Interview: NOS4A2 stars Ashleigh Cummings and Zachary Quinto on why good horror wins you over with compassion

The new AMC supernatural horror series NO4SA2, based on the novel of the same name by Joe Hill (fun fact: he’s Stephen King’s son!), is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video. Starring Australia’s Ashleigh Cummings and Zachary Quinto (Heroes, Star Trek), the show is about “Vic McQueen (Cummings), a gifted young woman who discovers she has a supernatural ability to find lost things. This ability puts her on a collision course with the evil and immortal Charlie Manx (Quinto). Manx is a supernatural villain who feeds off the souls of children and then deposits what remains of them into Christmasland — a twisted place of Manx’s imagination where every day is Christmas Day and unhappiness is against the law.“.

Sound intriguing? Well, we can tell you it is. It’s already one of the most addictive shows of the year, with a unique and enticing storyline and great performances from the leads. While at SXSW earlier in the year, we had the chance to sit down with the stars of the show, alongside showrunner and executive producer Jami O’Brien and the novel’s creator Joe Hill. Here’s what we learnt from our sit down chat.

Firstly, what attracted you to the script?

Jami: Vic and Charlie. They’re both fascinating, rich, endlessly layered, characters, that’s always what I’m looking for in a book.

Zachary: I feel like it was after I had a conversation with Jami, and read a few of the scripts, and realised it wasn’t just one thing. There were a lot of different aspects of the character and the role that drew me in. One of the real benefits of this experience, too, was that all the scripts were written before we started shooting. So there was an opportunity to know where our characters were going, not just where they were for that particular episode. So coming from experiences (like Heroes) where that was not the case, I felt really excited about having the whole picture before we got in front of the characters. Because it can be really challenging when you’re building a character, and then things change last minute, or you get pages right before you start shooting. Which is often the case in television. So I was really drawn into that aspect of it as well.

Ashleigh: I only received a tiny storyline for the initial audition, so I went to the source material and I really fell in love with the book and the complexity of characters. And once I saw the scripts and spoke to Jami, I saw how well that was transferred into the show. There’s the psychology of the characters and also the multi-tiered metaphors and themes that existed within the story itself that I really loved.

Balancing the tone of the show seemed like a challenge… but it’s done so well. Can you talk about that balancing act between the fantastical and real world human drama?

Zachary: I think it’s part of what makes the show unique. There is this real grounded family connection that Vic shares with her parents, and there’s this other worldly territory that Max traverses, and draws people into. And I think that’s part of what makes it compelling to watch. It’s certainly what made it compelling to work on. It straddles these two worlds, and ultimately Vic and Charlie coming together is what intertwines them in a way that’s really compelling and magnetic.

Ashleigh: And they inform each other as well, especially in my story line. The lessons that I learn from each different world, allows other events to take place back in the family drama in the battle with the supernatural. The strength that she learns in each is ultimately used in both arenas.

Jodi: Vic really is the bridge between the two worlds, she’s firmly got a foot in both. Charlie is very much in the supernatural world, but I personally find it a lot of fun when he comes into the real world. Early on, and you may not even remember this Zac, but we were talking about Charlie and you used the word “invade” and you think he “invades” the real world. So I love that. I think it’s a real great way to put it.

Joe: And there’s stuff in the story too like, what do we expect from our parents? And what do we owe our children? Vic isn’t a kid anymore when the show starts, she’s stepping away from her last little shadow of her childhood. She’s seeing her parents as adults, in full, for the first time. And it’s a complicated picture. And the Charlie is also a kind of parent. In some ways, Charlie has happy children. All of Charlie’s children are happy, well looked after children. He’s always like a role model parent!

Ashleigh: What I loved about the book as well, for me anyway, all of these things that existed in the supernatural world, were metaphors for what was going on in the real world. Charlie’s story was about woundings and childhood trauma, and the same thing was happening for Vic. And it created these incredible discussions, through these accessible supernatural lenses, about really important things. That’s what I loved about it.

Charlie is a disturbing character. How do you feel playing him Zac?

Zachary: Disturbing sure, but I think compelling too, in his own way. People want to see that. If you look at the world we live in, it’s nice to give people an outlet to plug into the darkness that they’re trying to escape from their world. It’s not my first time playing a dark character, and so I had a certain amount of resistance to it when I was first offered the role. But then I felt that the physical transformation of playing the character, and really being able to create something that I could disappear into was a huge part of (why I said yes).

I felt like there were enough nuances and subtleties in the character both in terms of how he was portrayed in the book, and how his was captured for the TV series, that I felt like there were a lot of layers… those are the sorts of characters that I’m interested in. Where that falls on an ethical spectrum is less important to me than if they are complex in their own crafting. I think Jami and obviously Joe from the source material were able to really achieve that with Charlie Manx. There’s humour there, too, he’s not just one thing. He’s disturbing, but he’s also funny in his absurdity and in how he operates. He’s a man out of time, and that’s an interesting aspect of him.

Can you talk more about the physical transformation, and the world you inhabit?

Zachary: One of the first things I said to Jami and Kari Skogland, who directed the first two episodes, was that if we’re going to pull this off, we need to get Joel Harlow to do the special effects makeup. We worked together a number of times on Star Trek, and he’s the top of the top. I didn’t think he’d be available or interested, but he was both, and so that for me was the origin of the transformation.

And then Jamie and Kari with Joel started to create some looks and ideas – Joel is just a genius. We created stages for the character, so stage one is the most “me”, and stage five is the most “extreme”. So identifying those stages, and when they happen, throughout the course of the story, was the map that we used to chart the progress of where the character goes. So Joel did all that and we did makeup tests, and separately I was working in my own way on the physical transformation… the physicality of it, the vocal transformation.

Ashleigh: Which just extraordinary by the way…

Zachary: That’s what drew me into the role more than anything else. I’d been looking for a way to really transform, and this really gave me that. And then the world, Andrew Jackness, who’s the production designer on the show, was incredible. His imagination, and how he brought these complicated worlds and ideas to life… like Christmasland, is a complicated place. It exists so opulently on the page, but how do you make that for a TV show? And he did it. He really did.  So between Vic’s grounded world and Charlie’s fantastical world, it was a real playground for all of us.

One of the changes we made, through the process of designing the character, was the teeth. The first version of the makeup, the younger teeth were better. And then we were like no, I think the teeth have to be bad the whole time. So we made the more ragged, and jagged, and pointed. They do get worse and worse though.

Joe: I bet his breath is not, not good.

Ashleigh, you also starred in the great Australian horror flick Hounds of Love, where there’s great trauma in the household. Do you think that performance helped inform you here?

Ashleigh: I feel like Vicky, in Hounds of Love, and Vic, are quite different characters, but I think with any character, I have a similar approach of trying to understand who they are as humans underneath everything that occurs to them, and how different events impact them and so on. So I don’t know if one informed the other. I go back to the basics of how I prepare for roles. Like anything in life though, I think everything informs the next thing you do essentially, because you learn different aspects. Hounds of Love was traumatic in its own right, and so is this, even though it was a real world thing, and this employs different genres. Both are traumatic in their own way and are hard characters to separate from, because they’re so close to me.

Zachary: I think you have to understand the trauma that Charlie Manx endured in his own childhood, too. There’s this cycle of abuse and neglect and abandonment that he’s reacting to and not processing as he gets older. There’s a very real psychological component to the evolution of Charlie Manx, and it’s when unresolved trauma and unexamined psychological neglect festers and has no where to go. So he becomes this demented, warped version of a wounded child. That’s who he is in the world. He does think he’s trying to protect these children, but in reality he’s serving something much darker in himself, perpetuated by people who should have been caring for him when he was younger. It was very complex psychologically, and warped. Beautifully rendered first by Joe, and then by Jami, and in a lot of ways, a deliciously demented landscape to explore.

Joe: I think to a certain degree too he’s out to punish women. He feels like he wasn’t protected by his mother, and so he’s out there to have a little “get even” time. Some of it’s in the book, but I feel it’s done in a much richer way in the TV show, there’s some stuff about what men expect from women, and from children, and the behaviour they see as positive as opposed to negative. Charlie has ideas and standards that come from a different century, and in other ways are still with us. I liked the way Jamie has teased that out over the season. It’s not as richly examined in the book.

What were you able to find in yourselves to bring to the characters that wasn’t on the original page?

Zachary: My experience of being an actor is that you have to find the love for that character, no matter how reprehensible they may be. How do you trace it back to a point that you as an actor can have compassion for that character? I think that’s so important, and the cornerstone of the foundation of creating any character, is “where is the love?” And finding a love of who that character becomes. Morally of course I don’t align with Charlie Manx in my world view or how I move through the world, but there is a deliciousness in embodying a character that believes so much about what he feels and how he sees things. And it’s delightful to explore… who is this 135 year old man in a modern contemporary world, who drives this car and wears these clothes? That was fun to play with. But no matter how dark and twisted a character is, you have to find the point where you have compassion for that character. And for Manx, that’s in his childhood.

Ashleigh: 18 year old Vic in the book is different to the 18 year old Vic we meet in the show. Because we don’t see 6 year old Vic we need to give her a character arc to get to that place. So I remember Kari especially wanting me to bring more of myself into the character, instead of engaging so much with the tom boy Vic that we love so much in the book, so I guess I started off more with myself, and then progressively, Ashleigh was changed through Vic’s evolution. I learnt a lot. At the beginning of the show I was very empathy oriented, and so is Vic. But it was empowering to recognise I could have empathy but still hold people accountable… and that was only through Vic’s journey that I learned that. So it’s reciprocal, I bring something to Vic and she implants something in me as well.

Zachary, I understand you’re actually driving the Wraith?

Zachary: It’s an essential part of the character. So I went to Rhode Island a few days before we started filming, and I worked with our driving team and co-ordinators, to learn how to drive it. It’s super cool. I was never a car person, but driving this, now I understand why people are. It’s pretty remarkable. It’s a 1938 Rolls Royce, it’s a little temperamental… but there’s a lot of practical driving, and I think that’s a lot of what gives the show its world. It’s not green screen, and they’re able to do cool camera mounts on the car as I’m driving it. And I imagine that gives an extra dimension to the world of the show.

Looking outside the show, what’s dark and scary in the world for you right now?

Joe: I saw a thing online that said, “There’s been a garbage fire burning underground in Arkansas for 7 months” and I tweeted something like, “There’s been a garbage fire burning in the White House for the last two years!”

Zachary: There’s a lot that scary in the world today. Geo-politically, environmentally, I think technology is approaching a tipping point of scariness. There’s huge shifts happening. I think one of the reasons I love being a part of darker stories, is that it does give people a place to escape to, from the things they’re struggling with in their own lives. I think there’s real value in that. Having played real dark characters and being associated with a number of real dark characters, people are grateful to plug into something that doesn’t have the stakes of reality, that real world issues do. So I think we’re all aware of the value of the story we’re telling here. The fact that it’s emotionally grounded, but also gives people a place to go that’s maybe a little bit of an escape.

Joe: Horror isn’t about grossing people out. That can be fun, but ultimately good horror is about empathy. It’s about falling in love with some characters and then seeing them struggle against the worst. Faced with these worst case scenarios. Good horror always wins you over with compassion. And I think that people will find a lot of characters to fall in love with in this show.

NOS4A2 is now screening in the US on AMC and in Australia on Amazon Prime Video.

Photo: Larry Heath (L-R: Jami O’Brien, Zachary Quinto, Ashleigh Cummings and Joe Hill)

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor of the AU review. You can find him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.