Grey Damon Talks NBC’s New Summer Thriller Aquarius
Aquarius, a new thriller starring Grey Damon, David Duchovny and Claire Holt, kicks off its first 13 episode run tonight on NBC.
Set in Los Angeles in 1967, and with loglines teasing “Murder, Mayhem, Manson,” the new series is part historical drama, part character drama and all thriller.
At its core, the show centers on the unlikely partnership between Hodiak (Duchovny), a decorated World War II vet turned homicide detective, now out of step with the fast changing world around him, and Shafe (Damon), an undercover vice cop. Together they are tasked with infiltrating a small, but growing, band of drifters under the sway of a career criminal with aspirations of becoming a rock star: Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony).
Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, Black Power, police brutality, drugs and a new era of free love, Aquarius is a layered, meticulous and visually stunning effort from writer and EP John McNamara (In Plain Sight) and Marty Adelstein (Prison Break).
We sat down with Grey Damon this week to talk about the series, and his character Brian Shafe, a young an idealistic cop who has been allowed to grow his hair out in order to infiltrate this new counterculture and get closer to Manson.
ScreenSpy: Aquarius reflects a time of huge political and social upheaval, all set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war. Did you do any research into that time? On Manson, the war or the music and culture of the 60’s?
Grey Damon: I learned I got the job about three weeks before we were going to shoot, but at the same time I was also moving. So I had three weeks to move and figure out what my character Brian Shafe was all about. Really, it was a process of trying to stay focused on both of those things. I would move all night and then study all day. The show creator gave us a wealth of books and movies and for those three weeks I didn’t watch anything I’d normally watch or read anything I’d normally read. I did nothing but listen to 60’s music, and watch documentaries on Vietnam, and the Manson family. That’s all I did for three straight weeks. I felt pretty prepared when I got to set and then I realized I didn’t know shit at all. There’s such a vast amount of information to be known, and every time you think you have it figured out there’s something else — the Weather Underground Organization, the British Invasion – it never stops. It’s crazy.
ScreenSpy: Tell me about Brian Shafe. How would you describe him?
Grey Damon: You know I’ve tried to do this a few times in other interviews and it keeps coming back to this. For me, Brian Shafe is more of a feeling than a person. I don’t know how else to describe him. I know that when I play him I need to feel a certain way to know that it’s working. I’d describe it as a feeling of anxious calm. He’s an undercover cop, so he’s always anxious, but always very good at hiding it.
On TV you always have to show a little of that anxiety, so it’s tricky trying to find that believable line. I guess the best way to describe him is as a guy who loves his family, and wants to do good police work, and ultimately believes in the system.
You’ll see throughout the show that he has to learn to cut some corners, and learn what policing with Sam Hodiak is. They’re both teaching something to each other, and it becomes this strange father/son relationship in a weird way.
ScreenSpy: Do you see him as an idealist?
Grey Damon: Yes, to a certain degree. I think he’d have to be an idealist to believe he can get himself out of certain sticky situations and that his marriage and family are going to be ok through it all.
ScreenSpy: How is he seen by the other cops in the precinct?
Grey Damon: A total freak! [laughing]. I total weirdo. They’re cops in the 60’s. They all have a certain mindset. And actually that’s why he and Hodiak work, and yet don’t work, as a team. They’re different generations, but they are both unique in their field. They could both be considered outsiders.
ScreenSpy: Do you think that outsider quality makes him more attuned to Manson’s mindset?
Grey Damon: Yes. There’s a scene where Manson and Shafe are talking and neither one of our characters truly knows who the other is, really. Shafe is undercover, and he doesn’t yet know what Mason will become – it’s sort of an origin story for Manson – but Shafe knows he’s potentially very dangerous. He almost has to convince himself that he is one of these people in order to convince them. And I think that’s true in acting too. You, to a degree, have to find a little bit of yourself in these people. If you’re playing a sick person, you have to find your sickness and run with it. But I digress. There’s this scene where we’re chatting and they see a little bit of themselves in each other. It’s the first time they really talk and get to know one another. It was really interesting because I caught myself mid scene relating to this terrible person. The outsider thing is very subtle; it’s by no means the basis of their relationship but it’s definitely there.
ScreenSpy: Can we assume that as the season progresses there will be other non-Manson related story lines from week to week. How serialized vs. Procedural is the show?
Grey Damon: It’s a little bit of everything. We have aspects of both procedural and serialized storytelling. What I think is cool is that our creator took a lot of real murder cases from back in the day that we all work off of, not to mention real problems of the day too. For instance, there’s an episode where we have to infiltrate a gay club, because back then being gay was illegal. There are murders too that really did happen in Los Angeles in the 60’s that are thrown in there, or referenced in some way. It’s really interesting. It’s not just a one note show.
ScreenSpy: There’s an interesting dichotomy between Shafe and David Duchovny’s character Hodiak that subverts what we think the characters are going to be. One might initially expect Hodiak to be the more by the book character but he really isn’t.
Grey Damon: Yes, initially I thought I would be the go-get-em renegade but the tables are totally turned by episode 2. It’s quite apparent that Shafe is actually the more by the book guy who really sticks to the rules. And throughout the series we’ll see how these two deal with that and figure each other out and how they get the job done. I thought it was actually quite clever how we all assume Shafe to be this rebel cop — and he is to some extent, but it’s more because he has to be, because he’s undercover.
ScreenSpy: What can you tease about how these two characters will get to know each other as the season progresses?
Grey Damon: It’s funny, as we were shooting the show, I would often wonder if these characters actually liked each other or not. They do, but I think they also hate each other [laughing].
I think that they represent to each other many of the things the other dislikes, or doesn’t want to become, or even fears he secretly is. That prospect scares both of them. And it’s all set against a backdrop where the times are changing drastically. Ultimately, I think they come to like each other because they reflect each other in some ways.
ScreenSpy: What do you think of NBC’s decision to make the entire season available online at once?
Grey Damon: It’s a pioneer move. I think it’s where we’re all going. Everybody wants it, so I think it’s a smart move on their part. Plus I think it also shows confidence in our show, which is a compliment.
Aquarius premieres Thursday May 28 on NBC.
Additionally, NBC will release all 13 episodes on NBC.com and the NBC app following the show’s two-hour linear premiere.
The full 13 episodes will remain up on both digital platforms for a four-week period, while each new one-hour episode will continue to premiere, as planned, each week in the 9 p.m. Thursday timeslot on NBC.