THE STRAIN begins its third season on FX Network Sunday, August 28, with Manhattan fully under the control of the Master. Based on the trilogy of novels by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, who also created the television series, THE STRAIN presents us with the Master as an ancient strigoi, or vampire, who holds telepathic sway over an ever-increasing legion of bloodsuckers.
Lined up against the Master are a small group of humans. Among those on the Master’s side are his longtime ally Thomas Eichorst, played by Richard Sammel, and newly-turned Kelly Goodweather, portrayed by Natalie Brown.
Brown, a native Canadian, has appeared in comedy fare, including the film HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN TEN DAYS, and she’s had arcs on genre shows such as the North American BEING HUMAN, the murder mystery HAPPY TOWN and the werewolf drama BITTEN.
Sammel is a German actor who has spent much of his career working in France and Italy. He’s probably best known to American audiences for his work in the films CASINO ROYALE and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Sammel auditioned for the lead villain in the latter. When filmmaker Quentin Tarantino did not cast Sammel in that role, the actor explains, “We had a nice outcome of it, because he offered me that other job [as the character Sergeant Rachtman], and I accepted, and he made a big scene out of it, so I was grateful.”
Sammel’s Eichorst is an unusual vampire who can pass as human; he was a Nazi in the days before WWII before the Master turned him. Kelly is the ex-wife of Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), an epidemiologist who’s trying to stop the Master. As a human, Kelly was a loving mother to her and Eph’s son Zack (Max Charles); now, she still loves Zack but in a different way.
Brown and Sammel sit down together to talk about their work in THE STRAIN.
AX: Both of you are playing very different vampires. Kelly is making herself up as a human, and Eichorst, who’s been doing this for years, is teaching her how to do it …
NATALIE BROWN: I think it informs the relationship in a lovely way, because he is mentor as a strigoi, and tutor in how to live in this new kind of body, but there are also things that we teach each other, and it also helps further the bond with my son. Whether or not she’s pretending that she doesn’t know how to do it, it’s a way to ingratiate Zack into making him feel more comfortable. Anything that will help my son connect with me again is welcome.
AX: When Kelly was first turned, she was a typical strigoi, but now she’s been given back some of her own consciousness. How does this affect her?
BROWN: The more access that she’s granted to her old self, her memories and her emotions, the more torturous and painful it becomes. She remembers her needs, her desires, she feels sadness, she feels a void. The more access she has to what she feels, the more awareness she has to just what is lacking, and the pain of almost having what she so desperately wants, but not able to have it in the way that she had imagined.
AX: With Eichorst, we see his back story in Season 2, that he was an unsuccessful salesman who embraces the Nazi Party. Did you imagine his back story before the writers gave you that one?
RICHARD SAMMEL: Definitely, I put a lot of effort into imagining where he comes from, because that’s how you motivate and how you know to nourish your actual character. If he went through a huge evolution, which is the fact for contemporary Eichorst, you need to know where he comes from. The most interesting thing for me was to play half-human, half-vampire. And very important for me was Guillermo saying that Eichorst would say, at least in the books, “You don’t get it – I’m still human, I still have feelings.” And that’s very important to me. It means exactly what Natalie just said about her character – the more freedom you get, the longer the leash from the Master, the more you get back what you have been before. For Eichorst, who has a seventy-year-old story with the Master, it means that he can pretty much do what he wants to do, [so long as it is generally] according to the plan. So it’s not exactly the thing I imagined. I had different options – he could have had a big issue with his father – but the decision he made at a certain point as a human to become a Nazi, that was very important. Because you are not born like Eichorst is now. It’s a conditioning through education and through life, and choices you make. And we need to see what choices there are, otherwise you do not tell a man’s story, you just have an evil character. It’s not so interesting to play an evil character. It’s interesting to show why he became so evil.
AX: Eichorst seems to like his autonomy, so why was he disappointed that the Master didn’t choose him to be the Master’s new vessel? Because it seems like there wouldn’t be too much left of Eichorst if the Master was occupying his body …
SAMMEL: He’s disappointed, because in a certain way, it makes complete sense that he should be the next Chosen One. But it also makes sense that in that very critical situation, when the Master is losing his body, is not to lose also his first and best general. Eichorst is able to connect with all humans, and to deal with all things, even in daylight, if he’s protected. He can be pretty much accepted as human, which the Master can’t do. And in that situation, if you bring the Master and Eichorst into one single body, then you lose one big asset.
[Eichorst] has hubris. He made some decisions in his life that brought him way down a path he can’t go back. One of those things is that he’s absolutely convinced that he’s doing the right thing. “I am right, not you. Not the humans.’ He turned his back on humans. He had the choice. He wasn’t forced, he wasn’t bitten against his will. He was working hard in order to get the bite, or the white [blood].
AX: And how is it working in the strigoi makeup with all of those young acrobats, who are also in makeup as the Feelers?
BROWN: I just had the most joyful second season. I love the makeup process, I love the people that we get to work with, and I love the application process. I’m very chatty, so the four-and-a-half hours flies by. When they’re done with me, I become the character. And then with the Feelers, these gifted acrobats and dancers, they did Kelly’s literal dirty work for her. I mean, I had the easiest job in Season 2, because makeup and Feelers and effects did so much of the work for me that I honestly felt like I just needed to stand on two feet and I was Kelly. Season 3 poses unique challenges, because she is masquerading as a human turned strigoi disguised as a human now. And there are fewer Feelers left, and Kelly has to do a lot more of the heavy lifting to maintain the façade.
AX: Do you mean Season 3 is more strenuous physically or mentally?
BROWN: It’s an internal strain. The first season was physically challenging, so I did a lot of physical preparation for a more visceral performance, and to work with the choreographer, to understand the movements of the vamps, and the twitching. Once I figured that out, they said, ‘Now you’re a sentient strigoi. No more twitching.’ So it was a matter of containing the twitch. And what I found helpful in this third season – you have so many instincts as an actor, so many impulses, that would either be too human, or too much, because Kelly’s working with a very limited emotional palette that she’s been granted access to. So imagine every impulse you’ve ever wanted to act on, and having to sit on it kind of causes this frenetic energy that you’re just stifling and sitting on. It helps inform the containment that Kelly needs to exert to not turn Zack in order to follow through with the Master’s plan.
AX: How do Kelly and Eichorst view each other?
SAMMEL: Well, in the first place, it’s Eichhorst who brings her out of her mud.
SAMMEL: She was just an unconscious submerged creature [left in mud while she transformed], and she could have been left there if not for the fact that she has a special link to Zack, who is an asset for us. So we value her as an entity. And for me, it was having finally a female partner. As Natalie was saying, it was a tutoring thing, there was the big brother thing, but it’s also all sexuality gone, this is a way of playing couple. Then with Zack added to us, it becomes kind of a weird family. It’s the Addams Family, smaller in numbers, but STRAIN version, you know?
BROWN: “Twisted Troika” is what I believe the writers put in the stage direction [laughs].
AX: How is working with Max Charles, who plays Zack?
BROWN: He has such great instincts. He’s a very talented actor, but also is such a bright and sweet boy, with a lot of experience, and so he brings as much to set as anyone. I mean, he asks the right questions, and has great insights and instincts that add a lot to all the scenes. And he’s also very patient, because he had to put up with Mommy looking longingly at his neck for a lot of Season 3 [laughs]. Afterward, I’d always apologize, “Sorry for being so weird,” but Max is just the sweetest kid.
SAMMEL: In Season 3 I have a lot of scenes with him, and I was stunned by his patience and his instincts. His instincts are so right. He’s not acting. He just wants to get it out in a way that he really feels it.
AX: There’s a scene where Eichorst attempts to essentially rape Ruta Gedminta’s character Dutch via feeding off of her in an unconventional way, though he is thwarted. That looks like it could have been challenging …
SAMMEL: I’m grateful that it turned out so well. It was challenging as an actor, and I was not sure if I would be up to it, and so was Ruta, but we had a strong bond, a strong camaraderie, we support each other a lot, and the best thing is to just say it clearly – “Oh, I’m afraid of …” or, “I don’t know, what do you think?” So we exchanged a lot, and we worked a lot with the writers. It’s a continuous process. And then you just jump in and you do it, and if it’s not good, you will feel it. And if it’s good, then you feel it, too. And that’s how you go. You jump in, you swim, and if you swim in the wrong direction, eventually you will find out, and then you just change direction [laughs], and you swim in another direction, until you find the right one. But I think it turned out well, basically because we have a lot of confidence in each other.
AX: Ms. Brown, you’ve done a lot of work in the horror genre. Is this a genre you especially like, or is this just where the work has been?
BROWN: I used to have an issue with horror, because I’m scared easily and plagued by nightmares. I don’t enjoy being scared. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to avoid, and now that I’m working in this genre, it’s forcing me to face my fears. Even working with children in horror – I used to think, “Oh, how could you do that to the children?” But the children love it. It’s me that had the issues. And something that really helped me is a book called THE PSYCHOLOGY OF FABLE. The fables that we grew up on – “Hansel and Gretel” is the best example. We’re talking about witches that cannibalize small children. This is what raised us. We need fable and horror to exorcise unconscious feelings that we aren’t dealing with in our lives.
AX: And has working on THE STRAIN reinforced, changed, affected at all your ideas about good and evil?
SAMMEL: I think so, yes. The main things are clear – what’s evil is evil, and what’s good is good – but what I like about it is that a lot of gray shades are there. Nothing is only evil, and nothing is only good. You see that specifically in the group of the human survivors who fight the evil. They have pretty good arguments, the vampires, to do what they do. Look what mankind did to the planet and to themselves. If we let mankind go with what they have, it’s pretty sure that they will f*** up humanity. So …
BROWN: The lines are very blurry.
SAMMEL: I must say that with The Strain, I learned something about humanity. I didn’t think that it would be possible with such an entertaining show, because I imagined that all the different types of emotions, the bad emotions and the bad intentions, you’d give it all to the bad guys, and the good ones all to the good guys. If you imagine for once that all those different emotions represented by our different characters, Palmer and Goodweather and Setrakian, whoever, you put them all together, and you imagine that that’s one person, that’s actually really how a human being is.
SAMMEL: Three-dimensional, with a lot of possibilities, doing good and bad, and it’s your choice which path you will choose.
BROWN: That’s when the horror genre is at its strongest, is when it reflects the best and worst.
SAMMEL: And pushes it further, so it really stands out.
This interview was conducted during FX Network’s portion of the 2016 summer Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, California.
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Article: THE STRAIN: Natalie Brown/Richard Sammel talk Season 3 – exclusive interview