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Rebecca Breeds, Clarice
Photography Sarah Ruka

Clarice’s Rebecca Breeds on breathing new life into Silence of the Lambs

The Australian actor talks about the iconic film’s legacy, making the sequel, sexism in the workplace, and monsters that hide in plain sight

In 1991, The Silence of the Lambs changed how murder could look on screen. Gratuitous horror was the norm before Jonathan Demme directed the Oscar-winning film that honed in on what actually gets under your skin: unnerving, psychological thrills. While the film’s complicated villain, Hannibal Lecter, has become iconic in film history, Clarice Starling, the gutsy FBI rookie who took on the serial killer, has been oddly absent in many of the spin-offs adapted from Thomas Harris’s novels.

That is until now. A new series, fittingly called Clarice, moves the spotlight from The Silence of the Lambs’ monster to its hero. The show is set in 1993, soon after the events of Demme’s film, and although Lecter’s name is never mentioned (for legal reasons), his presence looms over the series as Clarice wrestles with the psychological and political fallout of what happened in Buffalo Bill’s basement. “Where has Clarice been?” ponders Rebecca Breeds, only the third actor to take on the character (Julianne Moore was the second, in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2000)). “This incredible hero and powerful female character (all but) disappeared for 30 years. This show is a continuation of her story and an evolution of her character.”

While she admits to being terrified about playing Clarice (“I wanted to run for the hills!”), Breeds’ enthusiasm for the show is evident. The Australian actor was only cast in February of last year, and filmed the first episodes of Clarice during the pandemic. “It was nothing short of a miracle that we did this,” the actress jokes of her biggest role to date, which will most likely mark her big break into Hollywood. Refusing to buckle under the pressure of following up Foster’s iconic performance, Breeds’ Clarice is very much her own, an impressively multifaceted blend of fear, confidence and vulnerability. We caught up with her on set in Toronto, where filming is ongoing, to talk about The Silence of the Lambs’ legacy, sexism in the workplace, and monsters that hide in plain sight.

What was your relationship like with The Silence of the Lambs before you were cast?

Rebecca Breeds: The film is so iconic but I was too afraid to watch it! I’m not a scary movie kind of gal. But one night it was on TV so I sat down with my dad to watch it together. I was terrified but also enthralled. I loved that it was so intelligent. It’s the film that taught me the difference between a shock-horror film and a psychological thriller. I don’t know how many movies have done it like The Silence of the Lambs.

Clarice drops us back into the film’s world but now she’s grappling with the aftermath of its events. What was that like to get your teeth into?

Rebecca Breeds: We talked a lot about PTSD before the show because it plays such an important role in it. Meeting Lecter and Buffalo Bill’s basement were obviously traumatising in themselves, but they were also triggers for Clarice recognising the childhood trauma that’s even deeper within her psyche. Her father was shot and she was sent away to an orphanage. What does that do to a person? There’s so much depth there because she’s not a superhero, she’s just a human who’s been through a lot.

I wanted to look at trauma truthfully and I knew it would take a lot in my personal life to do it right. But the other part of me was champing at the bit to dive into this. (I’m giving) it my all and I’m so invigorated by the power of what we’re doing. It’s so inspirational and such an important, powerful story to tell. I drive home from a heavy, difficult day on set but I just can’t wipe the smile from my face because we’re making TV that matters.

“I wanted to look at trauma truthfully and I knew it would take a lot in my personal life to do it right. But the other part of me was champing at the bit to dive into this” – Rebecca Breeds

Clarice goes to some really dark places but it never feels gratuitous. Was that something you were ever nervous about?

Rebecca Breeds: What I love about the show is it’s not just trauma for trauma’s sake, and brutalising women as a gimmick. We take this stuff seriously. Monsters come in many different forms: not just the Buffalo Bills but the monsters that can be in politics or behind businesses. Monsters in disguise and monsters in your psyche. We get to explore that in the show because Clarice has to look at the monsters within her, too, so we’re hunting for the light in dark places.

Something the show continues to run with is the idea of Clarice as a woman in a very masculine environment. What was that like to explore?

Rebecca Breeds: I would get so enraged! Clarice is so passionate about what she’s doing but she’s also a good West Virginian girl with manners and a respect for authority that’s in her bones. And that’s the way the Bureau works; you have to fall in line. So, when she has something important and powerful to say, she’s just shut down. It makes you want to scream that she just has to stand there. As the series goes on, she chooses the moments where she demands to be heard and take up space. She has to claim her right for that.

Is that battle something you could relate to in the film industry as an actor?

Rebecca Breeds: I’ve been frustrated in my industry by how many roles I’ve gone for that are really two-dimensional female characters. The guys get multi-layered characters that involve intelligence and skill. For women, it’s about what we are, what we look like. I’m so over that. It undermines the power within feminine narratives and we need to rebalance that. I’m pinching myself that I get to be a part of that rebalancing because Clarice is a female-driven story but, importantly, Clarice isn’t empowered because she takes on the qualities we associate with masculine strengths. She is powerfully feminine, surrounded by men who belittle her and are afraid of her. I’ve definitely faced that in the industry, especially because I look young for my age. People can judge you and write you off as a frivolous little girl. I’ve had to claim my space and voice.

What did you learn from playing Clarice Starling?

Rebecca Breeds: I think something she’s taught me as a person is how to trust myself and my instincts. I’ve often outsourced authority in my life to other people who I thought knew more about life than I did. I haven’t always been a person who’s known how to trust or listen to myself. Clarice has held me accountable to the pursuit of truth and authenticity as a person and as an actor. She gives me courage and a playground to practise that.

Clarice is now on CBS with a UK release date to be announced