Future Shock

In Altered Carbon, Dichen Lachman harnesses her passion to brave a dystopian world.

Emily Chavous Arts & Entertainment

Deep love for family is an attribute the 36-year-old actress shares with her character, Rei, from Altered Carbon.

Dichen Lachman sits behind the front desk in the Palm Springs Art Museum lobby, her eyes loosely shut as a makeup artist dusts gold pigment across her lids. She’s wearing Ugg boots; her hair is tousled. Despite the 6 a.m. call time, she declines a coffee and instead reaches for an old-fashioned doughnut hole. Lachman (whose first name is pronounced Dee-chen) is poised but low-key, nowhere near the fiery intimidator she portrays in her latest project, the Netflix original series Altered Carbon.

The museum is closed today, quiet save for crew chatter and the clang of gown-draped hangers on the stylist’s rolling rack; art hulks off the walls in the shadows of unlit corridors. Following months of stunt work, emotionally taxing scenes, and 16-hour days on set, the stillness is welcome. Lachman spent the summer in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Altered Carbon filmed its first season. Between network events and promotional appearances from São Paulo to Seoul, she’s savoring the post-production time off at home, just being Mom. Mathilda turns 3 in May, and her favorite things are scribbling, Sia music videos, and the family dog, Whisky. Deep love for family is an attribute the 36-year-old actress shares with her character, Rei. Perhaps the only trait they share, she says — that, and a fondness for action.

See Dichen Lachman in our fashion spread: Highly Saturated.

When it comes to that devotion, Lachman refers to a full-body, teeth-gritting sensation, a compulsion to hug tightly, to fuse, to be together forever. Rei takes the sentiment to an extreme, but Lachman relates. “That whole idea that I’ll just eat it,” she says, in her soft Australian drawl, which she dropped for the role. “Like I say to my daughter sometimes, ‘I just want to eat you up, I love you so much.’ ”

When we catch up by phone after the museum shoot, a few weeks before Altered Carbon’s premiere, she delves deeper into the idea of eating one’s feelings and shares a story about her four-legged childhood friend, a Jack Russell terrier named Singhi.

“When I was leaving Adelaide to pursue acting in Sydney, I found two of her little furs on my jacket,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to throw them away because I felt like that was throwing my dog away. I didn’t want to keep them because I thought I would lose them. So I swallowed the two little dog furs. I imagined they’d be absorbed into my body and we’d kind of be a part of each other.”

“When I was leaving Adelaide to pursue acting in Sydney, I found two of her little furs on my jacket. I didn’t want to throw them away because I felt like that was throwing my dog away.”Dichen Lachman

It’s an anecdote she says somehow surfaced in conversation with Altered Carbon showrunner Laeta Kalogridis. And Kalogridis wrote it into the plot.

Lachman had shrugged off the role of Reileen Kawahara when she didn’t hear back from casting for four months. It was an uneventful lead-up. She received sides, sans any contextual clues to the plot, and submitted a self-taped video audition.

Then she got the call.

“What is this?” She’d actually forgotten. “There’s no callback? Do they want to see me again?”

“No,” Lachman’s agent told her. “They just want you to do the role.”

“I subsequently found out Laeta was a fan of Dollhouse [2009–2010] and The 100 [2014], so she was familiar with my work,” the actress says. “This is the biggest show I’ve ever been a part of … I just feel lucky to have been a part of it and humbled watching everyone’s work on the show.” The 10-episode, multimillion-dollar series, which became available for streaming Feb. 2, is one of Netflix’s highest-budgeted undertakings yet.

An adaptation of the 2002 cyberpunk novel by Richard Morgan, the first in his Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, Altered Carbon stars Joel Kinnaman as Kovacs (pronounced Ko-vach), a body-swapping soldier summoned to solve a murder in the year 2384. Human consciousness has been digitized and can be “sleeved” into new bodies, establishing a world in which the rich live forever and reprobates evanesce in the dark, debauched underbelly of society.

“It’s woven in such an intricate fashion, you can’t really say the show is just one thing,” Lachman explains. “It’s a love story. It’s a murder mystery. It’s action packed. There are all of these philosophical ideas, too. You walk away thinking, If I could live forever, would I even want to?”

Lachman portrays Kovacs’ sister, first appearing in episode one as a figment from his past; she gets her big reveal midway through the season. (At the risk of leaking a spoiler, let’s just say Lachman’s grand entrance is badass, evidential of the months pre-production she spent training in Japanese combat.)

Along with Kinnaman, the cast includes James Purefoy as a “re-sleeved” murder victim in search of his own killer; Martha Higareda as a well-meaning cop intent on closing the case; Renée Elise Goldsberry as Quellcrist, a futuristic Robin Hood hell-bent on quelling elitism; Will Yun Lee as Kovacs’ “birth sleeve”; Ato Essandoh as Kovacs’ gun-slinging ally; and Chris Conner as the personified consciousness of a hotel where Kovacs resides. These characters are complicated and not always who they appear to be. The plot is layered with flashbacks, visions, and alternate virtual-reality dimensions. Timelines seem to intertwine, leading the viewer through a supremely satisfying plot twist to a finale that may very well render all of us worthless until the second season finally airs. According to Kalogridis, “the biggest success is that the whole thing actually makes sense.”

“We lived with my uncle 
and my aunts, my grandfather, and my cousins in a tiny 
little apartment. So I had a really …” she pauses, 
“colorful childhood, almost 
of another era.”

Lachman was born in 1982 in Nepal. At that time, more than 90 percent of the country’s population of 15.7 million worked in agriculture, fielding rice, sugarcane, and oilseeds. Fewer than one in 10 owned a telephone. There was no FM radio. No television stations. Terrain continues to hinder development, but modern-day residents can tune in to Altered Carbon — Netflix extended its streaming services around the globe in 2016.

“I was there until I was about 7,” Lachman recalls. “I think we had Superman, Supergirl, and Police Academy, but no real TV to speak of.” Those VHS tapes were her immersion into science fiction. “We shared electricity with India at the time, so three or maybe four nights out of the week we didn’t even have electricity; mostly it was candlelight. We lived with my uncle and my aunts, my grandfather, and my cousins in a tiny little apartment. So I had a really …” she pauses, “colorful childhood, almost of another era.”

Lachman’s father, a Sydney native, was trekking through the Annapurna region of the Himalayas when he met his would-be wife, originally from Tibet, who was working at her family’s restaurant, a backpacker/tourist destination. “He told a friend, ‘I’m gonna marry that woman,’ ” Lachman recounts of her parents’ meeting. He did. The family moved to Australia when Dichen reached school age. “I remember taking my cousin to school [in Nepal]; it was in a hut, and they were still writing on slate with chalk. My father thought I’d have more opportunities if we were in Australia, so we moved to Adelaide.”

She was 23, living on her own in Sydney and dabbling in low-budget films — not long after the dog-fur incident — when she landed the role of Katya Kinski on Australia’s long-running soap opera Neighbours, a veritable breeding ground for Aussie exports. (Margot Robbie, Chris and Liam Hemsworth, and Russell Crowe are all alums.) A leading role in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Dollhouse brought Lachman to California in 2008.

Here, she met husband Maximilian Osinski, who is also an actor in the sci-fi/superhero sphere. Both have appeared in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, albeit in different seasons, and worked together on TNT’s end-of-days drama The Last Ship. Most recently Lachman portrayed alien ringmaster Roulette in Supergirl’s second season. Then Netflix came calling.

“It’s so refreshing because all of the women are such intricate, complex characters,” Lachman says. “They get to be beautiful and fierce, and they hit back. I think this is largely due to Laeta really wanting to show us off like that, to give us more than just a one-note character.”

As Kalogridis puts it, fierce women are the backbone of the show; they promote an underlying message of “owning your body and owning your power.”

Kalogridis has a stellar team, from set decorators and fight choreographers to visual effects artists and cinematographers, whose credits read like a best-of sci-fi list: Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, War for the Planet of the Apes, Wonder Woman, The Martian. “This was definitely a labor of love for a lot of people,” she shares. “It’s not a movie, but it’s not necessarily what you associate with TV. It’s sort of occupying an interesting in-between space.”

“We were world-building,” adds costume designer Ann Foley, who joined the Altered Carbon team after four years with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., during which time she dressed Lachman. “That was one of the things that really drew me to this project — helping Laeta build and develop this world. One of the challenges when you’re doing anything futuristic is trying to keep it grounded and relatable so people don’t get distracted by the costumes. You don’t want to pull anybody out of the story.”

Foley orchestrates a visual crescendo through the season in ensembles that define each character and provide covert signals to the viewer. Lachman’s commanding wardrobe evolves alongside Rei’s tumultuous story arc; androgynous Samurai- and Sōhei-inspired combat gear metamorphoses into regal, sinewy shapes. Threading together her range of looks is one choice color. “You see so much green in the world where Reileen and Kovacs grew up,” says Foley, referring to scenes filmed in Vancouver’s verdant forest near Widgeon Falls. “You’ll see there will always be an element of that color in her costume, because that helps to inform who the character is.”


In episode nine, Rei sits with Kovacs and tries to express the intrinsic bond she has always felt with him — a full-body, teeth-gritting sensation, a compulsion to hug tightly, to fuse, to be together forever. Despite hundreds of years of separation, in this world where one’s consciousness can live forever, occupying different bodies, Reileen has never stopped loving her brother. They are family, and family comes first.

“Remember what Mom used to say?” Reileen asks Kovacs as they sit at a small table in a seedy Moroccan-style hookah lounge. She chooses each word slowly and carefully. “ ‘I love you so much, I could eat you up.’ When you were arrested, they put me in an orphanage. All I had left of you was one of your old shirts … They ripped that shirt out of my hands — I can still feel it tearing, the threads still in my fingers. I knew they were going to take those too. So I swallowed them. Just to have something, anything, left of you.”

That passion is the characteristic Kalogridis saw in Lachman and the reason she sought her out for the role. “She brings a real depth and age to a character,” Kalogridis says. “I absolutely believe her version of a woman in her late teens/early 20s and a woman who is 255, 260 … Dichen’s just a very old and interesting soul. She is the warrior goddess.” Lachman has ventured a long way from Kathmandu, from Adelaide, and from Sydney, but as with all of us, the sum of her past experiences defines the person she is today.

“There’s a moment,” Lachman says, “where [my character] discovers Takeshi in the yukuza warehouse, and they just start killing everyone around them. She looks at him and smiles. There was all this action happening around us, and I had to try to cover my laughter because I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m doing this. Who am I?! I’m originally from a Third World country, then a sleepy little town in Australia, and I’m running around like Rambo on this set with hundreds of stunt guys and people shooting guns at each other …

“This is what I dreamed about.”

* Styled by Amy Lu; hair and makeup by Nicole Chew; clothing, Lachman’s own.