Shanola Hampton, Found

Shanola Hampton, Found

Matt Miller/NBC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Found, Season 1, Episode 8, “Missing While Homeless.” Read at your own risk!]

Found star Shanola Hampton will be the first to admit that the twisted relationship between PR specialist Gabi Mosley (Hampton) and her kidnapper-turned-captive Hugh “Sir” Evans (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) has been notoriously difficult to define. Conjuring up shades of the tortured dynamic between Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) in The Silence of the Lambs, Gabi and Sir have become, at once, formidable antagonists and unlikely allies in the search for missing persons who often fall through the cracks.

“What Mark-Paul [Gosselaar] and I really enjoy playing with is this crazy chemistry,” Hampton, who also serves as a producer of the freshman NBC drama, tells TV Guide. “People say this about their shows all the time: ‘Oh, you’ve never seen this before.’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh, I can name three other times.’ But you get a chemistry between two characters [on Found] that is not sexual, and it’s super, super weird. There’s an obsession there. He loves her like a father. But no, not too much. But then, what is this thing that they’re going through?! It’s undefined, it’s weird, it’s sick, and it’s gross, but I also cannot stop watching it — and that is different.”

Below, Hampton — who was previously best known for playing Veronica Fisher on Showtime’s Shameless — speaks animatedly about the importance of telling stories with “beautifully flawed” Black women at the forefront, how she has approached her portrayal of Gabi’s inner turmoil, and how much longer Gabi will be able to keep her secret locked (and chained) behind closed doors.

Creator/showrunner Nkechi Okoro Carroll originally met with you to discuss directing one of her other shows, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that you were the right actress to play Gabi Mosley, and she told me you had a similar reaction upon reading the Found pilot. What was it about the way that Gabi was written on the page that made you want to play her?
Shanola Hampton: It’s crazy because as I was reading, I was like, “Oh, she’s a baddie. Oh, she’s going to be able to dress. Oh, she’s solving cases, and [these are] such important stories to tell.” But then I got to the end [when it’s revealed that Gabi has kidnapped Sir], and I was like, “Oh my gosh!” [Laughs.] I didn’t see it coming. I really did not. So when I got to it, I was like, “This is good, and I have to play her,” because it’s one thing to play a character that’s on a mission and another thing to play so many layers of a character because it makes her more human. That beautifully flawed version of a person was something that I felt like was my super right next step in my career as an actor.

I don’t think it’s lost on either of us that we still rarely get to see messy and flawed Black female protagonists on TV.
Hampton: Obviously, the tides have changed, and we’ve had the greats that have come before [me] to really start moving the needle into the leading lady being the Black actress. But throughout my career, [Black women are often] the best friend or the assistant, right? And whomever you’re the best friend to or the assistant to is able to play and have a lot of stuff, and you’re just there as a support system. So seeing people of color in a position where they get to show their flaws and not be angry — that’s the other thing that you have to be so careful of.

A lot of times the way that women — and specifically women of color — are written when they are in the lead role is there’s this anger behind them and then it just feeds into a stereotype that’s not true. Yes, they’ve gone through trauma, but there is some sort of love there, and you get to see all of that in Gabi — the way she is with the children, the way she is passionate about finding people. Yes, she’s quick-witted and she gets angry when she needs to get angry, but she’s loving and she’s kind. All of those things — the color of my skin, my hair, the attitude — have made this [role] not only an honor to play, but I think something that needed to be seen so that we can be seen differently. 

There’s something really twisted about Gabi and Sir’s dynamic because they know exactly which buttons to push to get under each other’s skin. And yet, there is a strange kind of codependency that they’ve developed over the years — more so on Sir’s side than on Gabi’s. How would you characterize Gabi and Sir’s dynamic?
Hampton: I would think the codependency weirdly goes both ways, doesn’t it? At the beginning of the season, people were really confused. Why is she fixing her hair before she goes down there? Automatically, one’s brain goes, “Even though he has done these really crazy things, she’s still trying to look pretty for him.” Your mind didn’t go to the fact that this person has trained this other human being to be perfect, to be put together. It wasn’t about being pretty or looking good in some sort of sexual way for him.

You get to see the layers of how traumatic experiences when you are young affect who you are when you’re older. Even when you want to fight it, some of it just seeps out because it’s a part of you. The truth is Sir does understand her. Sir is part of the fiber of who she is. She didn’t ask for that to be part of her, but he in many ways was a father to her. The control and the obsession he has is very sick, very twisted. All those things are true, but he also had an impact in raising her, for good or for bad, so there is a certain amount of approval she seeks from him to see that she’s smart.

Shanola Hampton, Found

Shanola Hampton, Found

Matt Miller/NBC

This week’s episode features two of the most dramatic scenes between Gabi and Sir thus far; she realizes that part of him wants to be stuck in her basement, and she is forced to tell him that she needs and loves him to avoid getting caught when Lacey (Gabrielle Walsh) comes to stay with her. What did you want to convey in each of those scenes to show Gabi’s internal struggle?
Hampton: When they’re that close on the camera, they’re going to be able to see anything you do. So if you’re faking it, they’re going to be able to see. So my thoughts any time I’m doing a closeup is, sometimes there is this adoration for this person that I don’t want to have at all, but also a hate behind it. I can think all of those complex things in my head as I’m looking at him. So anytime I’m in a scene with Mark-Paul, I am always constantly thinking about: “I love him and I hate him so much, but not love like that. I just love his mind, but he’s also really, really sick.” There’s such a thin line between it all.

Found presents the idea that everyone heals from trauma differently, and that journey is never linear nor the same for everyone. How would you describe Gabi’s relationships with the rest of the main players at Mosley & Associates? What do you think Gabi sees in them? Does she see other similarly broken people who are attempting to heal?
Hampton: Because she turned her trauma into purpose, she wanted to do the same for other people. That’s why she pulled all of these people out of traumatic experiences. It’s not so much about her seeing herself in them as much as it is her being that mother bear figure and wanting to save everybody. That complex of being everybody’s hero and savior is real because she knows the pain that she hasn’t healed from. Ultimately, she wants the healing for all of them, much to the detriment of her own healing.

[With Kelli Williams‘] Margaret, for instance, if you are a parent, there is no way your heart doesn’t break when you look in her eyes and feel like, “What could I have done differently?” We’ve all had those moments in lesser circumstances where you’re like, “If I would’ve done this, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened.” But Gabi really wants [Margaret] to be able to forgive herself for a trauma that she’s been living with for 13 years.

Lacey [and Gabi] is an obvious relationship. [Gabi] saved her from the day that they got together. She became like a mother figure. When you see them doing princess twirls in the pilot episode, [Gabi] is trying to make it easy [for Lacey]. Even though she has been through hell and back, she’s like, “For this little girl, I don’t want her to feel that.” And when she went and she hit [the back of Sir’s] head, I don’t know that Gabi would’ve escaped in that moment if it weren’t for wanting to save Lacey more than herself, and that has trickled over to her adult life.

So it’s all about grabbing these people and letting them see that they’re not alone. What happens is when people have experienced tragedy, they will sometimes feel lonely. And then, you talk to other people, you get their story, and you’re like, “Oh wait, you had it just as bad or worse.” The healing doesn’t take place in a week. Gabi knows that hurt is long-lasting and she wants to be there through the entirety of what it takes to heal — and even after post-healing when it happens. And sometimes, the healing doesn’t happen in the way that we think it’s going to.

Realistically, how much longer can Gabi keep this dirty little secret locked up in her basement? What else can you tease about the last five episodes of the season?
Hampton: Here’s the thing: In Episode 7, you already start to see Gabi unhinged. You see that she’s losing it. It is very hard to not only keep the mission of finding people on track, having a man in the basement, dealing with her own trauma [and] her own healing — it gets too much. She is still human — a human with badass heels on who can run in them, but a human all the same. And that is something that you’re going to see come to a complete head.

We’re off the [train] tracks now until the end of the season. You are going on the ride, and the ride is intense, and it is not pretty! It’s gross, it’s ugly, it’s no makeup. And it’s fantastic and it’s super fun. But I promise you: Your heart will be beating out of your chest because just when you think you’ve got a grasp on what the season is going to be, it will turn and twist again. It’s fantastic. I’m really proud of it. I always say that Nkechi gave us a beautiful buffet that has everything on it in the first season, but still, you want the dessert for Season 2.

Found airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on NBC. Episodes stream the next day on Peacock.