[This story includes major spoilers from The Crowded Room finale, “Judgment.”]
Tom Holland began a story on The Crowded Room that came to a shocking — albeit, satisfying — conclusion with the AppleTV+ series’ finale.
When the 10-episode limited series first introduced audiences to Holland’s Danny Sullivan, some knew his story would be loosely based on the real-life experiences of Billy Milligan, the first person diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and the first to be acquitted of a major crime due to his condition.
Those who didn’t know the basis for the long-gestating series (The Crowded Room, inspired by the 1981 nonfiction novel The Minds of Billy Milligan, has circled around Hollywood since the 1990s) were faced with major reveals in almost every episode of the second half of the season, starting with the fact that most of the people Danny had been interacting with throughout the show (Sasha Lane, Lior Raz, Sam Vartholomeos, Jason Isaacs and Levon Hawke) were his alternate personalities — also known as alters.
The arguably biggest reveal came in the final episode when viewers learn that Danny’s twin brother, Adam (played by Zachary Golinger), who he said died when they were kids, was actually Danny’s first alter — the person he created when his father began sexually abusing him.
“The trick about Adam is everybody else in the show, who is working on the trial, by the time of the trial, knows he’s not real. But the audience can’t and Danny can’t,” Crowded Room showrunner Akiva Goldsman tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The show has been designed to make you think that he’s real, because Danny thinks he’s real.”
For Goldsman, it was important to create a show that would generate empathy for people who have had tremendous emotional, physical and psychological hardships in life, and try to keep people from seeing those who suffer from mental illness as “other.”
“Trauma survivors and survivors of childhood sexual abuse, whether they have dissociative identity disorder or just post-traumatic stress disorder, or just trauma response, they’re very reasonable in their reactions,” he explains. “They’re just reacting to something that happened to them a long time ago. Trauma’s like time travel — it freezes the mind and the heart.”
Below, the showrunner explains why star Holland is a “miracle” and opens up about basing Amanda Seyfried’s Rya on his own mother and how parts of his childhood trauma informed The Crowded Room.
What has the experience been like for you to launch The Crowded Room shortly after the writers strike and then having actors go on strike during the show’s run?
We all sort of stand in solidarity together at this point. And I was very fortunate because, even though I couldn’t really participate in the studio-sponsored publicity for the show, we were done. And the actors were able to speak on the show’s behalf, and no one is more articulate about the show than Tom (Read THR‘s cover story with Holland). So, we were fortunate just in terms of timing. I think it’s obviously much harder for folks who were shooting or still in post.
How has it been promoting the show while your writing comrades are on the picket line?
I haven’t really been promoting the show, honestly. I think the actors have been out there doing it. We’re allowed to do an occasional piece, apparently, if they’re not set up by the studio. But fundamentally, at this point, I think it’s right. Mostly, folks need to be aware that the pieces of art — commercial art albeit, but still art — are made by humans, and those humans need to be compensated in ways that they just aren’t anymore. So, I think that message is landing loud and clear.
We had spoken to Tom for a cover story ahead of the launch and at that point, the big finale twist was still under lock and key. Why was it important for you to keep that secret from the audience, and how much of the show’s ending hinged on that staying secret?
The show really was designed to generate empathy for folks who have had tremendous hardship emotionally, physically, psychologically. And as a culture, we have a tendency sometimes to see people who suffer from mental illness as other. We instantly make them not like us. And that’s not at all true, especially trauma survivors and survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Whether they have dissociative identity disorder or just post-traumatic stress disorder, or just trauma response. They’re very reasonable in their reactions. They’re just reacting to something that happened to them a long time ago.
Trauma’s like time travel — it freezes the mind and the heart. So, we wanted the audience to be able to be sympathetic and empathetic to folks who suffer like that. In order to do that, we kind of wanted people not to know exactly what kind of show they were watching at first. So they could kind of be lulled into an intimate relationship with Tom’s character, Danny, so that when Tom started to realize the truth of the world he lived in, the audience could as well. We actually thought the audience would be ahead of the character, which I think they were sometimes, and we like that. We wanted the audience to really feel as Danny learned what his life really was like, so that they could share the disorientation, the pain and hopefully, the healing.
Then, you also have the part of the audience who will go in expecting this story to be about dissociative identity disorder, knowing it’s based on The Minds of Billy Milligan. How did you balance both of those audiences?
The source of credit now says, “inspired by.” That’s actually a Writers Guild source credit that basically indicates that the story is far from the original material. There’s a lot of fictionalization in The Crowded Room. Having said that, I think that there were a whole group of folks who are aware of the book and the documentary and the life of Billy Milligan, and then a whole bunch who weren’t. So, the question is, how do you play fair as possible? And so, what we sort of hoped was, if you knew, you knew. And if you didn’t, you didn’t. But we hoped that people wouldn’t tell you in case you were someone who didn’t know. You look at how people watch the show and, anecdotally, it breaks out about half and half. About half the people were like, “I know what this is about,” and about half didn’t. You can sort of watch them catch on or watch them from a position of knowing and seeing the journey unfold.
What were some of the biggest things you changed from Daniel Keyes’ nonfiction book?
The nature of the crime, and that the crime became singular, and the resolution. Something that was terribly important to us was to tell the story with hope — that healing and balance, if not a cure, is possible. Cure is a funny word because dissociative identity disorder is a very, very sophisticated response the mind has to being hurt so badly. So, even though in the time of the show, the answer was to fuse the personalities. Today, it’s an even more complex question about what the best way to survive having experienced this kind of horror in childhood might be. But what we did want to say was, whatever the journey forward for somebody who is suffering from trauma, in all its forms, is that we can heal. We can learn to live. We can learn to find joy. We can learn to be in relationships and to trust again because trauma breaks trust in a very profound way.
Our fictional story of Danny Sullivan allowed us to create a more hopeful ending than what one might perceive Billy Milligan’s to be. Billy’s dead now, and the last chapters of his life after the book was written were complex. This led us to tell a story that was, like all mental health stories when they take to the screen, at least in part, allegorical. The best-case scenario of how even in the worst circumstance, hope and optimism and grace could abide. So, that was our outcome, and then there’s a bunch of things that are smaller than that. Billy and I are contemporaneous, so I moved it from Iowa, which I didn’t know, to New York, where I grew up and put it in Brooklyn Heights and in upstate New York. I built scenes that were more out of my life than his in some ways, and then some of it was just made up in order to kind of create a different person, with different experiences and different alters than Billy’s in some way.
In the penultimate episode, we see Candy (Emmy Rossum) lie on the stand about Danny’s prior abuse, and it made it hard for me to empathize with her. What went into writing her that way?
I think that Candy is an abuse sufferer herself, probably. That’s certainly the supposition we imagine. And I think that it’s hard to empathize with her, and I think that it’s important to. What I realized about this show is that it is incredibly challenging; more challenging than I thought it was. And it was really challenging to make because it lives in the darkest corners of real human psychology. And there’s nothing worse, arguably, than an adult assaulting a child. So, it generates tremendous discomfort.
I know there are people who were like, “I want to binge it.” I would never binge this show. I’m glad it dropped every week. I could see watching the first few, then I need a breath, and another one. Because if you take it seriously, if you’re open to this kind of emotional conversation — and I think it’s hard to be open to it — but if you’re open to it, it makes you really uncomfortable and sad and scared. It’s very confrontational in that way.
In some ways, there’s nothing harder than having empathy for Candy, and yet, Candy is a little girl probably — she’s made up — who experienced some version of what Danny experienced, put it away, wasn’t aware of it. But was sort of trained as a child to find that kind of contact, that level of inappropriateness paired with safety. When a parent hurts you, it’s very complicated. Because the parent is who you need to be safe. And so Candy probably learned that love and abuse went hand in hand. And that’s this horrible cycle that we have to understand, which is it’s never just the person; it’s where the person came from, how they got there. And you have to figure out how to interrupt it. Until you do, everybody in the line of history that brings you to this moment will at some point bring you to the edge of contempt.
So what do you do with that? I think part of what’s extraordinary about this piece for me is the unbelievable humanity the actors bring to all the roles. Emmy has the hardest job when it comes to creating anybody’s sympathies for her, and yet, I think she’s such an extraordinary actress that she gets us there.
In that same vein, I read an audience review on Google that praised Tom for his emotional execution and how he doesn’t get enough credit for his performances. What was it like working with him in this very compelling lead role?
I’m as proud of this show as anything I’ve ever done in my career, and I’m old. The audience response is more positive or as positive as anything I’ve ever been involved with dramatically. It’s at like a 90 percent audience response on Rotten Tomatoes. This has been different. This has been profoundly moving for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, profoundly moving for the DID community in ways that are sort of why you do it in the first place. And I think, in large part, that is because of Tom. Maybe if you were expecting a thriller with Tom Holland, who plays Spider-Man, you didn’t get what you were hoping for. But if your heart was open, this kid is a miracle.
We all knew he was good. But if you really watch that performance, and if you can see what he’s doing, all the commentary episode by episode of people seeing him as those other characters — being able to track it, starting to catch on, clocking it — all the praise around episode nine where he has about four words. It’s as good of a performance as I’ve seen, and that was incredible commitment on his part and not something that I think any of us were really prepared for — both in terms of the level of his performance and also the level of difficulty.
At the premiere, Amanda Seyfried told me that her character, Rya, is actually based on your mother. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? What made you want to write her into the show?
You asked about the differences from the source material, and one real significant difference is the character of Rya. Rya is actually my late aunt’s name, but my late mom was a woman named Mira Rothenberg. She was a very, very important clinician working with children who were then called “emotionally disturbed.” It was childhood autism and childhood schizophrenia. When those diagnoses were grouped together, the first group home for them was in my house in Brooklyn Heights. My parents founded it. My mother has written some about those days, and there’s always somebody banging the baby against the wall or hanging the baby out the window. I’m the baby.
So, I grew up around people who are not neurotypical. Folks who didn’t know you weren’t supposed to dream when you were awake, or you weren’t supposed to bang your head against the wall to get attention, or that horse floating outside the window wasn’t real. That’s a lot of how I wrote A Beautiful Mind, reaching back to my understanding of the rules of reality being different. But my mother was a Holocaust survivor and she survived against all odds but saw such terrible darkness. And it created in her, somehow, an impossible amount of empathy. So, many of Rya’s codes of comportment, her styles of therapy, are based on my mom. They are this notion that a relationship can break you so another relationship can heal you, that love is actually a therapeutic agent for change. That’s what she believed, and it was in fashion. Then it went out of fashion. It’s weirdly coming back into fashion again because we don’t really know how we heal, but we rarely heal alone.
Toward the end of the season, we see Rya’s warning about Danny’s alters often putting him in more danger come to life; with his suicide attempt, causing him to almost lose the trial and, as a result, spend the rest of his life in prison. What went into foreshadowing these things in the way that you did?
Part of the honest exploration of the condition is that more often than not, but not always, our coping systems that are created out of trauma turn on us. They’re not entirely successful. If you can imagine something simpler, like your neurosis or your anxiety or your fear of a certain thing, and if it’s left unchecked, you can see how over time it can grow larger and larger. That’s very much true with trauma response. It can kind of spread, and folks can become less and less able to function, that the difficulties of keeping the system chugging along require too much energy. Life begins to eat away at them and so those things that we create to protect ourselves, those defense mechanisms that we all have, whether that be trauma survivors or just folks who go through life, sometimes if you don’t work through them, they start to work against you.
I wanted that to be the case with Danny’s alters. That at a certain point in order to protect him, despite their belief that they were protecting him, they were starting to hurt him. Suicidal ideation and suicide attempts are not at all uncommon with this disorder, and so it felt like in order to really tell the story. This show doesn’t shy away from dark. And so we found ourselves with that suicide attempt at the end of nine. Honestly, that’s the shortest version of the scene. There’s a longer version. It’s about three-and-a-half seconds longer, and you literally can’t watch it. I mean, I can. But everybody else looked at me and they were like, “Are you crazy?” So, we cut it shorter.
That was probably the right call.
I think it was. We want this to be resonant, but we don’t want it to hurt anybody. We want people to be able to watch, and a “here to help” card comes up at the end of every episode. We wanted this to be something that led people to seek help and have hope.
In the season finale, we see Danny and Candy’s potential final conversation since he doesn’t seem to think they’ll see each other again. I’m curious, would you say it’s safe to assume that he was abused by his father and his stepfather? Their conversation doesn’t outright say it, but it does seem to hint at that.
Yes. That’s why Adam preexisted Marlin.
Wow. I also want to applaud you all including trigger warnings ahead of every episode.
I think it was important. I have struggled myself with my own issues around this. So, in a weird way, I have a tendency to be able to steer it down, because I’ve spent my life working on it; not dissociative identity disorder, but early childhood trauma. It’s really vital that you don’t force people into a circumstance where they’re surprised. Surprise is not your friend when it comes to healing. So, you don’t want to have people have to suddenly run into something they didn’t, in any way, see coming.
One of the biggest twists comes in the finale when the audience finds out that Adam was Danny’s first alter — which I very much did not expect. What were some of the biggest challenges around that reveal with Tom, but also in general?
The trick about Adam is that everybody else in the show, who is working on the trial, by the time of the trial, knows he’s not real. But the audience can’t, and Danny can’t. So, it’s really about where the words are said to whom they’re said and what they are. If you watch the show again, you will now discover that the way Adam is talked about is very much all the way through like he’s an imaginary friend. But you don’t know that because of the way the show has been designed to make you think that he’s real, because Danny thinks he’s real. I think Tom has said that there was nothing more challenging for him in months of challenging performances than that scene where he really sort of understands the Adam of it all. Speaking to Adam’s truth and Adam’s feelings, and being able to take on Adam’s feelings to understand them for him to empathize with the Adam part of himself that had to show up to be present for the abuse, that’s a really hard piece of acting, and, to me, it’s impeccable.
How do you think changes how the audience feels about the characters when they learn the truth?
It’s interesting. I keep seeing that people just kind of want [the alters]. They miss them. There’s that moment, which I very much love, which is also another one of these wonderful Tom moments where Danny allows Ariana and Jerome, that brief moment of goodbye. I think, in some ways, Danny feels like they were the best parts, and so I want the audience sometimes to feel that, too. And also to understand that Danny can have those qualities himself. There’s something beautiful about having a cohort in your own head that is there to take care of you. And they are, of course, compelling and complex and intimate, more intimate than people outside your head could be. So, some sudden wistfulness and longing for them after they disappear, I think is just fine.
Were there psychologists on set or involved in the show?
Oh, yes. From very early on in the script stage we put a group of experts in trauma, experts in dissociative identity disorder, experts in childhood trauma and very significant professionals, people of both sexes and of color. We were very, very, very serious and studious about not taking any kind of layman’s understanding for granted. And of course, we’re dealing with not just how we see dissociative identity disorder today, but how multiple personality disorder [the diagnosis at the time] was seen then, which is different.
So, we have to be sort of period-appropriate as well. It was actually a psychiatrist who said to me, as we were still writing, that there was an absence of suicidal ideation, which is where the actual suicide attempt came from. It was the clinical consultants saying, “It’s not actually a reasonable portrayal if you don’t at least allude to that.” And then we took it further. So, we were in a constant conversation with a group of psychiatrists all the way through.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I have always been interested in creating connection with the audience when it comes to their understanding of people who may not appear to be like them at first. I’m a big believer in commonality among people. I don’t discount idiosyncrasies or differences, but I think we are more alike than not as humans surviving on this planet, and we have a tendency to put people in separate categories. I think, down that road, nothing good lies. So, for me, it was important. Folks who are not typical neurologically, psychologically, emotionally get a raw deal. And I’d love to speak to that.
My childhood was terribly, terribly complicated. I was not without traumatic suffering and some pretty awful things happening. So, for me, this story of Billy Milligan was the stone in stone soup in order for me to also talk about things that were important to me, as well as what I believe were important about somebody going through life with this particular set of reactions and what defenses and coping strategies they formed.
When you were writing the show, did you envision it having a second season?
We have talked now and then about: Is it another story of another person with another disorder? But the story of Danny Sullivan was always a one-season piece. It was very challenging this show, and we were still into COVID, and it is very, very, very dark material, as you know, and it’s television. So there are pages after pages after pages every day and big location shooting in New York and sort of everybody looked at each other when we all sort of got together on it, and we were like, “If we survive this, that’ll be great, and that’ll be enough.”
The show easily could’ve ended with Danny being found not guilty in the courthouse. But you went a step further and showed him two years into the future. Why?
It’s hope. The journey has been long, and if the audience has stayed with us through it, then I want them to leave with light and the possibility of healing, because that’s what I want life to be. I can’t make life that way, but I can make stories that way.
Streaming transparency is a key topic in the strike negotiations. What has your experience been with the weekly release with Apple. What do they tell you about how it’s performing?
All I know about the show in terms of its performance is that I look on the top Apple shows on their app, and it consistently has lived in the top few and moves around a little bit — it comes up, comes down comes up, comes down, whenever an episode drops. Everybody at Apple tells me they’re very pleased with the performance of the show. I have no idea what that means. I mean, I’m happier than it not being in the top and them saying it was not good for them. It’s very strange. Most of my career has been in features where literally there are metrics available the moment it comes out. All we do is we celebrate the box office, right? That’s what features are; it’s every weekend. There is no comparable metric that I have yet been exposed to. So I’m just going to take it on faith that it’s doing great.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
All episodes of The Crowded Room are streaming on Apple TV+ now.