CBC’s Unspeakable Brings Tragedy Close to Home

Michael Courtney / CBC
Michael Courtney / CBC

What do you do when those who are supposed to help fail you? In the early 1980s, AIDS quickly emerged and became an epidemic. While thousands of people died, tens of thousands more were also infected with hepatitis C. While viewers may think they have heard the story of AIDS before, or how it spread, the new limited drama series Unspeakable brings everything closer to home, telling the story from the perspective of two families caught up in the tragedy. Premiering Wednesday, January 9 at 9 p.m. on CBC, Unspeakable follows the decades long saga of people who are trying to survive, change the system and battle for compensation.

Created by Robert C. Cooper (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis) and coming from his own personal history with this tragedy, Unspeakable is “about more than just the events or the emergence of the tragedy itself, but rather the effect a tragedy has on a lifetime,” says Cooper. At the core of the story are two families — one, Margaret and Will Sanders, played by Sarah Wayne Callies (Colony, The Walking Dead) and Michael Shanks (Saving Hope) that band together, and another, Ben and Alice Landry, played by Shawn Doyle (The Expanse, Bellevue) and Camille Sullivan (The Disappearance, The Man in the High Castle) who get torn apart.

Cooper, Callies and Doyle recently spoke to The TV Junkies about the upcoming series and previewed what viewers can expect to learn when they tune in. Cooper also shares his personal history with the epidemic and Callies speaks a little about her experience directing an episode of the limited series.


The TV Junkies: Robert, can you talk a little about your history and motivation for creating the series?

Robert Cooper: I was born with hemophilia and grew up during the emergence of AIDS and hepatitis C. I was very fortunate to not get AIDS, largely due to the vigilance of my parents and can say I’m here today because of that. I spent more than 30 years of my life living through being a victim, and it wasn’t until 2014 when I took my third treatment and was finally cured of the hep C, that I stopped thinking of myself as a victim and more of a storyteller. I saw that this story, as I knew it, was fading and people didn’t know it.

I approached CBC about it, and asked if they had ever done anything about the tainted blood scandal and they said ‘no.’ I was surprised by that because I felt in many ways that this was a story CBC should be telling. I think they put it in development due to my passion, and the mission from the beginning was to take all that information and research, and distill it into the emotion and passion. Then we could at least give people some sense of what they were going through and feeling at the time. People will be surprised by some of the facts they learn and fascinated by some of the details, but first and foremost, we want people seeing how it relates to them.

TTVJ: Sarah and Shawn, what drew each of you to this project?

Shawn Doyle: What drew me ultimately to the project, was the relationship of this family at the core of it and trying to hold that together, while also understanding how I could protect my son and repair the damage that’s happened between us. I was honored to be asked to take part in something so important and a story that needed to be told again. Ultimately, it was about a man who is brought up against a tragedy that’s tearing apart his family, and what he does to try and repair that rift.

Sarah Wayne Callies: The simple answer is on the one hand, being a part of stories that are so profoundly personal to the people developing them and have such broad importance culturally, is a huge honor as an actor. I had total ignorance about this issue, but growing up the first people that taught me what love really was was a gay couple. One day my mom came home and told me that one of them was dying of AIDS. We didn’t know he had HIV and this was a close family friend that had been in the closet 17 years with HIV. Watching him die was heartbreaking enough, and then to watch society tell him he deserved it because he was gay was absolutely mind blowing to me. So to be a part of a story like this that shines a light on those stories and the way the hemophiliac and homosexual populations were castigated for this disease was a story I really wanted to tell.

Jeff Weddell / CBC
Jeff Weddell / CBC

TTVJ: Sarah, I saw that you’re directing some of the series as well. How did that opportunity present itself and what was that experience like?

SC: That was partially because Rob had more faith in me than he had any reason to. [laughs] I had only ever directed one episode before of Colony, but he knew how much I loved it and I promised him that I wouldn’t let him down. With luck, I didn’t make his life any harder. It was an enormous joy to work with actors through material this sensitive. For all the performers involved in this it was a bit of a toll. You’re living in a difficult space as a parent and human being, so to create an environment where actors feel safe to do their best work was a joy. I loved every minute of it.

RC: She didn’t let anybody down. We all felt this tremendous weight in speaking for people that couldn’t speak for themselves. As much as my own story is woven into this, it is very much more about people who are far less fortunate than myself. We were always aware that we were trying to be respectful and pay tribute to the truth without being melodramatic. We always had to remind ourselves that almost every beat in the show was not the creation of someone’s mind, but that it was reality.

TTVJ: What was it like to also work with such a talented ensemble on this project?

SD: I worked with Camille [Sullivan] and it was an interesting dynamic. She’s an extraordinary actor and has an emotional availability that’s unparalleled. Honestly, I just tried to keep up most of the time. As opposed to the other family that was very connected and had this strong support network with each other, we had the opposite. So every day it was the challenge of showing up with this actor that was so convincingly not in my corner. [laughs] It was an isolating experience but very potent for the work we were doing.

SC: To shout out a few other people too there was not a single member of the ensemble that did not blow my mind. David Lewis gives a performance in this that I thought was sensational. Aaron Douglas and Kimberly Sustad were phenomenal too. It was so amazing to just watch the work that people were doing.


Are you looking forward to tuning into Unspeakable? Add your thoughts below.

Unspeakable premieres Wednesday, January 9 at 9 p.m. ET on CBC.