The cast and creators of The Magicians on spellcasting, honoring the books and turning into geese

Contributed by
Dec 8, 2015, 4:35 PM EST

Is magic real?  At least for one rainy afternoon in western Canada on the set of Syfy's The Magicians, it truly was.

The Magicians is a new 13-part fantasy drama premiering on Jan. 25, 2016, starring Jason Ralph (Quentin Coldwater), Olivia Taylor Dudley (Alice), Stella Maeve (Julia), Hale Appleman (Eliot), Arjun Gupta (Penny) and Summer Bishil (Margo).  Based on the best-selling trilogy of novels by acclaimed Time magazine book critic and novelist Lev Grossman, this is one of Syfy's (Disclosure: Parent company of Blastr) most ambitious and anticipated shows of the new year, and the network is pulling out all the stops to ensure interest reaches a spellbinding pitch before the pilot airs.  A dark, sophisticated reimagining of the kind of fantasia offered by Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia, it revolves around the brilliant students and their complicated lives at an elite university of magic in upstate New York, shrouded in enchantments along the banks of the Hudson River.

The show's production headquarters are entrenched in the cosmopolitan city of Vancouver, BC, an area rife with TV and film productions shooting year-round, including other genre shows like The Flash, Arrow, Supernatural, Once Upon a Time, Fear the Walking Dead and many more, mostly due to its generous tax breaks, a multitude of locations and a profusion of state-of-the-art soundstages. 


Showrunners and executive producers John McNamara (Aquarius) and Sera Gamble (Supernatural) used their own money to option the books, write the pilot and shop the project to the networks, which was one of the main reasons Grossman gave his blessings to release the rights to the creative team.  McNamara has long been ahead of the curve with sultry, sophisticated small-screen dramas like Profit, Lois & Clark, Spy Game, Fastlane and Eyes, and here he trains his immeasurable talents on the arcane landscape of high fantasy and magic, paired with the energetic detail-dotted enthusiasm of Sera Gamble, whose tenure on Supernatural helped solidify CW's paranormal series into a longest running horror series on television.

McNamara and Gamble have assembled a charismatic young cast that has plenty of gas in the talent tanks to immerse themselves into the mysterious world of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, a rare synthesis of looks, talent and composure that should serve the material well as the paranormal series unfolds into 2016.

The stars (minus Jason Ralph) and creative team behind Syfy's highly anticipated new fantasy spectacle offered up their thoughts and desires on the making of The Magicians during a media tour last week while sitting in the series' fantastic laboratory classroom set, with showrunner Sera Gamble and author Lev Grossman present alongside their young coven of budding wizards and witches.

(L-R: Sera Gamble, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleman and Arjun Gupta)

Tackling this sprawling, ambitious project from the start, what was the process of adaptation you followed?

SERA:  Well, I worked with John McNamara and we co-wrote the pilot together.  We started by wooing Lev a little bit.  We were big fans of the books and met him through Michael London, our producer.  And we had a lot of initial chats about what we like and don’t like about this kind of show, and it was sort of a narrowing down process, starting to talk about the themes and the feelings and the weird s*** in the first book that we definitely wanted to capture, and we knew we wanted to anchor it with The Beast.  It was a fairly delightful process start to finish.  The material is so good it’s not like we were fixing anything.  We were just trying to figure out how to make it visual.  How to make it an hour.

Why did you decide to age the characters into grad school years as opposed to college in the book?

SERA: The books span a good number of years.  Quentin starts at 17 and ends in his thirties, which is a big challenge for an 18-year-old actor.  I think more to the point, when you think about the kind of coming-of-age themes and the kind of stories that you tell about somebody going to college, it’s actually even more meaningful if you make someone just a little bit older.  We’re telling stories about becoming an adult, which is something that happens, I think, often in our early twenties these days.

What was it like doing the magic scenes knowing there were going to be digital effects added later?

OLIVIA:  I think we’re pretty lucky on this show, we do a lot of practical magic.  There is some CGI, but we get to do a lot of fun stuff that we get to watch happen that only helps the performance and helps us get into the spirit of it.   Every time I get to do something, like when wind is moving around the room and things are flying around for real, it’s f'ing great.

ARJUN:  We have an amazing special effects team.  Darren and his whole team are really incredible at making a lot of things real for us.  I think we explode something daily.  We lit something on fire yesterday and the day before as well.  They do an incredible job and as actors, that’s such a gift because it makes it so much easier to respond to.

How have you found working with Lev has changed or enhanced your experience of being your characters, and for Lev, how has it been being on this journey and seeing your world come to life and seeing it built differently than in the books?

HALE:  Lev laid such an incredible blueprint in the books that to be an actor and be given the gift of playing one of his characters in the series is incredible. There’s just so much that enriches the backstory of what we can pull from as actors.  To have him around and available to us is a tremendous gift.  It’s really just a deeper well of information and that’s a beautiful thing, and rare.

ARJUN:  He’s been incredibly supportive.  I think that’s been amazing.

LEV: I have been incredibly supportive.  (Laughs)  The experience has been really marvelous.  I came to it with some trepidation.  Being a novelist, you do everything yourself, you do the costumes, you do the dialogue, you play all the parts, you tell everybody how to say everything, and it’s a real transition coming to a medium that’s as collaborative as TV.  But it’s really been a wonderful surprise.  These people do things with the characters that I never would have thought of, but I wish I had.  To hear people say things out loud, to watch their facial expressions, even to watch them acting when they’re not speaking off the action, it’s really wonderful . When you’re a writer, one of the best things that happens is when your characters surprise you and these guys surprise me all the time in really wonderful ways.

ARJUN: We all love the books and are huge passionate fans and there’s a pressure that can come with that in wanting to honor these stories.  The biggest gift I’ve received is that having his blessing has really been monumental in allowing me to free myself in taking some level of ownership of Penny and that’s a huge gift that I thank you for.

(Summer Bishil, Lev Grossman)

When you take on a project that has a built-in level of expectations, does it change the creative process?

SERA:  It does, yeah.  I put myself in the fans’ shoes, sometimes.  I think telling a story over a season of television is a very particular beast and, ultimately, that’s the master we have to serve as writers.  And that means knowing that sometimes we’re really going to hit it, the thing that fans love, and sometimes we’re gonna make a left turn and will beg their forgiveness or ask them to see it another way or take the criticism.  I’d so much rather have people be passionate about something I’m working on, even if it’s a little bit divisive.  I don’t want to be too optimistic about it, but I do feel a sense of goodwill from Lev’s fans.  I do feel like they’re happy that these books are being made into a TV show and all of the writers go to work just wanting to do the project justice and make our own weird little piece the best possible version it can be.

What was it like breaking down the intricate magical systems and spellcasting from the books and translating them from page to screen?

SERA:  Oh, that was awesome!!  It’s so fun.  I think it was actually maybe the moment I was reading the books that I knew they’d be great to adapt. There’s a very strong point of view about how magic is accomplished, like a single spell, that it requires a lot of arduous practice, you have to learn how to move your fingers in very strange and difficult ways.  It sounds like learning the piano or something, but old school.  And that is an opportunity to do something different with magic than maybe you’ve seen on other shows or in movies, when they wave their wands.  No, it’s hard!  We’ve hired a choreographer who has helped us develop a visual language for how spells are cast.  We spend a lot of time in the writers room differentiating between how each character’s magic manifests.  In many ways, it’s an expression of your personality.  So, the way that Eliot casts a spell is very different from the way Alice casts a spell.  We would order up a different level of intricacy from our choreographer.  And then, on the other side of kinda the planet, we have Julia, who is learning magic underground without the benefit of a classic education, so that’s sort of like another dialect.  It’s really fun.  I geek out on it hard!

LEV:  Writing about people doing magic was one of those things, I felt I’d never seen it quite right and wanted to take a crack at it myself.  But I didn’t know in advance whether it would work on screen.  There are things you can write on the page, they work, you’re describing them, but to actually see them, physically do them, you don’t know if it’s actually going to work.  So, it was one of the things I was quite nervous about, watching them cast spells.  But it’s crazy, it works so well.  And it also doesn’t work unless people really commit to it. There’s a bit in the books where somebody says that when you’re doing magic you have to mean it.  It’s really cool watching these guys do it, they really sell it, they really mean it.

ARJUN:  I feel so good right now!!  This is great!

Was there any particular scene or set piece from the books you couldn’t wait to see?

LEV:  I was very interested in the scene in which Quentin first manifests his magical ability and he’s getting his exam for Brakebills.  I really wanted to see that badly.  And that was a make or break moment for me.  Are we going to get what’s important about the books and is it going to get on screen.   And you’ve probably seen it, it’s in the pilot. They really crushed it.  It really works.  It’s very beautiful.  One of the important things to me was that magic be beautiful and that it just be lovely to look at.  I geek out a lot over the magic, any bit where they cast spells, I get a lot of enjoyment out of that.  I have a special attachment to the part where they turn into geese.

(Olivia Taylor Dudley, Hale Appleton, Arjun Gupta)

How did you get first into your roles and how did you prepare for the magic scenes?

ARJUN:  The books are so much about people.  Magic is a lens through which to speak about very human things and that whole transition of how we grow up and that whole transition into adulthood.  I really tried to honor that when approaching the role and get as specific and detailed about who Penny is and where he came from and what magic meant to him.

OLIVIA:  We all got to do some fun things and work with a magician and learned some cool tricks.  I think, for Quentin’s character, he does play with the more traditional sleight-of-hand things.  I agree with Arjun: At least for me, it’s much more of the internal part, what it’s like to be Alice and where she came from and that doesn’t involve a lot of magic.  For her, it’s not about the magic, it’s more about being human.

HALE:  And it’s about the characters that Lev created in the books, so to have read the books before shooting was pretty essential to ground myself in the character.

What made you guys the most excited about your characters?

SUMMER:  I think for me, I get more excited as each week goes by and each script that comes out, uncovering the layers and dimensions of Margo and being surprised about how many layers there are to her, and her being surprised as well.  So, just going on the journey with my character and everybody else is really exciting.

ARJUN:  I didn’t know the books before I auditioned.  I’d worked with Sera before, so when I read the script, I was thrilled.  I thought this was taking a risk.  I was auditioning for both Penny and Eliot, which would have been a disaster if I’d been Eliot.  That would have been not good for anyone.  Penny is very different than I am in a lot of ways, but it’s dark s***, guys.  Sera, John and the writing takes us to crazy places, and as an actor I’m constantly challenging myself.  How do I honor this, how do I fully bring this to life?

HALE: I think what I love most about Eliot is that he’s this mass of contradictions and you can’t really put a finger on him.  He’s a sinner and he’s a broken little child and he’s masculine and he’s feminine and he’s powerful and he’s vulnerable.  He’s just very complex and I have never had such an opportunity in my life and that is so incredibly gigantic and such an honor for me to tackle him.  I completely love him.

Were there any parts of the book that scared you or made you nervous as actors when you read them?

OLIVIA:  Well, there’s a lot of things we just can’t practically do in life.  But I think that we’re so lucky that we get to tell these intricate human stories in a landscape that’s so beautiful like Brakebills through the language of magic that you wouldn’t be able to do in any other story.  Getting to turn into geese and foxes and whales sounds scary, but for me, it’s the human relationship.  When I got here, I hoped we’d really get into them and every week something new unfolds in the scripts and with the other actors that I never could have imagined.  It’s all there in the books, but then getting to experience it is mindblowing.

Why was it important for you to have a gay character in the books and the series?

LEV:  One of the things that drove the writing of The Magicians was that there were ways in which the fantasy stories I was reading just weren’t like the world I was living in; there were things that were missing, and I wanted to fill them in.  My rule with myself was that everything that exists in our world has to exist in The Magicians world, too, except for C.S. Lewis.  I don’t think there’s any Narnia in there, but everything else.  I wanted to have characters with different sexualities and it wasn’t going to be an issue book.  This wasn’t going to be the fantasy novel that had a gay character in it.  It just made sense that somebody should be gay, because real people are gay.

SERA:  It’s important to me to write things that reflect the real world and the real world has a wider spectrum than what we’ve seen on television. It’s such a natural part of the story and it’s about people in their early twenties getting to know each other that there’s actually a fair amount of exploration of our characters’ sexuality in Season 1 period, and that’s just part of it.  And I agree, it’s not any kind of flag that we’re waving.  In any given crowd of over ten people you’re not going to have all straight dudes, it’s just not going to happen, so it doesn’t happen on The Magicians.

Check back soon for more from our visit to The Magicians' set, including pics of Brakebills and an interview with writer Lev Grossman!