Dispatches from the Set of Panic, Amazon's Newest Teen Thriller

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Dispatches from the Set of <i>Panic</i>, Amazon's Newest Teen Thriller

It’s not lost on me, the irony of the fact that the last Real Thing I did before the whole country when into lockdown last year was fly to Austin to visit the set of Amazon’s new teen thriller, Panic, which is finally set to join fellow teen dramas The Wilds and Utopia on the streamer later this week.

I don’t just say this because the thought of climbing, maskless, onto a packed plane only to then spend three days—still maskless—sharing cars, soundstages, and multiple craft services with dozens of complete strangers (in Texas, no less!) is enough to induce a legit panic attack when viewed through the lens of the world’s last miserable year. (Although, yes, in this instance, hindsight is literally 2020.) I say it because Panic, adapted for the screen by YA author Lauren Oliver from her 2014 standalone novel of the same name, is the story of a bunch of boneheaded, desperate teens from a boring, dead-end town who spend their summers playing a top-secret, high-stakes version of Truth or Dare whose various one wrong move and you’re dead challenges could either net the winner $50,000, or, you know, kill them. Which is to say: Getting on *that* airplane, to go to *that* set, at *that* moment in time? Phew! Talk about a death-defying, high-stakes challenge. (No; I’m not secretly playing Panic. No; you literally couldn’t pay me to change my mind.)

Naturally, much like the players in Panic’s titular game, no one on set knew enough at the time, either, to be afraid of just how dangerous the project they’d taken on had become. Contracting hypothermia, doing shoots for a show set deep in the Texas summer on February nights where highs only occasionally reached the mid-40s—those, both cast and crew knew well enough to fear. (I was advised upwards of a dozen times to have straight-up snow gear, basically, for the one night shoot I attended; the poor actors filming that challenge, meanwhile, were stuck stuffing chemical handwarmers into the pockets of their teeny tiny shorts, just praying they’d finish each take before the winds got too intense.) Same goes for the dangers of making the wrong move in a ring with a spooked mare (Dodge), or of getting in the driver’s seat of a stunt car to film a demolition derby (Dodge again), or of revealing just a bit too much of your most vulnerable inner self while working with Oliver on adapting your character to better fit your own personal voice. (Ray Nicholson/Hall, Lauren’s coming for you!) And we can’t forget about the tiger! Everyone knew to be (at least potentially) afraid of the tiger.

COVID, though? Not even a specter on the production’s carefully considered horizon.

Ironic! I know!

Of course, the thing about irony is that it’s impossible to recognize from the inside. You need to be removed by time, or by distance, or (even better) by both. So while it feels nearly impossible now to separate the memory of this particular set visit from how the rest of 2020 rolled out in both Hollywood and the rest of the world, it’s nevertheless necessary to underscore the fact that the experience itself was colored by nothing more than the Panic team’s infectious (sorry!) excitement over approaching the end of what was, even by then, nearly a two-year journey. That the journey was all about excavating the very concept of fear, on every possible level, both physical and emotional? That’s just a happy coincidence.

Anyway. You’re probably wondering about the tiger.

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“Oh, I’m excited to work with the tiger,” series lead Olivia Welch says when the predatory star of the book’s big climax comes up. It’s her day off, but she’s come to the main soundstage to sit down with me for a quick chat. At 22 (when the interview was conducted, at least), she’s several years older than her character, Heather Nill, but TikTok’s Zoomers might be mollified to hear that she’s nevertheless shown up wearing what countless Millennial explainers would almost certainly describe as Gen Z’s best: A thick black cable-knit sweater with a white bat design, a pair of gold safety pin earrings, and (what else) a middle part.

“I don’t know if I can say this,” she continues, her voice dropping into a universally recognizable secrets-telling register, as if Lilly, Amazon’s lovely, spoiler-squashing PR rep, isn’t sitting an arm’s length away, “but I really hope it’s real. I just love practical effects, and I think the best practical effect would be to just stick a real tiger in there.”

A real tiger? I mean, talk about fearless. For a show obsessed with the idea, Welch—who will be following her lead debut in Panic with a star turn in Netflix’s splashy Fear Street trilogy, out this July—is a veritable dream. And she’s not just talking about any tiger, either. Welch, who loves a good horror flick, has a very specific tiger in mind.

“I want it to be the tiger from Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy,” she declares. “I know no one has heard of this movie, but it’s fantastic. It’s one of my favorite movies ever, and there’s this tiger in it, named Lizzie. I keep telling them, get the tiger from Mandy! And they’re like, what are you talking about, we don’t even know what this movie is, there’s no way we can get this tiger from, like, Europe. And I’m like… okay, you could make anything happen though, if you really wanted to. Jeff Bezos can make it happen! This is Amazon, people, you know? They’ve got all the money. They can totally fly in this very specific tiger, per my request.”

“You’re a leading lady!” I say, internally thanking the heavens Lilly From Amazon didn’t angle to get me out there on Tiger day, whatever that might eventually look like.

“I’m a leading lady!” Welch agrees, and jokes with fake diva entitlement. “I deserve to meet the tiger from Mandy! That’s all I want! I never ask for anything; this is my ONE request.”

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Given that the cast is stacked with so much thoughtful young talent, all of whom evince just whatever is the exact opposite of diva entitlement, I absolutely believe this is true. For a series conceived of and written by one single person (Oliver, noted above), the production itself has a palpably collaborative feel. Honestly, if anyone in the cast is demanding anything of anyone else—aside, that is, from Jeff Bezos personally shipping in Lizzie, the tiger from Mandy (it’s your leading lady’s ONE request!)—it’s to work together to tease out the core truths of their respective characters, who have all undergone significant transformation in their move from the page to the screen. This process has led to them all being closer off set than it seems like anyone anticipated being—Welch, perhaps, most of all.

“So Jessica Sula, who plays Natalie, is maybe my best friend of all time,” she explains when our conversation lands on the book’s laser focus on friendship. “We talk about it all the time—like, how funny is it that [this project] brought us together? And Ray [Nicholson, who plays Ray Hall] is one of my best friends, too. It’s just been surprisingly low drama; everyone is just genuinely so close. Like, there’s this place where we go and sit and drink tea that’s open till midnight, and after everyone gets off work—even people that didn’t work that day—we’ll go and just sit and talk for like an hour, even though we saw each other all day. [A]nd I feel like that’s really really helped on screen. It’s been fun to play best friends with someone who’s actually my best friend in real life, and then with Ray, we have so much stuff that’s emotional and tumultuous on screen, and even that’s been cool because we’re like, oh, we trust each other; we can do these [awkward] things and feel really good about it, because the trust is there.”

Nicholson, whose same-named alter-ego is perhaps the most changed of all the characters to make it through the adaptation process (in the book, Ray is little more than a cardboard villain), echoes this sentiment almost exactly.

“Olivia and I, we just have a great working relationship,” he says when we sit down for our own short chat that same afternoon. It’s also his day off; his civilian uniform is a trucker hat, gold grandpa glasses, and a bright shock of a jacket that matches his big personality. (No Gen Z-approved middle part, alas.) “I mean, I think that everything about this job is about trust, you know? Like, I really trust her as a human being, and I trust that she’ll be honest with me, even if it hurts my feelings. And I know that I’ll be honest with her, even if it hurts her feelings. And I think that that’s a really good way to make a relationship. And now I know that no matter what, besides myself, somebody else has my back, which is just a really good feeling—especially on your first big gig.”

Nicholson’s not wrong when he namechecks trust as Panic’s guiding principle. Sure, as a show it’s ostensibly about individual kids facing down their biggest fears—who can jump off the highest cliff, who can climb across the shoddiest bridge, who deserves a life bigger than the one the were handed by being born in nowheresville Carp, TX—but unsurprisingly, it’s trust that makes it possible for any of those same kids to survive. And with a development process that’s found the characters’ core motivations making sudden hairpin turns as Oliver’s worked to refine her vision for each of them, even multiple episodes deep into filming, trust has proved as vital off-screen as on.

“Something that’s been really, really helpful is being able to talk to Lauren about Bishop [Moore, Heather’s best friend],” Camron Jones tells me during our sit-down. Surprise: It’s also his day off. Surprise: In a black Raiders cap, with a black jacket worn over a white and pastel knit sweater, he’s also exuding youthful cool. (Between him and Welch, I’ve started developing some real sweater envy.) “Like, I’ll literally call her up and be like, Hey, Lauren, I have a couple of questions about this, this and that, and we’ll talk for hours about the character. I don’t know, I come from, like, a stage background. I can’t talk to Shakespeare. So it’s really cool to be able to talk to not only the person that wrote the script, but, you know, this is her baby. Like, she created this and ran with it. As an actor, I feel like it’s something to always just have that in your back pocket.”

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Oliver, who I’m able to catch up with by phone a few weeks later, makes a point to underscore that it was never her intention to write the show solo—it’s just something that happened over the long and difficult course of shepherding the project to its eventual home at Amazon. “I’m only saying that because I think it’s very important that I not come across as an insane egotist who was like, only my hands,” she explains. “Because I’m really not! And at the end of the day, it became such a group effort, especially with Adam Schroeder [showrunner/EP] and Lynley Bird [co-executive producer/development executive at Oliver’s media company, Glasstown Entertainment] down there every day. I literally couldn’t leave my house for about seven months, so, you know, it was everybody kind of pulling together and giving me the space to do my work and me relying on them completely.”

Naturally, this kind of process can be less than ideal for actors who thrive when playing characters whose basic personality/core motivations are essentially set in stone from jump—which, I mean, relatable. But for every instance where Panic’s extreme level of fluidity might have provoked frustration for one person, it seems like another was finding a level of responsivity they’d rarely found elsewhere. For Nicholson, this manifested as Oliver recognizing a spark in him as Ray (the actor) that made her rethink the character of Ray (Carp’s erstwhile villain) entirely, which in turn led to her rewriting the entire plot to accommodate his newfound humanity. “Ray Hall’s character was literally supposed to be, like, the only character who was two-dimensional,” she tells me. “I used to joke about that! And then I saw Nicholson and I was like, there’s no way that you can hate this person. Ever. So I had to change [him.]”

For Jones, it has manifested as Oliver being open to his honest feedback about Bishop’s place in Carp as a Black man. “Not everything is one sided, you know?” he explains. “She asked for my opinion on a bunch of things, and that’s something that was very important to me, as a Black actor—asking for my opinion, because she’s not a Black man. Asking for my opinion on how a Black teenage boy, given my character’s circumstances, would respond to specific situations, that’s just very nice to have. I mean, even in the theater I’ve done, I haven’t been afforded as much input as I’ve had here. I’ve had times where I’ve given my input, but Lauren, she [actually] takes the time to listen to you and hear what you have to say. And you can tell that. There’s a difference between listening and hearing, and she hears you. And I can tell that when I read the script. It’s really cool.”

By the time I’m done speaking with Jones, the core cast’s two remaining members, Mike Faist (Dodge Mason) and Jessica Sula (Natalie Williams), have finished filming for the day. I’d spent some time watching their Episode 7 scene take shape before Olivia, Ray, and Camron showed up for their respective interviews, and had been impressed by the sheer variety of reads they’d each given their characters for just that one emotionally-loaded conversation. In retrospect, this might have been a function of that same fluidity that Nicholson and Jones had found so creatively productive, but on the day, it read as professionally experimental. This is trust, too, if just of a slightly different variety.

“It’s [been] a challenge to try to get any kind of ownership or grounding into [Dodge] as a person,” Faist acknowledges, “but that forces me, the actor, to work in a way that is maybe good for me.” It’s also let him, it seems, really lean into the more physical aspects of Dodge’s character, which include both a background in competitive rodeo and a (literal) driving interest in demolition derby. As a result, Faist—a Tony-nominated stage actor coming to the small screen from a Broadway background, who audiences will next see on the big screen as Riff in West Side Story—has gotten to work closely with both the show’s resident stunt director and a local horse wrangler. “It’s totally beautiful,” he says, opening up. “There’s this scene where we’re working a horse in a round pen, and it’s—breaking a horse isn’t at all like how we think of it, like, that you just force yourself on top and ride it out. It’s really like this conversation that you end up having, then getting the horse to a point where it feels comfortable, a point where it says, ‘Okay, I’m going to let you in.’ And, you know, we’re working with a real spooked horse, and so it’s like, you get it to that point where you’re working and working and working, and then you just see this horse, like, beeline towards you. Oh my gosh. That was very cool.”

Sula, who spends much of Panic’s debut season playing opposite Faist and who thus has gotten to spend her fair share of time enjoying Carp’s fictional rodeo/demolition derby scene, is just as enthusiastic about the practical challenge—that is, the non-Panic-the-game-related challenges—as Faist is. Part of this enthusiasm comes from the fact that she’s originally from Wales (“I’d never thought I’d go to a demolition derby, my whole life!”), but even more of it comes from the fact that the actual Panic-the-game challenges her character, Natalie, is subjected to, have subjected her in turn to intense physical discomfort. Those teeny, tiny shorts from the list of hypothermia risks above? Those are hers, in basically every scene.

“The whole technical process involving filming, like, the granary stuff [Episode 2] and the fire [Episode 5], is difficult. It’s hard,” she allows. “The fire was a bit better because we were filming inside—it’s really hard filming summer stuff in the winter. That’s been really challenging. So in terms of fun” (our ostensible subject) “fun is a bit difficult. It’s fun because you’re with everybody you love, and you’re working on something that you like, but it’s hard on the day when you’re absolutely freezing, standing in intense winds in these tiny shorts… that’s challenging. It’s a challenge.” She laughs. “But maybe that means there will be some truth to the [game] challenges on screen!”

To judge by the reactions of various crew members gathered behind the monitors the next night, when poor Jessica and the rest of the Panic competitors still standing by that point in the season are left hanging, almost literally, off the end of historic Moore’s Bridge in 40-degree weather, it absolutely does.

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In the end, this is what Oliver, Welch and the rest of the cast are hoping to inspire: That the face-your-fears-or-die framework of Panic, the show, will light a fire under its eventual audience, prompting us to look inward and figure out what fears our own iteration of Panic, the game, would hinge on. (Mine: Being tricked into playing anything as boneheadedly dangerous as Panic, the game.) Sure, it could easily be written off as another goofy teen thriller, with another goofy teen love triangle (for the record, Paste is Team Tiger), but ultimately, even the goofiest of stories can have real meaning.

“It’s been funny to [learn more about Heather throughout the season] and be like, oh, this person, this probably was what I was like at 17,” Welch says, as we wind up our interview that first day. “Like, I had all the elements there, but I didn’t have the glue to stick them together. So that’s been fun to play with her, finding that confidence within as the show progresses. But then with me, it’s also made me kind of reflect, and be like, oh, I should be kinder to myself, you know what I mean? Because, yeah, this is probably what I was like as a kid, I was so mean to myself—as we all were! We should just all be a little kinder to ourselves, I think. I think if that’s the lesson that people take away, that would be great. That’d be awesome.”

For what it’s worth, Oliver is on the exact same page: “[Your teenage years,] that’s a period of time when stories are particularly critical. I mean, stories are critical to us all the time, but I really found my way as an adolescent through stories, and I’m really, really happy [that Panic] might be part of that bigger effort. I’m just hopeful that it reaches some people in a meaningful way.”

As for Welch’s longed-for tiger, though, she’s got a totally different take. “Oh, I’m just threatening to show up in a tiger suit,” she says, laughing. “That’s what my vision is.”

Look, nothing about Panic’s promotional campaign thus far has suggested it’ll go full Dada. Given what the bulk of 2020 was like, though (not to mention all the tiger news coming out of Texas recently), audiences might be ready for anything. Plus, you know, travel from Europe was banned for most of the last year (sorry, Lizzie), so I guess only time—well, and Amazon—will tell.

Either way, we’re rooting for you, Olivia. And even if it (almost certainly) doesn’t end up working out this time, we’re sure you’ll still get to meet the tiger from Mandy someday.

Panic premieres Friday, May 28th on Amazon Prime. You can watch a first-look trailer here.



Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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