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The night before he was set to begin work on The Stand, a CBS All Access miniseries event in which he plays one of the key villains, Nat Wolff found himself freaking out. Faced with the task of squaring off with Alexander Skarsgård's big bad, the walkin' dude known as Randall Flagg, Wolff was second-guessing the months he'd spent developing his own character, Lloyd Henreid. Then he went to get some dinner, and inspiration struck over sandwich shop loudspeakers.
"The night before shooting, I had a panic attack, and I thought, 'This character is so extreme,' and I went really out on the edge," Wolff told SYFY WIRE at a virtual press junket ahead of the show's Dec. 17 premiere. "Then I went into a Subway... and I heard 'Like a Virgin' by Madonna playing on the radio, and I thought, 'Oh, f***,' and it just possessed me, and I started dancing. Everybody was looking at me, and I was like, 'I think I got it.' And then, for the rest of the shoot, I would just play 'Like a Virgin,' and immediately I was there. It was like the cloak of inspiration."
That it took a chance listen to a Madonna classic to get Wolff into character as Henreid — a small-time crook who finds himself first an unlikely survivor of a superflu and then an unlikely right hand to an apocalyptic demon — feels like a good example of the kind of strange alchemy The Stand has as both a new production and a classic story. The miniseries is based on Stephen King's celebrated 1978 novel of the same name, an epic, mammoth-sized tale of survivors of a pandemic who find themselves drawn via dreams to one of two extremes in a fallen world. On what feels like the purer side, some gravitate to Colorado, where a kindly old prophet named Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg) is calling them to rebuild society. On the other, less pure side, some head for Las Vegas, where Flagg is organizing a society of his own, one built more on destruction and celebration than on survival.
Knowing that his character was destined for Las Vegas and the darker side of post-superflu survival to come allowed Wolff a certain freedom that helped him push his version of Lloyd forward in more extreme directions — with a little help from Madonna. Once he nailed his inspirations, Wolff says, he was so confident in the character that he actually fought for an early scene that shows him robbing a convenience store — a key moment in King's novel — to be added back into the script. "I begged them," he shares. "I said, 'I think you need to see Lloyd in his world before you see him in this other world.' So, I think that was a huge key... that moment is so impactful. Lloyd is immediately such an interesting character after that scene."
Just as the survivors of the virus (dubbed "Captain Trips" by Americans as it sweeps across the nation during one deadly summer) find themselves mysteriously drawn in one direction or another in the world of The Stand, so too did the show's other stars find themselves following various inspirational paths to find their characters.
For Henry Zaga, who plays survivor Nick Andros, who is both deaf and mute, finding that path was especially key, and not just because of his character's importance to the story. Fans of King's novel know very well how much Nick matters to the survivors organizing under Mother Abigail, but Zaga also had another challenge: believably and respectfully play a deaf-mute man, even as some fans were upset that a deaf actor didn't land the role in the first place.
"I mean, for me, the most honorable thing I could do as an actor was to immerse myself in this experience, respecting the language, respecting the culture, and learning from people that lived through it," Zaga says. "I think that's what we should all do as actors, is live through those situations if we can. And I was lucky enough to have wonderful deaf friends that were openhearted and talked me through many of those situations that Nick goes through also in the book. Also, my ASL coach was able to take me to a deaf convention, where I got to meet hard-of-hearing people and CODAs, who are children of deaf adults, and it was a lot of homework. It literally pulled me inside-out, turned me inside-out to just see the world with different eyes. To me, that was the most rewarding experience of my life. It changed me as a human being, and it gave me so much to work with for Nick."
Lloyd Henreid and Nick Andros are pillars of The Stand story, working on opposite sides of a conflict that, for much of the tale, neither of them fully understands. But there's a vastness to the story that also allows for all manner of other personalities to inhabit this broken world where only a small percentage of the population hasn't fallen victim to a devastating pandemic. The uncut version of King's novel is more than 1,100 pages long, and the new miniseries from showrunner Benjamin Cavell and director Josh Boone is set to adapt that novel across nine massive episodes. That leaves lots of room for wild cards.
Enter Shadowhunters and Arrow star Katherine McNamara as Julie Lowry, a young woman who's been surviving on her own for ages by the time we meet her in the series, and in the course of her isolation has become what McNamara calls a "manic Tinker Bell of the apocalypse." She's a mass of contradictions, as evidenced by both her wardrobe and her behavior, something McNamara really started to find when she began working with The Stand team on hair and wardrobe for a character she calls unlike anyone else she's ever played.
"My first costume fitting is I think where it truly came together," McNamara says. "You know, I walked into a room full of prom dresses and combat boots and glitter and sequins and fur, and I suddenly went, 'Oh, this all makes sense now.' It sort of brought together perfectly all things Julie."
She explains: "I was coming off of Arrow, sort of figuring out, 'OK, I'm transitioning into something very different,' and I wanted to make it a distinct change. After starting the fittings and doing all of these things, I got a phone call where they said, 'Oh, by the way, we told you you're dyeing your hair pink, right?' And I went, 'No, but perfect, and I'm so game.' And it all kind of brought everything together... if you have this girl who has been on her own in this giant warehouse for who knows how many months, what else would you do? You would play with makeup. You would dye your hair. You would try on every piece of clothing in there and just try and keep some semblance of sanity and entertainment."
Julie, Nick, and Lloyd are just three pieces of a massive effort that came together to make The Stand an eerily timely story of devastation and dark magic, redemption, and perseverance. Each of them arrives in the story in a different way, just as each actor playing them arrived at the personalities they're inhabiting in a different way, but all of them have a role to play in the coming clash of light and dark.
The Stand premieres Dec. 17 on CBS All Access. Check back soon for more of SYFY WIRE's coverage of the miniseries event.