AMC’s NOS4A2, now in its first season on Sunday nights and renewed for a second, was developed for television by Jami O’Brien from the novel by Joe Hill. The series follows Massachusetts high school student Vic McQueen, played by Ashleigh Cummings. Vic has always been good at finding lost things. When her abilities lead her to the trails of missing children, Vic discovers that her gifts are supernatural. Soon, Vic comes up against fellow “strong creative” Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto). Manx keeps himself young by feeding on the souls of children, who he then deposits (alive but soulless) into Christmasland, a realm of his own creation.
Cummings was born in Saudi Arabia to Australian parents, who returned with their daughter to their homeland early in her life. She began acting professionally at the age of fifteen, appearing in RAZZLE DAZZLE, GREEN FIRE ENVY, HOME AND AWAY, TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN, GALORE, PUBERTY BLUES, the miniseries GALLIPOLI, MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES, HOUNDS OF LOVE, PORK PIE, and WESTSIDE.
In a small round-table discussion, Cummings talks about NOS4A2, the first series she has worked on in the United States.
ASSIGNMENT X: Vic goes through a lot of changes in Season 1 of NOS4A2. Once you were cast, did you and Jami O’Brien have discussions about how to make Vic’s journey feel organic and lifelike?
ASHLEIGH CUMMINGS: Yes. I have traditionally been all about the character journey, and I’ve always loved knowing where I start and where I’m going to end. And I only had the first two episodes when we started filming, so I didn’t know exactly how it was going to translate, what would remain from the novel. But the advice I was given by Jami and [NOS4A2 pilot director] Kari [Skogland] was just to, “Stay in the present, and things will unfold as they do.” So that was a really interesting journey to go on, and discover it as I went along. Of course, I did do some kind of character arcing, because I feel like that kind of carving out the landscape is an important thing for me. But I discovered more along the journey about Vic, about myself.
Jami is extraordinary. I don’t know how she did what she did, because I would send her emails all the time, and we’d have phone calls all the time, and then I realized she was taking care of finances, and location scouting, and everything else [laughs]. I kept forgetting that she had twenty million other jobs. She was so available and present to every single department. I don’t know when she slept.
AX: What did you discover about Vic yourself?
CUMMINGS: It’s still kind of a developing question. I always came from a place of empathy first, and I didn’t know how to attribute sort of blame towards people for what they did. And I actually feel like I internalized a little more strength and accountability towards people whilst holding onto that empathy, because we’ve had to deal with these ideas of good and evil. The show talks about how people aren’t just one or the other; they can be both. And that’s a really important message, I feel, to put out into the world. I think it’s important that we have empathy for where people came from, and why they are the way they are, how they’ve developed psychologically, and we see that in Manx’s character, and in others. But it’s also important to hold accountability. So that was a big way in which I developed and grew a sort of strength in myself, which I didn’t have prior to the show.
AX: In terms of empathy, will Vic ever develop empathy for Charlie Manx?
CUMMINGS: I don’t know what I can talk about spoiler-wise. I think the important thing that I’ve learned is the nature of duality, and how challenging it is to hold two things at once, but how very important it is to do so. So whether or not that is achieved by Vic I can’t tell you [laughs], but I think it’s a journey.
AX: How is it working with the children in the cast?
CUMMINGS: They’re so wonderful. I mean, I was really blown away by them, by their maturity, and their presence, their insight. I grew very attached to Darby [Camp], who played Haley. She’s sort of my little sister in the show in a sense. But I learned a lot from her. They’re far more developed acting-wise than I am. I was really impressed also by their parents, just watching how they interact with their children and encouraged curiosity and weren’t just typical stage parents that you witness. So I was really impressed by that. I did have empathy and there are certain things that I can offer insight into from my experience, going from schooling while acting as well, and just trying to encourage growth as humans outside of acting as well.
AX: In terms of the supernatural and horror elements of NOS4A2, was there anything you found scary?
CUMMINGS: Manx’s eyes. It was terrifying. I think the first time I came up close to Zachary, he was completely transformed, and his work in [the old age makeup] is astonishing, as is the work of the makeup artist, but also his physicalization, his vocalization completely was a chameleon. There’s a line where I’m talking about looking into the eyes of evil, which is a topic I’m really interested in, but I felt like I was both looking into the eyes of evil, and then looking into the eyes of a child.
AX: Vic is traumatized by what she’s going through in terms of dealing with her abilities and with Manx, but she also has issues arising just from the fact that she wants to go to college and she’s talented, but her parents are very working-class. Vic’s mother doesn’t want her to go to college for economic reasons, and her father is alcoholic and irresponsible. Can you talk about exploring the issues of both trauma and social class?
CUMMINGS: Sure. I think in terms of the class struggle, that was something Jami really brought to the show and deepened that groove that Joe had explored in the book. I think it works on the literal level, in that this is not a story that we often see – at least, I haven’t witnessed a lot – but it also served as a metaphor for me, providing Vic’s feeling of isolation and entrapment and inability to escape both out of the world that she was in, and also her mental processing and so on. So I think it worked on both literal and metaphorical levels. Regarding trauma, that was something I really loved about the novel. There are so many characters in here which you could, as I said, attribute some evilness to, but understanding trauma allows for empathy, and I think allows for actual solutions to problems, as opposed to assigning labels. And I think obviously trauma plays a huge part in defining a person’s psychology, and who they turn out to be. So we do explore that a little in various characters. So we understand that people are multidimensional and complex, and not one thing.
AX: Do you think Vic’s strength as a character is more internal or external?
CUMMINGS: I think it’s a combination of both. I think we definitely see fluctuations in that journey, when people are encouraging her in one direction and she denies that calling, and then realizes for herself where she needs to be. So I think like any journey, it’s kind of a combination of both internal and external factors. And really, I am interested in that idea of inner strength, and I think it involves typical notions of strength that we see in any kind of superhero/action, any of those genres, but also, I think what our show does really well, and what Jami and Joe created, is expanding the scope of the term “strength” to include the embracing of typically more feminine qualities, like her vulnerability, her empathy, her creativity, her intuition. And I think it was embracing those that really defined her strength.
AX: NOS4A2 is set in Massachusetts, and shot in Rhode Island. What do you think making the series there brought to your performance?
CUMMINGS: There were moments when I definitely felt that sense of entrapment, and sometimes the mundanity of life and the bleakness of certain environments contributed to that. But I also found it to be a thriving world. Rhode Island is wonderful. I loved the community that existed there. I lived in a little village and I knew all of the locals by the time I left, and all of the neighbors brought me cakes and so on. So I think, like anything, there are gifts and shadows to any environment, anything at all.
AX: What would you most like people to know about NOS4A2 as a series right now?
CUMMINGS: About NOS4A2 in general? I want them to know that it is a unique version of storytelling and it explores so many different layers. I don’t know if there’s any one thing. I just want them to go along on the journey, I think. I want them to give it a whirl.
This interview was conducted during AMC’s portion of the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
Related: NOS4A2: Interview with star Zachary Quinto who goes full vampire in new AMC series
Related: NOS4A2: Exclusive interview with executive producer and showrunner Jami O’Brien on the new AMC horror series
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Article: NOS4A2: Interview with star Ashleigh Cummings on Season 1 of the AMC series