TORONTO, ON. Let's get this out of the way, because you're already thinking it.
It's mid-March in a chilly interview room on the Toronto set of FX's “The Strain” and star Corey Stoll is chatting with one of three small roundtables of reporters. We've been talking for at least 15 minutes without addressing the elephant in the room, so I broach the all-important topic: Hair, or augmentation thereof.
Stoll's visibility has increased dramatically in recent years and it's not like audiences are unfamiliar with seeing him with tonsorial assistance. His Ernest Hemingway in “Midnight in Paris” featured both a well-adorned head and a mustache that he carried over into NBC's “Law & Order: Los Angeles.” That role and his Golden Globe nominated turn in “House of Cards” were recognizably clear-pated, which has already had people scratching their heads about the floppy hair Stoll is sporting in “The Strain.”
What, I ask Stoll, are the advantages and disadvantages of acting with hair?
“Well, it”s a little bit more time in the chair,” he laughs. “But it really is actually, I forget about it at this point. You know, it helps to create a character. It helps to distance the character from myself, which is particularly helpful when I”m not playing a very character-y character. This is the most sort-of leading man part that I”ve played and I”m a character actor, so it”s helpful for me to have as many things as I can that make it a creation and not just myself. I”m not really interested in playing myself.”
And whose decision was it that Dr. Ephraim Goodweather would be a man with hair?
“Guillermo [del Toro], he has such an incredibly specific vision for everything in the show, down to the tiniest detail. It”s really incredible. Yeah, we had a lot of conversations about it, and I wasn”t totally convinced at first. But I think it makes sense in the world. Yeah.”
So there you go, folks: Corey Stoll's hair makes sense in the world.
And Stoll made plenty of sense in the world of “The Strain,” since he has been one of the most in-demand actors for the past few pilot seasons.
What made this the right show for him to take the plunge, as he says taking his character acting approach to a character who is, at least at first, the apparent hero?
“Well, it was the right network,” he begins. “I mean, to start with, it was Guillermo and Carlton [Cuse], just a visionary filmmaker and an incredible vision. And I think a lot of times in pilot season, there”s a sense of throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. And this is something, when I had that first meeting with Guillermo and Carlton, this has been germinating for years, and they had already had almost a year of pre-production by the time I met with them. So there was a real plan and there was an enormous amount of careful thought put into it. So that really made me excited for the project. And the character, he”s really great. He”s complex. In this really crazy world, he”s human enough to be the guy who you”re following through this very scary, unpredictable landscape.”
Goodweather is the head of a CDC “canary team,” brought in to investigate a ghost plane that lands at JFK. Of course, what seems like a tragic-but-isolated incident becomes much more involved and much more vampiric, in this adaptation of del Toro and Chuck Hogan's bloodsucking trilogy.
“He”s in an enormous amount of denial for most of the first season, which could be a very useful skill set as well,” Stoll says of what Goodweather brings to the “Strain” table. “But he doesn”t let up. I mean, the characteristic about him that is actually the most useful, he doesn”t think it is, but his tenacity is what enables him to survive and help others survive. But he”s very attached to the science that he knows, and in every new bit of information, he tries to fit it into the worldview that he already has, and that only works for so long.”
Stoll spent half-an-hour with my table of a half-dozen reporters and here are just some of the things we learned about the actor, Dr. Goodweather and “The Strain.”
1) Corey Stoll is an NPR fan. Before “The Strain” was a glint in FX's eye, Stoll was intrigued by the property. He recalls, “I remember hearing a 'Fresh Air' that Guillermo did. I think it might”ve been like 5, 6 years ago. And he mentioned that. It”s a brilliant interview, I remember it was like one of those driveway moments, where I was listening to it and there was still half of the story left, and I just sat there with the engine running listening to the rest of the interview. And he started talking about that, the books. I think maybe he was promoting when the books first came out. And I remember thinking, 'Oh, that sounds cool.' Not thinking that I would be involved in any way.”
2) Corey Stoll's Eph is different from the books' Eph, though in nebulous ways. Yes, Stoll read the books, but not after that “Fresh Air” piece. That came later. “Well, there”s just so much more time,” he notes of TV Eph. “He”s just more complex. There”s so much more material, you know so much more about him. And I think that the books, so much happens in the books, sometimes there isn”t enough time to slow down and just have conversations. And by nature of the fact that we don”t have an unlimited budget, eventually we have to stop having incredible action sequences and talk. I”m sure Guillermo would love an unlimited budget, it”d just be non-stop Strigoi, but lucky for us, we get to talk a little bit.”
3) Corey Stoll is not a fan of TV vampires. Asked about comparisons between the Nosferatu in “The Strain” versus the fang-y fellas in “True Blood” or “Vampire Diaries” etc, he demurs. “I don”t really watch any of those shows,” he laughs. “So I don”t really know how it”s different. I don”t think I”ve ever heard of anything quite like this. One sort of thing, the metaphor of the sort of evolution of people into these vampires that this strain induces, carries out through the actual storytelling. That it almost starts off like one kind of story that you think it is, and certainly reading the books, it goes through 3 or 4 completely different sorts of stories. And the scale increases exponentially. So I mean, I would say this about any of Guillermo”s work. You know, how is 'Hellboy' different from other comic book movies? It”s his thing and it”s unique, and it has this incredible esoteric sense of humor, but then this incredibly sincere sort of core to it. So the vampires are very different. Certainly they”re not sexy and brooding, they”re vicious and scary and grotesque.”
4) Guillermo del Toro hasn't been an absentee landlord on “The Strain.” Often when an A-list movie director shoots a TV pilot, they're around for two weeks and that's it. That's especially true when the director as a major studio feature they're moving on to immediately after. Of course, most of those directors aren't the author of the book series the shows are about, so it isn't a surprise that del Toro has remained a part of the life of “The Strain.”
“He”s come back,” Stoll affirms. “He”s shot a few scenes that are sort of his babies. He”s come back and done that. Yeah, he usually shows up at around 2 in the morning. Sort of between set and writing some other script and I don”t know, I think he only gets a couple hours of sleep a night.”
It helps that the film competing for del Toro's attentions, “Crimson Peaks,” is also shooting in Toronto. Still, it's an event when del Toro hits the “Strain” set.
“It sort of stops production, it brings production to a grinding halt for about half-an-hour because everybody”s so excited to see him,” he laughs. “But after he”s gone, it sort of re-infuses the sense of what we”re doing. Because it”s easy when you”re shooting scene-by-scene, especially when it”s a scene that doesn”t have some effects, you can lose track of the extraordinary world that you”re in. Because, you know, we”ve got our pages that we have to make during the day, and then you sort of step back and you see the broader context.”
Of del Toro, Stol continues, “[H]e”s the pied piper, he really can get people to follow him anywhere. And he obviously has this incredible artistic vision, but I think a huge part of his genius is his ability to infuse that in other people. Because no matter how much energy he has, no matter how little he sleeps, he can”t do everything. And so he has to be a good delegator, so he”s incredibly good at filling people with his spirit. And getting the best out of them.”
5) Corey Stoll doesn't exactly care about how his shows are distributed. In recent years, Stoll has starred in regular 22-episode network shows, a 13-episode premiere-all-at-once Netflix show and now he's doing a 13-episode cable show. Does he have a preference?
“The model that is more pleasurable for the actor doesn”t really matter,” he laughs. “Because it”s a huge business. From the actor”s point of view, it is so much better. And this is actually more like that, because we”re shooting the entire season, and then it”s aired. The hardest part I”ve found about doing episodic network television was to be shooting while episodes that you had just shot were airing and not knowing if you were going to survive week-to-week depending on the ratings. And so this is a lot more like Netflix from our point of view. We did a pilot, we got picked up and we”re doing the whole season. And then we”ll finish the whole season, it”ll air, and God willing, we”ll come back next year.”
6) Corey Stoll is scared of kids. What scares Stoll from the “Strain” pilot? “[I]f I certainly encountered any of these creatures in real life, that would be the most scary thing that I”ve ever seen. There”s some stuff, like in the pilot, there”s a little girl who has turned, and that, you know, Stanley Kubrick mastered that with the twins in 'The Shining.' There”s something pretty scary about a child who is calm and predatory.”
Kids aren't the only thing that scare him. When the possibility of facing quibbling Comic-Con fans is raised, Stoll replies, “That”s what scares me.”
7) Corey Stoll doesn't know yet what he wants to do with his new leading man status. As mentioned above, Stoll views himself as a character actor and Hollywood has generally agreed, but I was curious how this experience as a top-of-the-call-sheet lead would impact what he was looking for in future projects, hiatus projects.
“There”s some things that I”m starting to be in a place where I”m starting to self-generate some stuff, but in terms of what movies or plays are out there that I”d wanna do, that stuff sort of comes to you,” Stoll says. “And it”s not like you get a stack of scripts of every offer or opportunity you”re going to have over the course of a year and you say, I”m going to do this, this, this and this. They come one at a time, and you have to sort of deal with them in the moment. If you had asked me, what historical figure would you most want to play, I wouldn”t have said Hemingway, I wouldn”t have thought of that. But that came to me, and suddenly that was this incredibly exciting, fun thing to do. I think that”s sort of what happens in the business.”
This sit-down took place before Stoll took a guest arc on Showtime's “Homeland.”
8) Corey Stoll got his “The Strain” son Ben Hyland hired. You see, they've worked together before. “I said, “The kid who played my son in 'House of Cards,' he”s really great.” I thought he was the most professional person on that set, and that continues. Really, he”s kind of like a little genius. He”s really great, and so sweet and so normal.”
That's about that for here.
Check out my “Strain” set visit scene piece and on-set photos.
“The Strain” premieres on FX on Sunday, July 13.