INTERVIEW: Gail Simone Guides 'Blockbuster Update' of Red Sonja, Vampirella and Dejah Thoris
Warning: This article contains spoilers for upcoming episodes of FX’s The Strain.
Although she isn’t known for being a purveyor of genre fare, Natalie Brown has appeared in a remarkable number of television shows and movies focused on various sorts of monsters. From the Dawn of the Dead remake to Saw V to Being Human to Bitten, the actress frequently finds herself surrounded by werewolves, zombies, serial killers and more. But her role in the new FX horror thriller The Strain may test her growing pedigree as an unholy creature’s plaything, as she portrays a mother and wife who finds her relationship with husband Ephraim (House of Cards‘ Corey Stoll) tested after he’s given the responsibility of dealing with an outbreak that turns ordinary people into horrifying vampires.
Spinoff Online visited the Toronto set of the new show, created by horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro and Lost veteran Carlton Cuse and based on the novels by del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and spoke with Brown about her role. In addition to talking about her experiences acting opposite hordes of undead monsters, Brown offered a few hints at what may be in store for her character, and reflected on the challenges and opportunities in working with a visionary like Del Toro on a show of such scale and ambition.
Just to get started, talk about your character and what initially appealed to you when you started playing her.
I play Kelly Goodweather, wife of Ephraim and mother of Zach. It’s funny — when I first read it, I found there was humor in the scene. But then knowing Guillermo del Toro’s body of work — so there was going to be more of a weight to that — I started to look up the books and know that there’s a lot more at stake for Kelly… Everyone’s fighting for something, and in the midst of so much chaos, Kelly’s really struggling just for stability and represents not so much the matriarch but the mother. Not just the mother of Zach but the caretaker of stability in the storm that is The Strain.
In that heightened environment, what’s harder for you to get your head around: the search for that stability or the vampires and supernatural?
I haven’t really seen any of that yet. As you all know, it’s coming. Oh, my God, I’m so excited. Like, it’s happening tomorrow! It’s funny because as I read the books — I don’t know if we can really talk about this — but you keep hoping that things will end well. Not sure that they do … I’m not necessarily aware of that, but just the chaos that always follows Ephraim, and that’s always been the struggle — is that as much as I want a stable home life, it’s something that neither he nor his job could provide. You know, not only was he never physically present but he also wasn’t emotionally present. And just, struggling for sanity.
What you do as an actor to feel the weight of that when you come in and the beginning of your character’s arc is, all this history has already come and passed?
Has already come and passed … It’s a lot of imaginary work and memories of my own that — but also being already past them, you sort of come in to where you meet the character and she’s over it. So, you almost don’t want to bring too much weight to it because that’s the part you need to get over to do what you have to do. I know that, in my own family, my parents are amicable, but they’re separated. And I remember my mother saying, “Sometimes you have to get angry or dismiss some of the happiness and a lot of the good times in order to do what it is that you need to do.” So it was really not wanting to bring too much of that baggage with me because that’s the thing that you need to forget about to do what Kelly has to do.
We’ve seen a lot of wife characters that are done with their husbands, taking second place to their husbands’ career. But the way you did it is very different — how did you get into her head and approach it maybe more from the perspective of exhaustion and sadness?
I think it’s because she loves him. She loves the man that he is. She loves how devoted he is to his work. She values the importance of Ephraim’s job, but you get to a point where you’re tired of coming in second. And I know for me. In most situations… I’m willing to put myself aside. And, like most mothers, you’re willing to put yourself second for the sake of your child, for the sake of your marriage, for the sake of your husband. Every scenario that Ephraim was in was always a matter of life or death. And that was always important, of course, because people’s lives were truly at stake. And eventually, she had to take a leap of faith and say, “No. I am more important. And the family unit is more important.” And although you have to sometimes get selfish in order to be selfless — you know, she had to start thinking about Kelly in order to put her family first. So that’s when you meet Matt, the boyfriend, who is happily predictable and reliable.
Do you know anyone in that situation in real life?
I know that after 35, when they poll women for what the most important quality in a man is, money falls to the wayside, looks fall to the wayside, so does a sense of humor. Reliability is number one after 35. I’m also after 35, and I can relate to reliability, especially when there’s children involved — just wanting stability and predictability for your son, for your child. And I’m happy that you guys saw a sadness because I think it really broke her heart to do what she had to do. And she didn’t love him any less.
Maybe she liked the [chemistry] at first, and then after a while, the magic kind of faded…
As it always does. Yeah.
Kelly wants this normal life. Once everything starts to hit the fan, how does she handle the pressure?
It’s a struggle. She is fighting as hard as she can for elements of normalcy and sanity as things do hit the fan. And we’ll see — actually, in this episode that we’re about to shoot — how she really handles things. But it forces her to maybe not make the most sound decision. When she’s really thinking with her head, what she thinks is the right thing to do for her son is not necessarily maybe what her heart wants. And to reconcile the two may or may not lead to the best decision for Kelly. [Laughs]
This isn’t your first project with supernatural elements. Were you reluctant to do another one? And how is this different than some of the ones you’ve done before?
To be honest, I was involved in Being Human, but I played a human. And I’ve been working on Bitten, and I’m a human. And I’ve always had a lot of supernatural envy in all these great shows where the sky’s the limit with [where] the stories can go, and I was so happy when I died on Being Human because I thought, “I can hang out with Sally and be a ghost.” But I got my door. So, the opportunity to delve into deeper and darker places with someone like Guillermo del Toro and his crazy vision — I’m really excited for whatever’s in store.
Do you watch these kinds of shows, and if not, what do you watch when you get a chance to watch TV?
I’m a really boring person to ask that question to because I watch very little TV — like a lot of people who work in it [who] don’t have time to watch it. But the shows that I have been involved with before I do watch and absolutely love them. And I think that an element of fantasy is always fun.
What’s your personal vampire history, in terms of books or movies or anything like that? The vampire spectrum is quite broad. It includes everything from Once Bitten all the way to Nosferatu and everything in between.
I’ve seen Nosferatu, and I actually did a movie with David Carradine — rest in peace — about 11 or 12 years ago in Hamilton. It was called The Last Sect. And it was a very loose homage to The Hunger, which I watched and thought was fascinating, and it was … In the same way that Catherine Deneuve has to romance … Susan Sarandon? Yeah, she has to woo her into taking her place, and it’s a seduction that happens. And so this movie that happened with an all-female sect of vampires, and I was wooed and lured by the head female vampire. And David Carradine played Van Helsing. [Laughs] And it was a little bit early for the vampire craze that we now know. It’s like, had it come out maybe five years later, it might have been a more successful movie, but I think it’s an interesting — I mean, the folklore is so interesting. And I asked Guillermo — because when you read the books, and the folklore is so specific with vampires — The Strain definitely goes into a few different territories. There’s no fangs, and there’s no romance, but I said, “Do you believe in them? There’s such a history there that’s so specific. Whether you believe in ghosts, it’s a possibility. But vampires?” He said, “No!” [Laughs] “Of course not! Ghosts, yes. Vampires, no.” So it’s safe to play and take it as far as you want. [But] this is a story of origin that is told in such depth. I mean, it’s biblical. Truly. No sparkle face. [Laughs] No sparkly faces. No Team Ephraim, Team Kelly — yet. Who knows? Who knows!
When a book is involved and you’re adapting a character from it, how do you make that character your own? And do you think Kelly in the TV show is similar to Kelly in the book, and how have you enhanced or developed the character?
I had to get rid of the visual description in my mind because — well, she’s described as blond, but I mean, that’s just a hair color. But there’s definitely been room to make her my own. I think a lot is revealed in a lot of the flashbacks in the second and third books, as well, and we see how much Eph and Kelly struggled to have a child, and so many elements of her journey that I could relate to. But at the end of the day, I think that you just bring as much of yourself to the role as you can.
How reliant on the source material have you been, and how much do you want to be — given that, in the adaptation process, the script may by necessity be different in terms of the creation of the character or what happens?
I think I’m more willing to see what the writers come up with. I’ve been involved in adaptations from books before. And if you get too married or attached to an idea or a character that may come and go … And I’m really excited. Jennifer Hutchinson has written the episode coming up that my characters plays quite heavily in, and she’s a fantastic writer who was involved in the first three seasons of Breaking Bad. Just every page is just an excitement to see what they have in store without any attachment to preconceived notions. I just actually read the graphic novel again yesterday just to get a visual idea, but even that, in the foreword, Guillermo and Chuck Hogan — they really wanted to see what the graphic novel specialists wanted to bring to the story and to see what their interpretation was without being too precious. And if the creators of the story themselves can not be precious, far be it for me to be the same.
How quickly do you feel you’re able to get a grasp on a character where you are developing her over the course of a season or a series? Is it a matter of discovering it through the interactions with the other actors on set, or when you come in you have a very clear idea of who she is that you can apply to those interactions?
I think it’s a marriage of both. You can come in with ideas, but the last director that we worked with, Peter Weller, was a tour de force as far as all the experience that he brings as an actor, and he didn’t give us any time to think. He just really wanted us to forget about whatever we had come in [with], preconceived ideas, and just really run with it. And [it] really was [the] creation of a storm between Matt and Kelly and Ephraim that found itself on the day that I’m hoping will really translate into something great — but not at all what I’d thought of in my mind. So it really is coming with some emotional preparation and be game to roll with whatever they throw your way.
What was the most surprising thing in working Guillermo del Toro?
That I was working with Guillermo del Toro! [Laughs] When I first read for it, it was with the local casting director, and when I saw who was attached to the project, I thought, “Oh, this will be fun, but who are we kidding?” [That] was actually what I said to myself. Because quite often with these big projects, a lot of the main characters go to leads from other countries. And it’s been so great and so generous of him to employ so many people locally. When I first Guillermo and Carlton Cuse, I thought, “What a great opportunity to meet them, but who are we kidding?” [Laughs] And when I actually found out I got the job, I was out of town and still thought, “I feel like they made a mistake.” And when I came to the table read, Corey Stoll’s first thing he said to me was, “You look really surprised.” [Laughs] And I think I’m still pinching myself sometimes.
Can you give an example of something specific that Guillermo tweaked or gave you as a guideline?
One word that rang very specifically and true was “magnanimous.” In that scene that you saw, in the therapist’s office, although Ephraim has — in the way Corey plays it — there’s such an intense effort on his part because he’s fighting to save a marriage, [but Kelly says] “You’re done.” So there’s very different energies in that scene, and Corey is such a full actor who gives and brings so much, and the struggle was actually just to remember how over it I really am and sad. And I’m already mourning the relationship that he’s still fighting for, which is also heartbreaking, and I think it’s why I was so sad. I’m getting sad just thinking about it right now! [Laughs] Also thinking, like, how crazy is Kelly because he is such a — you’re so easily wooed by Ephraim. But “magnanimous” was — you know, it’s like I’m doing the right thing, you know? Trying to do this like, I’m doing you a favor, I’m doing us a favor. Olive branch-y. It was a lot at play — but, again, he was very specific to make sure that we’re both going after very different things, and I hope that it worked in the scene. You guys have seen it; I haven’t yet.
Guillermo has such a specific vision, and I’m sure he’s able to provide you with a lexicon of what’s going on, but was there a moment when you went on set or when you went to the creature shop or something like that where you were like, “OK, this something much more intense, much more tangible than I ever had imagined”?
Yeah, it’s about to go there. I mean, the first thing that Guillermo wanted me to do was cut my hair. And I was working on some other projects, and my hair is really big and curly actually. I thought, “I can’t do that.” But when this man with a vision says, “Cut your hair,” you say, “How short?” [But] I think it helped. I think he saw the character a certain way, and I think it really helped — not just visually but for myself. She’s a bit more maternal, more simplistic, more refined, more controlled, more contained. Us curly-haired ladies are sometimes a little effervescent. And when he saw it — because we tried to work with wigs, and there’s a lot of people with wigs on the show — he just looked and he said, “No, that’s the character.” And I was happy then.
How often is Guillermo on set? I know he’s been filming something else in Toronto, as well. But can he you feedback after you’ve done some scenes? Does he talk to you throughout the whole process? And how much involvement do you have with him?
He is very committed to the movie that he’s working on now, so I haven’t seen him in a while. I’m in every third or fourth episode, so I’m not here that often. So he could be here more often than I’m aware of. But I know that I’ve emailed him with a few character issues or points, and he graciously e-mails me back right away and is very receptive to the input and feedback. I’d love to see more of him. Who are we kidding?
This is probably one of the most detailed sets for television. How useful is that to you?
Oh, absolutely — because whenever there’s a scene where it’s written … You know, there’s a looseness to some of the filming where, this is your home and feel free to ad-lib and if you were cooking and, yeah, open any drawer and there’s a spatula. And some of the utensils are going to come in really handy in the next episode! [Laughs] But yeah, the world that he has created … Again, I think I need a tour with you guys to see… It covers such a rich cast of so many characters, and the world is so vast. It’s hard for me to comprehend as Kelly, but it’s just an exciting to be even one small part of such a large world.
Could this show be filmed for mainstream networks, as opposed to FX, do you think?
I feel like people are taking more chances these days, but FX is definitely an amazing network to be a part of and definitely willing to take risks and leaps of faith. The vision that Guillermo has, I think it’s a perfect fit. I’m not sure if some major networks are willing to go as dark as this is intending to go.
And gory? Have you seen a lot of gore yet?
I haven’t! I’m telling you! Once again, I live in Kelly’s home. Kelly goes from home to school and back again. Like, I’m as anxious as you guys are to go over to that set and see some of what happens. It’s only from reading the books that has me so excited for what’s to come — I feel like you asked me a question that I didn’t quite answer.
What sort of prosthetics will you be wearing?
Well, cutting my hair was nothing. That was just to get Kelly in the door. But I paid a visit to the prosthetic shop. But I guess you guys have been told we can’t talk about it until later, and it hasn’t happened yet. But that’s when I started to … You know, eyes are covered, ears are covered, mouth is covered, covered in rubbe r… And we lose a lot more hair than I lost in my initial haircut very soon. And it will definitely be one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved in — and [it] raises the stakes and the level of commitment to the depth of the vision that Guillermo has. It’s all about to come …
What level of transformation becomes daunting to you? Are there levels to which you’d be willing to go but you’re like, “OK, that’s actually out of my comfort zone”?
We were just discussing shaving my head for the purpose of fitting under the … Because, you know, there will be a bald cap and patches of hair. As I’m sure you all know, there’s no pretty, sparkly faces in this vampire world. It’s heinous. And there’s a waddle, and there’s sagging, and there’s an asexuality like I’ve never seen before. But, I mean, bring it! Yeah, I’m excited.
What music do you listen to when you’re finding your inner vampire?
Classical. Yeah. I mean, I listen to a wide range of music — from a lot of alternative and indie to reggae. A lot of reggae. Reggae has not served me for Kelly. She needs a little more reggae, actually! But yeah, classical. Just different speeds, different tempos — some opera, as well — and just different pitches. I think there’s a level of insanity that’s soon to come, so it’s good to mess with regular rhythms.
How far in advance do you know or do you want to know about what happens to your character?
Guillermo told me from the get-go what was coming for my character, and he actually said it was one of his favorite episodes and he’d love to come back to direct it, but he’s busy doing a feature. And he has such beautiful, specific insights. I know that in the first audition and the pilot, his direction was just, again, so specific. He’d know exactly what he wants. So I did know what was coming, but there’s only so much you can do. Like, I’ve been taking a variety of movement classes and dance classes and vocal classes just to be ready, but I’m not meeting with the choreographer until tomorrow, so it’s all been a lot of guesswork. And I know that one of the other actresses who played a vampire had no dance background, and I’d heard that she was nervous about embodying the vampires in the right way and apparently just nailed it, threw herself into it, and I can’t wait to see what she did with it. But I think each person also interprets the development or devolvement of their character. It’s all personal, and each vampire can be — in the same way that we have different metabolisms that have different speeds, we all succumb to the virus at different speeds and to different degrees. And I’m hoping — I’ve been told that Kelly is a highly functional vampire [Laughs].
The Strain premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.