here yet, but that’s who’s interesting to me so I’m going to bring her to life and I have more time to do it. I can take the time to put her in all these moments so that she can truly be the leader of this main character, Kovacs, and I can take an entire episode, episode seven, where I really flesh out her story. Episode seven by itself is a movie.’”
Altered Carbon crackles and pulsates as Kovacs embarks on his mission to find Bancroft’s killer, and subsequently free him from the greedy benefactor’s clutches. However, he continually looks to Quell for guidance. “We have this great male lead, played by Joel Kinnaman, he’s just everything you want in a hero,” Goldsberry explained. “He goes on this mission because this woman tells him there’s something there. She represents so much of what’s best about him, and she really is the leader in this world. I think we need to see the powerful women in the world as leaders. We need to let them lead, and we’re not necessarily as comfortable with that as I thought we were. What if the powerful men in our current world were so comfortable in their manhood that they could seek out the women that are powerful around them? Would the world look exactly like it does today? I don’t think so. To me, that’s huge and important and definitely relevant.”
This Netflix series isn’t the only project that Goldsberry has on her slate. Her forthcoming film, The House with the Clock in its Walls which also stars Cate Blanchett and Jack Black will premiere this fall. “It’s really wonderful and it’s been a blessing,” Goldsberry said. “I don’t even know where it’s going to take me or what it’s going to do, but I would love to do more film. I’d love to produce more film. I’m excited about the medium of television and producing television. I love the idea that I could be the one that was identifying stories that would be important for us to produce and introducing other kinds of characters into the world. That’s very exciting to me. It’s like the next realm for me is to be able to work in that space and on that level. Telling really quirky, scary stories to different groups of people is an honor, and I think we, as people of color, should be in all of genres and in every space.”
All ten episodes of Altered Carbon will debut Feb. 2, 2018, on Netflix.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami