Emerald City's cast and creators talk feminism, the Wizard, and their take on Oz

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Feb 25, 2019, 2:03 PM EST (Updated)

"When I heard they were doing this, I thought it was a terrible idea," Shaun Cassidy said. We are discussing Cassidy's new show, Emerald City, a retelling of The Wizard of Oz. "I thought the world had gone to that well so many times -- and not always successfully." He and Emerald City's showrunner, David Schulner, were friends with Josh Friedman, who was on the first incarnation of the series. "The more I heard about it [from Josh], the more intrigued I became by it," Cassidy admits.

NBC originally picked up Emerald City to series in 2014. I remember seeing advertisements for it at San Diego Comic Con, but it was canceled and the project disappeared. A year later, NBC reversed its decision and went forward with the project, this time with Cassidy and Schulner on board. Tarsem Singh joined as the director of all 10 episodes, an endeavor that took nine months to shoot.

Emerald City is like The Wizard of Oz for the Game of Thrones set -- a comparison actress Adria Arjona (Dorothy) doesn't like. She is a "big fan" of Game of Thrones, but points out that "Tarsem has made such a beautiful, magical world of his own." The comparison is apt: Rather than being set in a Technicolor, candy-coated world, Emerald City is set in a fantasy world that feels like the 16th century, with dabs of technology, stunning costumes and expansive sets. Schulner admits they are in the same genre (adult fantasy) but hopes their show is less bleak. "And we are 100% less rapey," he assures me.

"The movie is iconic," Schulner says. "We are doing the books." Besides the fact that MGM has an iron grip on the rights to anything and everything that was seen in Victor Fleming's 1939 musical, the producers wanted to give Emerald City a more modern feel. "L. Frank Baum's mother was one of the very first suffragists," Schulner says of the book's author. "Baum's books are infused with feminism and anti-patriarchal [ideas]. In the second [Oz] book, an army of young women march on Emerald City because they are tired of being ruled by men. It is a matriarchal society of witches who ran Oz for thousands of years."

"Every female character in this film has an incredibly strong arc," Cassidy points out. "The guys are all more wounded in many ways. This is a story about people becoming whole, starting with Dorothy. But all the characters have this part of themselves that has been ripped away. It's more dominant in male characters."

Vincent D'Onofrio plays the Wizard of Oz, a man who Schulner describes as a "fraud." D'Onofrio wanted the role before he even saw a script. "I was on the set of The Magnificent Seven, and Tarsem's agent showed up," explains D'Onofrio. "He said he was working on a version of Wizard of Oz and I asked if they had cast the wizard yet. 'Tell Tarsem I want to play the wizard!' I did a film with Tarsem before and I knew if he was involved in something, it has to be high-end stuff."

D'Onofrio describes his wizard as a dreamer. "That's the best thing about him. So he's a little bit of a chicken sh*t... but he's a dreamer. He has his good qualities and bad qualities," D'Onofrio muses. "There are aspects of my wizard that are similar to the bumbling con artist that is in the Wizard of Oz, but that's only because it happened to be that way. It wasn't the plan. My wizard is so complicated. He is a guy who suffers from worthlessness... he has major human issues. It's nothing like that iconic film I watched every year with my family."

"She starts off the show as very insecure and uncertain of what her future will be," says Arjona of her portrayal of Dorothy Gale. "She is a nurse who probably wants to become a doctor one day. These thoughts are so big she can't even wrap her head around them, so she is just complacent. Thanks to this journey, she keeps coming across circumstances that make her a little stronger."

The cast also includes Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays Lucas, Emerald City's scarecrow and Dorothy's love interest ("It seemed organic to us," Cassidy says simply); Ana Ularu, who plays the Witch of the West ("She is so engaging and beautiful and strong and vulnerable," says Cassidy); Joley Richardson as Glinda ("She is so precise... so good," enthuses D'Onofrio), and Gerran Howell as Jack, the tin man ("Wait 'til you see what we do with him in episode seven!" Schulner teases).

While no second season has been picked up, the producers certainly have been plotting where a second season could go. "We've spent a lot of time arching and architecturing and thinking," Cassidy promises. Both seemed eager to return for a second season. Said Schulner, "NBC respected that this was an adult, contemporary take on the material and they let us do that."

Emerald City premieres Jan. 6 at 9 p.m. on NBC.