How ‘Under the Bridge’s World Building Holds Key to Lily Gladstone’s Cam’s Past

Cam’s got a very interesting arc,” Lily Gladstone says of her police officer character in Hulu’s “Under the Bridge.

The eight-part limited series is a true-crime drama adapted from Rebecca Godfrey’s book
about the murder of teenager Reena Virk.

More from Variety

In the series, Riley Keough plays Rebecca, a writer who has come home to Saanich, British
Columbia, to research a book about a group of teenage girls who live at Seven Oaks, a foster home. She learns about Reena (Vritika Gupta), a 14-year-old who has gone missing after a party. Josephine Bell (Chloe Guidry), Dusty Pace (Aiyana Goodfellow), Kelly Ellard (Izzy G.) and Warren Glowatski (Javon Walton) are the last ones to see her alive.

When Reena’s dead body turns up, Cam becomes the lead investigator working the case, which leads to an awkward reunion with Rebecca — and even more unanswered questions.

When the audience first meets Cam, she’s out of uniform. She’s working out on a punching bag with her police officer father as music plays in the background. She’s discussing options to advance her career.

Music supervisor Brienne Rose wanted something rock-based for Cam because she’s “tough, secretive and lives in an interior way.”

In that same scene, her dad makes a snide remark about affirmative action. “You get the sense she’s misplaced,” Gladstone says.

The scene isn’t glamorous, as production designer Jennifer Morden points out. The room has a TV, a punching bag and not much else. “Cam is the tomboy of the family, and they haven’t given her space to explore who she is,” says Morden. “So she is a really underdeveloped character until the story gives her space.”

When Cam goes to work later that day, Reena’s father Manjit (Ezra Faroque Khan) comes into the station to explain that his daughter has gone missing but Cam thinks it’s just another teenager wasting resources. “It’s a micro-aggressive assumption that Manjit doesn’t speak English, even though he was just speaking English to her,”

Gladstone says, yet, “She sees herself in Reena and is compelled to find her because there’s something [in the case] that doesn’t sit right with her.”

Through her research, Morden discovered that the Saanich police department. building was built in 1951, which provided her with an architectural framework of what the headquarters would look like. “This police station didn’t feel secretive. It didn’t feel private. You can open the door, you walk down the hall and you’re in it with the officers,” Morden says.

The open plan was ideal for the shot showing the teens who had been with the missing girl being interrogated by the officers. “You felt the impact of kids being questioned by the police. We needed to feel the intimacy of the town and tension and claustrophobia of the space,” Morden says.

Early on, though, Morden was careful not to show anything about Cam’s First Nation roots in her designs for the character’s living spaces, because at this point, she is still an undiscovered character to the viewers and even herself.

As Cam works first to find Reena’s killers, the story points to some of her origins. Cam spent time in Seven Oaks as a foster kid before getting adopted. “You wonder what her life was like before she went to Seven Oaks,” Gladstone ponders. “There’s a reason that she went from this beautiful, young, smiling baby, and then in a group home — there was something in her foster life that was very troubled.”

Morden used Godfrey’s line about Seven Oaks being a Victorian dollhouse as her blueprint for it — one that connects the girls to Cam’s past. The girls listening to Biggie Smalls and being into alternative culture was the perfect juxtaposition for the pastel colors of the walls and the “furniture that had been picked up off the streets or provided for by donation centers,” Morden says.

Everything was mismatched. “We could show the evolution and degradation of the space over time, and allow the girls to pop off the backdrop,” Modern explains.

Cam’s time in Seven Oaks explains her interest in the case, but as it unfolds, she also becomes protective of Dusty. Cam has a family and “knows how precious that is, even if she hasn’t fully actualized what that is.

Dusty is a representation of what Cam could have been had she stayed in the system,” says Gladstone. “It’s what compels her to be a cop and advance her career, this desire to serve and protect to make safer society.”

Along the way, Cam reconnects with Rebecca, while Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “The Passenger” plays — a song Rose thought the two would have listened to when they were younger. “I felt it was something they would have connected over,” she says.

Early wounds eventually reveal themselves as the investigation is carried out and Cam’s story doesn’t really come to light until much later in the series. Until that point, everything about her world remains nondescript.

To that, Morden made every effort to make her feel constrained when audiences finally spend
time in her house.

Eventually, Rebecca and Cam come to a resolution, finding peace and closure. Along the way, Rose also used music from the Cure, again pegged to the notion that the women had listened to the group’s songs in their past.

As the series unfolds, Cam’s backstory is finally revealed: As an infant, she was one of the many Indigenous children taken from their families and homes as part of the government policies known as the “Sixties Scoop.”

“I hope it means people will be a bit guided along a path where conversations about restorative justice can be easier to have,” says Gladstone. “I think this story opened up that conversation.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.