There’s a burst of energy when Clarice co-creator Jenny Lumet hops onto Zoom for our afternoon conversation about her astute new thriller series, inspired by the indelible heroine from The Silence of the Lambs. Donning a bright smile, casual shirt, and sun-kissed hair, the New York native has the glow of someone who’s lived in Los Angeles her entire life—not just the last two years. “I’ve also had, like, nine Diet Cokes, so I’m pretty caffeinated,” she laughs.
Lumet has a lot of joy in her life these days. Hanging behind her are gorgeous black-and-white family photos, including a few of her grandmother, the iconic Lena Horne, and her father, filmmaker Sidney Lumet. Occasionally, we’re interrupted by the sound of one of her children walking up or down the stairs.
Plus, she’s working on what might be her most personal project to date. Nearly 13 years after writing the Oscar-nominated Rachel Getting Married—and on the heels of serving as a writer and producer of Star Trek: Discovery—Lumet turns her sights to the FBI cadet who famously enlisted the help of an imprisoned cannibal to catch another heinous serial killer. Why? To explore what it was like for a brilliant young woman to navigate the male-dominated industry in the early ‘90s, along with the psychological effects of wading through carnage as part of a daily job.
Lumet fondly remembers first watching Jodie Foster in the now 30-year-old film adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel. “The moment she became my hero was when she got in the elevator at the FBI Academy and was surrounded by all these huge guys,” Lumet says. “I thought, Okay, this is a really brave person. But somehow, I knew she had a lot of stuff she wasn’t saying. She had a lot of secrets.”
After Clarice was stalked by—then finally killed—murderer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, she “went completely silent,” as Lumet describes it, only to show up seven years later in Harris’s follow-up novel, Hannibal, confronting new dark and twisted villains. “What were those missing years?” Lumet asks. “It’s nice to look for Amelia Earhart. I want to look for Clarice Starling! This is a woman who slays monsters, who reaches into the darkest places and pulls out the humanity and the light and does everything I wish I was brave enough to do.”
“It’s nice to look for Amelia Earhart. I want to look for Clarice Starling!”
While she may not have captured maniacal killers or looked cannibals in the face, Lumet courageously wrote a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter in November 2017 alleging that hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons sexually assaulted her back in 1991, the same year The Silence of the Lambs was released in theaters. (Simmons has denied all allegations against him.) It’s why Lumet felt strongly that the new series, set about a year after the film, takes the time to unpack Clarice’s trauma upon her return to the field. In between trying to solve her latest horrifying case, the agent, played by Rebecca Breeds, is often seated in front of a work-mandated therapist in a deeply repressed state as he gently encourages her to open up.
Lumet remembers her own struggles to come forward, and the relief and sisterhood she’s felt since. “After I wrote that letter [in The Hollywood Reporter], a woman reached out to me via email through a friend,” she begins. “She was a person who had been in the same situation, and it was kind of like staring into the sun. At first, I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. I don’t want to see her. I don’t want to talk to her.’”
Lumet pauses for a moment. “It’s funny, whenever I go down this path, I become a little more inarticulate,” she says. “Please forgive me. It’s just the nature of it.” After a beat, she continues. “Finally, I said, ‘Okay,’ and it became an extraordinary relationship. We don’t talk every day. We don’t see each other often. But we send each other a little code over the phone. I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m in the world. Are you in the world?’ She’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m in the world. Are you in the world?’ We let each other know that we’re there.”
Their relationship makes Lumet think about Clarice and Catherine Martin, whom Clarice rescues from Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and the unique agony both carry. “They are the only two people who know what that little dog’s claws on the stone of Bill’s floor sounds like, what Bill’s voice sounds like, what Bill’s basement smells like, what that well smells like. A sensory experience, certainly as intense as that, gives you a bond, whether you like it or not. It’s up to each person what they want to do with that bond and their freaking trauma.”
For Lumet, she created Clarice. “Not everybody gets to write a television show. It’s not everybody’s thing,” she says. “But if this can be any kind of demonstration of, I was carrying [trauma] and it was making me silent and suffocated, and then I learned to carry it a different way and I put my energy out into the universe and reconnected, my hope is for people to find that for themselves.”
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With Clarice, Lumet also aspires to implement change on the small screen. While the series is set in 1993, when the FBI was almost 90% white, Lumet is intentional about reflecting diversity. Kal Penn plays an agent and Devyn A. Tyler stars as an assistant district attorney and Clarice’s dear friend—and both have their own storylines. The show also works with Color of Change and GLAAD to keep it as conscientious as possible. Transgender advocate and actress Jen Richards was recently cast as a character who will discuss Buffalo Bill’s “complicated legacy.”
“I’m a Black woman and I want to see certain things,” Lumet says simply. It’s clear she’s hyper-aware of her responsibility in entertainment today, on top of creating a “fucking fun and really fucking exciting” show, as she puts it. If there’s any question about that, she adds. “I’m not fucking around. I’m 54 years old, a Black woman, and I’m in the largest arc of history, not technically supposed to be creating a show for CBS television.” She laughs. “Yet here I am.”
And what a journey she’s had. She made her screen debut in her father’s film, Deathtrap, in 1987 (“I’m a straight-up bad actress,” she claims) and worked as a schoolteacher before turning to filmmaking full-time. She revels in being able to continue her family’s long legacy in Hollywood. Jake, her son with ex-husband and actor Bobby Cannavale, is also an actor.
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“He’s the fifth generation,” Lumet says. “Our family’s been doing this since the Reconstruction, for reals. My grandma’s mom was in the tent shows in the Deep South. My dad’s father was in the Yiddish theater.”
She gets up to show me the photos that, she says, “I keep as my inspirational ones.” There’s one of her mother, Gail Lumet Buckley, an academic who writes books about African American history. She pulls out an image of Horne wearing a turban alongside husband Lennie Hayton. The inscription reads: “Darling, I will save you always. I love you. Signed, me.” Lastly, actor Marlon Brando with her father on the set of The Fugitive Kind. “This is what we’ve been doing forever,” she chuckles. “Look, I’m happy. I’m so looking forward to being 70 years old and descending into turbanhood.”
Contributor Candice Frederick is a freelance TV/film critic living in New York City.
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