Takeshi Kovacs (Anthony Mackie) might be the star of Altered Carbon, but it’s Quellcrist Falconer’s show. Played by Renée Elise Goldsberry, the character undergoes a metamorphosis in season two, blossoming into the emotional and moral core of the series. That’s not an easy feat when everything around you—including your own character—is changing by the second.
“Having an entirely new cast in an entirely new world, having a new showrunner—these things were big risks. And then meeting somebody that would be such a departure from who you thought you knew, in terms of my character,” Goldsberry told Gizmodo. “There were a lot of fish, big fish to fry.”
Gizmodo chatted with Goldsberry during an Altered Carbon press junket about her character’s journey in season two. In a series about identity and what it means to be a person, Quellcrist has been an enigma because, for the longest time, we didn’t know who she was. In season one she was presented as the mysterious First Envoy leading a revolution, a vision in Takeshi Kovacs’ (Joel Kinnaman) mind, a killer possessed by something or someone the world doesn’t understand—and then there’s the real Quellcrist Falconer underneath it all, the tragic hero hiding behind the mythical memory.
Story-wise that’s a fascinating journey, but behind the scenes it means Goldsberry’s had to play at least three or four versions of Quellcrist Falconer so far, acting against three different men playing the same character of Takeshi Kovacs. We asked Goldsberry how the hell she rectified all of that as an actress.
“It was very easy for me to stand opposite Joel Kinnaman or Will Yun Lee or Anthony Mackie and see the boy inside the man,” she replied. “They’re very different from each other, but they’re all beautiful and available—and, most importantly, strong enough as male leads that they are 100 per cent comfortable in acknowledging a powerful woman…playing three versions of Quell, that’s another story. That was a constant—I don’t know if I can curse—mind fuck.”
Quellcrist Falconer was introduced in the first season through a series of visions and flashbacks. She was the larger-than-life founder of the Envoys who’d died trying to restore the concept of death itself in Altered Carbon’s world of “sleeve” bodies and transferred consciousnesses—a cause that had seen its final days, only to be reborn centuries later in her name. For the Quellcrists, she was a martyr; for the Protectorate, an embodiment of their worst fears. Then there was Takeshi Kovacs, who saw her as a guiding spirit giving him counsel (and the occasional stern word) during his weaker moments.
This was an interesting take on the hero myth—how people see what they want to see in others, especially over time—but it was also playing into some storytelling tropes. Not only was our impression of Quellcrist largely filtered through Takeshi’s lens, but it meant Altered Carbon had a female character existing solely to help a man on his journey (doubly questionable when you consider that Goldsberry is a woman of colour and, at the time, Takeshi Kovacs was played by a white actor). Quellcrist’s role as Takeshi’s invisible life coach was a detail not lost on the actress.
“There’s this really beautiful, amazing apparition, right? Who says the right thing and fights—no one can touch her. It’s this figment of the imagination of this leading man,” she said. “He’s a survivor, and she’s the manifestation of what he needs to survive at all times. He takes all of his memories of her and he creates this thing that he needs to move on. So she exists to support his journey in season one. That is not the case in season two.”
“Actually, I’m just really realising this as I say it,” Goldsberry added. “The first line that she says in this season is: ‘I am not here for you.’”
According to Goldsberry, season two is about unpacking both the myth and the tropes behind Quellcrist Falconer. Between seasons, Takeshi Kovacs spent 30 years searching for Quellcrist after learning she might be alive, but the woman he finds at the start of season two is not the one from his dreams. She’s a cold-blooded killer targeting the billionaire “Meths”—whose riches afford them quasi-immortality through an endless supply of sleeves—on Harlan’s World, struggling with memory loss and scrawling strange messages on walls that not even she understands. The reason for her split personality is connected to the larger mystery of season two, and Takeshi’s goal becomes trying to figure out what’s happened to Quellcrist and restore her memory.
“Her journey in season two is not about supporting him, so he’s gonna have to chase her and figure out what’s going on with her. That’s a really wonderful evolution for, specifically for a female character to have. So often the lead—the female lead in any show, whether we’re talking theatre, film, or whatever—is always in support of what the male character is doing,” she said.
Restoring her memory comes at a price, because the Quellcrist he remembers is not the one she is now. This is a woman who’s been beaten down with guilt and remorse over creating the very technology that she is determined to destroy. In the past she had the Envoys to give her purpose, but the rebellion has moved beyond her, and she doesn’t know how to get it back without sacrificing the martyr the Quellcrists faction has now turned her into. Plus, there’s the whole story of how she came back to life in the first place, something that changed her into a person Takeshi Kovacs has trouble reconciling with his memory of the love of his life. Their love is still there, and it is powerful, but it’s definitely not the same.
Altered Carbon season two is currently available on Netflix.