For some actors, a breakthrough year might include a starring role in an instantly beloved comedy destined for cult classic status, or a heartbreaking turn in a critically lauded prestige miniseries. For Kaitlyn Dever, 2019 had both. The 23-year-old actress has been in the industry for over a decade, but last year was something of a landmark, as she was lauded for incredibly disparate but equally compelling performances in both Booksmart, Olivia Wilde's raunchy last-day-of-school flick, and Unbelievable, the harrowing Netflix miniseries based on the true story of a serial rapist, and the victims and detectives who help put him away for good.
"I keep learning more and more that every time I'm able to do something I've never done before, I grow so much as a person and also an actor," Dever tells ET over the phone. She's keeping busy even in quarantine, recording a part for an audiobook in between Instagram dances and performing in her musical duo, Beulahbelle, with sister Mady. "I think I'm so scatterbrained and my mind is constantly racing and thinking, and I think it is very, very fulfilling for me as a person to be able to play different kinds of people all the time."
In Unbelievable, the young actress shoulders a heavy half of the heartbreaking saga as Marie Adler, the first victim of the rapist -- whose story was detailed in the 2015 news article "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, on which the series is based.
A foster kid who has recently aged out of the system, Marie's recounting of her assault is dismissed by police, doubted by her former foster families and so muddled by trauma that details come and go, changing slightly every time she is forced to relive the awful memory. Authorities not only refuse to investigate beyond a cursory examination of the crime scene, but pressure Marie to recant and charge her with filing a false report, publicly branding her as a liar and putting her entire livelihood at risk. "It made me so angry reading it," Dever recalls of the script, and the real-life case it was based on, "knowing that it feels so recent in time, but yet it's been an issue for far too long."
Even before the audition, "I started putting pressure on myself because I felt like I was in service of [Marie]," she says of taking on the role. "I felt like I was given such an insane opportunity to tell her story in a big way. It's such a privilege that she allowed us to tell her story in this way on a platform like Netflix, and I didn't ever want to take advantage of that or do anything halfway."
On the other side of the Unbelievable story are Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, playing fictionalized versions of the real-life Colorado detectives who, years later, connected the dots from their own rape cases to others in nearby jurisdictions -- and ultimately, all the way back to Marie in Washington.
The process, as detailed over the series' eight-episode run, is arduous and slower than you'd hope -- each hour leaves viewers yearning for Collette and Wever's characters to swoop into Dever's storyline like superheroes. Marie's palpable isolation, and eventual turn toward self-destructive behavior is difficult to watch, and Dever admits it was "definitely a challenge" to inhabit such a lonely character for long stretches of filming -- particularly when she thought about how her real-life counterpart had suffered for even longer.
"I'm a people person, and I love acting with different people and talking to people, but it was hard for this one, because I knew that Marie was very isolated. I can't even believe the amount of isolation and betrayal she went through," she says, naming the seemingly endless interrogation scenes her character spends with the callous and dismissive local Washington detectives, played by Eric Lange and Bill Fagerbakke, as the "hardest part" of filming the series.
"It's just so heartbreaking," Dever recounts. "And it was weird to really feel for Marie in those moments, but also stay in that zone and in the character as well. It was hard to not just break down and cry all the time because of how sad it made me."
So much of the actress' portrayal of Marie is painfully recognizable, even in its subtlety. Dever shows the burden of an unfair life in the resigned slump of her shoulders and the sting of expected trauma in her silent tears. It's a devastating performance that hearkens back to one of her earliest roles -- as a sullen foster kid, Jayden, in director Destin Daniel Cretton's acclaimed Short Term 12.
"Everything that I've done has helped me in some way for each project I've done," Dever says of the comparison. Short Term 12 was based on Cretton's experience as a staff member at a group home for teenagers, and the actress recalls having a chance to speak with the director and other foster care professionals about playing the young victim of abuse, an emotional experience she was able to draw on years later.
"Going into Unbelievable, I already had a plethora of information and knowledge on that, so that made it a little easier to tackle," she notes. "I feel like I'm such a sponge when it comes to being around people, that I am just soaking everything up that I possibly can."
While she never actually shares the screen with Collette or Wever -- the "superhero" moment of the series comes in smaller steps: the rapist's arrest and prosecution, the testimony of his other victims, Marie's legal victory against the authorities that caused her additional anguish in the gross mishandling of her case -- Dever's character does finally find a few moments of catharsis in the final episode, as she uses part of her settlement to buy a car and leave Washington behind.
Marie stops somewhere along the coast to make an important call to Wever's character, sharing her gratitude with one of the women who fought for her before ever knowing she existed. "That scene is such an important scene for the show," Dever says. "[Merritt's] energy, you can even feel it through the phone. You can feel how her energy is so strong, but also very, very tender and sweet and kind. And you can feel all of that just by hearing her voice. So it was really, really helpful."
The filming of the call itself, which came toward the end of production, was a meaningful moment for the co-stars as well, who were connected by the desire to give creative justice to such an important story. "Merritt and I were always passing each other at craft service, and we were able to talk here and there. And we were like, 'We need to make sure that we're there for each other when we get to shoot that scene.' So we made sure of that, and the show made sure of that."
Wever shot her side of the scene, in the police precinct, with Dever just behind the camera, and the two would actually call each other on the phone to talk through their emotional moment of closure. And though Dever's coverage of the scene was a little trickier, her co-star made sure to support her in the same way.
"Merritt called me and continued to call me, take after take," she recalls. "That's something that doesn't happen sometimes. Sometimes you just have one of the ADs or PAs reading with you, on the side, which is also OK. But for that scene, I think it was so vital that we had each other to talk to. It just made everything so much better… I'm very grateful for that scene."
Unbelievable, and Dever herself, have already been recognized by some of the major industry awards. The series won a Peabody Award for Entertainment, and was nominated, along with Dever, Collette and Wever, in the respective categories at the Critics' Choice Television Awards and Golden Globe Awards earlier this year. (They won one, with Collette taking home a Critics' Choice Award.)
However, for Dever, those accolades, and any others to come, pale in comparison to one single review of the series -- from the real-life Marie Adler. "We made this for her," she says. "We wanted to bring her story to life. Obviously, all of the praise and the outpour of love and support the show has gotten since its release, and even still now, I've been so grateful for it and it makes me so proud to be a part of something that feels so, so important for the world to see. But hearing from her, it does mean absolutely everything."
Adler shared her thoughts on the series through her correspondence with Ken Armstrong, one of the original authors of the ProPublica article that inspired Unbelievable. The reporter repayed them via his Twitter account, noting that Adler had praised, in particular, Dever's emotional interrogation scenes with the Washington police, and also said she had found real closure in being able to watch a fictionalized account of the work of the Colorado detectives and the sentencing of her rapist.
"It's just really overwhelming. I almost don't even know what to do with it," Dever admits. "We all came together for her, and then hearing from her-- It makes me want to cry... I couldn't believe that she said that she found a little bit of closure from watching it. That really means the world to me. So after that, I kind of don't need anything else."
ET’s “Standout Performances” recognize the best of the 2019-2020 TV season. See more of our favorites below: