“Servant” is perhaps this fall’s most intriguing new series, and certainly its creepiest.
Hailing from twistmeister general M. Night Shyamalan, the half-hour supernatural thriller (premiering this Friday; on Apple TV+) first appears to feature just four characters: well-off Philadelphia couple Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell), her off-kilter brother Julian (Rupert Grint), and 18-year-old Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), an enigmatic new nanny hired to watch baby Jericho, who may not be what she seems. Are they ever?
But there’s another player in the show’s slow-burn game of psychological chess, according to Ambrose: the couple’s palatial brownstone itself, a beautiful yet eerily hushed domicile awash in dark shadows and complete with a particularly ominous wine cellar.
“The house is very much a fifth character,” says Ambrose, praising the sense of atmosphere that creator-writer Tony Basgallop (“Hotel Babylon”) and executive-producer Shyamalan, who directed two episodes, brought to the show’s single setting.
Shyamalan "works in structures, and every angle is chosen for a reason, every camera angle and lighting setup considered and thought-through,” explains Ambrose by phone. "There’s that kind of structure. But then there’s the literal structure of this incredible, historic brownstone, reconstructed on a soundstage with such detail, every dovetailed joint and plate-glass door.”
Filming “Servant” on that one set, the actress, 41, recalls that the entire house, from kitchen stovetops to wall panels, was engineered to be both fully functional and alterable. “Everything was on a hinge,” she says. “They had the ability to manipulate the space however they needed it.”
Such behind-the-scenes trickery indicates the attention to detail in “Servant,” which premieres three of its first 10 episodes Friday and will then reveal one a week. It’s already renewed for a second season, and Shyamalan’s suggested the first 60 episodes are plotted out already.
“He’s a master of the genre,” says Ambrose, who’d previously been familiar with Shyamalan’s on-screen trademarks — the contemporary supernatural, twist endings, and Philadelphia — through his films “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs,” and “Unbreakable.”
“The thriller is a much more cinematic way of thinking and working,” says the actress.
“What is marriage and family, what is it to have this unimaginable loss and to grieve, and what is reality versus perception when one character might experience some phenomenon as a practical-world matter and another might see it as a miracle?” she added. "You can discuss these big ideas of life and death through genre [series] without being so literal.”
At the show’s center is Ambrose, whose Dorothy has become psychologically fractured after a tragedy involving Jericho. Sean and Julian both indulge her in its aftermath, while Leanne has other, more sinister ideas about how best to navigate the new mother’s anguish.
"Dorothy is very interested in how she and her home present,“ explains Ambrose. "To have a trauma happen to this person who’s such a perfectionist and so ambitious about the way she looks and is perceived, she can’t even dare to look at it, at what she perceives as a failure.”
Ambrose speaks while driving toward Boston, where she’ll celebrate Thanksgiving in Needham with her husband’s side of the family. The actress, best known for playing Claire Fisher on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” is a native New Englander; she grew up in New Haven and studied voice and opera at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Ambrose has taken on stage and screen roles, including a Tony-nominated one in a “My Fair Lady” revival, but “Servant” is the actress’ most complicated part to date.
“On one level, the show plot-wise is about family, this mother going back to work for the first time hiring a nanny,” teases Ambrose. “Then, of course, there’s all this supernatural chaos Night has thrown underneath all that, and the reality of what’s going on with her.”
Reality’s a relative concept in “Servant," especially as it’s viewed by Leanne, whose arrival in the Turners’ home precipitates a series of increasingly unnerving events. For the 20-year-old Free, the key to unlocking Leanne came when Shyamalan pulled her aside early in the shoot.
“He explained to me that everyone’s got their own reality going on,” recalls Free, speaking by phone. “Dorothy believes one thing is happening; Sean believes another thing. I have one reality I have to exist in and come from. Every action and reaction I have has to come from this one belief I have, though I can’t give away what that is.”
Free’s used to keeping secrets. The British actress is best known for her role on HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” in which she played the ill-fated Myrcella Baratheon, only daughter of Cersei Lannister, across two seasons. But the anxiety of safeguarding Westerosi knowledge was tempered by how little she was actually told.
“I was very much a secondary character,” recalls Free. “All I knew about what would happen, I picked up from friends on set, though I of course knew what happened to [Myrcella]. This feels like much more pressure."
Free leaned on her “Servant” co-stars, especially Ambrose, during the shoot. “My character is the quiet, little, lurking darkness in the show,” says Free. “It’s very easy for that to become one-sided if it’s not done right, so bouncing off the others helped me get at different layers of Leanne.”
Though she’s often unsettling, Free doesn’t see Leanne as a villain. “She shows different colors to different characters,” explains the actress. “With all of them, she’s coming from a place of good intentions. It’s frustrating for her that the two ‘dumb boys,' [Sean and Julian,] don’t get that she’s just there to help.
"At least, that’s where she’s coming from in her head, though her way of helping, her way to trying to fix things, may seem... insidious to most of the other characters.”
Rolling out “Servant” on Apple TV+, which launched just earlier this month, both Ambrose and Free feel like pioneers. A tad cheekily, Free calls it her “baby,” while Ambrose expresses gratitude that the small cast and crew on “Servant” generated what she calls “a perfect creative environment.” Neither knows what audiences will make of “Servant,” but that’s also the series’ entire appeal.
“It’s like you’re dropping your kid off at school,” says Free. “You just really want him to have a good day.”