Adapted from Joe Hill’s novel, the first season of NOS4A2, Sunday nights on AMC, deals with the growing conflict between two “creatives.” In the context of NOS4A2, a creative is someone with unusual abilities. For Charlie Manx, played by Zachary Quinto, his abilities extend from being able to suck souls from children to prolong his own life to creating the inscape of Christmasland, where the now-soulless children reside in a permanent nightmarish holiday. When Manx sees his agenda threatened by another “creative,” eighteen-year-old Vic McQueen (Ashley Cummings), he tries to destroy her. Along the way, Manx goes from appearing to be approximately in his late forties to one hundred and thirty-five years old.
Quinto, originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has a stage career as well as a screen career. Last year, he starred on Broadway as Harold in the revival of THE BOYS IN THE BAND, which Quinto is set to reprise in a big-screen remake.
Quinto first came to the attention of television audiences through his four seasons as the dangerous Sylar on HEROES. The character’s powers grew as he took power from others by killing them. He also appeared in Season 2 of AMERICAN HORROR STORY as serial killer Dr. Oliver Thredson and as a high-strung but otherwise more normal family man Harry in the series THE SLAP.
On the big screen, Quinto is known for more benevolent characters, including Commander Spock in the current run of STAR TREK films. Quinto is also a producer; the Oscar-nominated MARGIN CALL (which he also acted in) is one of his projects.
ASSIGNMENT X: Do you see any similarities between Charlie Manx and other characters you’ve played, say, Sylar?
ZACHARY QUINTO: Manx is the antagonist of the series, he’s got a sort of villainous nature to him, so of course there are comparisons to be made. But I think psychologically and emotionally, they’re incredibly different people. There was an aspect of the experience that I was resistant to at the beginning, because of the similarities of the genre and the character. But then I read the scripts, and I had a number of conversations with [series creator] Jami O’Brien, and Kari Skogland, who directed the first two episodes, and I felt like there was such a unique complexity to this world, and a really incredible collaborative spirit to the project. So it drew me in, in that way. And also, the physical transformation that I was able to engage in and embrace with this is something that I was really excited about. And I haven’t been on television in five years. So there was something also about coming back to a project that exists in a world that I know people like to see me live in. So I got really excited about it after that, and thought of it more as a springboard into other opportunities, and other diverse projects, and it became exciting to me in that way.
AX: Can you say what specifically about NOS4A2 gave you pause initially? Was it that Manx victimizes children, or was it some other aspect?
QUINTO: I’ve done a lot with my work on stage, and my work as a producer, and just my work in general, to diversify my experience as much as I can. So from a creative standpoint, I think it had more to do with the nature of the show as a genre piece and as a horror story. That was the initial resistance that I had to it. But the more I talked to Jami about it, and the more I read the scripts, which I think provide a really interesting balance between this grounded emotional relationship between Vic McQueen and her family, and the heightened world of Manx, and the intersection of those two things, it felt like there was a real reservoir of complexity that I could draw from.
AX: We see Manx as a villain, but do you, as the actor playing him, see him that way?
QUINTO: Of course not.
AX: Can you talk about who Manx is from your perspective?
QUINTO: Psychologically? Sure. As I say often, one of the most important aspects of building a character is a point of entry that is rooted in compassion, understanding, and love. When you’re playing a character that’s as reprehensible as some of the characters that I’ve played, that exploration becomes a little bit more challenging. But the origin of it for me is going back to, what is the source of trauma that set this character on a path that leads him to where he ends up? For Manx, his childhood was marked by unfathomable trauma. And I was really fortunate as an actor to have the novel by Joe Hill, and also the graphic novel, called THE WRAITH, as guides into that trauma and into that childhood. So for me, it’s about looking at who this character was, looking at the depth of the trauma he was exposed to, and then building this foundation that supports the character as he is today. And with Manx, he was this incredibly isolated, neglected child, who was exposed to horrible violence and exploitation as a kid, and it’s interesting that he evolves into an adult who both exploits and manipulates the vulnerabilities of other children. So there is a psychological anchor there. And on a lot of levels, he does genuinely believe that he’s giving these kids a better life and a better opportunity for themselves that they would have otherwise. That’s a warped and twisted way to look at it, but it’s the only way that he can look at it and still do what he does. So I’m fascinated by that complexity, and I’m interested in those psychological dynamics, both in the real world and in creativity. So it was a great opportunity for me to explore that.
The interesting thing about Manx is, he’s a hundred and thirty-five years old, but he lives in the modern world. So there’s actually a little bit of space for humor in that, like how he moves through the world. In one scene in one of the later episodes, he’s in a gas station, buying an inordinate number of air fresheners for his car that he’s been driving around for eighty years. So it’s things like that, that I think were kind of creepy, and there’s an out of time quality to this Edwardian character that’s trying to make his way in, in our version of the story, 2012. But I think that, combined with his inscape – if we talk about what these inscapes are in the world of the show, inscapes are places that are expressions of the internal lives and imaginations of these characters who are strong creatives. So Manx’s inscape is rooted in this sense of wonder, and this sense of joy and childlike enthusiasm for this holiday, which is universally equated with presents and gifts. So there’s a lot about how much he relishes that that I think is really creepy, and the way that he appeals to the kids and brings them in, and appeals to their sensitivities and their vulnerabilities, which is genuine. Because he felt at one time the way that they feel now, and he sells himself as someone who’s trying to prevent them from walking down these destructive paths by basically immortalizing them in this warped and twisted land that he’s created.
AX: When Manx is in his older phases, you’re in quite a bit of prosthetic makeup. How did you feel about that?
QUINTO: Well, I had really been open to, and interested in, the idea of an opportunity that would allow me to immerse myself in a character and transform in a way. So that was something that I had been actively pursuing, and that was obviously an aspect of this experience that was really appealing. One of the first things I said to Jami and to Kari and to all the producers was, “I really feel like one of the only ways that we can accomplish this is if we get Joel Harlow.” Joel, if you don’t know, is an incredibly talented special effects makeup artist. I’ve worked with him on the last two STAR TREK films, and I just knew that if I was going to undertake a challenge like this, that I needed to do it in the hands of someone that I could trust implicitly, and someone who is really the best of the best. Once he was available and interested, it became a whole different conversation. Because when you’re immersing yourself in a character that exists behind layers of glue and silicone and makeup, you have to be able to trust that your inner life is going to be expressable, and with Joel, I knew it would be, and I certainly wasn’t wrong. He so far exceeded my expectations, and he and his colleague Richie Alonzo, who also worked on the last two TREK movies with us, and Cheryl Daniels, who did the wigs, really worked with me and Jami and Kari to create the aesthetic of Manx in a way that was believable, dynamic and really exciting. So it was a challenge that I was really up for, and one that did not disappoint.
AX: How often did you have to do the age makeup in NOS4A2?
QUINTO: The process kind of ebbs and flows, and I think the essence of the character is that the farther away he gets from taking a kid to Christmasland, the more decrepit he becomes, and there are a lot of different versions. So what we did was, we broke down the age of the character into five phases, Phase One being closest to me at this age, and Phase Five being a hundred and thirty-five years old. So there were different phases, and we were able in the scripts to identify which phase it would be. It allowed me to go and create a physical vocabulary and a vocal vocabulary for what those phases were. And then we would get into those looks, depending on what we needed. So throughout the season, I go back and forth. I’m kind of all over the place.
AX: What are the fun aspects of working with the makeup and the vocal modulations?
QUINTO: All of it was fun. That’s what I’m saying that I was really open to and interested in, finding a role and a project that would allow me to disappear into something, and still cultivate an inner life that’s complicated and hopefully nuanced and dynamic in a way that I don’t get to do all the time. So finding the physicality was really exciting. Vocally, it’s like once you put this kind of restriction in your body, it naturally affects vocalization. So embracing that and staying connected to it in a way that I hope is grounded, and believable was the big challenge, and the challenge that I was engaged in throughout the season.
AX: How much of Manx’s back story do we get in NOS4A2?
QUINTO: Well, the interesting thing about the first season of the show is, it really encompasses only about the first third of the novel. So the first ten episodes explore Vic, and her relationship with her family. Jami I think did a beautiful job of balancing the integrity of the book with who these characters are in the show, and fleshing out that world a little bit, and giving it a little bit of depth, and exploring some new characters that aren’t in the book. And she did a really great job, I think, of honoring the novel, and yet creating a unique experience with the show. I do think you get to understand Manx’s motivation through the first season of the show more than you get to understand the depth of his back story. There are some glimpses into it, but I feel like if we’re lucky enough to continue on with the narrative, past the first season, that it will give us more opportunities to go into different corners of his experience, and actually witness what they are. There are some flashbacks, but they don’t go as far back to his youth, or even his first marriage, or his children. You get a sense that they exist, but you don’t understand the depth of how profound his connection is to them until maybe future episodes.
This interview was conducted during AMC’s portion of the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.
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