At this year’s Wondercon, Psycho Drive-in’s very own Laura Akers got to participate in several roundtables with the cast and the creator and executive producer of A&E’s Damien. Here’s what they had to say.
Bradley, you’ve now gone, in your two most prominent roles, from basically playing the ultimate good guy to playing the ultimate bad guy. Who has more fun?
Bradley James: I’m going to stop you from running away with the idea of an ultimate bad guy, although I see exactly why you said that. It’s a little bit dangerous to label Damien purely a bad guy. He is one of us and he has the capacity to make good and bad decisions inside of him. But ultimately it begins to become a harder to make what would seem be good decisions because he has the baggage of being the Antichrist which is a pretty dooming fate. Where I have very fortunate is that the two character have been so very different. I have been a very lucky boy there because the variety is the spice of life.
In a recent episode, we find out that Simone is having a conflict of reality vs. perceived reality–seeing bleeding statues that nobody else sees–is this the start of where we’re going to start to see our character being brought into this (supernatural) realm and into that world? Because it is obviously not something that everybody is perceiving.
Megalyn Echikunwoke: All I will say is, [dramatic pause] yes.
Is it hard to maintain as things get crazier? As things intensify, and Damien gets a little more…I don’t know if “bewildered” is the right word or “overcome”? Embrace the evil a bit more?
Omid Abtahi: For my character, it takes a lot for him to open his eyes to what’s going on. Surprisingly, a lot of stuff will happen. There’s a reason for everything; we can explain everything, I promise you this. But there does come a point–which I can’t go into–that he’s like, “I don’t know how to explain this. Shit’s crazy and weird.”
Is that just who he is as a person, or because he’s a journalist?
Abtahi: I think it is who he is. Journalists have been through a lot, they’ve seen hell on earth. It takes a lot for him, at least my character, he’s seen the worst of humanity and it just takes a lot for him to open his eyes that indeed in life there is more than meets the eye, there’s a much greater force around us.
He doesn’t need to believe in the supernatural to believe in evil.
Abtahi: Exactly, yeah, we see it all around us; we’re all capable of it.
Barbara and James, the relationship between your characters is, I don’t want to say dubious, but at best, is very intriguing and we don’t know how to interpret some of what we saw in this latest episode. It’s not cut-and-dried. We don’t know where Ann is going, but it is interesting how she is developing with Damien. Do you find their relationship and the development of that relationship to be a compelling factor in the story going forward?
James: Oh, very much so.
Barbara Hershey: Definitely, for me, for sure.
James: [covers Hershey’s ears] Barbara is a joy to work with, and she is incredible. [uncovers her ears] But in terms of the way Glen (Mazzara) has written the two characters as well, I am pleased that you’re not able to pinpoint what their relationship is. That is the joy, I think that is part of the joy of having someone like Barbara, because you have that facility to have a very wide range of what the relationship could be.
Hershey: It’s fun reading the scripts because I didn’t know where the characters were going to be. In a series, when you are an actor, when you have a show, it can be a grab bag. Because in a miniseries or movie, you have a beginning, a middle, and an end (in the script), but with the series, you know, we don’t necessarily know any more than you guys know because as we are reading each episode as it comes. We get general strokes, you know, but we’re reading the new material and learning as it goes along. So we’re learning about our characters as you are, really, and this fascinating stuff just kept coming. And then there’s what happens between us on-set, the things that aren’t programmed. That’s part of the reason why you never really know everything, is because there is a lot of different things going on. It’s a lot of fun to act that and to be in that sphere with Bradley. A lot of fun.
James: I’m having a whale of a time.
It’s interesting about this particular show that we are seeing Damien as a friend of the viewer. We can relate to him. He’s a decent guy, he’s doing his job, he’s good at it, he is very reliable and relatable…and then, you know, we find out there’s more to it. Like you said, there’s stuff under the surface. Are you finding that difficult to play to this guy as just one of us, as normal, then under that there’s this stuff that’s coming, there is this battle with the darkness? To make sure that we don’t lose, in all of this, our affection for Damien?
James: Well, you know, I don’t think it would be any fun if it was not a challenge and, really, the challenge is always just to get the truth out of it. The truth is often what you relate to you as a person and an actor, you know, what you find relatable and you then go through yourself and create in the character and so that comes as a byproduct. I don’t think that you can…
Hershey: …actively beg for the audience to love you.
James: Right, you know, you can’t sort of manipulate how they’re going to feel about the truth, you can just tell it.
Hershey: And, you know, everybody loves the bad boy.
Ah, the truth comes out.
Scott, a question for you. We’ve already talked to Barbara and asked about Ann. You kind of see the dynamics of her relationship with Damien. Now, for John, it’s kind of questionable right now, because we think that he’s watched out for Damien almost as a father for all these years, and he’s a confidant, of course. Are we seeing that relationship develop and also maybe become a little different than what we’re seeing as kind of black and white right now, where we’re looking at John maybe doing a lot of manipulation and control of Damien versus just being a true friend to him?
Scott Wilson: I think so. Yes, because I think Ann and John Lyons have a parallel and competing interest. I think that they both are interested in controlling Damien, and I think that it’s interesting and there’s something a little scary about it, as well, to think that you could control a force that they believe that he has. If you can, then you’re the Man, or the Woman. If you can’t, then you’re setting yourself up for a long fall.
In a rather spectacular and implausible death—because it’s an Omen story.
Wilson: Right, so it’s interesting to me how the relationship evolves through the rest of the episodes.
Glen, can you talk a little bit about the decision to set the beginning of the show in Syria, considering what’s been going on in Syria?
Glen Mazzara: Yeah. It was really interesting, because originally we were thinking this story needs to open in the Middle East, and we were thinking, should it open in Jerusalem? Then we were thinking of other places, Egypt, or just… It was a discussion. We finally, believe it or not, because we were filming in Toronto in the winter, we needed a place in the Middle East where people could wear heavy coats, and Syria does get cold. So we picked Syria before the migrant crisis really hit the news, before everything exploded, so it was just one of those things. And there have been other things that we’ve written into the show that then oddly somehow a few weeks later you say, “Wait a minute, that’s an odd coincidence,” so it’s …
Almost as though there’s something behind it…[laughs]
No, I’m not saying that…It was just weird, so we ended up … Then I was worried about the idea of Syria, because does it look like we’re ripping from the headlines, or are we trying to make a point or whatever, and what I was proud about that scene was that it just showed humanity. It just showed people trying to live a life, and they’re being displaced and all of that. I felt that it really showed Damien connecting with them on a human level. It’s actually, that’s probably the only time in the show when he’s happy. It’s kind of interesting that then these people become refugees and then in a way perhaps he gets displaced as well.
That was interesting. We did add a line where one of the priests says the road to Rome goes through Damascus, because St. Paul’s conversion was on the road to Damascus, so that kind of fit thematically. I also felt that the fact that Damien is 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 washed up on the beach. The fact that a single image can really change the world’s perspective was something else that we were already writing about.
I have, I do know that some people were saying, “Shouldn’t he be a senator? This doesn’t feel like The Omen or whatever. I’ve seen some criticism like that, but one, I think a picture can change the world, and two, I would say, “Well, Jesus was a carpenter.” That didn’t make sense to people. People are expecting their messiah to be a general at that time, so the fact that we’ve kind of steered closer to the Christ version of this story than the expected mustache-twirling demagogue that perhaps people are expecting is just what we do on the show.
We just are really trying to say what’s going on in the world. There’s evil in the world. There are these questions that people are facing. Let’s examine that, and not just try to service what is the obvious version of this story. It’s been a really, really interesting process as a writer and as a producer to go through.
Is there any kind of lasting impact from the fact that Damien’s responsible for the death of your sister, even indirectly?
Echikunwoke: Oh, yeah.
Do you think that that’s something that, do we… I can’t ask you what’s going to happen, but is that something that we see in your character throughout the season?
Echikunwoke: Yeah, I think that carries, for Simone, it carries through the season and in my search for answers, which is basically what I do. I definitely find them, I’ll say, I get answers, whatever they may be.
Is there some point where either of your characters do fear for your life in association with Damien?
Abtahi: I, as an actor, fear for my life. Go ahead and answer that one.
Echikunwoke: Yes, all the time. It definitely gets very intense. The second half of the season gets turned up all the way.
One of the things I like about Damien is in those moments where he is embracing the darkness rather than shying away from it. So I wanted to know, is that fun to play–where someone is saying “I don’t know what exactly is going on, I don’t know what this is, but I’m going to embrace it…”?
James: I’m not sure which moment…how many episodes have you seen?
The first five.
James: So you’re talking about episode four…
Right, the one where the cop threatens Damien…
Hershey: [faux shock] You‘re not to give away spoilers, are you?
The episode (aired last Monday).
James: You know that is the joy of the character, that it’s not just evil, it is not everybody’s perception. It’s a human being; it’s the one of us. It’s one of the vast numbers of colors in that our in our palette, and I’m sure in yours. And those moments, as an actor, if it we all that, it would get dull. But it’s not all that. So when you get a hint of something like that, you’re like, this is great. I get to try this thing and that thing. And I think, those moments in particular, are an indication of what’s to come. So I think that’s what makes the excitement. Because I’m like, “Oh, I just got a glimpse into the Antichrist (part of him) there and what’s leading him in that direction.” What’s sort of bubbling under the surface. In that particular situation, Damien is backed into a corner and, so as a lot of us might do, you know, when we are pressed hard, we use what is at their disposal to get ourselves out of that corner. And he just has this moment of embracing that. Because he’s pressed hard before that. It’s not like he just turns up and lets that loose. It’s a while before he gets to that point. It’s push, it’s push, it’s push–and then he’s like, okay, fine. And yes, it’s an indication of what he could become.
Without giving away an ending, does it look like if it does well that there’s potentially another limited series?
Abtahi: I want to see… I’ve never been a part of a show where I wanted to see the second season so much. I feel like where we end the season is where a lot of people assume we’re going to start another one.
Echikunwoke: Right, exactly.
Abtahi: From just being a fan and as a viewer, I want to know where the story goes.
Echikunwoke: Yeah, the finale of the show is like, wow, okay I need a whole ‘nother
Abtahi: There is so much more story to tell.
Echikunwoke: Yeah, it’s almost like…this season’s like a prequel almost.
Abtahi: I am hoping we didn’t give anything away with that.
Echikunwoke: Did we?
We’ll know when your character’s replaced.
Abtahi: Let me know how the second season goes.
Now did you guys get to do any of your own stunts? Did you do any stunts?
Abtahi: I did one stunt; I got a fight sequence. There was training for it. I’ve done martial arts my whole life.
Echikunwoke: Running, that’s all I’ll say.
In heels, that is almost a stunt.
In the fourth episode, there’s that great bit where the cop is pushing Damien and threatening him, Damien comes back for the first time and embraces a little bit of his darkness. Is that something that you can only tease in a sense, because you can’t have him transition too quickly over to…
Mazzara: I don’t know, but let’s talk about this. Damien’s starting to realize… I think he’s been avoiding the fact that he has a dark energy around him, and he’s learning at the end of episode three, Barbara’s character, Ann, says, “This dark energy is pinned to you.” Now, and he sees that. He realizes he just resulted in a death. In episode four, now he’s being squeezed. His back’s against the wall. He’s like, “Well, I’ve got a card to play. Don’t fuck with me. Do not fuck with me. I’m the Antichrist. You don’t want to go down that road,” and why wouldn’t he play that card? This is a guy who has been in shock for the first few episodes because of this death, because of this baptismal event, all this stuff that’s happening, and he’s like, “You know what? You don’t want me to be the Antichrist.”
It’s interesting that he would suddenly play that card when he’s under pressure, and that’s what the show does for the next few episodes, is we keep increasing pressure on Damien, so that we see him going further and further down that road, so you’re seeing it, you’re seeing a little turn. What happens when that turn’s bigger? Who gets hurt? All of that stuff. That’s the story we’re telling.
It makes him more proactive in a lot of ways…
Mazzara: Yeah, yeah.
…as it goes on.
Mazzara: Yeah. There’s a long road, and yeah, he is very active, and you’ll see. He becomes more and more active, but I think we had to take him from a thing where at the beginning of the show he’s in hiding, he’s in denial, he’s in pain. He’s sort of not himself, in a sense. How does that character develop? That’s interesting to me.
All photos by Gary Richardson.