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In Netflix's new supernatural drama Locke & Key, Connor Jessup plays Tyler Locke, a teenager devastated by witnessing his father's murder and alienated by a cross-country move to his late father's spooky old childhood manor house (his mother's decision-making is clearly handicapped by grief). For Jessup himself, however, the project was a homecoming after nearly a decade of steadily building a career in Hollywood.
Jessup, best known for his work in the TNT sci-fi series Falling Skies and ABC's drama American Crime, was raised in Toronto, where his family still lives and Netflix shoots a solid percentage of its original programming. That meant coming back east and sleeping in his own bed after grueling 13-hour days shooting the adaptation of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's comic book saga, which ran from 2008 to 2012.
"When you work 12 or 13 or 14 hours a day and you're four months in and you're bleary-eyed and you can barely stand and your life has become a hypnotic daze," Jessup told SYFY WIRE earlier this month, "it's nice to be able to go home every day and see your things and to sleep in your bed and on weekends be able to go out and have lunch with your mom."
Much of that bleary-eyed time on set was spent at Key House, the Locke family's ancestral home in Matheson, Massachusetts. It's a massive old mansion, and just one look at the place suggests that there are supernatural forces making full use of squatter's rights. The entire town knows enough to stay away from the creepy estate, and as the new generation of Lockes arrive at the eerie homestead, dark magic and stirring ghosts with unfinished business are there to greet them.
Tyler and his siblings, sister Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and young brother Bode (Jackson Robert Scott), soon discover powerful keys that lead to forbidden rooms and dimensions — including trippy physical manifestations of their own minds — as well as temptations impossible for teenagers to resist.
For all of Toronto's enviable architecture, nothing like Key House existed there, at least in any viable form, so Netflix spared no expense in manufacturing a set that would capture the essence of the haunted mansion at the center of Hill's comics.
"It's really amazing, the work that our art department did," Jessup marveled. "Everything you see about the house, the interior, the exterior, the property, the well house, every single part of it was built for the show. They found this abandoned lot outside of Toronto that had nothing on it. They built the house for exteriors. They built the well house. They did all the landscaping. Then the interior of the house was built on a soundstage in the city. I don't think you could find a house like that just sitting there."
Jessup spoke with SYFY WIRE more about the Key House, how his Canadian roots did (and didn't) help him as Tyler, and shooting scenes with his new family.
This is the third attempt at a Locke & Key show — there was one pilot years ago that didn't take, then Hulu passed on a pilot based on an earlier version of this script, from producers Carlton Cuse and Meredith Averill. Did you watch any of those earlier versions?
I came to know about the complicated history of this project after it came into my life. So, it was sent to me in the normal fashion. I got a script, I got a breakdown. One of the fun things about being an actor is that you kind of get to skip a lot of the difficult stuff because you enter a project at about the latest possible stage and then you leave right when it gets complicated. You get to exist like right in the fun center, right in the gooey middle.
So, I kind of woke up to this project after it had been through nine or 10 years of really complicated development. I never saw either of the previous pilots. I never really asked too many questions about them because I felt like whatever other people did before and whatever the differences in characters or tones it probably was best for me not to know too much. So, I tried to think of it as a new thing.
I think about that all the time with theater, with coming in and playing a character that six or seven other people at least before you. And it's not really an experience I've had and how I must imagine that would be very stressful. So, I tried to avoid that.
Did you read the comics beforehand?
I binged them in a weekend. The nice thing is that it's only six volumes, 37 issues. It's able to tell a really cohesive story while still having room for all the fun adventure and experimentation that is so electric in the comics.
I read the comics after I had read maybe the first two or three scripts for the show. So, actually my introduction to the world and the characters was through our script and not through the comics, which probably in the long run was for the better. It actually kind of worked out perfectly for me because the show was different enough from the comics that I think we all felt liberated.
We all felt like we weren't being asked to do exact imitations of how things roll out in the comics and how people come across. But the spirit of the comics, which is about what it means to grow up with trauma is still so much the spirit of the show even if the outer layer of tone or story is a little bit different, it's still very much about the same thing.
Joe Hill is an executive producer on this show and I know he visited the set. Did you work with him much?
I love Joe. I guess this is the sort of thing that you would expect someone to say when doing press for something, but I actually mean it, that he was the nicest man I've ever met. He showed up so full of enthusiasm and excitement and positivity. It was almost like the show's biggest fan was visiting set. He was so warm and he was so into every detail and every scene and every scene. He was so pumped by the show and I would imagine if I was in his situation and I had made this thing that I cared a lot about and it had gone through so many different renditions and it had been such a struggle to get it to this point, I imagine that I might feel wary and bitter and a little cautious. And he was so the opposite of that.
One of the times he came and visited, some point in the middle of our shoot, there was some scene that I was shooting with Jackson, who plays Bode, and that night I got a text message from Joe saying, "You're a good big, big brother." And I almost started to cry. Everyone had stories like that. He was so not precious and so supportive of what we were trying to do. So, it means a lot to all of us. And hopefully, it means a lot to the fans of the comics too, that he is so involved and so excited. I mean, if you go on his Twitter feed you can see that it's genuine.
He was more excited and more committed than anyone working on the show to make sure that we were keeping fans of the comics on their toes so that even people who felt like they knew the comics and knew where the story was going, that those people would be the most surprised in a way. He was the biggest supporter of that.
They built the exterior of the house as you mentioned, and then the whole interior on a soundstage. It's a bit different from the comic, but how did having that real space impact your work?
In the comics, the house is six stories tall and it really is more in the Tim Burton mode. It's more fantastic. Whereas this house, it feels like it almost just could be real. It's not defying any laws of physics. You could build that house like we did. But it also feels like you've never seen a house like that and you probably couldn't find one if you really tried. It's part of what makes it so effective, I think. It feels just on the edge of plausibility
I think we were all not surprised but were all very happy that even though this is a show about magic and adventure and other worlds, that our experience as actors was so concrete and tangible. With maybe the exception of one scene, I can't think of anything where I worked with only a green screen. Everything was real or at least 75 percent real. And every space we were in was real. The caves are real, the house is real.
And it makes, especially for Key House where we spend so much of the show in that house and we get to go in every room. We as actors got to know the space over the course of the five months we were shooting. And I think as you watch the show, you feel like by the end you get to know this house. You start to develop memories. You're like, "Oh, this is the bench where we talked about this and this is the little nook where that happened. And this two weeks ago we shot a scene over by this light..." And then over the course of the five months, that means that you have memories in every single part of the space. It's like a real house that you live in.
Which rooms did you like the most?
I really like what I think in the show we call the Winter Study, which is the room that has the ghost door in it. It's almost a library. I really loved that room. And we got to do a lot in that room. So, I felt a connection to it.
My least favorite room was the kitchen. I felt we had so many scenes in that kitchen. And it's so beautiful. It's so beautifully designed but it's enormous and you realize, as an actor, it's like when you're playing these ... They're all like intimate family scenes that are set in there and you get in there and you realize that you're in a football stadium. It's a huge space and it becomes like, how do we play this scene without shouting?
It seemed that every morning, your family would have a giant breakfast, far bigger than anything anyone would normally eat before school or work.
I think it became a thing for our writers, that like every two episodes we would have a breakfast scene. Any actor you talk to will tell you that those sorts of scenes are nightmares because you have to eat, and you have to remember what you eat and then whatever poor character is serving the food has to coordinate what things they're bringing on what line. I mean, it's already, like 50 yards from the table to the stove, so you have to bring things all across the room. It's a challenge.
So you didn't really eat all that much.
Yeah, but Jackson learned his lesson pretty quickly. I think at first he was very excited by the idea of being able to eat as much he wanted and then he learned the downside of that pretty fast I think.
Tyler is a pretty good hockey player, so growing up in Canada must have come in handy.
I'm a terrible Canadian. I played hockey — which is the national religion up there of course — I played maybe two years at house league when I was six and seven and I was so graceless and terrible that even my very committed father gave up on me and I begged him to let me stop playing hockey. So, I did not have that Canadian quality going for me. So, all that stuff is partly me excavating whatever skills I had, but mostly the magic of movies.