The dogged detective of The Killing finds flashes of bright light in characters with dark sides by REED JOHNSON / photographs by KURT MARKUS / styling by HAYLEY ATKIN
To understand how a nice Mormon girl like Mireille Enos has become one of the most riveting sad-eyedheroines of the young 21st century, it’s important to understand something about noir. Los Angeles is the world’s noir capital because its perpetual sunshine produces deep, hard-edged shadows. The city’s fair-weather face is a mask that conceals a complex psyche and a hidden flair for high drama.
So it is with Enos, a woman whose effervescent straw-berry-blond beauty and (by all accounts) radiant disposition clash with the tortured characters she often portrays in television, movies and theater. It’s a paradox that both pleases and sometimes puzzles the 36-year-old Houston native, who shares a Los Feliz home with her “awesomely perfect husband”—actor Alan Ruck—and the couple’s six-month-old daughter, Vesper.
“It’s always been a funny thing,” Enos says. “I am a person who generally greets life with joy. I’ve been really lucky to have wonderful people in my life, and I’m fairly optimistic. And yet I have gotten cast again and again as these kinds of serious, dark or even tragic figures.”
Currently foremost among Enos’ chiaroscuro personas is obsessive, ashen-faced Seattle detective Sarah Linden, who’s been doggedly trying to stitch together the murder of a local teenager, Rosie Larsen, on AMC’s critically acclaimed crime series The Killing. Enos’ portrayal of the whip-smart, preternaturally observant crimefighting pro with a seriously screwed up personal life earned her an Emmy nomination in 2011. The series’ second season kicks off April 1 with a two-hour premiere.
Signifying her flair for both comedy and drama, Enos’ TV credits include episodes of Sex and the City, CSI: Miami, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and, in a career breakout turn, twins Kathy and Jodean Marquart on Big Love, HBO’s controversial drama centered on a polyamorous Mormon clan.
Onstage, she earned a Tony nomination in 2005 for her portrayal of Honey in the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and, in 2010, appeared closer to home opposite Annette Bening, David Arquette and Julian Sands in the (anti-?)feminist smackdown The Female of the Species at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
Later this year, at a multiplex near you, Enos will be appearing with Emma Stone, Sean Penn and It guy Ryan Gosling in The Gangster Squad, about an LAPD squad specially recruited to curb the influx of East Coast gangsters in the 1940s and ’50s. Then she teams with no less than Brad Pitt to forestall a zombie apocalypse in Marc Forster’s horror-action-drama World War Z.
Enos projects the girl-next-door avenging angel, the hard-boiled but inwardly tender bombshell woman of the world. She’s akin to a Liv Ullmann look-alike who can project the gravitas of that Ingmar Bergman stalwart yet professes to lead the more or less ordinary existence of a working mom who can be spotted renting DVDs at Video Journeys, picking up Indian takeout near Sunset Junction or practicing tae kwon do at some Westside storefront center.
“The only thing I can think is [to me] there’s something interesting created in contrast,” she offers as the reason she keeps getting cast as women capable of matching wits with murderers and saving mankind from brain-eating ghouls. “If the heart of me is someone who understands or strives for happiness, and then I’m playing someone who is in the middle of a storm, some of that light still gets through. It’s like a puzzle, trying to solve how to somehow keep glimmers of hope and joy in people who are really having a rough go.”
The upbeat self-awareness mirrors Enos’ overall approach to both work and life. The child of a Mormon missionary father and a French mother in Houston (“My father actually baptized my mom in the Mediterranean Sea”), she was named for her mom’s high school best friend. Mirielle is French for “a marvel”—and it’s pronounced MEE-ray. “Growing up in Texas, it got butchered every which way,” she says of her moniker. “But once people learned to say it right, they never forgot it.”
Childhood, she recalls, was “very supportive and validating.” From her father she inherited a love of working with her hands, a curiosity about gadgets and a fascination with how pieces fit together to create a whole greater than its parts. She still enjoys sewing and building simple furniture like shelves, small tables and even her baby daughter’s crib set. “It’s such a different way of using my mind. Acting is so emotional and verbal. When I’ve worked on a big acting project, afterward it’s so nice to give myself a ‘craft,’ because my mind quiets when I have a physical project to do.”
“If the heart of me is someone who understands or strives for happiness, and then I’m playing someone who is in the middle of a storm...It’s like a puzzle, trying to solve how to somehow keep glimmers of hope and joy in people who are really having a rough go.”
From her mom she took in another form of self-reliance: the ability to trust her own powers of reasoning. “My mother has amazing intellectual curiosity,” Enos says, “and when I would ask her a question that she was pretty sure I knew the answer to, she wouldn’t answer it. She would help guide me and would say, ‘You actually know the answer—don’t think linearly, think divergently.’ ”
Although she no longer is a practicing member of the faith, Enos says her parents’ devout Mormonism gave her a strong foundation. “I’m so grateful to have been given this idea of being part of a larger context. I think whatever your endeavors are, it helps to feel you’re not alone in the universe.”
After graduating from Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Enos did three years in an acting and dance program at Brigham Young University, then spent a decade pursuing theater in New York City, honing a versatility and a work ethic that continues to serve her well.
In an email, Agnieszka Holland, who has directed Enos in The Killing, praises her as a charismatic and powerful presence who brings a rare combination of strength and fragility to the character of Sarah. “She’s absolutely lovely. Hardworking, modest, patient,” says Holland, whose latest movie, In Darkness, was up for Best Foreign Language Film at last month’s Oscars. “She doesn’t have even [one] grain of the spoiled star.”
Of all the women Enos has played, Sarah Linden is the one who has fixed her squarely in Hollywood casting directors’ sights. But she is quick to attribute Sarah’s indelible qualities to Killing writer–executive producer Veena Sud. “Mostly what I love is that Veena allows [Sarah] to be fallible, that she’s completely multifaceted and not always very nice but incredibly good at what she does. And then sometimes she’s completely lovely and relaxed and warm. Veena hasn’t put her in a box. She allows her to be different people at different times.”
Sud describes Enos as “a master at creating depth to a character in the most subtle, most human of gestures...Her performances are always so incredibly nuanced. There is never a false note or a theatrical shortcut to the truth of the moment or the character. It’s tough to play the duality of Sarah Linden—who feels everything so deeply but remains guarded—but Mireille pulls it off effortlessly.”
She goes as far as to suggest that Enos’ multilayered portrayal takes Sarah into the realm of other iconic contemporary women justice agents—Lisbeth Salander, Jane Tennison and Clarice Starling come to mind—who redefine a detective archetype long dominated by men.
“Many female detectives I’ve known,” Sud says, “share an inner core of strength—the ability to do a job that is brutal and heartbreaking on a daily basis—but retain a compassion and commitment to a victim or a specific case. Male detectives certainly share this quality, but we haven’t seen this duality in the genre for women maybe as much as we could.”
This winter, Enos and her family have been shuttling—by car—between L.A. and Vancouver, where The Killing shoots. Her luminous talent shines in the Pacific Northwest dankness and in her characters’ dark ways, but she’s open to taking a walk on the sunny side of the film set. “It’s something I lob out to the universe,” she says. “When people ask, ‘What do you want to do next?’ I never have an answer. Because every project I’ve gotten has come as a surprise and has been more wonderful than anything I could’ve imagined, I try not to plan it out or limit myself too much.
“But I have been saying out loud quite a bit recently, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to play a really pretty, lighthearted, easygoing girl this summer?’ We’ll see if it happens.”
REED JOHNSON, is a Los Angeles Times arts and culture reporter.
PRODUCER: Hannah Harte
MAKEUP: Francesca Tolot / Cloutier Remix
HAIR: John Ruggiero / Starworks Artists
MANICURE: Lisa Jachno / Aim Artists
FASHION ASSISTANT: Emma Cali