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Chris Evans on the page-turner that kept him up at 3 a.m., and the murky moral dilemma at the heart of it

Chris Evans is shown on the screen at the 2020 Winter TCA Tour in Pasadena, Calif., where he discussed "Defending Jacob."David Livingston/Getty Images/file

The new television series “Defending Jacob” unfurls a nightmare scenario for parents. How would you react if your child was suspected of committing a heinous crime? How far would you go to protect them? And what culpability do parents have for the actions of their child?

Those are some of the thorny moral questions at the heart of the new series, starring Sudbury native Chris Evans, of “Captain America” fame, and Michelle Dockery (“Downton Abbey”) as embattled Newton parents grappling with questions about the guilt or innocence of their 14-year-old son, Jacob. Debuting Friday on Apple TV+ and based on Newton novelist William Landay’s 2012 bestseller, the series is written by Mark Bomback (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) and directed by Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”).

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“It strikes the chord of: Can you ever really know somebody?” says Evans, 38, speaking via Zoom from his home in Boston. “It’s heartbreaking when someone you know very well shocks you or disappoints you. And it’s one thing if it’s someone that you can shed — a friend or a girlfriend that you have no problem breaking up with. But you can’t break up with your family.

“Our identities become tangled up with our family. So if all of a sudden, that balance is disrupted, you lose a piece of yourself. It’s a really tough crossroads for [Jacob’s parents] Andy and Laurie.”

Chris Evans, Jaeden Martell, and Michelle Dockery in “Defending Jacob."Apple TV+

That dilemma is amplified by Andy Barber’s occupation: He’s an assistant district attorney. When a classmate of Jacob’s turns up dead one morning at Cold Spring Park, Andy takes the lead on the murder case. A social media post teases at Jacob’s potential involvement, but Andy dismisses it as teenage posturing and focuses his attention on a different suspect. After new evidence is uncovered implicating Jacob, Andy is removed from the case and begins vigorously defending his son.

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“It ultimately gets down to this big moral question,” says Bomback, the screenwriter. “If I feel deep down that this person I love may have committed a murder, does my love for them ultimately justify my either concealing or ignoring or living with that possibility?”

The case unleashes a media firestorm. Friends turn their backs on the Barbers, their garage door gets sprayed with graffiti, and they’re ostracized in the community. “I think it’s easy in this day and age to get easily moved by the court of public opinion,” Evans says of the assumptions made about Jacob’s guilt. “But there’s usually much more going on under the surface that we don’t know about.”

As more evidence emerges, Laurie must reconcile her doubts that Jacob is telling the whole truth and her fears about his culpability. Thanks to an enigmatic performance by Jaeden Martell (who starred with Evans in “Knives Out”), viewers, too, wonder if Jacob is innocent or capable of murder and a cascade of lies.

When he first read the book, Evans was riveted by the story’s twists and turns. “It’s a fantastic page-turner,” he says. “It’s one of those things you keep saying, ‘Alright, one more chapter,’ and then the next thing you know, you’re up at 3 a.m. trying to get through it.”

Bomback, too, felt it had all the hallmarks of an engrossing murder-mystery “that gets your heart racing … but also really delves deep into the moral gray areas of the characters,” he says. It was pitched to him as a film, but he felt the material would be better served as a limited series in the vein of “Broadchurch” or “True Detective.”

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Evans agrees that the combination of guessing-game and deep-dive character study aligns well with an episodic television series. “With this format, you can really let things breathe and explore those quiet moments that I think really color in the experience and allow for a deeper exploration into each character.”

Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery as Andy and Laurie Barber in "Defending Jacob."Apple TV+

When a long-buried secret about Andy’s own past emerges, Laurie struggles to come to terms with her husband’s deceit and his blinkered perspective on Jacob, not to mention what her son may have inherited from his father. “Andy has spent a lifetime compartmentalizing,” Evans says. “He had a very traumatic childhood, and I think most people with traumatic childhoods develop tools, whether conscious or subconscious, of being internal, taciturn, a little ossified, very protective of themselves. It’s a survival tactic.”

Eventually, Andy and Laurie’s differing perspectives collide. “The majority of relationships I’ve been in with girlfriends have been very honest and open. But I think we’ve also seen plenty of relationships that you wouldn’t necessarily classify as unhealthy, but may be predicated on this kind of acceptance of not addressing certain conflicts, certain issues that should be addressed,” Evans says. “For this family, there are some truths that should be discussed in the privacy and safety of a therapeutic environment but get aggressively exhumed in front of the world. They’re now front-page news. And what hangs in the balance is their family unit and the freedom of their son.”

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On set, Bomback marveled at Evans’s ability to convey such depth of emotion and thought without showy or overwrought acting choices. “There’s something about the surface calm that suggests whirling waters underneath,” he says.

Landay, a former Middlesex County assistant district attorney, also observed that quality in Evans when he visited the set. “He’s able to project a depth that goes beyond what he’s actually saying in the dialogue. There’s always a sense in watching him of something more going on — a secret that he’s keeping, a thought that he’s not expressing, a subtlety that he appreciates that the people around him may not. That’s critical to playing the character.”

Bomback attests that Evans helped to shape the character and offered invaluable insights on set. “If I’d written Andy to get angry at a certain point, Chris might pull me aside and say, ‘I’m not entirely sure that’s the right instinct here. I wonder if actually he would sort of go internal at this moment.’ And inevitably, it would always be the better choice.”

“Defending Jacob” was filmed around Boston last spring and summer, and Evans was thrilled to work in his home state. But despite his Hollywood star power and executive producer credit on the series, he didn’t have much say in that decision. “I wish I had the power to make that so,” he says with a laugh, “but that was kind of already baked in the cake when I came onboard. Believe me, if I had that power, every single movie I made from now on would be filmed in Massachusetts.”

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Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.