Hale Appleman of 'The Magicians' on Eliot's New Lover, the Show's Most Controversial Moments, & Fighting for Human Rights
Appleman chatted with Zimbio on the show's boundary-pushing content, his fabulous castmates, and what Eliot means to fans.
Hale Appleman happened upon a fitting role in Eliot Waugh of The Magicians. The New York native, who is also known for Teeth, plays the complex character with ease, his dedicated group of fans a tribute to the fact that TV is changing — with characters like Appleman's at the forefront.
Eliot, one of six main characters on the hit Syfy series based on Lev Grossman's novels, is often described as an "openly gay dandy." Commonly found draped in shimmering finery whilst laying only the most articulate of ruin to those who cross BFF Margo (Summer Bishil) and himself, his biting wit serves as a protective barrier between the trials of his magical world and the powerful, nuanced man beneath. Break apart the facade Eliot creates and a profound substance lays in wait, viewers anticipating the moments his addictive, heavy truths emerge. It's in this way Eliot transcends stereotype, offering Appleman the chance to represent LGBTQ characters as few series have thusly allowed.
Zimbio spoke with Appleman on Tuesday, Mar. 28 about the opportunity to play Eliot, The Magicians' "controversial" content, and what his character means to fans. Where better to start than what means the most to Eliot — his ride-or-die bestie, Margo Hanson.
"I think Summer [Bishil] and I have a special alchemy together," Appleman said of his co-star, who plays Margo on the show.
"There's no accounting for chemistry," he said. "But we did learn how to make each other laugh pretty quickly. We're very different people, and I think our differences highlight our chemistry in a way. Specifically with us, we get each other, so it works out."
But Appleman and Bishil wouldn't have had the opportunity if Appleman had been cast as Penny Adiyodi, the first character he tackled during auditions.
"Penny was ill-fated. It didn't feel right," he remembered. "That role belongs to Arjun [Gupta]. When I was auditioning, I didn't feel like it was mine, that was clear from the moment I tried that on. The only other part that I could ever see myself playing is probably Quentin, in some crazy version of the universe. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jason [Ralph], I think he's an amazing actor. I always believe him, and he does things with such ease that I don't think I could do in that way, so it would be a totally different show. I think I ended up where I belong. I'm really thrilled that I get to be Eliot."
If sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram are any indication, fans are equally as thrilled. Since owning the role, Appleman has amassed a collection of fan art he lauds as "beautiful" and "exquisite."
"That was a big concern of mine," Appleman opened up. "That fans that were such diehards for the books wouldn't embrace me as the character. So I feel pretty happy. There will always be backlash to an adaptation of a beloved book series, but for the most part they've been really welcoming of me in this role. That means the world to me."
The Magicians' subject matter meant comparisons to series like Harry Potter were inevitable. The cast is happy to draw those comparisons themselves.
"The Magicians definitely borrows a lot of influences and isn't shy about them," Appleman noted. "There's a kind of meta symbology to The Magicians being an amalgam of Harry Potter, Narnia, Game of Thrones, The Princess Bride, basically any fantasy magic school story that you can think of...Tolkien, you know, they're all in there somewhere. Part of the fun of the show is that it is unabashedly assured in those references. So that's very deliberate."
Still, the series finds a way to be entirely its own. Unlike the world of Harry Potter where the muggle world is a passing annoyance, Magicians draws aptly from Grossman's trilogy, braiding magic and myth with the tribulations of everyday life.
One example is a lack of magical accoutrement. While in Harry Potter wizards use finely crafted wands to cast spells, the magicians of Brakebills University go the human route, using what's most convenient — their hands.
"We have a really great team of actual finger-tutting choreographers," Appleman explained, "people who help design the spells for us. Each of us as actors have, obviously, differently shaped hands, and they are very generous to craft the spells around our specific strengths, and the way our hands move."
"It's all very thought out," he added. "I kind of love the way Eliot casts his. For his character, it suits his hands. Or the way Alice casts, or Quentin casts. It's very specific to the person throwing the spell."
This divergence from traditional fantasy also allows the quirky series to be its truest self. Every good show has at least one musical episode, and for The Magicians, that came in "Lesser Evils," the ninth episode of the second season.
As Nerdist points out, the series "went full Les Miserables," an especially appropriate sentiment given Appleman's background.
"It was a total blast from the past," he said of the episode, which aired Mar. 22. "I had done Les Miserables in high school, so that was my last interaction with [Les Miserables]. It was so fun, and the randomness of it all definitely shook me a little bit. I wasn't expecting it. It was thrown into the mix at the last minute. John McNamara, one of our show-runners, is a huge musical buff, and was really looking for a place to embellish an episode with a number. They didn't even get the rights until a few days before we were rolling on it, so it was a blitz."
"I'm glad that I had previous experience with it," Appleman recalled, "otherwise I would've been lost. It was really fun, but it was also a lot of work because on that episode I was also sword fighting. I had a really limited amount of time to learn the moves for the battle sequences I had. So that all happened really fast. On TV, the timeline in general is really shortened, so we did what we could.
As always, Eliot's ensemble was on point, a feat Appleman credits to series costume designer Magali Guidasci.
"[Eliot's costumes] completely tie in to where the character is in any given episode," he said. "[Magali] understands the context of the scene, whether Eliot is at a council meeting or marching to battle or in the physical kids' cottage making a cocktail trying to reclaim his past. These are all elements she thinks about that go into every look that she designs for me. I just really appreciate her specificity and her emotional connection to what it is that she does. She's completely in love with her job and it shows."
"That's the greatest joy of my career," he expressed, "to work with artists who love what they do so much that that collaboration is sort of effervescent. I just have a really beautiful collaboration with her, and I'm just so grateful I get to work with her. She makes me look really good and I owe her a lot."
"Lesser Evils" was eventful in many ways, not least of which King Eliot's decision to take on another lover, Lorian King Idri, in the interest of sex diplomacy.
"Leonard Roberts is a true class act and an amazing actor," Appleman said of the face behind Idri. "I'm really excited for Eliot that I get a scene partner like Leonard to work with, hopefully for a while to come. We'll see what happens. I can't spoil anything unfortunately because there are some twists that'll come up pretty soon. But I will say that I do hope that's a long-standing relationship for Eliot. I think he deserves one."
Most fans would agree. After Eliot's selfless choice to marry native Fillorian Fen (Brittany Curran) in order to save his friends, he was seemingly relegated to a life devoid of passion and attraction. Eliot, a character we'd watched chugging cocktails, throwing one-liners, socializing with friends, and chasing all kinds of sexual encounters for a full season, abruptly became something else entirely.
"I think that Eliot continues to surprise himself," Appleman said. "While I don't think he ever would have married Fen or have fallen for her — nor do I think that he is necessarily falling for her — that marriage is one of necessity. It came from a moment where it was do-or-die for him and his friends, and that marriage sort of saved their entire mission to assume the thrones of Fillory. And also, ultimately, to destroy The Beast. So he really took one for team there and I think it's worth mentioning that."
"Eliot isn't your stereotypical character," he said. "There's an easy out and a really easy way to describe a character like Eliot because that's what he's consciously presenting. But the great beauty of his character is that there's so much else going on underneath."
"When you get to see peeks at his internal life and the more complex nature of who he is," Appleman continued, "I think that sets a different standard, especially for the sci-fi genre. It opens up more of a human conversation. Eliot can be all of those cliche things on paper, although in the books, what Lev [Grossman] created was someone who has a lot more depth than meets the eye. I really just took Lev's blue print as my starting place and embodied that character as much as possible to begin with, because I feel like that's the most important thing to honor when you're doing an adaptation. I'm really grateful to [Lev] for creating a character with so many different peaks and valleys. My sincerest hope in the future is that I continue to get to explore Eliot's depth and his potential as a nontraditional hero, and that we get to explore his emotional machinery."
As Appleman puts it, Grossman's novels have allowed him to "explore uncharted territory" in the sci-fi genre.
"I'm really grateful for that," he said, "and I'm happy that the fans are responding to him. They're very protective of him, they're incredibly passionate I think because they really identify with him. So I think that says a lot too."
Eliot isn't the only part of the show fans are discovering relation. In The Magicians' two seasons, Eliot and his crew have tackled alcoholism, multi-player sex, polyamory, rape, mental illness, and recently, abortion.
"For a show that skews a little mainstream, we have a lot of opportunity to take risks," Appleman remarked. "I applaud John [McNamara] and Sera Gamble, our show-runners, who open that door for us to explore somewhat controversial issues and human problems in the context of fantasy, which is all about what Lev's books initially were detailing — these people who happen to discover that magic is real and yet can't escape very human problems. The credit goes to the people up top. In as many ways as possible, I try to enhance Eliot's journey with whatever skill I can bring to the show.
"I think as a cast we're all really passionate about exploring issues that matter and standing up for what we all individually believe in," he said. "Together, there's a lot of strength it that."
For those wondering how the show will continue to push those boundaries, have no fear.
"A lot's gonna happen really fast, which should come as no surprise," Appleman teased, "but I think we'll definitely start to see Eliot embrace his role of responsibility and attempt to right some wrongs, and bring everyone together for the final episodes of the season. Episode 10 is a cheeky episode. It's a cheeky one."
To those fans who relate to Eliot's painful background as a farm kid who just didn't fit in, Appleman had this to say:
"Hang in there. The world is not as small as the world you live in. The world is as large as the world you choose to live in."
And to anyone feeling discouraged by the current state of the world?
"Be kind to one another. Compassion is a virtue, and taking action in the causes you believe in is really important. Lending a hand is important in these times. Calling your local representatives. Fighting for human rights."
"You know," he said. That kind of thing."
HALE'S FINAL WORD:
"Thank you to my fans. You know who you are. If you're reading this, you probably are one. Thanks for your support and your love and your dedication to Eliot. Some of you make the most incredible fan art and it's really worth mentioning in every interview because it's constant and it's just...the level of talent is exquisite. Thanks, you guys, for all your beautiful drawings and paintings and for sharing yourself creatively in that way."