By Victor Van Scoit
Last year SyFy gave us Lev Grossman’s The Magicians brought to life from page to screen by co-creators John McNamara and Sera Gamble. Grossman’s novels were tailor made for those who experienced the wonder of reading Harry Potter and The Narnia Chronicles, yet wondered where the real angst, insecurity, and issues of early adulthood had gone. Imagine being given access to magic back when you were a teen and how dangerous a cocktail that would be mixed with hormones and sexual growth.
That’s what happens in The Magicians when Quentin Coldwater learns that magic is real, and he’s been accepted to Brakebills Academy to study with others that are deemed worthy of such knowledge. The Magicians plays the drama straight with a wry sense of humor and self-awareness with mentions of Comic-Con and other geek genre. It knows what it is, but by not overplaying the nods, The Magicians left audiences wanting more.
Tonight The Magicians returns to SyFy for its second season and fans will get to continue learning along with Brakebills students Quentin (Jason Ralph), Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Julia (Stella Maeve), Margo (Summer Bishil), Eliot (Hale Appleton), Kady (Jade Tailor), Penny (Arjun Gupta), and Dean Fogg (Rick Worthy). Last year, at San Diego Comic-Con 2016, I was able to sit down and chat with co-creators John McNamara, Sera Gamble, writer Lev Grossman, and the cast about the show.
ON TRANSLATING THE BOOK TO TV
No need to worry about spoilers as Gamble offered little as to what was coming in season 2. “There’s a sloth that can talk. What else? There’s a centaur in season 2.” she said.
McNamara did end up providing a bit more insight, but even he had difficulties in not wanting to share too much. “You’ll see Ember again—early and often. Renard, you’ll see again obviously.” McNamara continued, “This is so hard. I’d rather just give you spoilers on Star Wars.”
For Grossman I asked about the difficulties in translating from page to screen, because Grossman has been helping out both on script duties and consulting for the series.
“The thing I noticed most was things that you keep back in the novel–you can just slow play them. TV doesn’t work that way. The amount of plot in the first season would’ve kept me going through a Proustian sized nine novel cycle [of The Magicians].”
McNamara added, “But also we would find that, one paragraph, occasionally would inspire us to do an entire episode.”
I for one am glad for plot lines that resolve rather than left dangling. That said, some of what fans of the book would consider a major character building moment, seemed to be glossed over when the students attended Brakebills South.
Gamble assured, “We will see Brakebills South next season.”
The cast had their own takes when it came to the translation of the books. For the most part it was about trusting the creators, believing in the original ethos of the material, and trusting they could make the internal angst more physical. Maeve in particular spoke about giving in to that trust.
”I have daily trip outs every night, because I’m such a fan of the books. I want it to be perfect, and I want it to follow the books exactly. It doesn’t, and that’s hard. It can’t when it’s formatted for television. Luckily we have Lev’s blessing on everything and he’s there every step of the way.”
”For me in particular I’m actually really lucky that my character isn’t in the books that much.” began Tailor, “She dies in the first Beast attack [in the book]. For the most part I get to have some freedom, but I think it’s important to keep the spirit of the books, because we are fans of them.”
Ralph was more concerned with focusing on how best to translate so much of Quentin’ internal monologue. ”So much of the book series is spent inside of Quentin’s head, and we get first hand experience of his anxiety. Trying to translate that–those thought circles and self-doubt to film [and] to the physical manifestation of it in my body–became that sort of speech pattern [Quentin does]. I’m even doing it right now. That’s how that idea has channeled inside of my body, and that’s where it comes from. I’m trying to give you all of his thoughts with my body and hopefully that works.”
ON BRINGING THE CHARACTERS TO LIFE
One of the benefits that audiences are seeing when it comes to cable shows is the amount of latitude when it comes to content and not shying away from more mature material. No one knows that better than Worthy who was part of SyFy’s immensely popular Battlestar Galactica. Returning to SyFy and particularly genre storytelling had him pleased.
“It’s really a gift from God. Literally. I’ve been praying for this kind of show for a long time. A one hour fantasy/sci-fi show that really allowed me to stretch and really act. I haven’t had that in a long time.” Worthy continued, “When I did Battlestar Galactica, that was to this day one of the top five [shows] I’ve ever done. [And] I’m a racehorse and I need to run man. Dean Fogg has given me a chance to run, run, run, run, run. Then when I get home I think ‘Did I do everything I wanted to do today?’, and that’s what an actor needs.”
Dudley’s thoughts mirrored Worthy’s, “That’s the kind of work I enjoy doing. The magic is really fun, but the characters and the relationships are the most interesting things to me. The relationship between Quentin and Alice is a very frustrating one. Just thinking about it can make me frustrated.”
Appleman and Bishil’s Eliot and Margo are always ready to be seen with their larger than life personalities, but often hiding the same insecurities that Quentin or Alice might show externally. Appleman explained.
“They had to confront emotions together in a way that they probably haven’t had to before. And didn’t perhaps have the tools and the language to work through some of those harder hurdles that you have to grapple though with your closest friends. I think the beauty of these characters is that the rules can be broken sometimes. We do definitely try to ground the comedy in the relationship, and in the reality of the situation. That being said, we can run the gamut. We can take it to a wildly comedic place, or can ground it in a much simpler internalized dramatic feeling.”
When it comes to playing Margo, Bishil couldn’t agree more, “There’s no such thing as too much when you’re Margo. Throw away every rule you ever learned in acting class. Go bigger.”
Both actors will take anything the writers will throw at them and aren’t precious to any attachments. Bishil did have one hope though.
“Janet in the books, has this amazing quest that she goes on of self-realization. That’s the one thing I’m really attached to.”
Whereas Appleman was angling for a more physical ask, “I keep begging John McNamara to let me fence at some point. I want Elliott to fight Princess Bride style. That’s a life dream of mine.”
It’s not all emotional angst and turmoil when it comes to acting. Sometimes the physical training is just as difficult. Unlike most actors who might have to learn to dance, play an instrument, or drive a performance vehicle the cast of The Magicians did have to put some serious training when it comes to casting spells–specifically the art of finger tutting.
“Tutting is hard, man! It is really, really hard and it’s painful.” Ralph joked, “And I broke my finger last year and so it’s even harder now. We’re getting better at it, little by little. I think we’re finding interesting ways to film it, which makes it look like magic.”
Dudley made sure to call out the people helping to make those magical casting look authentic, ”We have an amazing choreographer, and then we work on it with them. Then there’s always adjustments since we all have different skills with the tutting and he’s kind of custom fit it to what we’re good at. I’m not very good at it. Everyone says it looks fine, but I don’t think anybody feels really good about tutting.”
ON GIVING BACK
Preparing to be in front of a crowd of 3,000 fans at Comic-Con the cast was excited. Comic-Con is the rare case where casts get the real time feedback of the work they’ve done all year. This was The Magicians cast’s first time to really experience that. I asked what drove them more–the work or the validation?
Tailor explained, ”The work is what I’m so passionate about, but without the fans we wouldn’t be here. There would be no show. To see their excitement, their enthusiasm, and how we are inspiring them that’s inspiring to us. To make a difference in somebody’s life that might inspire them to shift the world in some capacity.”
Gupta was animated and earnest when it came to the opportunities it provided him as an actor, and the benefits of not removing the hard edges of the show for the audience.
“[We can take] huge risks. It opens up the boundaries that we can push. But I think it’s really important. I think that right now with what we’re looking at in the world… the world is burning and this [show] does not shy away from reflecting that. Lev subverted the fantasy tropes in order to make people confront things. I don’t know if he would say that was the intention, but that’s what happened. I had to confront things about myself reading those books. The world ain’t always pretty, and you don’t always have guidance. You don’t have a Dumbledore, you don’t have an Aslan. You have this magic, but it’s not necessarily going to solve fuck all. You got to figure shit out. Here’s the truth—story has impact. Story has power. Our greatest teachers have always been storytellers. To get to be on a show where we can try to have impact and understand the responsibility of that. There’s nothing better.”
Maeve had a similar thought when I spoke with her. “For me personally it’s the work and I love what I do. I can’t follow politics, I can’t watch the news, so my way to give back is through this medium of film and TV—bringing people together. Let’s relate through our art. Hopefully you watch something that reminds you of something you can relate or empathize with. It’s therapy in a sense. It’s bringing the world together in this weird bizarre way.”
Ultimately The Magicians is a story of people finding their way in the world(s) they inhabit and who they are in them. Ralph summed it up as such, “Lev Grossman did a wonderful job of creating those people who then get to comment on the kinds of worlds they find themselves in. It’s not a typical fantasy or superhero where [the world] is accepted. We get to see it happen and think, ‘That’s not how I imagined it would be, but here we are.’ We get to be as fully fledged regular human beings as possible and have these experiences thrust upon them.”
The Magicians premieres tonight on SyFy 9PM EST/8PM CST
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