At first glance, The Strain almost looks as though it could be a standard disease-outbreak drama about the CDC trying to understand a pandemic. Until it hits you that this is a Guillermo del Toro show about vampires. The cast told us about the moment it hit them what kind of show they're on, and what's next.
Spoilers ahead …
We're only three episodes in to the first season of The Strain yet we've already seen a plane full of "dead people," a little girl eat her dad, a guy's you-know-what fall off and someone else get their head bashed in – and that's only scratching the surface. The Master's plan is in motion and the plane passengers are getting hungry, so there's no doubt we've got even more outrageous gore, violence and capillary worms coming.
Just before hitting Hall H for their very first San Diego Comic-Con panel, the team behind The Strain took the time to talk to us about some of the craziest things we've already seen and teased what's to come.
Can you tell me about the wig? I'm so used to seeing you like this. When you put it on, do you look at yourself in the mirror and not recognize yourself?
Corey Stoll: Yeah, I mean, it's great. It's another tool in our tool belt that we can sort of change the look and create a character. Sometimes it's about finding the right shoe, sometimes it's about finding the right shirt and I think finding the right wig for Eph really helped create the character.
Did you have wig options, other ones you could choose from?
Stoll: We started with one and then we started to cut it down.
Now how about all the CDC stuff? I assume you did some research. Is there anything crazy you learned about their way of working?
Stoll: The protocols are so incredibly rigorous. There's this great book called The Hot Zone about this Ebola virus outbreak in the DC area and the levels of protection that they have to take when there's a possible outbreak are incredible and we tried to keep that as realistic as possible while still being able to move forward, but it definitely slows things down when everything needs to be washed down with bleach and isolated and everything like that.
On the good guy side, your character is one of the first to believe and actually listen to what Abraham has to say.
Mia Maestro: Yeah, she does.
Is there anything about her personality or maybe something that happened to her in the past that makes her more open to it?
Maestro: She's a woman so I think she's a bit more perceptive and she's a humanist so she likes to believe in general. And I think she has a really special connection with Setrakian. We'll see that connection being developed throughout the season so whenever Setrakian speaks, it strikes a chord in her, so she listens.
I haven't read the books, but I was reading up on what happens in them to prepare for the show and I liked one thing that it said about your character on the Wikipedia page, that she doesn't want to just do "women's work." Will that come through in the show at all?
Maestro: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, Nora is [a] very practical person as you saw in the pilot. Along [with] Eph, she's the one that wears the hazmat suit and goes into a plane not knowing what kind of virus they're going to encounter. She's not a girly girl, you know? She gets pretty tough and we'll see that develop throughout the season very much so.
How do you wrap your head around having the guts to suit up and go into a plane like that?
Maestro: You know, a lot of people actually do that. There's so many biochemists and doctors and people that work with Level Four viruses, and it's a pretty incredible profession to have. So I did quite a lot of research just to see what kind of personality these people have. It's a crazy job.
Can you tell me a little about shooting that last scene in the third episode where you're fighting Redfern?
Maestro: Oh, yeah! We shot that scene really late. I think we were shooting that scene from like 4am to 6am, and it was pretty tough. And I think it was right before our Christmas hiatus so it was a tough scene. And also it was a tough scene because it was the first time that our characters, Jim, Eph and Nora, actually encounter a vampire, so for us it was this moment where, 'Oh my god. We're doing a vampire show.' In my head, I was just doing this very scientific medical show and I remember looking at Corey and saying, 'Oh my god. Okay. Oh, okay. This is what we're doing. Okay. Our show, for us, starts here.'
When we meet your character in the pilot episode, he's already working with the Stonehart people. Did you develop anything that happened beforehand about how he met up with them?
Sean Astin: I'm trying to think of what I'm allowed to say and what I'm not allowed to say. I think one of the cool things about Jim's character is that you don't really know. There is a sense of mystery about how he got connected to this bad group. You will discover, as the show goes on, a little bit more about the nature of their relationship. But it's a bummer because, you know, Jim seems like such a good guy. He wants to help Eph, he's there to serve people through his work with the CDC, but for some reason – in the pilot, he doesn't seem very excited about having helped them. He doesn't want to do it, but he knows he has to so you sort of wonder, what do they have on him? We'll have to tune in to the next few episodes and see.
Do you think he would have made that decision to take the money if he knew what they were doing? I guess I would understand if he still chose to take it.
Astin: That's a really good moral question. Do I personally think that he would have taken the money? I don't know. I don't know. I'm married for 22 years. Most people are like, 'Yeah, take my wife,' but I love my wife so I would do anything for her. But my wife wouldn't want to be spared at the expense of civilization, so it's a tough moral question. I do not have an answer that I'm willing to state at this moment. Ask me after the end of season four.
I just watched the third episode so you probably know what the first thing I'm gonna go for is.
Jack Kesy: Yeah.
The doctor comes in and we don't see anything when you open your robe. Did they explain what's going on down there and why that's happening to him?
Kesy: Yeah. Well, he's going through his transformation slowly but surely where he's turning into a vampire, he's losing his, uh, you know, his important utensils. [Laughs]
How is it being on set shooting that scene? The way it's cut together is what makes it work because you hear that noise and just get the quickest glimpse.
Kesy: I mean, I'm in the zone. I'm in the zone so I haven't seen it yet. I'm really excited to see how it all came to play. I haven't seen it yet, but the little glimpses I saw, it looks great.
I haven't read the book, but I've been reading up on your character a little and it seems like they changed a lot with how he progresses. Does he end up in that same place? I don't want to spoil anything though.
Miguel Gomez: Yeah, you're gonna have to watch to see that, but it's gonna be a lot of fun I think. They've added a lot more to the character I think. It's a lot more in depth with who he is as a person rather than just being this archetype. I think you get to know why he's like that, so I think it's gonna be a lot of fun and I think the skills that he does have, coming from the street, will ultimately be helpful later on in the series.
Do you guys ever cross paths?
Gomez: We might. We might.
Kesy: We just might. You never know.
Gomez: [Laughs] I don't see why not.
How's your Comic-Con been? See anything crazy so far?
Kesy: We've been busy running around, having a good time. It's my first time here. I love it.
If you could go on the convention center floor right now dressed as anything you want, what would it be?
Kesy: I don't know.
Gomez: I don't know either.
Kesy: Wonder Woman. Hi mom! Love you!
You two are on this crazy vampire show, but I'm up to episode three and so far, it's more of a family drama for you guys. Is it hard to recognize what is going on while you're doing that?
Ben Hyland: Yeah, it's really cool because it's like, with the CDC and Eph, he's controlling this disease and we're just sitting there waiting for him to come home and we're so oblivious to what's going on. It's kind of funny at the same time.
Natalie Brown: We know something is amiss. But knowing what's coming and knowing the subject matter, I can't wait for storylines to intersect and characters to intersect because there are so many great characters in this show.
Are you guys going to get your hands dirty with the vampires and the virus?
Brown: Maybe. You definitely have to stay tuned and call us back further into the season. [Laughs]
What's the creepiest thing you've seen on set so far? I imagine you're still seeing The Master and all that other stuff.
Brown: The Master's one of the most awesome things to take in. The amount of workmanship that's gone into his cloaks and a hundred pounds of robes and the makeup and the special effects team is so incredible. But for me, the creepiest thing is Emma's head.
Hyland: Yeah. The heads for sure. In the trailers, there's just like buckets of heads. It's crazy.
You look amazing. I didn't even recognize you!
Jonathan Hyde: Oh, yeah. That's three hours plus.Yeah, that's a lot of latex and bits and pieces.
Kevin Durand: It's incredibly though, isn't it?
It really is! Is Eldritch going to look very different after his encounter with The Master?
Hyde: I am not going to tell you. There's a possibility.
Can you tell me a little about your character? In episode three we hear that he's not very well liked at the office because he's got a bit of an attitude. Did you come up with stories and things he's done with costumers in the past?
Durand: During 9/11, he was one of the maybe dozen or so rat catchers that kind of cleared up that situation because there was such an explosion in the rat population and he got some major acclaim for that work so he kind of carries that around with him. He knows he is the best at what he does in the five boroughs, so I think if anyone rubs him the wrong way or looks down upon him, which a lot of people do because of his physician, I think he's very, very quick to kind of correct them because he's actually quite well read. That's one of the more fun parts about playing Vasiliy.
But he's got a softer side, too. He's really nice to that little girl.
Durand: Yeah, you know, being away, not playing him for the last, [to Hyde] how long has it been? Four months? Three months? No, two months. I actually miss him. I want to grow up and be like Vasiliy.
Hyde: I don't want to grow up and be like Eldritch. [Laughs] No! No, I don't want to be like Palmer. He's a nasty piece of work with not one single redeeming feature, alas.
Can you connect to that at all, the idea of having immortality be a priority over everything else?
Hyde: Not really, no. I think we're all going down the same chute and I don't see my – no, no.
I was just watching the third episode and the beginning is incredible! Can you break down the makeup process there? You're essentially breaking down your own face only to put your own face back on.
Richard Sammel: That's the weird thing and one of those things you're looking forward to when you're an actor, to do things you've never done before and won't have the chance to do in real life. So basically, I'm a vampire, but dressed as a human, so the process is inverted. You see me in the beginning like the vampire I am, but for the purpose of my actions I have to do outdoors, I change myself with makeup into the human being I was before I was turned into a vampire. So actually, you see me as I would be in the series, but that's makeup, and then I put on the makeup, but that's not the makeup. [Laughs] It's a weird thing! It's fun. It's just fun!
It's only about a minute or two of footage. How long did that take to shoot?
Sammel: It was a day's worth of shooting and then we did some re-takes on it, so two, no, three days of shooting. Two and a half days of shooting. I didn't see it yet, but I was told that it's really amazing so I'm looking forward to it. I'm [going] to see it today, now I think.
How is the character you're playing here? Is it refreshing to be on the good side, especially after the Red Wedding?
David Bradley: Yes, it probably means a lot of people don't trust the fact that he's on the side of the angles and probably think, 'Well, there might be a Walder Frey lurking under this guy.'
It crossed my mind.
Bradley: [Laughs] But I have to say, with other things I've done like the Doctor Who special I did and Broadchurch, those guys were kind of much more human than say, some of the other things. But yeah, it's good to play someone so rich and rounded. He's trying to be strong, but he's got fear. He's got a fear of failing in his mission and he has his weaknesses and his reckless determination to plow through whatever, risking other people's lives as well, so he's not just this guardian angle, good guy who's on a mission for the sake of being good.
He's quite a complicated man. As Richard would say with Eichorst, the more complicated the character and the more of an interesting history they have, the audience is more likely to stay with them for longer and go along with their story rather than someone who's just plain black and white. Not to say that Walder Frey, for example, was just pure evil. He exists in a world where that's what you have to do to survive and if you've got 37 kids to marry off, you've got to be ruthless at times, and that's the real world he exists in. So it's not a question of just good and bad. As an actor, you've got to find the reasons for doing whatever they do.
Can you tell me about working with FX on this? Are there any boundaries you can't cross in terms of the gore and violence?
Chuck Hogan: So far, no. I mean, so far, no. Honestly, they've been pushing us, not just in terms of gore and violence, but in terms of the weird and strange and scary, 'Give us more,' which is great. That's exactly what you want in a partner, so I feel like we have a real sort of a license to go wherever we feel like we need to go.
How about being alongside a show like American Horror Story? Do you look at that and think, 'I've got to push the boundaries in a similar way, but also in our way?'
Hogan: No, but I do think that that show is an indication that FX was the right place for our show. I mean, that they are willing to push the envelop and go out to the edge, and maybe a little bit over it, that's exactly what our kind of show needs.
How about from a creative standpoint? The thing that's in my mind right now is the end of the third episode where they're just bashing the poor guy's head in. How do you know when to stop with something like that?
Hogan: That's a great question. You definitely film more than you need and then, as you're watching it, you decide how much you can take and you cut back to that. That's actually one of the trickier parts of the show, and that's not the only example of that. There's been some things where we've gone too far and been like, 'You know what? We could do that, but let's pull it back a little before people really lose it.'
Sounds like great material for a DVD extra.
Hogan: It does, doesn't it? It's funny you mention that.
You've got Lost and you're working on Bates Motel. Is there anything about The Strain that's really different for you that you've never experienced before?
Carlton Cuse: I haven't done a creature show before and so it's been fantastic to collaborate with Guillermo [del Toro] who is, I think, a master visualist and I love the idea that we're upending the vampire genre. We've had enough of the romantic, brooding, existential vampires. I want my vampires scary, parasitic and just pure evil.
What's your favorite vampire other than this one?
Cuse: Oh my god. There was a really obscure vampire picture when I was a little kid called Count Yorga and [it] scared the sh*t out of me when I was like a kid. It was a very obscure movie, but that had a lot of influence on me in terms of seeing vampires as scary.