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After a five-year hiatus, Robert Langdon — author Dan Brown's Harvard professor/symbologist of The DaVinci Code fame — is returning to a screen near you via The Lost Symbol on Peacock later this week. Based on the 2009 (and previously unadapted) novel of the same name, the TV series takes place in the early days of Langdon's career of solving puzzles and thwarting vast-reaching conspiracies. Ashley Zukerman (most recently seen in the Fear Street trilogy over at Netflix) steps into the role previously occupied by Oscar winner Tom Hanks across three film adaptations directed by Ron Howard.
"Luckily, I hadn’t actually read any of the books previously," Zukerman tells SYFY WIRE. "I had 3,000 pages of material to study and to try to mine for information about who this guy [Langdon] was. Even though our story is an origin story — it’s based 20 years before that person — that gave me more freedom because then I could look for clues, little things about the person he becomes. Why is that something he does? Why is that his behavior? I just open it up a little bit, fray the hairs a little more. It’s a fun way to work. I’ve never been able to work on something like that before."
One of the biggest character traits Zukerman honed in on from the novels was Langdon's crippling fear of tight spaces (something the character has struggled with since he accidentally fell into a well as a young boy).
"I was fascinated by that idea," the actor says. "In someone who, perhaps, is already predisposed to claustrophobia. What does that mean and where does that come from and where else might he have claustrophobia? I think that there’s something that goes on for Robert Langdon where he has a hard time connecting with people. I think he sort of has a social claustrophobia as well; he has a hard time letting anyone in.
"I was fascinated by that and I think it made a lot of sense for his arms-length approach to people ... He’s only really ever comfortable when he’s in an argument, when he’s talking about something he knows about. When it starts to be about feeling something internal for him, he starts to lose all faith and trust in himself, and that congealed something for me," Zukerman continues. "He ends up being someone who is incredibly knowledgeable, but has a hard time trusting anything he can’t prove or he doesn’t know the origin of, which are feelings."
Zukerman's co-star, Valorie Curry (The Tick) also looked to Brown's source material for inspiration, especially since Langdon's companion in The Lost Symbol, Katherine Solomon, has never been portrayed before.
"I know the fanbase is very invested and that Katherine has a very unique history with Langdon, which we haven’t seen before," Curry says. "She’s the smartest person in the room, she’s ten steps ahead of everybody else, she’s so emotionally mature, she’s so cool, [and] she’s driven by a faith in humanity and a faith in impossibility."
While Ron Howard and Brian Grazer returned to executive produce the series under their Imagine Entertainment banner, Zukerman made a very conscious decision not to play Langdon like a younger version of Hanks.
"I think I just knew early on that because it’s an origin story, I couldn’t replicate that," the actor explains. "Aside from it being Tom Hanks, it’s just a different story and ultimately, it’s the person I’m gonna become. So, it’s far more interesting to actually go back and lean on the opinion everyone has of the books or of his portrayal in the movies and actually just try to unwind a little bit ... that was the approach: to just think of it as someone who is just rougher around the edges, who isn’t as ridged or complete as the person that everyone knows."
"The presence of Imagine is very strong," Curry adds. "There’s a strong desire to maintain the artistic and creative integrity from the films, but they’re also very supportive of us pushing the envelope and breaking past what’s already been established in the films. Just going further, making something new, making something exciting, and keeping it really fresh. People have an idea of these properties from the books and from the movies, but because we’re doing this as a series, we get the opportunity to take so much more time, to delve so much deeper."
Another major deviation from what's come before is the glaring absence of Langdon's iconic Mickey Mouse watch (a cherished gift from his parents that shows up in every novel). "It was absolutely discussed... but who knows?" Zukerman admits, his face breaking out into a wide smile. "He has to have a Mickey Mouse watch. Maybe it’s just at the store getting the battery [replaced]. It was disappointing. I was looking forward to that."
The Lost Symbol takes place in Washington, D.C., where Langdon is tasked with saving his mentor, Peter Solomon (Hannibal's Eddie Izzard), a member of the Freemasons, who holds the key to a long-fabled portal hidden deep beneath the streets of the American capitol. Langdon eventually teams up with Katherine (who just so happens to be Peter's daughter), a specialist in the field of Noetic Sciences, to solve the mystery and thwart Peter's kidnapper, a mysterious and tattooed individual by the name of Mal'akh (The Nice Guys' Beau Knapp) who will stop at nothing to find the portal.
Wondrous treasures associated with the birth of the United States? Murderous adversaries with shady motivations? A ticking clock with incredibly high stakes? All of these elements make the show feel like a grown-up version of Disney's National Treasure franchise. Zukerman and Curry, on the other hand, compare it to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Stephen Sommers' 1999 remake of The Mummy.
"Raiders is a big one," Zukerman says. I think the show does have a unique genre that we just haven’t seen on TV for a while. This action/adventure/fantasy that’s drama and character-driven. That’s something we’ve been able to explore in films more of late than on television. But in terms of touchstones, I didn’t watch Indiana Jones out of fear of trying to replicate [Harrison Ford]. But I think — in terms of action/adventure touchstones — Raiders is the only one that comes to mind."
Curry reveals that her portrayal of Katherine is partly based on Rachel Weisz' Evelyn O'Connell from The Mummy. "She’s so classic, she’s so poised, she’s so composed, she’s so goofy and so intelligent. And there is something about Katherine, maybe because of her family and her history, but there is something very classic and perhaps of another time that I wanted to bring in. But yeah, The Mummy’s a big one for me."
While shooting the pilot episode with director/executive producer Dan Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) at the helm, Curry also realized that Katherine is also a bit like Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia from the original Star Wars trilogy.
"I remember having a conversation with Dan during the pilot [shoot] in the scene when Katherine is taken by the CIA. I played it afterwards and I was like, ‘She’s Princess Leia!’ It’s that whole, ‘Vader, only you could be so bold.’ This flash of arrogance that she has. So, it’s a little Evie O’Connell, a little Katherine Hepburn, and a little Princess Leia."
When the story picks up in Episode 1, Robert and Katherine already have a romantic past, one that fizzled out due to the former's inability to see Katherine's work as anything other than pseudo-science. This hard-headed obstinance on the part of Langdon was relayed to Zukerman during a fateful dinner with Dan Brown himself.
"He said something that I wasn’t even ready to hear at the time. He just said, ‘Langdon would love to have faith, but he can’t,'" the actor recalls. "At the time, I couldn’t even understand that. That’s something that’s so foreign to me as a person. I don’t have a dogma that gives me a compass, that occupies me. It was something that I couldn’t actually hear yet, but then in the process of studying the books, of studying him, of studying the scripts, I kept coming back to that one thing — and that’s actually central to our show and it actually is a great foil for him."
Zukerman adds that Langdon's narrow-mindedness is an unintentional critique to today's society. "There’s a conversation between fact and fiction and how we marry the two. How there’s a lot of people who are acting and believing based on feelings rather than actually seeking out facts. I think that within Langdon, we have a judgement of those people. But hopefully, in him being able to soften a little bit, it allows for understanding between the people. I think there’s something there that’s very interesting and that all stemmed from that one very astute thing that Dan Brown knew to tell me at dinner."
Curry also sought out advice from Brown during the initial table read. "It’s kind of hard not to geek out when you’re with Dan Brown," Curry says with a laugh. "You wanna ask all these questions and I just wanted to touch base with him that I was on the right track as I started with what I was researching — who I was looking to as inspiration for Katherine — and that was the crux of our conversation. It was about Noetics ... What I found really helpful for me beyond the book was doing research on some of the writers and researchers who were the inspiration behind this character like Marilyn Schlitz and her work. I got a little bit into Masons, and then I was like, ‘That’s not her thing anyway.’ It was more meaningful to understand what work Katherine’s really dedicated to and what that tells me about who she is."
Once shooting got underway in Toronto, the two actors found themselves in awe of Izzard, an honorary member of Monty Python with the rare talent of seamlessly flitting between the worlds of comedy and drama.
"She is so perfectly cast. She is a fascinating mind, and I think that’s what you need for that role," Zukerman says of Izzard. "Someone who just occupies a different space intellectually that doesn’t necessarily live in our world, but just works on another level entirely. She’s a great foil to Langdon for that reason. I think that’s sort of been an incredible touchstone for the series. A friend of mine told me once to put together a good cast, you have to create an orchestra. You want everyone to play a different instrument and it’s quite inspired to have her play Peter because it needs to live somewhere else."
"I also started geeking out when I learned Eddie was gonna play my dad," Curry admits. "She keeps you on your toes. I think what you see in her comedy is still very present in her dramatic process. This spontaneous invention, constant discoveries — it feels like a force that moves through the set. And then as soon as it’s done and [they call] 'Cut!' she’s making jokes again. But obviously, she’s masterful in drama as well as in comedy ... That spontaneous creativity, that constant discovery is still present in that dramatic work. Which is great because I think sometimes when you’re doing drama, especially when it’s this dark, there can sometimes be a tendency for things to get heavy or things can fall into patterns — and she’s just constantly breaking that up and finding new ways to look at things."
While the series has yet to make its global debut on Peacock, Zukerman and Curry are already holding out hope for a second season renewal. "We’re still filming," the former says. "I haven’t seen the last two episodes, so I genuinely don’t have an answer. But if I could guess, the first season does end with where the third book ends. We’re sort of lucky that this book just wasn’t made into a movie because it’s a great origin story."
"I wish I knew. I don’t. I think — as I’m pretty sure has been openly discussed — the book The Lost Symbol is what is serving as the first season," Curry says. "There is the possibility of more seasons, but I have no idea if it’s gonna be about adapting other work of Dan Brown’s, if it’s gonna be original. I would have so much sympathy for our writers if they had to create a Dan Brown puzzle from scratch without some source material to draw from."
The next logical step would be to tackle the only Langdon book that has yet to be adapted for the screen: Origin. Published in the fall of 2017, the Catalonia-based novel finds Robert trying to discover the truth about a breakthrough theory of evolution that presents a dire threat to all major world religions.
"That’s a conversation that I’ve heard. I don’t know if that’s apocryphal. I have a feeling it is," Zukerman says when we ask about the possibility of Origin serving as the basis for a potential sophomore outing. "We haven’t aired yet and it’s not unusual to start rumors about a second season before something’s even aired yet, so I’m just crossing my fingers and waiting. I think that’s somewhere we could go. Spain’s beautiful."
But if Origin really is next on the docket, it could mean the end of Katherine Solomon and the introduction of museum curator Ambra Vidal — given that Langdon works with a different companion in every story.
"I have some self-interest in hoping that we have some original story for Season 2 … I keep making a Doctor Who joke, that it’s a different companion every time. Obviously, Katherine has a different relationship with him than any of his other companions," Curry finishes. "I have no idea and I think that’s part of what’s exciting about it. I hope it’s exciting for fans; you just don’t know what you’re gonna get. This could be a continuation where you get more backstory on who these people are. [It's something] you're not gonna get anywhere else if they decide to write something original, or you could get some awesome anthology-style TV show, which we love. I don’t know, maybe I’ll get to play somebody else. I’ll dye my hair."
The Lost Symbol premieres on Peacock this coming Thursday, Sep. 16. Sumalee Montano (10 Cloverfield Lane) and Rick Gonzalez (Arrow) co-star.
(Peacock & SYFY WIRE are both owned by NBCUniversal)