[Warning: General spoilers ahead.]
One of the things that makes EPIX’s From such a fun ride is the abundance of Canadian cast members. Elizabeth Saunders, who plays Donna, is a favorite from her turn on the third season of Mary Kills People [streaming on Global TV in Canada and Roku Channel in the US].. And our Hallmarkies friends know her from When Hope Calls. She also popped up last summer in SurrealEstate.
In tonight’s episode, Donna finally had her limit of all the grief and anxiety and has an emotional hour that finds her tearing out the floor of the Colony House kitchen with an ax, testing the questionable booze at the town’s bar, and having a meeting of the minds with Kenny about the antenna plan. This week, I chatted with Saunders about the series.
Saunders came into the show with a limited amount of intel on Donna, and then painted her character’s canvas over the course of the season. “I had very little to look at when I auditioned. I did manage to get [scripts for] two episodes, so I got a pretty good sense of who she was and that she was a bit of a counterpoint to Boyd. There was a lot that I learned along the way,” Saunders recalls.
“We wouldn’t always know the back stories. Even though [series creator and showrunner] John [Griffin] is really great about sharing stuff, sometimes there’s stuff we don’t know. So I just went with it and I felt so fortunate. Jack [Bender], who directed the first four episodes, was so incredible at [explaining] what the scene needed to be. And you just learned on the spot.”
“It was really delightful to have someone just knowing what they wanted it to be and that set me on the road. And also John is very accepting of what we bring [to it]. I love Donna. When I read it, [I thought], ‘Oh, I won’t get it.’ And then [it was], ‘Oh my God, I got it. Crap.’ Because I just loved this woman so much.”
Donna’s been one of the few characters to articulate the horror of her arrival, which she recounts to Tabitha in episode 2, and Saunders appreciated having those details to help shape her character. “That was a real treat because it was a a load of information to build Donna on. It was also just a real gift as an actor to have that voice and a little frightening because it was my second day of shooting. And I hadn’t quite figured John out at that point. In a way, I was dropped into it,” she explains.
“I had to speak about the back story and tell how this town works, for three pages. It was very useful information to think about how Donna works, and for me to put into [my own] work, how that affected her in terms of losing her sister and turning her into a den mother.”
“It’s so immense because The Colony House looks like this grand thing and yet it’s so relaxed at the same time, but it’s very fragile. It’s contingent on each individual constantly making sure that they are protecting the group while still living your life. It’s probably very difficult to run something like that.”
“It really struck me how you don’t just lose people. You lose a mass of people. And I actually didn’t think about it til after the whole picking up of the body parts scene, how dramatic that was. You haven’t just got a loss. You alone are left to pick up loved ones who have been pulled to pieces.”
“So she’s lost the home; it’s falling apart, and then you’ve got the new guys in town just wanting to build a tower and get you all out of there. There’s a lot of mental pressure on her as well as emotional pressure and trauma. And yet, she’s learned, in her previous life, to be someone that has to survive in a real way…picking up 14 body parts, suicide, your safe enclosure ruptured. Everything you put in place, everything’s wrong.”
Donna is one of the few who treats Victor with great care, and Saunders enjoys all of Donna’s layers. “At the core of Donna, she is naturally maternal. There is love to Donna. We’re just complex that way as humans. We don’t have those straightforward relationships with people,” she says.
“She’s really good at reading people [and believes] we all deserve human respect, even if I don’t care for [your choices], I can hold you in that respect. My choice is that she really does see Victor as someone very vulnerable and worthwhile, that he would be an outlier [in the real world] and she needs to look after him.”
Empathy is also a throughline in the series, which thankfully doesn’t take the easy way out with hard characters, and Saunders says that care and affection was experienced offscreen, too. “It comes from every level. I think it starts with the writers with John, in particular. He is an extremely empathetic, thoughtful person and that comes through in his writing,” she shares.
“The way that the show was directed left room for that to come out. It’s a really special group of actors in this company. It’s a really thoughtful group of people. I’ve been very moved to be part of this group.”
“It was a pretty dreamy job. Once we got into the province, it’s was a little bit of a reprieve from COVID. We had a a little enclave of people that were tested and working together in a province. It was just very beautiful being around all these with a lot of care for one another. It was really, really special.”
Looking across the season, Saunders says she was always excited to find Boyd and Donna scenes in her scripts, and she loved Donna getting to swing the ax tonight, and throw a punch back in episode seven. Fun fact–the Colony House resident on the receiving end of that swing was her real-life husband, Cliff Saunders. And she’s very fond of tonight’s episode.
“I love doing the speech in nine that reveals how Donna is feeling. It was this wonderful afternoon where Ricky He and I got to work together extensively for the first time. We’d done things together, but and it was a beautiful opportunity to do that scene and to show Donna’s vulnerability,” she recalls.
“The other reason I loved Donna is she’s one of the few times that you just go, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have to play, ‘a woman.’ I’m playing a person who happens to be female. I really love that about her. She is a complex being. And I think that’s a real gift.”
[Updated 09/26/22: From will be available in Canada on Paramount+ beginning 09/27/22.]
Photos Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
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