Damien: Your guide to TV's new Antichrist

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Apr 11, 2016, 1:37 PM EDT

Audiences and critics alike have given A&E’s TV sequel to the 1976 horror classic The Omen their approval. Damien is one of the grimmest supernatural shows to be launched in recent memory, with its macabre tone and abundance of religious overtones, and follows a world-famous war photographer (Bradley James) who has seen global atrocities firsthand. After 30 years of suppressing a turbulent childhood, he is reminded or reawakened to the fact that he is the Antichrist. Unable to keep his past buried, Damien sees his normal world begin to crumble around him as unexplained deaths occur for whomever comes into contact with him. He tries to make sense of this tailspin and is courted by Ann Rutledge (Barbara Hershey) and John Lyons (Scott Wilson), two people posing as friends whose true intentions and plans are still unknown. What we do know is that they know what Damien is capable of and desire to tap his potential, but first Damien has to believe he is the Antichrist and embrace his destiny.

With the inagural season halfway done, Blastr spoke with with Damien’s showrunner, Glen Mazzara (The Shield and The Walking Dead), and stars Bradley James, Barbara Hershey, Omid Abtahi, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Scott Wilson at WonderCon about what has transpired and what's there to love about the new Antichrist. Also, Mazarra and the cast give hints on what is in store for the remaining second half of the first season.


Drawing from The Omen and TV development

Disregard the two Omen sequel films; the only back story you need is the first film, directed by Richard Donner and written by David Seltzer. It’s a classic for those seeking out one of the original “creepy kid” horror films. For those uninitiated, there are flashbacks that bring viewers up to speed when necessary. Bradley James used the original Omen to tap the first five years' worth of backstory into his character, and if it seems odd that the adult Damien has forgotten his past, Hershey explained how that occurred. 

“He’s half-human, he’s like Christ, and the human part of him blanked it out. He couldn’t deal with it. He was always drawn to these painful places like war and pushed away those things in his head.”

“The Omen is my favorite kind of horror,” Hershey continued. “It’s character-based horror that’s reality-based horror. Because if you care or can relate to the people, then you care about what happens to them and are therefore very frightened. The Exorcist is another great example of that. They spend a lot of time in the beginning of the movie getting into this little girl and her life. I love that about the Omen too, it’s that kind of film. One of the things that got me (on board) was that they’re honoring that in Damien.

“I spent some time thinking about what I’d do with it and although I enjoyed the second and third films, I wanted to go back, to that character of Damien Thorne and think what happens if he’s a perverted version of Christ.” Mazzara explained. “He’s the Antichrist. Can we hit that religious mythology a little harder and really examine what that means to a person if Christ is fully divine and fully human, what if we had a character who was fully human and fully evil? Right away you get a conflict. I felt that was a way to create a character that will hopefully allow us many season to examine that journey as he embraces one or the other.”


Starting in Syria

With the heavy biblical overtones as a basis for the TV adaptation, the story opens in Syria where civil war has been ongoing since 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions have been displaced. This is where we first find Damien, photographing the war-torn areas in Damascus until an older woman touches him and jolts his memory of those childhood memories that have been pushed away. Mazzara explained Syria and war photography was chosen as the starting point.

“Originally, we were thinking this story needs to open up in the Middle East. Then, we were thinking, should it open in Jerusalem? Egypt? Or other places? Believe it or not, because we were filming in Toronto in the winter, we needed a place in the Middle East where we could wear heavy coats. Syria does get cold. We picked Syria before the migrant crisis really hit the news and exploded. Other things we’ve written into the show that have oddly become a coincidence. It was just weird. Then, I was worried about the idea of Syria because it might look like we’re ripping from the headlines or maybe we are trying to make a point. I was proud about that scene that it just showed humanity. People trying to live a life and they’re being displaced, and it showed Damien trying to connect with them on a human level. It’s probably the only time in the show where he’s happy. These people become refugees and perhaps he becomes displaced as well. We did add a line where one of the priests says the road to Rome goes through Damascus, because of St. Paul’s conversion was on the road to Damascus. So that fit thematically. 

"I also felt that because Damien was a war photographer and if you look at how the Syrian crisis broke in the news, we did not understand the magnitude of that crisis until we saw that image of that little toddler washing up on the beach. The fact that a single image can really change the world’s perspective was something else we were already writing about. 

“Some people ask me, shouldn’t he be a senator? Or that it doesn’t feel like the Omen, but for one, I do think a picture can change the world, and two, Jesus was a carpenter and that didn’t make sense to people. They were expecting their messiah to be a general at that point of time. That we steered closer to the Christ version story than the expected mustache-twirling demigod perhaps people were expecting is just what we do on the show. We are really just trying to say, 'What’s going on in the world? There’s evil in the world, there’s these questions people are facing, let’s examine that and not just try to service what is the obvious version of this story.'” 


The Bible code

To create the appropriate tone and ground the series in reality, Mazzara had to do an incredible amount of research, though he admits that he didn’t start with ground zero with Damien. He had been waiting over a decade to bring his interest in religious studies and theology, in respect to Catholicism. 

“About 12 years ago I walked into my agent’s office and said I would love to write a show about the building of the Catholic church, and they said no one is going to make that. It’s already been on, it’s basically A.D., but I wanted to do a gritty version. I’ve read all of those texts, I’ve done a tremendous amount of research, and I have an entire bookshelf filled with that sort of stuff. In a way, Damien is my passion project. It’s the building of an evil church [laughs] OK, but those dynamics are the same. Watch, we’ve done that research. One of our writers, her husband is a theologian, and he had not read the scripts or watched any early cuts, and he felt that the theology was pretty tight. I was proud of that, because we did take it seriously. I haven’t heard any backlash by any religious groups about the show — they’re probably not watching it — but if they were, they would see we are taking that stuff seriously. We’re not just kind of doing a pastiche, or throwing things together. We’re really being very thoughtful and respectful of that and examine those things that were taught, particularly as a Catholic, and how do they play and resonate in today’s world?"


Damien’s inner circle

In the first episode, Damien watched Kelly (Tiffany Hines) the woman he loved, die in a freak occurrence and it was difficult to reconcile that perhaps he is cursed or is a source of evil. As Damien searches for answers, he has two friends he can trust: fellow photojournalist and unflinching optimist Amani Golkar (Omid Abtahi), and Simone Baptiste (Megalyn Echikunwoke), the sister of his late girlfriend. Through the first five episodes, Amani and Simone have been sheltered from Damien’s experiences, but that can’t last forever.  As Damien realizes the world that he’s entering, and the darkness within him grows, those friendships get tested. At some point, they will surely be endangered and put at great risk.

Damien’s indirect involvement in Kelly’s death is something that Simone understandably cannot let go and does some investigating of her own for the entire season. “It is a show about the Antichrist, so we are all going to brought into his world,” Echikunwoke said. “Damien and Simone do get closer, not deliberately, but for better or for worse, Kelly’s death definitely binds us.”

As for Amani, he is far more supportive, and just believes that Damien needs a long vacation. He’s not yet a believer of this dark world, the number of the beast, or the notion that Damien is the Antichrist.

“I feel like Amani is there to ground him,” says Abtahi of his character. “If you told me you were the Antichrist, I’d be like, let’s just be real for a second, does this stuff really exist? Amani is someone who wants to bring down Damien’s level of paranoia. He tries to be a good friend to Damien. There comes a point where Damien has to question everyone in his life, so yeah, I try to be the anchor.” 

But how long can that last as the deaths begin to pile up? “It takes a lot for him to open his eyes. Surprisingly, a lot of things will happen and he’ll be like, there’s a reason for everything. We can explain everything. As journalists, they have been through a lot, they’ve seen hell on Earth and the worst of humanity, I think it takes a lot for Amani to open his eyes and that more than meets the eye. There does come a point, which I can’t get to, where Amani says, I can’t explain this. There’s a much greater force around us.”


The mystery of Ann Rutledge

Ask Damien Thorn, and there’s not such thing as a relationship of any kind, but to Ann Rutledge, who has devoted her whole life charting and protecting Damien, he is everything to her. Is it sexual? Is it subservient? Is it an unhealthy obsession? Maybe it's all of those things and more. To Ann, Damien is messiah of the other kind, and she’s willing to endure all of the good and bad that comes with that loyalty. For now, their relationship is very one-sided, but as Damien learns more and Ann is there to try and make sense of it, he is forced to figure out who and what he really is. Ann is willing to wait until he comes around. It’s one of the best dynamics of the show and is not easy to predict.

“I’m pleased that you’re not able to pinpoint what the relationship is,” James explained. “That’s the joy of having someone like Barbara, you have that facility to have a very wide range of what that relationship could be.”

After spending four seasons on Once Upon a Time as the Queen of Hearts, Hershey’s portrayal of Ann Rutledge is pure bliss as she tries to awaken and seduce the agent of destruction. You cannot pull your attention away from Ann, because you never know what she’ll do next, and you don’t quite know or understand what her motives are and how she has twisted her duty to Damien in her mind. Hershey tried to explain what it’s like to love the Antichrist in the way that Ann Rutledge does.

“She does love him on lots of different levels. It’s a huge factor for her, but she also has a belief system. It’s as if you have a very religious Catholic person who believes something fervently, and it’s the same way, it’s just on the other side. Those words are very stacked. The real meaning of 'apocalypse' is revelation, ‘Lucifer’ means bringer of light. Demons in Roman times were muses. The apple in the Adam and Eve story is knowledge. So, she believes this is an age of enlightenment. The Christian version of the bible is their PR, but the reality is something else, it’s bringing it to another level. It’s really interesting to look at it from a different door, which is what I’m doing. If we can unhook ourselves from the adamancy of that story and look at it from this different door, it’s fascinating.  

“When you think of a series as an actor, it’s a grab bag. In a film or a miniseries, you have a beginning, middle and an end. In a series, you get general strokes, but we don’t know any more than (the audience) knows. As we were reading it, we were finding out, as well. The stuff that was so fascinating kept coming. I’d call Glen and we’d talk about it. Then, a lot of it (figuring out the relationship) happens on the set, it’s unexpected and not always programmed. It’s a lot of fun to act that and be in that sphere with Bradley.”

And what about John Lyon’s interest in Damien? He’s been posing as a longtime friend of Damien’s when, in reality, he’s been watching him and employing Ann Rutledge. He appears to be more straightforward as far as what he wants with Damien, but he, too, must watch himself around Ann.

“John and Ann have parallel and competing interests. They’re both want to control Damien.” Wilson ponders. “There’s something interesting about that, and something scary as well, if you think you can control a force they believe that he has. If you can, you’re the man or the woman. If you can’t, you’re setting yourself up for a long fall. [Laughs] 

Mazzara also said much of the dark humor in Damien comes from Ann and Barbara Hershey’s’ delivery. “She has a way to cut things down and is so much fun to write for. Once Damien embraces this darkness and this absurdity around him, people start realizing this world is absurd. Everything’s been turned upside down.”


Damien's identity crisis

One of the things that viewers are tuning into see is to see what happens when Damien begins to accept who he really is and what he chooses do with that power once he’s able to tap into it. Early on, he’s scoffed at the idea that he is who everyone is claiming him to be, but he’s been indirectly involved with five deaths through the first five episodes since he’s come back from Damascus. At some point, Damien cannot deny who he is and slowly realizes the power he wields based on those reacting to him potentially being a dangerous person. 

“I think he’s been avoiding that he has a dark energy around him,” Mazzara explains. “He’s learning at the end of Episode 3 that Ann tells him that this dark energy is pinned to him. He sees that resulting in a death. In Episode 4, now he’s being squeezed by Detective James Shay (David Meunier), and his back is up against the wall. He says, well, I’ve got a card to play, don’t f— with me. Do not f— with me, I’m the Antichrist. You do not want to go down that road. Why wouldn’t he want to play that card? I think we had to take him from the beginning of the show where he’s in hiding, he’s in denial and in pain. He’s not himself in a sense. How does that character develops, that’s interesting to me.

“This is a guy who has been in shock for the first few episodes because of this death or this baptismal event happening. He’s saying, ‘You know what, you don’t want me to be the Antichrist!’ It’s interesting that he suddenly plays that card when he’s under pressure. That’s what the show does for the next few episodes. We keep increasing pressure on Damien so that we see him going further and further down that road. So you’ve seen that little turn, what happens when that turn gets bigger? Who gets hurt? That’s the story we’re telling.”

It’s one thing to say it and utilize his influence on those who believe he is the Antichrist, or a harbinger of bad things to come. It’s a completely different thing for Damien to believe he is the Antichrist. Mazzarra shared what he believes is the central question in every episode from now until the end of the season.

“There’s different levels of belief. You’ll see in every episode, he starts getting more an more information. So, sometimes, it’s an external type of information, when Ann explains to him that there are these conspiracies, these factions and different groups, that seems narcissistic to believe the whole world revolves around him. He’s always got to think he’s part crazy. Then there’s an internal thing as well. Is this really me? Is what they’re saying really true? That’s the dilemma. What does Damien believe internally?”


Damien’s looming descent

The dilemma for Bradley James is to take this character and to show a guy who’s testing the waters. He’s trying to show that evolution in small steps to try and see whether or not people are just making this stuff up, or if it’s the truth. Going back to where detective James Shay tries to catch him in the act of doing something evil, James explains that Damien can be pushed so much before he retaliates or acts out. 

“That’s the joy of the character: he’s not just evil,” Explains James. “It’s not everyone’s perception. It’s a human being. As an actor–if it was all that, you’d be like, eh this is getting a bit dull, but it’s not all that. So, when you get a hint of those moments, it’s great, because I get to try this out. Those moments, in particular, are an indication of what we feel is to come, which is part of the excitement, because we go, ‘Ooh, i think we saw a part of what I think is the Antichrist there. It’s sort of a bubbling-under situation there.’ In that particular situation, Damien is backed into a corner and as a lot of us do, we use what we can at our disposal to get ourselves out. He has a moment of embracing it. He’s pressed hard before that. It’s a while before he turns out. It’s push and push and then, fine (snaps finger). It’s an indication of the potential of what he can become. " 

That’s one thing for the typical main villain to undergo, but Damien Thorn is the series’ protagonist, so will he be able to maintain the affection of the audience? That’s the path each viewer must take, to see what redeeming qualities Damien can retain the darker he gets, the more he feeds on his abilities of being the Antichrist.

“The challenge is always to get the truth out of it. The truth is often what you relate to as a person and as an actor. What you find relatable and go through it yourself and create a character out of it, so that comes as a byproduct. I don’t think you can actively manipulate the audience how they feel about the truth. He has that capacity to make those good and bad decisions, but it gets harder for him to make what I perceive are good decisions because of the baggage of being the Antichrist is a dooming fate.” 

Will Damien ever get to the point where the evil within overcomes the human part of him? 

“He’s always fully both, but what suits his agenda?” Mazzara asked. “Right now, he’s the victim of other people’s agendas and we’ll see that. It’ll be interesting to see what actions he takes, and how does he try to get ahead of it. He doesn’t just want to be a patsy for John Lyons or Ann Rutledge. He wants to be his own man and this is the story of his dealing with extraordinary circumstances in his life. “How do I have a life?” He can’t have a relationship and if he does, that person is always at risk. If he sends that person away, they die anyway. Look at Episode 1. He’s under a lot of pressure and it’s a matter of how to get through this, but there’s really no way through this.


Prophesying the future

Damien was originally shopped around as a six-episode season and, out of all of the networks who considered the property, it was Lifetime who supported it the most. When things fell through with Lifetime, Damien was passed to sister network, A&E, who had previous experience expanded on a classic horror film with its Psycho prequel, Bates Motel. In addition to the move, four more episodes were added to the initial order and that allowed a more robust story for a new show with a rich history. Mazzara shared what changed with the Season 1 extension.

“We were able to open up the world,” said Mazzara. “If you look at the first few episodes, it was really focused on Damien and that tight circle of people around him. Starting with Episode 6 and in particular Episode 7, all of a sudden the world will start opening opening up. We’ll have people coming at Damien. It was a gift, because the show develops and reinvents itself in the back-half.

Now that those characters are up and running, we can develop the story in surprising ways. The show gets dark [laughs] and we’ve had some dark episodes already and we’re only five in. At the end of Episode 3, Damien’s describing this massacre he’s witnessed and you can see he’s traumatized – that’s a really dark story. Then there’s Episode 5 (where a disabled veteran asks Damien to photograph him committing suicide).

Just wait until you see what we do in Episode 6! I didn’t realize I was such a dark person until a few days ago. In our panel, we’re showing some footage of a future episode that when my wife saw it, she said, 'You’re sick!' and my kids yelled, 'Dad!' [Laughs] I thought it was entertaining, so I have a high bar for horror.”

“I’ve never been a part of the show where I wasn’t to see the second season (so bad),” teased Abtahi. “I feel where we end this season, is where a lot of people assumed where we were going to start. As a viewer, I really want to see where the story goes (after the finale)”

Look for the storytelling to shift now that the characters have been established. Damien's relationship with both Ann and John will start to get traction. Ann looks to get aggressive on her own. Amani continues to get into a deeper and dangerous relationship with Veronica (Melanie Scrofano), who may or may not be related to Ann. Is she doing this to infiltrate Damien's inner circle of friendship or sabotage him due to her resentment towards her "family"? How will Simone react to nearly getting ambushed while trying to sneak into Damien's apartment/studio? Then, of course, there's still the Vatican's plan of attack on Damien. 

That's something to mull about for the rest of Season 1 and we've given you plenty of reasons to look back or catch up before the show starts to evolve into what Mazzara teased. Meanwhile, Damien fans, keep your fingers crossed for a Season 2 announcement. 

For new episodes of Damien, tune into A&E, Monday nights at 10 PM.