The first season of Panic makes its debut on Amazon Prime this weekend, and viewers are curious to see exactly what it brings to the world of television. The series, which is based on Lauren Oliver's 2014 novel of the same name, takes place in a small Texas town, where every summer the graduating seniors compete in a series of challenges, winner takes all, which they believe is their one and only chance to escape their circumstances and make their lives better. But this year, the rules have changed — the pot of money is larger than ever and the game has become even more dangerous. The players will come face to face with their deepest, darkest fears and be forced to decide how much they are willing to risk in order to win.
While Panic is filled with a talented ensemble, two of its breakout stars are sure to be Olivia Welch and Jessica Sula. Welch portrays Heather Nill, an aspiring writer pursuing an accountant's certification, while Sula plays Natalie Williams, a deputy sheriff's daughter who longs to start an acting career in California. Both Heather and Natalie get thrown into the world of Panic for very specific reasons, and watching the two best friends' stories evolve over the course of the season is undeniably a highlight.
In anticipation of Panic's debut, ComicBook.com got a chance to chat with Welch and Sula about their work on the series, and about how both Heather and Natalie are perfect YA heroines for the current moment. We also spoke about the collaborative process on the series' set, filming in Texas, and what comic books and graphic novels they're fond of.
ComicBook.com: What was your familiarity with Panic going into this? Was the book something that you had read before — and if not, what drew you to your characters?
Olivia Welch: When I got my audition, I had mentioned it to my mom. She was like, "I know of that book," because she had read some of Lauren Oliver's other books. She was like, "This'll be cool! Her books are so cool." That was mine with it. Then after I booked the role, I read the book after, between that and starting filming.
Jessica Sula: I read Before I Fall, but I hadn't read Panic. I actually didn't put two and two together. Then I looked it up and was like, "Oh my gosh! It's Lauren Oliver." So, that was really cool. That was when I was auditioning in the first round in 2018. Because that's when you did the pilot...
Sula: ...And I didn't get it. Then a year goes by and I was like, "Oh, it's going around again. Who knows?" It's pilot season, so you're just chugging along hoping you're going to get something. It managed to work out. It was cool to have the creator of this whole world writing it, because she was like, "It's different. This is different from the book, and you are a different Natalie. So you don't need to worry too much." We worked on other stuff together, and then halfway through, I was like, "Enough time has gone by, where I won't be stuck [between] Natalie in the book and myself in Texas filming it." I decided to just read it. That was nice because I could put it down, and then the next day, be filming it. So that was very sweet.prevnext
You spoke about it a little bit, but when I talked to Lauren, I did find her creative process with it really fascinating. She said that it was very collaborative on set, of you guys putting your own stamp on the characters. I was wondering if you both could speak to that.
Sula: I think it was a lot of crafting scenes. We would go through a scene together over and over and over again. I know with me and Mike — with Lauren's blessing and with everybody else's blessing — changed a lot of stuff when we felt like it needed to be changed. When we wanted it to speak to the character. Then I'm like, "Wow, that must be hard. You create this whole world and then these people take it, and they're like, 'What if we do this?'" But she let us do it, which was cool.
Welch: As the season went on, she started to write for people. Things started to really sound like — It's like writing for the voice of someone, and I think lines start to fit better in your mouth. I feel like she often was like, "Well, you were cast." She, I feel like, really talked to us about our opinions. Ray and I worked a lot together, and she would always want to hear about the things that we were thinking and the things that we were plotting for ourselves. She was very present in all of the collaborative process of everything.prevnext
I really loved also, as the season went on, how both Heather and Natalie subvert the expectations of a traditional YA female character. I was texting with one of my friends about the show and I was like, "If this show existed when I was a teenager, I would have just been all over it," because both of your characters are so sure of themselves and of their relationships. I was wondering if you guys could speak to that aspect, because it does feel like the fans of the show are hopefully going to really resonate with that.
Sula: Yeah. I hope so too.
Welch: I remember a lot of conversations of us — we were all very aware that it was a YA show and that it would have a young audience. There were a lot of times we were like, "That's not cool." We would really workshop things to make them have that impact, which is why I'm like, "That means so much." Even delivering lines — "How is the strongest, most self-assured way?" Because you can find it at that age.
Sula: You definitely can. I agree. It was very much like, "What is the quickest way to really get this point across?" Truly, I think one of the maturest things you can be is your age, unapologetically. You are of that time. This is what you know — "I have this X amount of knowledge." First of all, all the kids in Carp are very smart putting this all together. They're not a group of duds. They're savvy. They're tricking the cops. I think, because of the circumstances, I feel like that self-assured way, and that — at least I hope to be — non-condescending to that generation now, is rooted in, "We have a script that has very fantastical and ridiculous circumstances. How can we make it the most grounded as possible?" I think it was cool to meet everyone. I think that's why we all got along because you know the tone and you respect it and you want to make it as real [as possible].
Welch: Kids now are so smart.
Sula: They're so self-aware.
Welch: They're self-aware and they're logical. That was something where we were like, "What's logical here?" Teenagers and young kids, they're not dumb. They're the youth of a generation, and so we really tried to respect what it's like to be that age. At that age, you're making decisions for yourself. You're operating out of logic and reason, and you're thinking about the people around you, and I feel like we always tried to keep that in mind.
Sula: It's just that thing of, "Yes, they're playing this insane game. But to them, what is the option?" You're in a society where it's just getting harder and harder to live. So to them, it makes sense. That taps into the mentality of when you are younger, you have a strange bravery with something, where it's just like, "What was I thinking?" But it makes sense to you.prevnext
I grew up in Texas, so you guys captured the experience of being a teenager in Texas in this way that I loved. What was it like filming in Texas? Because I know some of your co-stars said that it was a very interesting experience injecting that into the show.
Welch: I loved filming there. I never thought I would get to live in Austin.
Sula: Yeah, loved it.
Welch: I grew up in Fort Worth and then I moved to Los Angeles to do this, so I never ever thought I would get to live in Austin. So getting to live there I was like, "Oh, this is such a dream." It was such a cool place to film. I feel like we would go on these little excursions all the time. It would be like, "Let's go to a restaurant that we've never gone to," and, "Let's see a movie," and, "Oh, I've heard of this shop from my costumer. We should go there." All the people on our crew were locals and so they always were like, "You guys have to go here." It was always the best recommendations of these small little things all throughout Austin.
Sula: Then, before you know it, you have a whole community. And then you realize, "Oh, wow. I wouldn't mind living —" We were living there, but "I wouldn't mind living here." It feels so accessible and it's still stimulating and there are things to do.prevnext
What surprised you the most working on this season?
Welch: That's a good question. [Maybe] COVID.
Sula: We were in Texas at the very beginning of COVID. It was me, Olivia, and David Thompson, who plays Diggins. We were just hanging out, drinking, and being so mad, [thinking] "This is crazy." This is a big job for me, and it was after such a hard time, and I was like, "Of course it just gets stopped." And you're just parked in an AirBnb watching films just like, "What is going on?" I'm trying to think what else.
Welch: Filming-wise, what was most surprising to me was literally — and this is such a on-set type thing — but every time we'd get to a challenge or something, I just couldn't have dreamed that the show would be so grand and spectacular.
Sula: It was.
Welch: I was like, "This is incredible that they've built all of this and it's for this show. That's so wild." I feel like I was constantly surprised by the spectacular nature of the show, and how they were being so consistent throughout the entire time.prevnext
What do you guys hope fans take away from this season?
Sula: A sense of escape. Bare bones of it. I love analyzing things and going through things and all of that stuff, but really, I just hope that they had a good time escaping for a while. Because it's been a tough one, so that'd be a nice distraction.
Welch: Yeah, that's true. It's so entertaining, I feel like you can learn about yourself and facing your own fears and how that's part of life. I think it's fun that it's done in a very entertaining way.
I totally agree. It felt like reading a YA novel, which is the highest compliment I can give it.
Every time I sat down to watch an episode, it was like "I'm just burying my head in a YA book," and I felt like I was a teenager again. So you all definitely nailed that kind of entertaining aspect of it.
Sula: Oh, thank you. I'm so glad, because at the end of it we were like, "I just hope people just have some fun."
Welch: We were like, "This show is wild." YA stuff, we're of the age to do it right now. We were like, "This is crazy that we get to be on this show at this age. What a time capsule of fun, entertaining stuff that we got to do."prevnext
Since I'm from ComicBook.com, I have to ask — is there a superhero role or some sort of big franchise that either of you would love to be a part of?
Welch: Here's the thing. I think I wish that I could have been in WandaVision.
Sula: That's what I was about to say.
Welch: But also, Elizabeth Olsen was also so incredible. Everyone was so good, I wouldn't want to be in it to take that away from them. But in a parallel universe, if I were to be in WandaVision, that's all that I want in my life.
Sula: I have a dear friend of mine, he really just has opened my eyes to comic books and graphic novels. I need to just go back and go through the things that he has recommended to me. I'm trying to think. I honestly wish I could've been just an extra in the first Hellboy, because I loved those two movies so much growing up.
I love that.
Sula: I love those two movies so much. The artwork in the comic books is crazy. It's beautiful and so dark and funny. So I enjoy that. Actually, I read Vision. That stand-alone...
Welch: Who wrote that? Didn't he write Sin City?
Tom King! He's written Batman and a bunch of other comic stuff.
Welch: Batman! That's what he wrote.
The person you were thinking of was Frank Miller, who also did Batman, but years before.
Welch: It's Frank Miller! I'm like, "Sin City...?"
Sula: I need to know a lot. I've read a couple of Ed Brubaker's stuff. That was really fun. There's that Hollywood sort of trilogy. What's it called?
The Fade Out!
Sula: Fade Out! That's the one. Fade Out was great. I think I've dipped my toe in and trying to find more. So any recs [are] much appreciated.