THE MAGICIANS Cast Talk Emotionally Driven Storylines & Creating Magic on Screen
Are you in the mood to see “some goddamn magic?” Well then you’re in luck. The official premiere of Syfy’s The Magicians is coming this Monday with an intensely satisfying two-hour episode.
The series, based on Lev Grossman’s novels of the same name, follows Quentin Cadwell, a young man who series star Jason Ralph describes as “Existentially depressed and perpetually disappointed.” Most of Quentin’s life can be summed up by those two things, on top of an oddly obsessive love for a children’s book called “Fillory and Further.”
In the midst of Quentin floating his way through life, socially distant from his peers and emotionally invested in a world that isn’t real, his reality is suddenly turned upside down when he’s offered a spot in a secret school for people “inclined” to master the very real art of magic.
While the revelation provides Quentin with a sense of belonging and purpose, it doesn’t have the same effect for Julia — a smart, intensely driven young woman bound for Yale’s graduate school. She too is asked to take a Brakebills University entrance exam, but when she fails to pass the test, she gets left behind by her best friend and an exciting future. Upon her return to the “real world,” Julia sets out on a different path to become a master of magic and live beyond the veil.
Grossman’s world is a fantastical adventure with a good dose of edgy, dark undertones and sex appeal. Its greatest allure, however, lies with its treatment of magic and the characters that wield it. In The Magicians, the acquisition and mastery of power is an expertly cast metaphor for the challenges of growing into the person–and future–we most desire. There are no bunny rabbits in hats here, folks. Our magicians are fighting demons, both figuratively and literally, in the heart of Brooklyn.
ScreenSpy had the chance to chat with the The Magicians cast, and we wasted no time asking about the challenges of playing with the intangible and what makes Grossman’s story so damn magical.
Obviously, magic as our Brakebills magicians know it doesn’t quite exist in our world. So you’d figure there’d be some hurdles to bringing a story like Lev Grossman’s to the small screen. For Summer Bishil, the actress behind The Magician‘s sexy, but damaged Margo (Janet to book fans), it’s all about realizing how magic functions within the universe and applying that to how your character interacts with it.
“Magic in this story is a relationship,” Bishil told ScreenSpy. “You have relationships in life and they all have different dimensions and things that are hard to accept as reality. So that’s how I approach it. What is my relationship with magic? What do I want to achieve with it? How do I relate to the world knowing that I have this gift. I try to relate it to that in order to make it more tangible and meaningful.”
It’s an interesting technique for handling the more whimsical elements of the fantasy genre. Especially when you consider the aspects of The Magicians story that are so grounded in reality. For Bishil, most of her character’s “human moments” grow out of Margo’s relationship with Eliot, another student at Brakebills who shares in her propensity for physically-based magic.
According to Bishil, “Margo suffers from a lot of loneliness and desperation to belong. Her family life was not very wholesome or inclusive, so her relationship with Eliot is incredibly important to her. She’s somewhat co-dependent on Eliot, so when other people enter Eliot’s life it’s a threat to her. It challenges her sense of reality and her place in reality.”
Hale Appleman, the actor who plays the book-fan favorite Eliot, confirms that the feelings between the two characters are pretty mutual.
“They are each other’s primary attachment. They have a kind of dynamic, a kind of friendship and also a kind of co-dependency that they need and have been longing for based on where they come from and where they’ve ended up,” Appleman said. “There are experiences at school that have gotten them very close together and they are inseparable in a lot of ways.”
It is perhaps the most important relationship to Eliot, who Appleman says hides “a much deeper level of loneliness and sadness–a wish to bury a past that he’d rather not discuss,” underneath a sophisticated demeanor.
“We have a lot of fun together and we have a lot of revelry,” Appleman shared. “There are also a lot of voids being filled in reaction to what we don’t want to talk about. I think that for Eliot magic is his identity on some level. He’s escaped from a reality that was hard to bare and he’s found a place where he belongs.”
“He’s such a proficient magician–it comes very easily to him–that he’s able to rise in the ranks at school in a way that gives him a sense of purpose, and power and control that he never had before,” Appleman continued. “He seizes that with all of his might, with all that he can to maintain that sense of control.”
Eliot wouldn’t be the only one using magic to fill a void or find a sense of purpose. Jason Ralph, the face of Quentin, believes his character also relies on it for his sense of identity, after feeling socially and emotionally aloof from people for most of his life. Ralph notes that Julia, the character who seemingly has everything going for her at the start of the series, will not be immune to magic’s affect on one’s sense of self either.
“It’s a great duel journey,” Ralph said of the series’ two main (and simultaneously) running plot lines. “[Julia]’s stripping away her humanity to find her core, and he’s adding humanity on to find his, and they kinda meet at the same place.”
The theme of humanity and its relationship to magic is perhaps what makes The Magicians most interesting. Good genre takes you to another place. Great genre takes you there, then makes you question how it differs (or doesn’t) from what you already know. While Grossman’s world of magic is a strong initial draw to the show, the writing provides a solid balance between universe building and compelling character development. Olivia Taylor Dudley, the actress who plays the smart and sometimes emotionally frigid magician Alice, certainly thinks so.
“We get to do such a beautiful balance of playing real life problems and emotional journeys–which is always taxing on us,” Dudley said.
The emotional challenges of playing the devilishly handsome bad boy Penny for actor Arjun Gupta were some of the best parts about working on the Syfy series.
“One of the reasons I was really excited about this as an artist is that it was stretching what I would get to do as an actor and the kind of places I get to go,” Gupta told Screenspy. “This isn’t like we’re solving crimes every week. This is real character development–really going through quite dark stuff. I mean, really dark stuff and that’s exciting to get to challenge myself to go through.”
Both Dudley and Gupta shared that the physical aspects of manifesting their characters’ magical powers were the most interesting challenge of their Magicians experience.
“I’ve gotten to do a lot of practical magic stuff, stuff that’s actually happening around you,” Dudley revealed. “The show does a lot of that, which is amazing. Getting to stand in the middle of things as they are happening, that I’m doing–it’s great.”
“The green screen stuff is always challenging just because there’s a lot of stuff you’re putting into imagination,” Gupta said. “One of the exciting about filming is how often things are real. Real sets, real items. So that’s probably the most challenging thing for me.”
Gupta’s role, like that of Maeve’s character, sees an expansion in the television series as most of Penny’s development happens off page in Grossman’s first Magicians installment. This is good news for book readers who were major Penny fans.
“Penny is very involved, reluctantly at times,” Gupta teased. “I think what’s exciting is that for Penny, there’s a lot of stuff that we don’t see that happened off book and so we get to throw that in.“
“They’ve done a very beautiful job of filling out the stories that aren’t told in the books,” Gupta continued. “Penny’s got a wonderful journey in the books and I think that everything that happens to him in the books is honored in our story so far. We get to tell a very truly ensemble story about the six of us.”
Dudley pointed to Grossman’s involvement with the series as being a major plus in the show’s effort to flesh out the characters in a way that kept them true to the books.
“The fact that Lev is a part of the process is great because he knows these characters better than anyone,” Dudley said. “I think it’s been fun to see his characters come to life in new ways.”
It may be worth noting that expanded character arcs and names changes aren’t the only differences between the book and TV series. The characters are all, in Ralph’s words, “aged up.”
“We are in grad school as opposed to college,” Ralph confirmed.
While there may be concerns about how this will affect many of the characters portrayals and ultimate development, Stella Maeve, the talented actress behind the driven Julia, was confident fans wouldn’t have too much to worry about when it comes down to that change.
“I think we do a pretty good job of keeping it in the same maturity level, or immaturity level if you will. I think we’ve grasped that. I feel like as far the emotional maturity, for my character at least–she’s still on that same trajectory. I don’t think that it’s much different.”
“I think that they’re all relatively emotionally immature people,” Jason Ralph followed up. “I don’t think that changes.”
The Magicians premieres Monday January 25 (9:00-10:00 pm ET/PT) on Syfy.