Kiernan Shipka and Diane Kruger’s performances in the new Roku series Swimming with Sharks is worth the price of admission. Their connection is immediate as soon as they lock eyes from across Joyce’s fancy exec office. As Lou’s motives become more clear throughout the series, it’s a surprising and at times endearing relationship Lou and Joyce have that keeps the show from fully falling into melodrama.
However, Swimming with Sharks doesn’t quite feel finished. It’s a short binge with just six 20-minute episodes, but they’re ultimately filled with half-baked ideas that are only looking forward to shocking you. It seems like it’s a byproduct of the Me Too movement—Joyce, a toxic Hollywood exec (Kruger) gets upstaged by Lou, an even more unstable intern (Shipka), all in the name of power and obsession.
For such a short season the show is almost too focused on the dynamic between Lou and Joyce to fully flesh out the larger ideas. Donald Sutherland stars as Joyce’s boss, a Harvey Weinstein-type that’s mostly caricature. Shipka has the tricky duty of not villainizing mental illness, as Lou’s backstory involves a stay in a psychiatric hospital. While the writing isn’t as concerned with truly exploring mental illness, Shipka gives a nuanced performance as Lou, imbuing her with plenty of empathy so that we can at least recognize the tragedy of her story.
The Young Folks chatted with both Shipka and Kruger about their characters and what they want people to walk away with after viewing Swimming with Sharks.
This interview was edited for clarity.
Each of your characters have a bit of a dark side to them. What would you say are their redeeming qualities?
Kiernan Shipka: That’s a great question. I think that it’s really, at the end of the day for me, Lou’s wants and needs. She just directed them poorly. Like, I think that at the end of the day, she does want love and she does want to be seen, but just the lengths that she goes. She didn’t have to do it that way.
Her redeeming quality is she’s probably a soft soul in some way, shape or form, but she’s a dreamer. I think she’s a dreamer. I think she’s really ambitious, and I think she’s a hard worker, clearly. But just really tarnishes all of those things with a few bad moves.
Diane Kruger: For me, I think [Joyce] is just simply human. I think she’s someone who had to go through a lot to get to where she was. I don’t think she’s a cruel person. I think that she’s an ambitious woman who was dealt a tough hand to get to where she was and very much of her time, and who is pretty beaten down by life in all other ways, when it comes to her cheating husband and infertility and all those things and her horrible boss.
What was your favorite thing about working together?
DK: Just working together. The material was so fun and I feel like we both had really interesting characters to defend, and so that’s the best kind of work relationship where you’re playing off of each other.
KS: I mean, I feel we were also just always working in the unknown first. It was working with an up-and-coming pandemic and knowing what was going to happen and then not knowing what was going to happen with Quibi. The whole thing felt like, okay, all we can do is show up and do good work, and I think at the end of the day, that made for a really fun experience.
Kiernan, how important was it to present Lou as someone worthy of empathy? Because I think at the end of the day, I found her story to be really sad, even though she does some really awful things.
KS: It was complicated, and obviously as an actor, my goal is to find the humanity in a person, even when they do really inhumane cruel things. And for me, that was about just imbuing all of the past trauma and tragedy in Lou’s life and keeping it alive and well in her current psyche.
I mean, I think she is a really sad person. I think she’s got a major lack of love in her life. She’s really tragic in so many ways. I think that if we can feel sad for her and sorry for her, the ridiculously bad things that she does are by no means justifiable, but maybe a shred understandable, given the circumstances. None of it’s okay, but if you take into account all that she’s been through, at least you feel a little bad for her.
What is one thing you want people to walk away with after watching the series?
DK: That they loved it and binge watched it.
KS: I do hope that it stays with people. I do think these performances are really exceptional. I think Diane gives a beautiful performance in it. I think Thomas Dekker gives an amazing performance in it. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done. I think Erika Alexander comes in and just absolutely annihilates, same with Donald Sutherland. I hope that these characters stay with people and I hope that it makes its way into conversations. I mean, I hope people talk about it at like, dinner. That’d be nice.
Swimming with Sharks premieres today, April 15, on the Roku Channel.