“Already, though, she understood the difference between being a child and being an adult. The difference is when someone says he can keep the bad things away, a child believes him.”
- Joe Hill, NOS4A2
AMC, known as the launching pad for TV series like “The Walking Dead,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” is airing a new story with New England roots that was shot in Rhode Island.
“NOS4A2” might sound like a vampire story. The novel by Joe Hill isn’t not about vampires, but it takes a far more mystical, indirect approach, focusing on the psychic powers and conflicts between a young New England woman (Ashleigh Cummings) and an ancient evil (Zachary Quinto, Star Trek) with a taste for ironic license plates (and children’s souls). The show was shot in North Kingston from October 2018 through January 2019.
If you work on a set, it quickly becomes your 16-hour a day whole world. But if you visit a set, there is an infectious giddiness – the feeling that you’re seeing something being created. Perhaps it’s the magic of actors having downtime and walls having incomplete back panels where the lumber shows – or the feeling of hundreds (“a small army” of about 300 in this case) of people focused on a single endeavor. Yet unless you happened on one of their locations or wandered into their massive warehouse of cinematic marvels – which includes entire houses, a hospital set, a massive old New England covered bridge to nowhere, and other faux spots we promised not to spoil – you might be completely unaware of the massive buzz of activity happening right under our noses.
The original material is a novel by Joe Hill, the son of Steven King, proving that the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. His prose is clean and sometimes very quotable, and his world building is atmospheric and a little ephemeral. Like much of his father’s work, logic and physics are secondary to the emotional truths of his characters, whose main conflicts lie within their own emotional frameworks, not in any physical realm. “Fantasy was always only a reality waiting to be switched on,” may be the line in the book that best captures that spirit.
There’s a lot of imaginative material, and a recrafted version of the story could make for a powerful and haunting television series. The book develops its own vocabulary to describe its supernatural elements, and in many ways appears to be set in King’s multiverse of stories, dropping references to IT, The Shawshank Redemption, The Dark Tower and others that might just be pop cultural references. But the rules seem very much like those that govern the Kingscape.
The RI Film Office’s Steven Feinberg was able to arrange some time for Motif and other local media to meet with a few of the stars, writers and producers of the new series when they were in the heat of production. Those interviewed included showrunner Jami O’Brien, who first optioned and adapted the book, executive producer Lauren Corrao, writer and co-executive producer Tom Brady (no relation to the football player) and Jahkara Smith who plays Maggie. The questions were asked by various members of the press.
Q: Why are you in RI? Is it because so many of the main crew are from this area [O’Brien is from Billerika, Brady from Rhode Island, and Hill from Maine or Massachusetts, depending on how you look at it]?
O’Brien: It’s actually coincidental. I thought because so much television films in Canada, that we’d end up in Vancouver. But then the production company said, “How about Rhode Island?” and I was like, “SURE!”
There are a couple of great things about RI [as a location for this] – it looks a lot like Massachusetts, [where the book is set]. It can also look like a lot of other places, within a very small area. So we were able to go to “Iowa” with our librarian one day and then drive to “Massachusetts” the next day.
Q: How involved was [author of the book] Joe Hill?
O’Brien: I sent Joe the pilot script and we had a brief conversation. He was very enthusiastic. He had some ideas, but I can’t tell you what they were because – spoilers! He has mostly been a cheerleader since then. He did come to set, and he … gives us thoughts which is always welcome, but he’s mostly just been an enthusiastic, “I love that you guys are doing this,” kind of voice.
Q: Will the show differ significantly from the book?
Corrao: I think the really big idea was – if you’ve read the book, you know it jumps around in time a lot. There’s a lot that happens when [main protagonist] Vic is a child that’s really cool. One way to adapt the book would have been to cast Vic as an adult and flash back on those scenes of her as a child. But I thought that stuff was so cool, I wanted to see whomever we cast as Vic play out that stuff. So the big change we made is we made Vic 18, and we just start there and tell the story. [Now] the story doesn’t jump around so much.
Q: Have you shot in Christmasland? [The diabolical alternate reality where the villains tend to hang out in the book]
O’Brien: That falls into spoiler territory, but I can tell you that viewers will see Christmasland in season 1. And it’s spectacular!
Q: How did you come to cast Zachary Quinto [Spock in the recent Star Trek films, Sylar in “Heroes”] as Charlie Manx?
O’Brien: One of the things we liked about the book was Joe Hill’s sense of humor. To me there was always a sense of humor to that character. We needed to find someone who could be charmingly evil… It’s a complicated role.
Brady: What I like best about the character is that it’s one giant seduction. He invades the real world and then seduces kids into his car and it’s an unexpected form of evil. It’s not brutal violence, it’s more scary. Something we always talk about is creating dread and suspense over gore.
Corrao: And Tom always talks about how much fun it is to see Charlie Manx trying to deal with the real modern world. Small details.
Brady: Like Charlie Manx at a vending machine. That was pure gold.
Q: What about casting the protagonist, Vic?
O’Brien: We went through a lot of talented actresses for that role. Some of them played the ass kicker that she becomes, and many played the sort of shy teenager that she begins as that has a lot of vulnerability. For me, the trick was to be able to embody both of those things. Which Ashleigh Cummings really does. She’s just super talented. Like Manx, it’s a complicated role. The temptation is to just play the kind of motorcycle-riding, leather-wearing badass, but Vic’s also got this vulnerability. Ashleigh is able to walk that tightrope nicely.
Brady: I think what’s interesting about Vic is that it’s a strong female heroic character, who’s also insecure. She has flaws that make her so relatable. She’s overcoming her own self doubt and reckoning with her powers. Like any 18-year-old girl finding her own power.
Q: What’s it like being a showrunner? What’s your day to day experience like?
O’Brien: It’s different every day – that’s part of what’s fun about it. Early on it’s a lot of writing. Then as production starts it becomes about being on set. Then as cuts start coming in it becomes about being in post… working a lot with the editors. Always something different. Today was a lot about this. Casting is a big part. It’s a huge operation that’s always advancing, and you just try to figure out where the front lines are that day and be there.
Jakhara Smith: If there’s a chain of command, Jamie’s at the top of it. It really is a female-driven project. One of the reasons I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll go to Rhode Island and do it,” is because of the great women involved behind the scenes and as characters. I mean, you have an 18-year-old girl taking on a centuries-old incarnate of evil. It’s less about if she has love interests, or winning the heart of some boy. It’s about her journeys, as a hero, as a girl, as an 18-year-old, as a broke kid…
O’Brien: We did make a point to have a female director [Kari Skogland, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Sons of Anarchy”]for the pilot, and many of the department heads are women.
We also took a moment to talk to the actors playing Mom Linda McQueen (Virginia Kull, Ms. Barnes on “Big Little Lies”) and protagonist and “finder of lost things,” Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings, “Puberty Blues”).
Q: Ashleigh, where are you from?
Ashleigh Cummings: I don’t really know where I’m from. Probably the middle east and Australia. My childhood was largely between the two.
Q: Are you keeping your American accent when you’re off camera?
AC: I usually do because I don’t really think about it. I seem to switch back and forth. I had a phone call the other day and my accent switched, and the woman on the other line wanted to know if I could put Ashleigh back on. And sometimes if my boyfriend and I are having more heated conversations I’ll slip into my American accent because Vic’s more … feisty, I guess?
Q: What’s the experience been like on set?
Virginia Kull: Lovely. When you have great people at the top… I’m not a Reaganomics person, but I do believe in trickle down when it comes to the workplace. Jamie O’Brien, Tom Brady, our whole team has really been a dream. Ashleigh is a dream daughter to play against.
AC: Her incredibly dysfunctional character has turned out to be very functional in real life, and a great mentor.
Q: How does Vic in the TV show compare to Vic in the book?
AC: Well, we’re honing parts of the book and expanding others. In the book, Vic starts at age 6 and goes up to her 40s. I don’t have quite that range, so we’re kind of starting her emotional journey at the same place, but as an 18 year old. By 18, in the book, they describe Vic as having ice in her veins. But I can’t start there. So there’s a journey, and it’s condensed a little bit. Which has been super fun to play. I don’t think I’m allowed to talk about where she ends up. But when we meet her, she still has a lot more of her innocence than she does at 18 in the book. She’s trying to be a good daughter to keep her family together.
Q: Have you been to RI before?
VK: Before this job I’d been to RI once with my husband for a romantic getaway. I’m a Texas girl, so I’m not used to these fall colors. There were snow flurries on the way in today, and my husband and I were like, “What is that? Is it ash?” We live in LA now, so we’re used to fires.
AC: I haven’t been here before. I’ve been in Australia and New Zealand most of my life. But now I’m a RI tax resident. Am I legally allowed to say that? I am. We found the most amazing place on CraigsList that’s on the water with kayaks in the backyard. I haven’t gotten to see too much of RI outside of work, but Lincoln woods and Colt State Park are lovely. When my boyfriend drives me to set sometimes, I could take a 15 minute nap, but I have FOMO for the leaves, so I can’t close my eyes, I have to stare at every tree that passes. And we’ve been to WaterFire – that’s one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had.
Q: Is Zachary Quinto scary?
AC: He’s terrifying. But he’s the kindest person. Just with this mask on [she shakes her head]. It’s bewildering to see the transition.
VK: It’s part of the beauty of the script that Charlie Manx is so horrifying, but so damn charming all at the same time. I find myself reading [the scripts] and rooting for him. Then there’s the conflict in myself of, “What’s wrong with me? What twisted thing is happening in my brain that I’m so delighted by his behavior?” It’s great fun and real scary.
AC: That’s something I’ve enjoyed as well … The binary polarity between good and evil, right and wrong – those lines are blurred with our characters here.
Q: Have you read the book?
AC: Of course.
VK: Yes – that’s also a great resource. Normally in television, you only see your parts of the script. But with a book there’s so much more material. Moments in a novel of quiet and stillness that are so hard to show, but you can read it. Our audience may never get to see that, but there’s so much for me to pull from – so much rich material that as actors we get to inform what we’re doing. It’s nice to have all that backstory that Joe Hill made up.
Q: Ashleigh, how do you walk the line between being vulnerable … and developing into a strong hero.
AC: She has a lot of internal strength, but a lot of her external strength is a protection for the vulnerability she has within her. What we often see in the typical hero story: It’s really empowering to see Wonder Woman and have her take on the bad guys. But I really enjoy that Vic is still holding onto her kind of feminine qualities – her intuition, her emotions and her creativity are what drives everything within her, and its working in marriage with her sort of typical masculine side with its strength. That’s how she can achieve the remarkable things. It’s really interesting to explore.
Q: What sort of work have you done to establish the mother-daughter bond?
AC: It was no work at all.
VK: I think we were lucky that it came really naturally. We’re both rather touchy and we don’t feel like there are boundaries. [As she speaks, she deliberately starts brushing Ashleigh’s hair out of her face.]
AC: The connective tissue was there the moment we met – the harder part for me was finding the feelings of frustration and anger toward you. I’ll put my earbuds in before a scene and I’ll have to sit on my stool and look at you sideways and try to grow irritated with you. [She looks sidelong at her costar.]
It’s not so benign, when I’m sitting there looking at you, just so you know.
Q: Have you learned, or will you learn, to ride a motorcycle?
AC: I’m not allowed to ride it at all, even on the set, for insurance reasons. But my incredible stunt double Kelsey makes me look really cool.
VK: And you cannot tell the difference between them. The first time I said, “Ashleigh, that was so bad ass!” and she took off the helmet and it was Kelsey.
AC: I would love to though. My dad is an avid motorcycle rider, and I’ve been on the back of his bike since I was a little girl. He rides the exact same bike that Vic does – a Triumph – the same make and model and everything.
Q: What do you hope viewers will take from this experience?
VK: I sometimes feel as if I’m a 6-year old in a world of wonder on this set. I mean just as we were talking those crew members carried a forest from over there to over here. And when we watch the final product all the crazy places are gonna be real.
This show feels completely unique and new to me – it’s like nothing I’ve ever been a part of. If we capture some of that, what an accomplishment that will be.
AC: To be propelled into all those worlds, yet stay grounded in a realistic grit is, I think, going to be pretty amazing.
Interview with Jahkara Smith who plays Maggie, the librarian who tells fortunes and the future using Scrabble tiles (made in RI).
Do you play scrabble?
I do. My dad is in jail, and when we come to visit we only have access to board games. So that was like all we did was play Scrabble.
[Your character has a stutter] Do you have a stutter in real life?
No! Oddly, I did have a stutter when I was little, and I had to take speech therapy, so it was easy for me to pick back up. My youngest brother has one, so I’ve been listening to that.
Will this ruin your speech therapy?
I don’t think so. But if it does, I’m being well compensated, so thankfully I should be able to go back and take care of it again.
Are there other things you have in common with your character?
Oh yeah, I got very lucky. Because it’s my first acting job, it’s great that I can relate to the character so well. I love books and spent hours upon hours in libraries when I was a little kid. I think there’s a lot more to Maggie than initially meets the eye, and we’re lucky enough to have a showrunner that’s into that. There’s a lot more about her than she’s willing to present at first glance. I can relate to that since I’m really pretty shy.
What was your casting experience like?
JS: Well, I didn’t think I could ever be an actress because my teeth weren’t straight – we couldn’t afford braces when I was little. But I have gone through this phase where I’m OK with it now. I got past my camera-shy phase, and I posted this video for my younger sister. She’s in sixth grade and just getting into make-up and unfortunately a boy made a dumb comment to her. So I made a political satire for her, in the form of a make-up tutorial. [Showrunner] Jami found it, because it went viral. [Search YouTube for Sailor J – “I was in love with Sailor Moon when I was little.”]
O’Brien, interjecting: “Somehow it made it onto my Facebook feed, and I liked it so much, I [thought], ‘I just want to meet this girl! Can we audition her for something?’”
JS: I never acted before. I was in the military before this, and I got out literally a month before I was on set here.
How different is it on set from the military?
It’s weirdly similar, because you do have that theme of “hurry up and wait.” There’s so much going on and it’s such a big machine with so many moving parts that you just have to be ready. In your spot when they need you to be there. And sometimes that means you need to be there and just wait a little while. But it’s also very similar in the teamwork that’s needed to keep it operating. The bonding and the professionalism needed to get the job done is extremely similar.
What branch did you serve in?
I was in the Air Force.
Did you expect to become an actress?
No. I was actually freaking out, because I’d signed up for four [in the airforce] when I was seventeen, and my four was up and I was trying to decide whether to sign up for another four years, or what I would do next. Then the offer came and I was like, well, I guess I’m doing this now! And I’m going to be on TV. OK.
I still wait sometimes for them to say, ‘Just kidding – you’re fired.’ That would make more sense.
In the book your character is very emotionally damaged – are you playing her that way, and if so how do you do that?
I am aware of where Maggie is heading… Having to reach into that place that is inside of you, to bring that out and do justice to the character can be difficult. Because it’s a real pain. It’s a real pain that you’re experiencing while you’re in this person’s skin. And you do have to be able to pull yourself back out of there, because this is a temporary thing – it’s your work.
Your sister must be proud
It’s funny because I’m half-black, but we have the same mother, so my sister is all white with blonde hair and blue eyes, and she tells people at school, ‘my sister’s going to be on TV,’ and they say, ‘That’s not your sister.’ Last time I was home, I had to pick her up from cheerleading, and she said, ‘please, get out of the car – no one believes we’re related.’ But yeah, she’s so excited for me. And I’m so excited to be representing in a female-driven story.
Do you think Hasbro will come out with a NOS4A2 version of Scrabble?
I have no idea.