“Coastal Elites,” a series of five monologues set during the COVID pandemic, opens with a fairly broad comedic tone in the segments starring Bette Midler and Dan Levy. The HBO presentation shifts more toward drama with Issa Rae’s and Sarah Paulson’s pieces, but it is the last segment — featuring Kaitlyn Dever as Sharynn Tarrows, a young nurse in New York at the height of the city’s crisis — that truly haunts, capturing the toll of the pandemic in human lives and battered souls.
Written by Paul Rudnick, “Coastal Elites” (premiering Sept. 12) was originally conceived as a play before being reimagined for film, directed by Jay Roach (”Bombshell,” “All the Way”) earlier this summer under quarantine guidelines.
Dever, 23, earned a Golden Globe nomination for last year’s heart-rending performance as a rape survivor in Netflix’s “Unbelievable.” She is again nuanced and poignant in “Coastal Elites,” just the latest stellar showing in a career that dates back to her childhood and that is notable for her desire to constantly explore new territory. She got her big break in 2011 on two wildly different shows, the acclaimed drama “Justified” and the Tim Allen sitcom “Last Man Standing.” Her other roles have ranged from “Short Term 12″ to “Booksmart” and the forthcoming musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” During the pandemic, Dever also co-starred in Jesse Eisenberg’s audio drama “When You Finish Saving the World,” which she recorded in her bedroom closet.
She spoke via Zoom last week about her experience with “Coastal Elites.”
Q. How did you get involved with “Coastal Elites”?
A. Jay Roach and I had met pre-pandemic and were talking about what we could work on together, but then the shutdown happened. I was expecting to do nothing during the quarantine. Then I got an e-mail during quarantine from Jay sending me the script, saying I would love for you to play Sharynn. I was blown away that he wanted me to take that kind of role on. It felt like an immediate yes, even without reading it.
Then I read it and fell in love with it. This seemed like the perfect thing to do — to be able to collaborate and connect to peers in the industry to create meaningful stories. “Coastal Elites” was a dream come true because of how relevant it is. It doesn’t get more current than this.
Q. What appealed to you specifically about your role?
A. You turn on the news and you can’t get away from the constant climbing death rate and hearing stories about what’s going on in these hospitals and what these doctors and nurses are dealing with on a daily basis. It was about the impact these nurses have on the health of our world and how hard they are working.
“Coastal Elites” as a whole felt so much bigger than me, and with this monologue I felt a huge amount of responsibility. Sharynn is such a courageous and strong person, and when she can’t go on she still continues to push through. She says at one point, “The next day I went to work and there was a refrigerated truck parked outside because of how many bodies there were.” It’s unimaginable. I can’t even figure out the right words to describe how tragic that is. The monologue is really moving. I just wanted to get it right and do the role justice.
Q. Was the intimacy of talking directly to camera, with no other actors to play off of, a particular challenge?
A. Initially, I thought being in the comfort of my home would take the pressure off, but then it maybe put more pressure on — we were stepping out of our comfort zone. Usually there’s a distinct difference between being at home and then being on set in front of actual cameras; it feels more real. Here I could only rely on myself and the camera lens in front of me. I’ve never sat in my room and acted with just a director and writer watching from a computer. I was really nervous. But when it was over, it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be.
Q. How easy was it to find the right tone for your monologue?
A. We did eight or nine takes of it. We wanted to capture the lighter moments as well, but we were mainly focusing on the exhaustion and how drained she was. We would do one take and then we would push more into the emotion. By the time I got to take six, I was trying to hold back tears because it kept getting more and more real, and it became very easy to get to those places.
Q. What was involved in shooting during the pandemic?
A. We were all very safe. Everyone who came to set up all got tested for COVID. They came into my house when I wasn’t there, set up lighting and a camera and left, and then I went in and shot.
I haven’t been on set in so long so when I went to the bathroom and the [assistant director] outside in my backyard announced I was 10-1-ing — which they do on set, 10-1 means the actor is going to the bathroom — I thought, “Oh wow, this feels so nice, like we’re back again.” It was really funny,
Q. This is a typical role for you in that it seems like you’re always trying something new. Is that a conscious decision?
A. I constantly feel I want to do new things. It’s not out of fear of being pigeonholed, it’s just out of a need to do different things. Growing up, I was always doing different voices and playing different people. I was the kid who went to a sleepover and came home acting like the kid I was at a sleepover with, and my parents would say, “Who are you today?”
The fact that I get to do this for my work, while telling stories I feel are important, is the cherry on top of it all.
Interview has been edited and condensed. Stuart Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.