Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
January 20, 2017

Based on the bestselling novels by author Lev Grossman, the Syfy original series The Magicians follows a group of young adults who attend the mystical university of Brakebills, a hidden place of learning where those gifted with magical prowess study and hone their craft. The core ensemble includes protagonist and novice magician Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph); Quentin's best friend since childhood Julia (Stella Maeve); brilliant academic Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley); antagonistic frenemy Penny (Arjun Gupta); seemingly nonchalant libertine Eliot (Hale Appleman); and the brash and fiery Margo (Summer Bishil).

The first season of The Magicians quickly expanded beyond the confines of Brakebills, showing the existence of other worlds and setting up the second season's backdrop of Fillory, a magical realm not unlike C.S. Lewis' Narnia, where fantastical kingdoms are populated by all manner of creatures both good and evil. It is in this strange land that Quentin and his companions face off against The Beast, a sinister entity that has posed a grave threat since the narrative's beginning.

In this exclusive interview, we get acquainted with the actor who brings to life Eliot Waugh, a character whose emotions may run the deepest despite his practiced affectations to the contrary. Hale Appleman talks about his experience with the multi-faceted Eliot and his ongoing evolution, the fun in both the show's humor and intricate spellcasting choreography, and the overwhelming love he has received from a very engaged fanbase.

The second season of The Magicians is currently airing on Syfy. Had you always been a sci-fi/fantasy fan, or was it a genre you learned to embrace through your role as Eliot?

HALE: As a boy, growing up, I definitely got my sci-fi/fantasy fix. I was a huge fan of The Princess Bride, a lot of the Jim Henson stuff--you know, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. Those kinds of fantasy films, I was raised on those. And of course, reading Lord of the Rings, and loving the Star Wars franchise and stuff like that. So yeah, there's a boyhood appreciation of all of that stuff that I'm kind of fulfilling a childhood dream, in a way, to be a part of this. And as I was auditioning [for The Magicians], I picked up the first book, and I just think that Lev Grossman is truly brilliant and has tapped into something that hadn't really been done before.

Does your appreciation for the genre make work feel like a fantasy camp?

Absolutely. And the attention to detail that our production designers take with every prop, every set piece, every costume...It's completely immersive. So I walk onto set every day and I'm constantly enthralled at just the specificity that everyone has taken. Every art department is so thorough. I'm constantly transported.

We really learn a lot about Eliot in the first season episode "The Strangled Heart." Did your approach to playing him have to change from that pivotal moment on?

Well, I would say that I always knew what was sort of lurking beneath the surface with him. I never saw him as just a whimsical dandy, although that's what he leads with, very intentionally and very directly. He has constructed this persona that he wants everyone to see him as, which is far from where he came from, and a reaction to a world that didn't accept him. So he's wearing this mask quite deliberately, and I always knew that. And so for me, part of the joy of playing him is, of course, the wit and whimsy, but truly, it's his complexity and the scope of his character. I really get quite a range to play with him, and he's full of contradictions. He isn't one thing. And that keeps me really inspired. He's one of the more complex characters I've ever gotten to play, and I feel like I could continue taking him to new places for as long as I am so lucky to be him.

Are you given an overall blueprint for Eliot's story arc at the beginning of each season, or do you learn about him gradually over the course of the episodes?

For the most part, it's revealed to me section by section. I definitely have some conversations with [executive producers and co-creators] Sera Gamble and John McNamara about potential themes for Eliot for this season, and kind of the guiding idea. So in really loose terms, I sort of know where I'm going. But the episode-to-episode specifics are revealed to me as I read them.

Do you think he's dealing with the most emotional damage out of all the characters?

I think that perhaps he and Julia have suffered the most. I think that you don't really know all of the details of Eliot's childhood, where he came from, and specifically what happened to him. But I will say that it's dark, and he's overcome a lot. He's a survivor. The fact that he's standing is kind of miraculous. And so I think that also kind of ties in to his need for humor, and also perhaps the repression of all that he feels. And that's a direct reaction to the hardship that he's had to face in his life before arriving at school.

Going into production for the second season, what were you particularly excited about?

Oh man, honestly, Fillory--the throne room, the world, really. The new world that Eliot has bound himself to is the most exciting aspect of the new season. Fillory is a huge character this season, and the show's scope has expanded tenfold with the addition of Fillory as a real place that we get to explore.

Do you have a favorite comedic exchange involving Eliot in season two?

Ummm...I don't know how it turned out, I still haven't seen this episode, but there's a scene in which Eliot... [laughs] I don't know how to say it without spoiling it! There's a fun scene with a talking animal in episode 4.

I know this was supposed to be a tragic moment, but I thought Eliot being forced to kill with magic in the first season instantly made him the group's resident badass, given the necessity of the situation and the dramatic slicing motion used in his spell. When it comes to the show's spellcasting gestures, do you have to be very precise and specific with your hand motions?

Oh, absolutely. In fact, unfortunately, because of the time limitations on a TV series that does have commercial breaks, we weren't able to show the entire spell. But that spell is so incredibly massive and badass, and it has, like, four parts to it. And you really only got to see kind of like the little cherry on top, which was the slice. But there [were] elements that kind of resemble Eliot pulling out a sword and counting down, and waving his hands almost like a maestro--like a maestro/prince/warrior. [laughs] It was incredibly specific, and it was developed by Kevin Li, who's one of our top advisers. And I spent a long time [working on it]. At some point, I might tweet the whole spell just so people can see what they missed. But yeah, that was an incredible moment for me as Eliot, and I am glad that you felt his badassery break the surface! It's an incredibly painful moment for him, but it's also the moment where you actually see the fury of his pain and his power. And I really think that underneath all of Eliot's whimsy is this kind of massive reserve of fury, and incredible power. I've always known that, and I love that people sort of raised their eyebrow and didn't necessarily see that coming. But yeah, you can't really mess with him, or you'll end.

Who is the quickest amongst you and your castmates to pick up on the spellcasting choreography?

Well, I think people have different styles. Sometimes they fit the spells to our specific characters and our personalities, and so there is a sort of intentional aspect. But when we're all doing it together, I'd say I'm pretty good at it, I think Jason is pretty good at it. And Olivia makes it look really great when she has, like, big, major arcana stuff to shoot. [laughs] And Arjun has a lot of great stuff this season with his hands--a lot of physical pantomime kind of stuff, which is really, really fun.

Early in the series, Eliot used magic for simply grilling at a barbecue, which was a nice, natural touch. If you had his powers, what sort of mundane, daily tasks would you use them for?

Probably, like, putting the tea kettle on and stoking the fire. [laughs] Flying, maybe--you know, transport.

If I remember correctly, the first time we see Alice without her glasses is after Eliot gives her a green drink at one of his parties. As someone who wears glasses, I know my vision does not get better with alcohol. So is Eliot putting a little something extra in the drinks, or does Alice not really need glasses?

[laughs] Yeah, I don't know, I guess you have to ask Olivia about that. I don't really know. I'm sure Eliot puts all sorts of special things in the drinks. I don't know if they have anything to do with eyesight. [laughs]

Given Eliot's very intimate relationship with alcohol, how would you rate your own skills as a mixologist?

Not at all. I mean, I'm a complete novice. I'm an embarrassing failure of a mixologist. I actually am not much of a drinker. I don't really know that much about alcohol. I'm learning a little bit from John McNamara, who has a ton of wine knowledge. And I had a couple conversations with him leading into doing the show just to kind of brace me--you know, just some knowledge on liquor and wine. He has a sommelier's touch, so I'm grateful to him for all that he shares with me.

You've all been busy promoting the show since its debut. How was your experience of taking it directly to the fans and meeting them in person at events like Comic-Con?

Oh man, we have such an incredible, loving fan base. They're quite protective of Eliot, too. They're concerned for him, and they feel a need to stand up for him--they have a kind of protective love for him which I find very sweet and endearing, and I just appreciate them so much. They send me drawings of Eliot that they've created, and they're all so talented. Some of them are just brilliant. Etchings, line drawings. I don't know if you look at my Instagram...They post them, they post me in these tags, and they...I don't know...They're just...I mean, they really blow my mind. Obviously. I can't form a sentence because I'm so overwhelmed. [laughs] I'm very indebted to these fans. I think that my primary concern in doing this part at all was to do justice to a character that they already knew and loved from Lev Grossman's books.

At what point did you start to feel the love from the fans? I imagine it can be intimidating in the beginning, and you're nervous about doing right by the character...

Completely terrifying. Yeah, I think once the first few episodes aired, the cat was out of the bag, and they really kind of immediately embraced me. So I appreciate that. And, you know, the show's not for everyone--people either love it or they hate it, and I'm thrilled about that, too. [laughs] And I just think that the fans that loved the books and also love the show really have truly embraced me as Eliot...So I'm just so grateful to them that they've accepted me as this character.

Thanks for your time today, Hale. I hope we're talking about this series for many more seasons to come...

Oh, thank you so much, it was my absolute pleasure. I really appreciate it.

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