Spencer’s great passion for and cautious scepticism of the genre is what lay behind her decision to take the role of podcaster-investigator Poppy Parnell in Truth Be Told, which is based on the book Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber. In it, Parnell tackles the case of convicted serial killer Warren Cave (Aaron Paul), a man she helped put behind bars, but who she now believes to be innocent.
“I don’t like to use the word fan because it romanticises it in a weird way, but I am deeply fascinated by it,” Spencer says of the genre. “I’m just drawn to that stuff because I’m a detective at heart. I always want to get to the, you know what I think happened.”
Framed around Poppy’s investigation of the Cave case are the stakeholders, including Cave’s mother, Melanie (Elizabeth Perkins), who desperately wants her son proven innocent, and the twin daughters of one of his victims, Josie and Lanie Burhman (Lizzy Caplan), for whom any re-examination of the case threatens to destroy the fragile world they have built around themselves.
Complicating the story is the heat that Parnell takes in reopening it; during his imprisonment Cave has become a white supremacist and the optics of an African American investigator crusading for the release of a convicted white racist are challenging.
“One of the reasons why I took this job on was to show just how we consume true crime and we, as the audience, we sort of get to participate in a weird way, thinking, well, this is what I think happened from point A to point B,” Spencer says. “And you get to be an armchair detective and you don’t have to suffer any of the ramifications that sadly the family or the victims endure.”
The series also examines the human fallout from such crimes. “It shows you just how one act can affect all of these families,” Spencer says. “Burhman being killed affected the affluence of his family and his kids and their trajectory, [Warren Cave] being tried, how it affected his family. My character, being the person at the centre of it. It affects her family. So many lives are affected by it.
“I think [Poppy] is also a very religious woman and her mother, she considers her mother the angel on her shoulders and you don’t want to disappoint the angel on your shoulder,” Spencer adds. “So it’s about actually dealing with those things. And that’s one of the things that I loved about the character.”
Parnell’s motivation for reopening a case that she had, in part, helped to prosecute is complex, Spencer says. “Her ascent into greatness or fame or money came off the back of whether or not this affluent young kid would get a fair trial and in her mind a fair trial was, would he be found guilty and if he did it,” she says.
“For her, everything pointed at guilty and I think, fast forward 20 years, when you now have the cancel culture, with social media, people are listening to her podcasts and there’s this fervour around it, the excitement, Poppy [begins to ask] could she have been wrong and what are the implications of her being wrong?
“And, as a person of integrity, what does she have to deal with?” Spencer adds. “Has she taken this young guy’s life away from him and is she morally corrupt? To me, a person who is morally corrupt would have done nothing to free him. She’s definitely not that person, she’s flawed in a lot of ways, but she thinks that she might have wronged him and she looks into it and whatever happens in the wake of that, she has to ride it out.”
Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul, who plays Warren Cave, says the series examines the media narrative of heroes and villains, and the manner in which it informs most people’s interpretation of crime reporting. Off the back of a podcast which essentially crucified him, one presumes Cave is guilty until the jigsaw pieces around begin to jag slightly and an alternate sequence of events suddenly seems possible.
“Not everything is as black and white as it may seem,” Paul says. “You know, everybody has their own story, everyone’s story is completely different and their own sort of point of view. I dived into Serial and I had this back and forth, is he guilty? Is he not? Are they falling in love with each other, maybe? It gets to you, whatever the feeling is you feel for these characters, whatever that feeling may be.”
To research the role Paul did a deep dive into prison-themed television content, documentaries, anything he could lay his hands on. And he also researched the white supremacist culture within American prisons, a culture with which Cave becomes enmeshed.
“I always try to bring heart to any character I’m playing, whether it’s a very bad person or a good person,” Paul says. “I want some sort of true, honest humanity within him. But at the very beginning of the shoot my first burning question was, Well, did he do it? And [writer Nichelle Tramble Spellman] was like, I’m not telling. I did not know whether or not he was innocent till the very end. Truly.
“So I had to play him as honest as I saw him, and he was pushed into a corner, he was thrown in prison at a very young age, he had to pick a side, that’s the only way to really survive, otherwise he’s just a punching bag,” Paul says. “He had to pick a side and the side he picked was the Aryan Nation Brotherhood, which is a really terrifying sort of just dangerous place to be. And yeah, it was uncomfortable at times, but I loved this guy. I loved this character and I loved the ups and downs and twists and turns, the badness in him and the good in him.”
WHAT Truth Be Told
WHEN Apple TV+ from Friday, December 6
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.