Monday FOX premieres its new drama Houdini & Doyle
. The mystery adventure, which was inspired by true events, takes place at the beginning of the 20th century and follows magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, played by Michael Weston, and author Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan), who work together with New Scotland Yard and Constable Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard) to investigate unsolved cases of the supernatural. Houdini is the skeptic, Doyle the believer.
In preparation for the premiere, Weston recently sat down with Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview to talk about his new series. SCIFI VISION: The series is inspired by real events or at least on the relationship between Houdini and Doyle. Did you do any research on Harry Houdini or that time?
You know, I got this part so fast, actually, and on the heels of getting it, I was shooting it in England. So I arrived with my bags packed with sort of a light working knowledge of Houdini. Sort of I'd say your basic idea of 'Oh, I know of Houdini, I know that he was a sort of an epic personality, a magician, an escapologist, and I know there are sort of all these catch phrases about him.'
And his house actually is right up the street from me in Los Angeles, which is pretty funny. I've driven by his house like a million times.
But I didn't actually know the place that he sort of held in people's sense of wonder, and I guess I didn't know his sort of place in our history as a nation. And even though I think in this series - it's not a biopic, we're not sort of rendering history to a "T" - we've sort of smeared the lines to bring these three amazing characters on the same page doing what they're doing at this time at the turn of the century, because it allows for a lot of fun. But it is based on the real life friendship of Houdini and Conan Doyle, which I found out as I was going about it. I was on the plane reading as much as I could get my hands on.
So I went into this really with a script in hand, and then I learned on the fly. I learned about Houdini and magic on the fly, and yet there was so much good stuff in the script. And we had really great people from the show that I talked about it with long and hard.
I think overall I was impressed with what Houdini meant to people, from my friends and my wife who told me that she loved Houdini. I didn't know it and had been with her for ten years. And then other people who were like, 'Oh my God, I love Houdini.' And it's so funny, because these are people who I've known since college and before. And what I realized, is he represents something that is really sort of amazing. It's like this intangible sort of sense of being able to free yourself from whatever your shackles are in your life, whatever is oppressing you. This ability to escape from what seems impossible, and I think that whatever you have, everyone has a scenario of that somewhere in their lives. It could be your job to your family to your neighborhood, whatever your situation is. And this guy escaped it.
And I think there's something that really moved me about the perseverance and what it takes to sort of become a tangible example of that to people, to pull yourself out. There is someone who against all odds will succeed, and even as you're completely sure that it's all over, will defy death and come out the other side and be there in the flesh. And I think there's something really amazing about that, especially at the turn of the century. But even now for people, when you go, 'That guy can do it; maybe I can.' And I found that very inspiring coming into the part, because it was scary, and it was a challenge, and even though it was not a precise rendering of history, I wanted to get what I felt made him tick, and thankfully I felt like in the scripts, and the evolution of the season too, there was real room for that, and there was really room for growth, and there was a great sense of fun, mischief, and play with a sort of complexity of what sort of lives behind the showman, the human being, and the sort of mama's boy, and all this other stuff I learned about him as I read up. Especially since you didn't know a lot about him at the beginning, was there anywhere other than the script you sort of were inspired by or influenced by in the way that you portrayed him?
Yeah, you know what, I think those pictures of him; I get a lot from that sometimes. I feel like you see all these different sort of pictures of him, and you can see this, I guess, in his demeanor and his gate, and the way he's sort of presenting himself, that he was this sort of incredible showman, and then you also see in his eyes there's this sense of selfish sort of a cockiness, but there's also a sense of mischief and play, and there's also some sort of hidden truths in it all. I got a lot from just sort of sitting there and imagining him. And I feel I get a lot of that, not trying to do too much but just thinking of how he put himself into all these different situations, and I guess, I think to me that's finally what it was.
And then Stephan Mangan, he and I developed a really deep friendship that consisted of a really fun banter on and off set, and I feel like not knowing all that much about him freed me a little bit from having to play him as anyone else would think of him. And it really allowed me to interpret him as he is in the show and I think also as Stephen and I sort of made both of these characters before our own eyes, we sort of developed this friendship as these two guys developed their friendship onscreen, and I think that was really fun. I think it lent itself to sort of more and more fun and a deeper friendship onscreen as Stephen and I got to know each other off-screen. Obviously they didn't actually chain you up per say, but it looked like they did really put you in water, can you talk about that? How was it to do that?
They hung me upside down. They made this two or three ton water tank. I remember our wonderful set production designer Arwel Jones made all these incredible sets that were breathtaking throughout the series, but he also came and made this Chinese water torture tank, and it was literally three tons of water in this tank that could not be moved by any man. And the idea was to sort of hang me upside down in chains and lower me into the water if I could take it. You know everyone was very courteous and sweet, they were, "You don't have to do this. You don't have to do this." But, you know, I wanted to do it so much; I wanted to sort of experience what it would be like to do even - and, you know, I didn't do the whole thing - to do a sort of half of the stunt, or not even half, one fortieth of it.
They dunked me in there for fifteen seconds, and then they sort of pulled me out, but even that I have to tell you, it was terrifying, because you are so completely in someone else's control, and you have to just give it all away. And they're lowering me into this tank, and it was on me to say, "Action." And then I could only really move my thumbs by the end of it, because the chains, even though they were real chains, and even though the handcuffs could pop off, I couldn't really get out of the chains, so I'm hanging there and they dunk me in, and I'm trying to get my breath, but even as they're lowering me in, I had such sort of butterflies about it all that I couldn't catch my breath. And so you're just being dunked upside down and water's rushing up your nose, and you're going into the tank. And it was really intense, and it was really terrifying, and it gives you an immediate sort of profound respect for this guy who would fashion these escapes and then continue to sort of improve and accelerate them and find the next scariest thing. It's pretty amazing. And I did a few of those and, you know, some other stunts. They really let him be a sort of stunt superhero-y kind of guy, and it was really fun, but these guys who do this stuff for real, you see the kind of the meticulous care it takes to do it properly and also the courage that it takes to do it again and again and again. They really were scary.
...They play on all of your sort of weird little idiosyncrasies and insecurities, or sort of harbored fears of claustrophobia, or lack of control of your own self, or, you know, suffocation, or whatever it is. Like there's such a wide spectrum of fear that goes into each escape, that it's bound to sort of brush up against something, and it certainly did for me.
...You know, the other thing about that, is we were shooting in this old palace theater where they were doing that stunt where Houdini had actually performed, one hundred years ago, almost to the day that we were shooting that. And so there there was this weird sort of aura about it as we were shooting it that just felt very real, and it was sort of magical to me. Can you talk a bit about some of the upcoming supernatural cases?
The great thing about having great writers like David Shore, David Hoselton, David Titcher, and the writers we had on the show, were that they have the ability to weave these very deep social issues of our time, and, you know, funny enough the turn of the century back then too, into all of this supernatural - of all of our own sort of questions about life after death. And so yes, there's stuff like aliens and vampires. There's this thing with Spring-Heel'd Jack, like these characters from real history, where people truly believed in these people, in the Spring-Heel'd Jack, and there were waves of sort of real fear that would go across a whole continent about witches and all that kind of stuff. And people got so absorbed by it; they believed it so fully. And so they play off the real things that were happening back in the time, and they weave it into our own sort of real life fears of what is real and what isn't, and I love that as the premise of this show. You know, what is actually real? What can we identify as absolutely real, and can we say with concrete knowledge that there is no after life and there is no supernatural?
I mean, I consider myself a realist, and yet I love this show, because it throws it into question, and it plays on your own sort of fears of that. And who better to do that than a guy like Houdini, a magician who really understood the mechanics of people's fear and suspense and would invent these sort of escapes off of that? And he would defy death in doing that and sort of almost play both sides of the coin and equation. And then Arthur Conan Doyle, who as a scientist and a doctor and an intellectual and a real scholar, also understood sort of the mechanics of crime and death and all that stuff, and he believed in the supernatural. I love that that's part of their real life friendship. I really liked how the stories didn't give a definite answer to what was going on and sort of left it open to audience interpretation. Is that something that continues throughout the season?
Yeah, I think they purposefully sort of always [did that] in order to keep the argument going between these two, but also just in real life. It's funny, because when you talk to people, and you talk to David Shore about this stuff, he's such a realist, and he'll be like, 'There's no such thing,' and yet he wrote this series with [parts] about the supernatural, and I think that as soon as you want to put a period on it, you don't really know. And that does; that continue in the series. There's always stuff like, if you go down the sort of the fine print you will almost always find one clue that doesn't quite add up and throws the whole thing upside down. And I think that's what happens for Houdini, for sure. Just when he thinks he's got it, he's scared that he doesn't, and I think that's the real challenge when you're talking about all of this stuff to anybody. In the one episode you were covered with gross boils and also vomited at one point. Can you talk about working with those kinds of effects?
My least favorite thing as an actor is to do prosthetics, because it means that your days get longer by two hours before you work and two hours afterwards, and it's just like you spend your whole day with it. Like you eat lunch in your boils [laughs]
; you get your coffee in your boils; you have water cooler conversation in your boils, and you have to keep them. You know, they're all filled with their delicious little things, puss, injected with this and that. We had incredible makeup artists do the work on the stuff, so their work was really amazing actually, and so lifelike, and so I spent the whole day just protecting my boils, but it's not my favorite stuff to do. But I love how it looks on screen, so it's worth it. It looked really gross.
It looks gross. It's so gross. When I see that stuff, it freaks me out. [Laughs]
Are you yourself more like Houdini or Doyle?
I'm way more like Houdini, in terms of, I just like to have fun, and I like a little bit of mischief in my [life]. I'd say I'm more like him, but I don't think a guy like me survives very long without a guy like Doyle to sort of keep him grounded and remind him what's important.