1. It was approximately zero degrees when I arrived in Toronto this past March to visit the set of The Strain, FX’s highly anticipated horror series that debuts this Sunday at 10 p.m. (Did I go to the first restaurant I saw for dinner one night because it was too cold outside to walk for more than five minutes? Yes. Was that a “restaurant” a Subway? …Yes.) But inside the massive Pinewood Toronto Studios warehouse where The Strain films, well, it was still cold, but at least I couldn’t see my breath. Most of the show’s sets and props are held within this studio, including worn-down homes, rock star drug dens, a massive wooden coffin that weighs 500 pounds, and over 200 feet of tunnels, complete with artificial sunlight and graffiti. (Amusingly, we interviewed the cast in an unheated room…mere feet away from a concentration camp bunkhouse. OK, maybe “amusingly” isn’t the right word.) It’s a labyrinth of wires and wood, yet there’s a certain preciseness to the calamity — every knick-knack, whether it’s a stray Mr. Mister album or an upside-down Gloria Steinem novel, looks like it was put there for a reason.
And that reason is Guillermo del Toro.
2. In case you’ve been intentionally avoiding rats and eye-worms for the past four months, The Strain is based on a book series written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. It’s about a ridiculously named epidemiologist, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather (played by House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll), who finds 200 corpses and a few stray survivors on a plane at New York’s JFK Airport. What happened? Without giving too much away, I’ll just say: SPOOKINESS. The show also stars Natalie Brown as Ephraim’s ex-wife, Mía Maestro and Sean Astin as his co-workers, Kevin Durand as an exterminator, and Game of Thrones star David Bradley as a mysterious pawn shop owner. Lost‘s Carlton Cuse is the showrunner.
3. FX has a lot riding on The Strain. Even if it’s not their priciest show, it sure looks like it — I’ve already discussed the set, but that’s nothing compared to the nearby Creature Workshop. Imagine the Muppets if they had been designed by Tobe Hooper, and you’ve got an idea of what del Toro’s laboratory looks like. There are spray bottles of “Sweat/Piss Stains,” boxes labeled “silicon wounds” and “waddles,” random body pieces including ears and half-finished heads, and a “dickless vampire,” laid out in a bag like a body at the coroner’s office. (I also wrote down “tree stump dick” in my notebook for some reason.) Another highlight: the coat belonging to the Master, the seven-foot-tall Big Bad that looks like a Dementor on steroids. I wasn’t allowed to take a photo, but I did get one of the piss bottle.
4. It needs to be mentioned: Corey Stoll’s hairpiece. It’s absurd and absurdly distracting.
It’s like someone glued Cashew the Guinea Pig to his head. Here’s his reasoning behind it.
One of questions that a lot of people are going to have who’ve seen your last few projects: advantages and disadvantages of acting with hair?
[Laughs] Well, it’s a bit more time in the chair. 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 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.
Who made the decision, this is a guy with hair?
Guillermo. No, Guillermo, 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.
Also, his character drinks a lot of milk. That makes more sense than the hair thing.
5. The Strain won’t run forever. It’s only meant to air for three to five seasons – the exact number will “come down to storytelling,” according to Cuse. The pilot episode covers the first half of the first book, and “then you have 150 pages to make 12 episodes of television.” How are Cuse and the writers going to pull that off? “Character, character, character.” He went on to say:
By necessity, the series is a much richer, deeper experience than the books. I think it’ll be really fun. I think you can read the books and you’ll have a general sense of what’s going on, but there’s just a ton of stuff in the show that isn’t a part of them.
6. A brief collection of nice things the cast and crew had to say about Guillermo:
Corey Stoll: He’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.
Natalie Brown: For such a genius, he’s such an affable, down to Earth guy. The minute I met him, he’s a hugger, and very inclusive and he really wants to invite you into his world. As was Carlton Cuse. They were both very warm and generous when I met them at the audition. He’s capable of being very not serious — he’s happy to make fun of himself. A lot of levity on set and jokes. But at the same time, he’s laser focused with vision and perfectionist with his vision. But also very relaxed to work for, and as a director, very specific. He used very specific words on me that really resonated. He knows exactly what he wants, and he’s so relaxed that there’s just an ease to work for him. It takes the pressure off working for someone of that stature.
David Bradley: I mean, it was those three magic words: Guillermo Del Toro. I’m a big fan and I think Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen, and I enjoyed Pacific Rim. And I didn’t really need to see a script. I can’t actually remember if I saw a whole script or if they just gave me a breakdown about what happens to the character, and I just knew I wanted to do it.
Mia Maestro: Yeah, the other day he came by. We were shooting at a gas station. It was a really hard shoot. It was episode eight of the first season and shooting nights mainly and it’s been cold, so shooting exteriors has been challenging. And then Guillermo just popped out at 2:00 a.m. He’s like, “Hi!” He’s like, “I like what you did there.” And he watches dailies every day. I just don’t know how he does it. He’s doing a movie, he writes scripts, he sleeps two hours yet he comes to set and he’s so sharp. He sees things that nobody would see. He sits in the monitor and he’s like, “Yeah, that point over there. Like what is that?” It’s like, “Oh my God,” they forgot to take the tape out and it’s like two blocks away. And Guillermo sees it in the monitor. I never worked with a director where everything – you’re completely transparent to him. Everything that’s happening to you, everything that’s going on, he just sees it and calls it. It felt like, “OK, I might as well just like surrender because I cannot hide,” I just couldn’t hide anything from him and that’s a really lovely feeling.
Carlton Cuse: You know, it’s a good collaboration. I’m really at the helm of the ship for the series, but Guillermo’s a wonderful collaborator and remains involved, particularly in the areas where he has tremendous expertise, like monsters, creatures, visual effects. I’m very happy that he is choosing to remain involved. I think a lot of big directors kind of bail out. I think it’s just an advantage for the show to take advantage of Guillermo’s skills and talents and have him throw in ideas and contribute to the process. Guillermo’s got an amazing capacity for work. While he’s not involved every day, he’s definitely involved and contributing ideas that are benefiting the show.
I think everyone really likes working with him.
7. If the eye-worm grosses you out, The Strain isn’t for you. In the pilot, someone’s head gets violently smashed like a moldy pumpkin, and Cuse has no intention of holding back.
I feel like we want the shocking stuff to be really shocking and visceral. I think what’s kind of wonderful about the show is that there’s a lot of wonderful, nuanced character work, and that’s something I work hard on with the writers to create really interesting and hopefully engaging characters. But when the shit goes down, it’s going to be pretty vivid and pretty balls-out…I mean, there’s some really scary stuff and I think some really cool imagery. We’ve really tried to push the envelope. I think, again, a lot of the content is pretty edgy for TV.
8. Everyone on set wants you to know that there’s a big difference between zombies and vampires. In fact, on the day we visited, a certain member of the main cast was going through Vamp Camp, complete with an instructor straight out of Bring It On. I won’t spoil who, but the exact quote I heard was, “We don’t want zombie walk.” It’s more about bug-eyed twitching than ugly lumbering, with an emphasis on posture and a long, steady stroll before an all-out sprint that ends with a stinger attacking its prey. The irony of the Vamp Camper proclaiming they were “born for this” was seemingly lost on them.
9. It’s also worth noting that although TV vampires are mostly played out, The Strain‘s bloodsuckers are very different from, say, True Blood‘s. They’re “scary ass vampires,” according to creature supervisor Steve Newburn, inspired more by Nosferatu than Angel. Even Sookie would be turned off.
10. I’ve now seen the pilot twice, once on my laptop and another time in a packed movie theater during the Austin Television Festival. I liked it more the second time ’round, though it’s not without its faults. Del Toro is a brilliant thinker, but his dialouge could use some work, and that’s certainly the case here. I also can’t tell if the show wants to be campy, or if vampires munching on a dude while Neil Diamond plays is supposed be taken seriously. That being said, the actors do a good job of selling their lines, and the show looks great. Unlike most genre series, which increasingly rely on shoddy visual effects, much of what you see actually exists (so to speak). If it can settle into a B-movie version of The Walking Dead, The Strain should fill the FX void left by Sons of Anarchy and Justified when they’re gone.
On the next page, you can check out excerpts of interviews we conducted with the cast.
Corey Stoll (Dr. Ephraim Goodweather)
There have been a fair number of vampire shows, especially in recent years. I’m curious about what you think separates The Strain from the rest, the vision of vampires?
Stoll: I don’t really watch any of those shows [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 aren’t very different. Certainly they’re not sexy and brooding, they’re vicious and scary and grotesque.
They don’t sparkle?
Stoll: [Laughs] None that I’ve met.
How is being a leading man going to govern both how you’re approaching this but also how you approach the hiatuses? Are you going to be looking for smaller, quirkier, weirder things to fill the spaces?
Stoll: 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. 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.
David Bradley (Professor Abraham Setrakian)
What is that like for you as an actor to get to showcase that physical side? How comfortable do you feel with what this guy gets to do?
Bradley: Well, I’ve reached the age where I’ve played quite a few. My daughter kept saying, “Dad, why are you always dying?” I’ve spent enough time onscreen lying in bed on my last legs as this frail old guy, so it’s so nice to play someone who’s got that vigor and that drive, and brave enough to wade in with his silver sword.
Have you heard from any Game of Thrones fans?
Bradley: I have! I’ve had people winding their car windows down and shouting at me [laughs].
What do they shout?
Bradley: Well, you know…They shout, “I can’t forgive you for what you’ve done.”
Are you concerned at all that it might take fans a while to see you as a hero again after that?
Bradley: Well, Michael McElhatton, who was my co-conspirator in the Red Wedding, when we finished the scene, we both agreed that we might just stay off the street for a few days [laughs].
Obviously the fans of Game of Thrones are going to want to see some follow-up to that. We already know that you weren’t on the show for two years. You’re in season one, and then we didn’t see you for a couple years. It’s a good problem for an actor to have, but with this show, have you guys talked about the logistics if they need you on Game of Thrones?
Bradley: Yeah, well, I bumped into David Benioff and a few of the Starks that I, um, got rid of at Comic Con in San Diego last year, and we all had a meal and a drink. And they said, Oh, we’ll be seeing you again soon. Obviously not in the fourth season, but I’m sure there’s some kind of retribution waiting for me somewhere down the line. But I like to think he gets away with it [laughs].
Natalie Brown (Kelly Goodweather)
Is it terrifying to be playing an established character in the nerd community?
Brown: It’s scary territory if you’re trying to please everyone. You definitely have to approach a character from a place of honesty and truth. But for example, when I read the first book, Kelly’s blonde and physically very different, but if Guillermo’s on board…I’d love the opportunity to go to Comic-Con. I’ve been lucky enough to be in a couple of other supernatural shows, but I’ve always been a human. I’ve been in Being Human, but played a human — I wasn’t a ghost for nearly long enough. I’ve also been on Bitten, but I’m a human. So I’m really excited to dive into a deeper, darker area of the supernatural world.
Along those lines, the wife or ex-wife role on shows like this, it’s tough because she’s sort of the adversary to the person who’s our hero. There’s sort of the instinct that we want Ephraim to be with his son, and you’re keeping that from being possible. How do you keep Kelly from seeming like the adversary?
Brown: Honestly, just to get really behind the point of view that not only what I feel is bad, but I want my son to have a normal family life and I want him to have a father figure who is present. I never doubt the fact that he loves his son, he’s just, the demands of his job don’t allow him to be physically present. And also the same demands of the job don’t allow him to be emotionally present, as a husband, as a father, and you have to get a little selfish sometimes and single-minded with your view in order to do what you think is ultimately best for the family unit. And at this point in her life, stability and reliability are what she really wants to raise her young son, and she’s found that in her boyfriend Matt, who’s not nearly as dynamic or exciting but that’s exactly what she’s looking for at this point. And I know that when women over 35 are polled what is the most attractive thing about a partner, it’s not looks or money or sense of humor — it’s reliability.
Mia Maestro (Dr. Nora Martinez)
What sort of points did you make regarding Nora? What were the things that stood out for you as defining her character?
Maestro: She is a very strong character yet she’s very, she’s like a humanist. She’s very warm. So and Guillermo was quite adamant about that. She’s a scientist. She’s a biochemist so the tendency when you play that is to play like this very rigid character with like no sensuality or no warmness. And he’s like, “Just totally go completely against that. Like Nora is a 100% who Mia is. That’s why I chose you. I don’t want this like, you know, woman with glasses like being super strict. I want someone that can be amazing at a lab and like discover a virus and be able to be comfortable in a Level 4 HazMat suit and just be the best. And then like come Saturday and she’s smokes a joint…That is Nora.” So I’m like, “Okay, so I can do that.” So yeah, it was just lovely.
On that note do you have much in the way of scientific dialogue?
Maestro: I do, yeah.
How is that to kind of deal with as opposed to a regular exposition dialogue?
Maestro: It’s difficult, you know. Always I think scientific dialogue it’s a bit, there are words that you may have never, you know, have said in your lifetime or maybe said once. But it’s nice.The more the season develops, we lose that dialogue and just like surrender to the world, which is kind of nice. So it’s so many shows in one. You have these very procedural first episodes and then little by little the vampire world like creeps in and Nora and Eph, they’re like very reality-based and it’s a full on drama and then Eph with his wife and myself with my mom, and then little by little everything starts evaporating. Then it’s a new paradigm and this is their new paradigm and they just have to deal with that like normal people, like any of us would have to deal with it if it actually happens. If that happens the first thing you think is like, “What did you do with my mom?” I’m like, “Oh my God, I have to take…” “What do with my brother who’s sick?” Like, “How do I fight yet take care of my family?” So there’s this whole dichotomy of taking care of business and love and that’s also the whole thing that the vampires use against human beings that the love will actually tear them apart.
Carlton Cuse (showrunner)
Could you just tell us the basic story? How did you go from the books to a TV show? How did that happen?
Cuse: Almost two years ago, I was approached by WME and asked whether I actually knew this property, The Strain trilogy. In fact, I had read the first book just as a fanboy, just because I was intrigued by it and loved Guillermo’s stuff. I actually had a little bit of a relationship with Chuck Hogan. We had talked at one point about doing something else together…So WME said, “Hey, would you consider meeting with Guillermo? We’re thinking about turning The Strain trilogy into a television series. It’s one of those things where Guillermo doesn’t feel like there’s a way to do this amount of storytelling as a film.” I was like, “Yeah, absolutely.” So I sat down with Guillermo about two years ago, and we really hit it off right out of the box. That’s always kind of the crux of the issue, as to whether you can find a collaboration that’s productive, rewarding. I think we had really good overlapping skill sets. I obviously had a lot of experience in television. Guillermo had an immense amount of experience in movies. I think that the show, in a way, is hopefully the best of both worlds. We then took it out and had a lot of interest in it from different cable channels. We only pitched it for cable. We decided to go with FX, which was a fantastic decision. FX really allowed us the opportunity to prep the show like a movie…We hired a series of conceptual artists to basically — working very closely with Guillermo — design the look of the monsters, the sets, a lot of the stylistic elements of the show…I think Guillermo is arguably as good as any filmmaker in the world in this arena, and I think that was just a special talent that he brought to the table, but it required a lot of time. So FX gave us that amount of time.
How interesting has it been to — and this obviously comes from Guillermo and Chuck’s work — to reinvent the vampire for a new audience, given that vampires haven’t been scary for quite awhile on TV?
Cuse: You know, that was kind of fundamentally one of the things that most attracted me to doing the project. I felt like Guillermo and Chuck had invented a whole new take on vampires on the page and in the books. You’re absolutely right; there’s no way I would have wanted to do another traditional vampire story. I just don’t think the world needs any other incarnation of the handsome, brooding, sparkly dude with fangs and romance problems. I think one of Guillermo’s great skills is that he’s one of the most visually imaginative storytellers out there. Once we sat down and started talking about it and I had a clear understanding of what his take is on what these creatures should look like and what they could do, that was just a big part of it for me. It was a combination of their very specific physical menace and that they were a part of a very complicated mythology. The forces of antagonism are very layered and complicated, as opposed to a show like The Walking Dead, where you have one force of antagonism. It’s zombies; they can do a certain thing. They don’t report to general zombies. But there is a whole hierarchy of vampires. There’s a whole mythology to vampires. There are some good vampires. There are some bad, bad, bad vampires. I think, like the old adage, your story’s only as good as your force of antagonism. That’s very true, and I was just really engaged by the opportunities that this force of antagonism presented. I felt like I could do a lot of stuff with it that would be cool.
The Strain premieres on FX this Sunday at 10 p.m. EST.