I sat down with the cast of Van Helsing last week to discuss SyFy’s newest drama. With cast members and executive producers from Fargo and Hell on Wheels, it has the makings of a fine show.
Catch the commercial-free sneak peak this Sunday, 7/31 at 10:01 pm/9:01 c. Season 1 begins it’s 13 episode season on September 23rd.
It’s so much fun, we’re having a blast.
Are you staying?
I’m getting the whole experience.
Good, I hope you’re brought comfortable shoes.
Why did your version of Vanessa resonate with the creators? How did your audition set you apart from the other actors?
Maybe the fact that I had experience in the genre probably helped, especially since the show runner and Creator Neil Labute have no experience in it, you know? And the character, I’m a mom I have a 5-year-old daughter, so I really resonated with the maternal aspect of Vanessa and just those instincts to want to protect. So when she wakes up after 3 years in a coma into this post-apocalyptic world, you know, you have the vampires for one and the humans who want her, but she just wants to find her daughter. It’s one of the things that I love so much about her. There were some scenes in the audition that I thought really dealt with a mother’s love and the connection with her daughter, that just really resonated with me.
There’s another show on Syfy, Wynonna Earp, similar to Van Helsing in that it doesn’t just change the gender of the title character, but has created a new character. It’s a role that, like yours, is one that time and again, we would see a man as the lead role. In the panel earlier you said the biggest inspiration you drew from was Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, that you went back to Ripley for this. You were already doing martial arts before getting the role, and the clips we saw…you are believable. What are your thoughts on people who complain that a quote-unquote man’s role, has been given to a woman?
Yeah I’m stoked because I’m from a really athletic background. I was undefeated in Western Massachusetts in the high hurdles and I played basketball. I was just an athlete. So yes, I can run really fast. I can jump over things. I am really athletic; you know? I can do these things safely without getting hurt. When I run, I’m really running. The female aspect is neither here nor there for me. I think it’s cool and that they’re doing something really new, and creatively speaking a thing that’s awesome. But yeah, most women that I know in my life are kick-ass, so it’s not like this crazy new thing to me. It’s so old and tired to hear. I come from a family of athletes so I haven’t felt that way. The generation were coming from can be a little different in that respect.
Is there anything that scares you about this role?
You know, there are times. This is my first time being a title character, and I care so much. I just wanted to do every aspect Justice. Being female, and then being a female lead of the show and carrying the show, I feel a lot of responsibility. But the more I could let that go and just focus on doing the best job I could do, that was the recipe for me to actually accomplish that.
How many weeks are you guys filming?
We started around mid-February and ended around the end of June in Vancouver. Canadians they’re so polite I love them. I apologize all the time so I felt right at home, like right on dude.
Is there one thing that you’re excited for the fans to find out about the show that we may not know already?
I think that much of the look, just how it was shot, is very cinematic, just to give credit to Brendan our DP. I think that that might come as a surprise. So it’s not story related, but just in general the look is really beautiful and unique compared to some stuff that’s out there. As far as story goes yeah, man it’s full of twists and turns. And it’s Neil Labute. He was coming from just a completely different world, which by the way, is one of the wonderful things about the show; how we flip it on its head. Me biting them and turning them human is different, but having Neil writing for the genre, I think it’ just a really brilliant choice, you know?
You’re playing a character that is deaf, do you feel a responsibility to do this role justice?
Absolutely. I spent every spare moment that I had working on learning ASL, learning about Deaf culture. I took lessons, I did online lessons. I had people come on set to help me fumble through it at the beginning, and right through the end and it’s what I would hope for. What the reality is, I was trying to learn a very complex language from a few weeks to 4 months and my agility was much better at the 4-month mark than at the 2-week mark. That was the goal to try and speak the language without too much of an accent, and to honor that community and hopefully I achieve that to a certain degree
Was it difficult not to react to what you heard around you while filming? Were there any other challenges?
Yeah, there were some times I did react if something happened I wasn’t expecting it, so obviously we would have to do it again. The character reads lips so looking into the eyes is no longer an option. I can’t look at you in the eyes, I have to look at your mouth, so there’s a shift also there in my focus and my desire is to look you in the eyes, but that isn’t going to work here. And if someone is speaking and I can’t see them, I can’t be like “oh yeah I totally get what you’re saying.” It doesn’t work like that, so it was also forcing the other actors, if they wanted to speak to me, if they wanted me to understand what they were saying, they had to position themselves or get my attention. It was staying true to the reality of what that is
How has your character stayed alive?
When the character is sleeping, he’s always sleeping on the floor, so that he might even be able to react before people who are relying on hearing. Because he could feel that something is happening on the second floor, while they are on the 4th floor, for example. There are times when he’s actually ahead of those people who are theoretically not disabled. He’s actually in a better place, and other times he’s not. His other senses are more heightened, so it’s is trying to find the reality of those things so that I’m honoring the character that I’m playing.
This time around, you’re a good guy?
I’m just I am a huge fan of your character on Hell on Wheels. Just one of the best villains on TV. But when they did the flashback, and the Swede is such a nice guy, I just absolutely loved it. You were fantastic.
Is there a question that you’ve never been asked during an interview, that you would like to be asked?
The interview the question I want to be asked in an interview…it’s the one that the person asking is inspired to ask, rather than you know, you’ve been given a list of questions that have been written by somebody else and you’re just being asked a series of questions that, really, they’re not coming from that person’s curiosity.
Questions about your work that they want to know.
Yes, because they’re curious. That’s a conversation. An interview, I’m not that interested in interviews. I’m interested in conversation. If someone is stuck in a line of questions and they refuse to get out of that line because they’re, you know, they’ve been told to do a job by someone who’s giving them a paycheck then they’re desperate to not make a mistake. I think it’s you know, they’re afraid to do their thing because they’re going to get fired. The cookie cutter questions don’t do anyone to service. So hopefully I get asked a question that has been inspired by my answer.
Simon Barry- Executive producer.
Is this your first Comic-con?
No, but it’s my first interview.
Oh! This is my first Comic-con. Not my first interview. My first speed date interview, though.
Yeah, it’s…interesting. So this is a new character, it’s not reinventing Van Helsing.
Yeah, this is a new character. She’s contemporary. I think one thing fans are going to be excited to know is that our Vampire world is…it’s more like a story of revolution than it is of Man vs. Vampire. The vampire’s themselves have won a battle, but they can’t win the war if they kill their food source. We’ve created, I think, a world where the vampires themselves have entered an existential crisis of ‘what happens now,’ that we have won and taken over. Humans factor into those stories so in a weird way. I’m a huge fan of history, and there’s more in common with World War 2 Nazi occupied Europe in this story than there is, you know, in any other show on television, because vampires, the way they’re surviving, is really by using people as labor but also food. So there are more allusions to war stories and occupation stories, and stories about rival factions and politics within those factions. We have human and vampire conflict but we also have vampire-vampire conflict and human-human conflict, all operating simultaneously. It’ll change, it’ a board game as the show progresses. In a weird way, even though it doesn’t have the scope of a big political sculpture, like A Game of Thrones, it’s still a political world, I think. We still have the stakes of power and control, you know. Of what it all means at the end of the day, as opposed to just as visceral beats of survival, and make it to the next day. And that’s kind of funny, because that services the pathology, services the larger package of theme, too, because I think science fiction should always be about something. We’re always trying to infuse Van Helsing with a pseudo political awareness of how people operate; of how the world operates. You could draw Illusions to all kinds of real world scenarios if you want, that we meet, that we mirror in the show. So that it’s not black and white, you know? There are characters that are human, that are worse than our worst vampire character, and there are some vampire characters that have much more heart, more articulate, and make much more sense, than our human characters. I think that’s more about how we behave with people than it is just a survival show.
What is the state of the world on the show? Are there businesses or public utilities operating? Are humans doing anything? Can they contact each other?
At this point in our story, characters don’t even know what happened. They don’t know, we don’t know, so we’ll figure it out as it progresses. I don’t want to spoil anything, so right now, you know, our survivors don’t have a global communication at work. They don’t know what’s happening outside of their own borders.
You’re in reinventing the vampire myths- you have vampires aging, have vampires dying. There are feral vampires and refined vampires. What was the most difficult part of getting this off of the ground? People are so ingrained with how vampires should be, you’re asking them to consider a different possibility.
Yeah, if we’re going to say we’re going to tell a story that is grounded in our world with real-world stakes, we should treat the vampires equivalently, so we should give them pros and cons, as opposed to just… ubiquitous abilities that were magic. We created more of a scientific vampirism logic that was grounded in, you know, something that we could say well if you had this, you know, this viral vampiric component to blood that was first discovered in Transylvania, but that was something that had always been part of humanity; and always been living in the shadows, it was a subspecies. We could essentially take that little bit of scientific combination, you know, and it made them almost more interesting because they had to deal with life and death as characters. Now they had to deal with weakness as a character. So in personifying vampires as individuals we needed them to have an existential awareness, and to do that you have to give someone the stakes of life and death, whether it’s a human being or a vampire. This was a way we could humanize them, but using biological logic as opposed to magic or superstition. We try to make every decision based on a pseudo biological science, if you will. We get to reveal it as the show progresses more and more, it starts as a mystery.
It’s great. I haven’t made it over to the convention floor yet, so I’m excited to do that.
If you look out that window, you’ll already see the people lined up for tomorrow.
Is it like a Game of Thrones or what’s on Saturday? What are they presenting, is it panels like this?
Yes, like we had for your show, but they also do their reveals in Hall H. Game of Thrones and Walking Dead tomorrow, DC movies on Saturday.
Okay, so they described your character as a badass. What else can you tell us about him?
Well, you know, for me it’s not so much playing the bad-ass aspect of it, because you just end up being the SOB that’s just walking around trying to make a tough face all the time. I think what makes him a badass is that he’s the guy that has a personality type, he will not give up, no matter what. And if that’s your focus, if that’s where you’re coming from, if it’s just all about that determination, that need to survive. He’s not… it has nothing to do with him surviving, it has everything to do with keeping her life, keeping Vanessa alive, because she’s the only help humanity has got, and it goes from there.
He finds out Vanessa is special early on, right?
Yeah he’s hoping. He doesn’t know, and we get an idea when, you know, when that first fight happens and she bites that vampire and at first it looks like he’s dying, but then he realizes he’s getting his humanity back. I mean my character had to sit there for 3 years and not knowing.
Your character has had her body?
Yeah. She’s been in a coma in this facility that we’ve been bunkered down in because everything has gone absolute shit in two-and-a-half years. We were sent by the military to collect her body, but the ship went down. We couldn’t leave, so we did our best to wall ourselves in to keep her alive, to keep her safe. There’s a sense of like, you know, she’s something. She’s got to be something cuz she’s not hooked up to the machine and she’s like seemingly, dead but clearly not dead.
And why else would the government send you to collect her?
Yeah, why would they? Why would they send us there? So we’re always clinging on to this hope that there’s got to be something. She’s got to be the thing, and then we start to get more information, that makes that clear.
My apologies, but these interviews are just going to turn into a hell on Wheels lovefest for me. I loved you on there.
Sydney Snow. Yes, I love him. Man, I had so much fun playing Sydney Snow. I forget how awful and evil he was. He was so charismatic.
He really was.
People would say he was so awful, but I thought he was just really fun to play.
This character isn’t very Snow, is he?
He has way less of a sense of humor in that sense. He doesn’t have the gleeful thing that Sydney Snow had. It’s not there but Axl’s driving the team all the time, he is the motivating force. He is the person who’s trying to keep, you know, to keep everyone together. To keep everyone safe and alive, but at the same time he’s really practical and pragmatic and knows that the world that they live in doesn’t have any room for unnecessary sentiment. You have to make hard choices and all that stuff. He’s a pretty serious dude but they’ve peppered him with a sense of humor to keep him human. Neil Labute has a wicked sense of humor so it is peppered in there. But you know, even serious people can say some funny things in terrible situations. You got to keep it grounded. Sometimes that’s all you got, like this is so fucked-up it’s hilarious. He’s not compassionate, remotely to anyone, but for good reason, and I hope I do The balancing act well enough.
Being locked up in a bunker for two-and-a-half years will do that to you.
Yeah it’s amazing he hasn’t gone completely crazy. I hope they can connect to the guy, because you know, he’s not super likeable at the top. He’s so obsessed with obsessed with his mission of keeping her alive, that it’s to the exclusion of being remotely compassionate to anyone else or anything else really. But it’s for good reason, so I hope that I do that balancing act well enough so that you believe that is who this guy is, but at the same time, you eventually come to understand a man like him.
Have you had any difficult moments working on the show?
You know, I don’t know. (Referring to a trip he mentioned taking with his family during the panel earlier)- That whole sailing trip thing changed my perspective on everything. It’s not, I mean, I can’t say anything is all that hard about it. I feel like there’s some really hard jobs out there in the world and making TV shows isn’t one of them. What, you got like, long hours? And you maybe get beat up a little bit sometimes? But no man, it’s fun. It’s a fun job. if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. You stuck in this room here all day or what?
No, I will get out of here after this, try to see some things.
Chad Oakes and Mike Frislev- Executive producers.
Mike: Save the best for last, huh?
Chad: Aye. Canadians say ‘aye’ like Americans say ‘huh.’ Okay.
Okay. You’re recreating the Van Helsing vampire mythos. What is going to be the biggest difference people will see?
Mike: The blood and guts. You see that it’s in there for a few minutes, but you know, you’ve got these humans. They’re trying to survive.
Sometimes you need to draw them in with the blood and guts so they stay for the story.
Mike: Yes. It’s in the teaser. Yes, it’s in a couple scenes; but at the end of the day there’s 45 minutes of story, and there is a ragtag group of humans that are basically trying to survive, let alone figure out a way to take back the world from vampires.
Kelly was saying that the show is shot beautifully.
Chad: It sure is.
Mike: Yes. We call it cinematic television, and we feel like Brandon and Michael the director just set the bar to this whole world, and that was basically given in a binder to the next directors to say ‘follow this.’ We set a very high bar, which I think is great, and it’s great for SyFy as well.
You know, I’ve been more and more impressed with what they’ve been putting out.
Mike: You know that’s interesting, because out of the New York offices, the budgets aren’t big, but there’s a freedom in there, you know? If you can work within those resources, there’s a freedom. So our trick is to, you know, how to best use our resources, because every little nickel thing counts. We took our writers scouting when the writing room first opened. So we’re not imagining and building, so that we can write to things that are really cool already. That way you know it’s different if you have an LA writing room. This is where the show is conceived, and you can’t just throw money at it. We can’t take that approach, but when you look at it, it’s all strong, because if your reverse engineering a bit it doesn’t matter. Ultimately it’s about the interactions between the humans and the vampires, and all that conflict, so they might as well write with what they already have.
That’s a problem with adaptations, right? You’re blowing your budget trying to get this imagery correct, but if it’s original and you’re writing to what you actually have…
Mike: Correct. And it’s like 13 days for two episodes. We shot Fargo stuff very loose, the actions are shot within the frame. This is not like that. Fargo has the resources, but does that style, where we don’t have the time to shoot in that style, to do all that coverage. So form is following function in the way we’re doing it, but we’re doing it as a strength.
Also another beautifully shot show, Fargo.
Both: Yes, oh yes.
Mike: Yesenia Gonzalez and Craig Lebowski did a beautiful job on that show.
Any trepidation in what you’re doing with vampire lore?
Chad: I think what we’ve done is reimagine instead of reinvent, and come up with our own rules and our own mess and our own world. It all fits in within the Dracula, you know Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but at the same time I think, again, when you see it, it hits on it, it pays homage to certain things… but it’s completely different. I think that anything similar to it is the title, Van Helsing and the vampires. And I think that was much like Fargo. We weren’t trying to reinvent what the Coen Brothers had done, especially because they were still our executive producers on the TV series. We were there to not reinvent it, but to almost simulate it.
Mike: For me it was an opportunity. It was a brand an attractive brand, but coming at it from a different view point. I mean the key thing is that Vanessa Helsing can bite the vampire and turn it human, so there’s science you know. All the thought about this in the writing room has scientific thought about it. We’re trying to not violate mythology, but it’s within the realm of science, actually, how that happens with all that stuff. We don’t dwell on it or go into it, but it was talked about.
Will you get into that in the future?
Mike: Well, you know, the advantage of setting a really strong foundation for your mythology is that if it’s solid, it gives you lots of room to do lots of things. You may never, but you know, we didn’t go into it much for season one, but there’s certainly room. It’s an interesting area. I mean how the blood line goes through. Back stories that go all the way back to the original Van Helsing, has been talked about.
Chad: There’s been a lot to talk about the depth of the characters and how important it was that the characters are strong, how much of that was done ahead of time and how much was brought by the actors. They bring their characters to life. You have to start on the page and then there was a very lovely organic relationship to happen between show runner, actors and writers too. When everybody comes to the table with the right intentions, with the right attitude. If you don’t have the foundation to build out on…actors are interpretive artists. If there’s a weakness or it’s not ringing true, then some discussions have to happen. Our writers worked on set right next to them.
In the panel, did you say that you have a small crew?
Chad: Actually it’s a fairly big crew 165 members, not tiny, little bit smaller than Hell on Wheels which had over 225 people, but still a big crew. It was critical to have the writing crew not in New York or not Los Angeles, but on the set. That way things could be executed, fixed developed, changed, in a matter of minutes instead of a matter of hours or days when you have your writer’s rooms somewhere else.
Mike: Ironically, traditional Hollywood system, where you have the post visual effects studio and everything… productions office, and move them to where we are shooting. We kept the band together, we needed that close dynamic in order to facilitate what we were doing.
By the way, Hell on Wheels, love it.
Chad: Thank you tomorrow night? Saturday night. Finale.
I know so sad. I was just talking with Christopher about the flashback in the…
Chad: Right yes, Andersonville.
Yes, it was a great.
Chad: That’s going to be a sad night, but man, that was a great run. We loved it. But you know, we have more things happening with AMC. We hope to have another announcement for you in a month for another SyFy series as well, so very exciting things.