‘Red Light,’ Starring Carice van Houten, Halina Reijn, Illuminates Female Identity, Power, Sexuality, Patriarchy

The world premiere of the thriller series “Red Light” will take place on Sunday as part of the Canneseries competition section. Variety spoke to its stars and co-creators Halina Reijn and Carice van Houten as well as the writer Esther Gerritsen.
In the show, Van Houten, who played Melisandre in "Game of Thrones", plays Sylvia, a brothel woman in Antwerp's red light district. Reijn is the opera singer Esther, and Maaike Neuville plays Evi, a woman who struggles to be both a good mother and a detective who solves brutal crimes.
The three women are involved in the world of human trafficking and prostitution when Esther's husband - a professor of philosophy - disappears. With completely different backgrounds, the lives of these women intertwine and they find that they need each other to get out of the difficult situations in which they are trapped.
The show is written by Gerritsen together with Christophe Dirickx, Frank Ketelaar and Reijn. The directors are Wouter Bouvijn and Anke Blondé. The producers are Eyeworks, Hollands Licht and Reijn, and Van Houten's production company Manup. Federation Entertainment sells the series at Mipcom.
What was the starting point for this series?
Halina Reijn: The starting point was seven years ago when Carice and I wanted to create our own stories after an intense career as actresses. We started our company, Man Up, and decided to create a women-powered drama that would bring to light topics that normally remain hidden. Sex, power, control, addiction and female anger are topics that we want to address with our projects.
These are also the themes of our film “Instinct”, a true story about a therapist who falls in love with the serial rapist she is treating in prison.
I've always been obsessed with the red light district in Amsterdam, which in the sixties and seventies was seen as a symbol of progress, feminism and freedom, but is of course a very complex biotope where human trafficking and freedom are difficult to find distinguish. Is it better to legalize it so that you have more control over what happens to these women, or is it better to be strict and ban it entirely? We thought human trafficking and prostitution would be a good place to discuss female identity, power, sexuality, patriarchy and gender roles in all their complexities.
How important was the research for depicting the dynamics and nature of the red light district?
Halina Reijn: Crucial. We used several true stories in our stories and wanted to take the super complex arena of prostitution very seriously. We met numerous sex workers, pimps, human traffickers, police officers, human rights activists and politicians. Research is a big part of our process as creators. We always work with Esther Gerritsen as a writer and she too wants to delve deeply into the world of the topic we want to deal with.
We met and trained with a real opera star for the opera singer, and Maaike met several detectives for her role as Evi. We have done a lot of research on the phenomenon of mothers who regret ever having children and women who cannot have children.
Of course, we also use our own pain, experience, and fear.
How does the series examine issues of social and economic differences in Belgian and Dutch societies, particularly how this affects women?
Halina Reijn: That was one of our goals on this show. Depiction of women from different walks of life who are struggling with similar issues (gender roles, gender, motherhood, aging in patriarchy). All three must break free. Not just from powerful men, but above all from conditioned, patriarchal considerations of what a woman should and should not be. And above all, they need to free themselves from their own expectations and fears.
For me, in the end, this show is a homage to true freedom.
What attracted you to the series?
Esther Gerritsen: The opportunity to explore so many different female perspectives on motherhood, sex, prostitution, career and love.
What elements of the debate about sex workers contributed to the drama?
Esther Gerritsen: The issue of prostitution can be something you really choose, or is it the circumstances that compel you? And how do we feel about the men who visit prostitutes? Can it really be an innocent transaction between two adults?
Was it challenging to advance the crime story as the characters evolve?
Esther Gerritsen: Sometimes it feels like the obligatory homework that I have to do too; My main interest is in the characters. On the other hand, the crime story beats the characters around and lets them leave their comfort zone. It's a valuable part of the whole story machine.
What do the three female protagonists have in common?
Carice van Houten: They all rid themselves of their demons and what is expected of them.
Sylvia is quite an enigmatic and tough person. What was the key to getting the audience to empathize with you?
Carice van Houten: We wanted to make sure that she will always be a layered, complex character. Not the stereotype of a victim. We wanted to make her an independent person in a very disjointed relationship.
What topics did you want to explore in relation to the role of women as mothers on the show?
Carice van Houten: We wanted to show the different problems women have with being a mother or wanting to be mothers or not wanting to be mothers. We also wanted to investigate the ambiguity surrounding motherhood. Explore the controversial feelings of regret and secretly long to escape motherhood together.
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