Each new episode of the ambitious HBO horror series Lovecraft Country, continues to outshine the previous one -- and episode five is no different. Director Cheryl Dunye, stars Michael K. Williams and Wunmi Mosaku, and guest star Shangela recap to ET what it was like filming the hit show’s most stunning and provocative hour yet -- overlapping narratives about metamorphosis -- and how rapper Cardi B, drag queens and images from Jet magazine influenced what audiences saw onscreen.
(Warning: Spoilers for episode five, which first aired Sunday, Sept. 13 on HBO and is now streaming on HBO Max.)
Written by creator Misha Green with Jonathan Kidd and Sonya Winton, “Strange Case” evokes author Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic horror creation, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with several characters exploring or confronting dual identities. “I think this episode is about internal demons that we harbor,” says Dunye, who says that after reading the script, she was intrigued by the way it played on all the nuances of “what's in our mind, what's in our skin and what’s in our hearts.”
Ruby and Hillary
After Ruby (Mosaku) makes a “devil's bargain” with William (Jordan Patrick Smith), the henchman of pagan society member Christina (Lee), she wakes up to discover that she’s been transformed into a white woman. Eventually, Ruby embraces her alter ego, whom she dubs Hillary (Jamie Neumann), and finally gains employment at a department store she’s previously applied to, before learning it’s run by a predatory manager. Later, Ruby also discovers that William is not the man she thought he was. In fact, he’s a manifestation created by Christina.
“What Ruby’s encountered as a Black woman is even more unjust, it's more suffocating, it's more more pressure,” Mosaku says, adding that after she takes the potion, “she gets to breathe a little deeper and take up a little bit more space that she wasn't afforded before.” But the actress is quick to point out that neither Ruby nor Hillary (or even Christina) “are truly free because of the way that the world interacts with them, the world chooses to diminish them and restrict both of them, but in different ways.”
In order to make sure both pairs felt connected to each other despite being played by different actors, Dunye says she had extensive rehearsals with all four performers. “It was almost like mirror exercise. Like, you got to perform like the other person performed. You got to dance like she’s gonna dance,” the director explains.
But those violent and bloody transitions from one person to the next were quite a different experience. “It is not pleasant,” Mosaku says of “having to be covered in this fake skin, blood, sh*t, it’s very sticky. It gets cold and hard when it’s on your skin. It stinks.”
However, to help keep things light on set, Dunye would whisper jokes to Mosaku and Lee and try to make them laugh while reminding them how amazing it would all look onscreen. “It was about making sure everyone felt comfortable,” she explains.
As previously mentioned, the story ends on a vengeful note for Ruby, who attacks the store manager, Paul, after he assaults the only Black female clerk at a club the night before. The scene sees Hillary seducing him before bringing literal meaning to Cardi’s “Bodak Yellow” lyric, “these is bloody shoes,” which is overheard as she transforms back into Ruby.
When it came to putting the scene together, Dunye knew it “had to have attitude, bad business on the floor, and this moment of, ‘I’m taking it and I’m going to get you.’” It was rage at its purest, which meant the director had to know when to reel it back in order to keep everyone safe. The actor who played Paul was even dressed in a bodysuit that covered his lower half so that Mosaka and Neumann “could really go at it” with the high-heeled pump without really hurting him.
“I really wanted it to be authentic,” she says, which ended up being a running throughline of making the entire episode.
Montrose and Sammy
On the other side of town, after a brutal confrontation with Attius (Jonathan Majors), Montrose (Williams) finds comfort in the arms of his secret lover, a Black gay man and drag performer named Sammy (Jon Hudson Odom). While spending the evening with him and his friends -- other drag performers played by Shangela (Lena Horne), Monet X Change (Dinah Washington) and Darryl Stephens (Billie Holiday) -- Montrose slowly and emotionally comes to accept his true self.
For Williams, who also famously played the beloved gay character Omar Little on The Wire, Montrose’s struggle was not over his sexual identity but how that conflicted with the ideas of “masculinity and male identity” for Black men. “Montrose never had a chance to explore that,” he explains. “You know, Black men are not given a chance to explore who we are. We’re told that men don't cry and the softest boy in the neighborhood always gets picked on... even if he's not gay.”
“He goes through so many transformations in this. You know, from rage to reflection to internalizing years and years of hate to letting it all out,” Dunye says of the character. “It’s about power and empowering oneself and dealing with so many demons.”
In the end, he is quite literally lifted up by the arms (and support) of drag queens as glitter comes raining down at an underground club. “It was nice to see this character kind of find his freedom in this space,” Shangela says of the scene before recalling watching Williams in between takes, “seeing how he embraced this character.”
“When it came time to explore Montrose’s sexuality, that’s what it became for me,” Williams adds. “[It was] an exploration of him being allowed to have a space to find out just who he was.”
In order to bring this pre-Stonewall space to life, the director turned to her collection of Jet magazine issues dated between 1950 and 1960, which occasionally featured imagery and stories about queer Black life. “They would talk about drag balls and policemen dressing up, or this festival or that festival,” she recalls, adding she also drew from Storme: Lady of the Jewel Box, the 1991 documentary about a male impersonator.
Ultimately, the clubs scenes allowed Dunye to play with the contradiction of queer Black people being out in this safe space while there’s so much homophobia and repression in society at that time.
Shangela, who was thrilled to portray “an icon of beauty and talent” that is Horne, says this episode is a window into this entire world, even though it’s just a short part of a larger story. “It was really nice to see that this slice of LGBTQ and queer life in that era was being represented in this show,” the performer says. “You know, you don't get that a lot. We don't see a lot of representation of what queer life was like. And honestly, it was an education for me, too. I didn't realize that these types of events happened in such a fabulous way. Of course, they had to be so secretive and kept on the low.”
When it came to having former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants in the episode, Dunye couldn’t have been happier. “It was so magical having stars of RuPaul’s world,” she says, adding that they brought a natural authenticity to the story and scenes. “I want this to be real. I want this to be truthful… so I got people who were real and truthful and represented the culture.”
Atticus and Leti
Meanwhile, after the confrontation, Leti (Jurnee Smollett) sees a new, disturbing side of Atticus, who goes to great lengths to reassure her that he’s not an abusive man like his father. The two eventually reconcile while trying to decipher the scrolls they found in the previous episode.
“I think that we forget about Black love and that's the most powerful thing in the world,” Dunye says when it comes to Atticus and Leti’s romantic encounter, a beautifully shot love scene with Majors and Smollett as “Return to Love” by Black Atlass plays in the background.
While the director has explored themes of race, sexuality, and gender in her work, most recently in episodes of Queen Sugar and Dear White People, she’s most famous for her 1996 film, The Watermelon Woman, which explored the history of Black women and lesbians onscreen.
“I would say Watermelon Woman is always in my heart and my mind. And I think I brought that in the sense of the sort of lovemaking scene that happens between Leti and Atticus,” Dunye says, explaining that how it was choreographed allowed audiences to see “black bodies, you know, black skin together… in full-on desire and passion, in a soft way.”
She adds, “It’s nothing like the other scenes that we’ve seen the two of them in before.”
Lovecraft Country airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO while previous episodes are streaming on HBO Max.