The fantasy television series The Magicians is based on Lev Grossman’s bestselling novel of the same name. After a successful first season the show got renewed for 13 more episodes full of magic, drama and tricks.
THE RED BULLETIN: Jason, are you now a skilled magician?
JASON RALPH: I have a handful of tricks I can do because my character Quentin (Coldwater) starts out as sort of a street magician doing a lot of sleight of hand magic. We had a couple of magicians come to the set and teach me a couple of things. Mostly what I know is basic card-handling skills that make it look like I know how to do a lot more than I actually do. Just knowing how to hold the deck of cards and do simple things makes people believe you know so much more than you do. That’s sort of the illusion of it all.
Stella, how are your own skills coming along?
STELLA MAEVE: I think the finger-tugging has gotten a lot better. Julia at first is supposed to be terrible at it and towards the end of the first season she’s pretty great at precise motions. It’s almost like a dance with your hands and it’s very cool. We have a coach who helps us and getting to play with that has been a lot of fun.
JASON: She has good hands for it whereas I have these big, meaty things that can’t do a lot and I broke my middle finger over Christmas so it doesn’t really move as well as it’s supposed to. [Laughs] I think they might have to CGI my middle finger. I’ll get a little green screen cup for it.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the challenge of getting the body language right?
JASON: We call it finger-tugging and it’s sort of like a breakdance with your hands. It has caught on with the internet and there a lot of breakdancers who are doing really amazing things with it.
STELLA: It’s like pop-and-lock but for your fingers.
JASON: In the books Lev Grossman describes the magic as being performed with very specific finger gestures so we’ve taken that idea and added a little bit of a miracle aspect to it which has evolved into finger-tugging. We have this breakdancer who is our choreographer. He choreographs what are essentially finger dances for us and he gives us the opportunity to take them and adjust them slightly to the character. Everyone has their own style. Eliot [played by Hale Appleman] is more presentational with it and I like the idea that Quentin is kind of doing his in secret so you don’t really know what he’s going to do, then he hits you with it.
STELLA: I love how Julia is very direct. Even if it’s terrible, it’s right there in front of you.
The show has been described as Hogwarts meets Gossip Girl. Do you agree with that?
STELLA: I wouldn’t say Gossip Girl.
JASON: I would substitute Gossip Girl for Girls because it has more of that grounded, gritty feeling.
STELLA: Awkward and, you know, real.
JASON: While still being a little bit…
JASON: And self-involved.
Jason, you also did Peter And The Starcatcher on Broadway, which also has a magical theme …
JASON: It’s funny how similar Peter Pan and Quentin are as kids who won’t grow up and how they’re trapped inside of that. There’s something very romantic and very tragic about these two characters and about that idea – as people who are trying to break out of their shell and be something more, but finding themselves incapable.
Quentin hides from the world in books. Is the new generation using magic and superheroes on TV and in film for the same type of escapism?
JASON: I don’t think it’s something people are hiding behind, it’s something that is giving people the ability to experience the world. It gives them a filter and a safety net with which to experience more of the world.
STELLA: It’s also a form of escapism, for people to escape their own realities and go into these alternate worlds. There’s a lot going on right now and I understand why people want to escape from it.
JASON: Fantasy at its best is about taking a lens of something fantastical to look at something very small and human. That’s the goal of what we’re doing on The Magicians and a lot of the good superhero movies do it too. It takes a broad brushstroke to look at something very simple – to learn a simple nugget of truth about humanity. I think they’re important, not just a distraction.
STELLA: I don’t necessarily agree. I love Christian Bale as Batman – he’s awesome – but I’m not a huge superhero fan. I wish we could veer away from that and try other things, like get back to the 1980s where the writing was really important. I do think The Magicians is different. It’s not superheroes, it’s more fantasy.
If you could do magic for one day what would you use it for?
JASON: I’d like to think I would use it for world peace – maybe by just shooting love out of my hands like rainbows.
STELLA: Woodstock. We could redo that.
JASON: Just have a magic guitar.
STELLA: Jason said something good earlier, ‘Boom, all guns are gone’. I was like ‘That would be awesome’.
Did you read the books before doing the show?
JASON: I think most of the cast discovered them when we were auditioning for it and became very quick and very rabid fans. What’s nice about that is we have a show about a book being created by fans of it. The whole writing team and all of the actors are guarding the source material and trying to guide it with gentle hands.
[cutout]STELLA: What’s cool about it is that Lev Grossman knew that these fantastical worlds is what would sell and that it’s what is appealing right now in the culture. It was a way to appeal to people but also poke fun at it and show the ridiculousness. If you read the books he’ll have things in parenthesis like: (Then an elf ran through the forest). A f*cking elf, really? You believe this journey you’re on because it’s like ‘What if an elf really did run in front of us?’ It’s kind of like life, like ‘this is crazy but it’s happening’.
The show has been renewed for a second season. How many seasons do you think it will last, given there are just three books?
JASON: They’re aiming for five or six. That’s what they’ve plotted out. It weaves in and out so we did a little bit of book one and a little bit of book two. With book two half of it takes place in flashback and it’s Julia’s story.
STELLA: Julia isn’t in book one so it was a way to combine and bring these characters together.
JASON: Lev didn’t know he was going to write such a rich story for Julia while he was writing book one so he kind of went back and filled in her story. We had the opportunity to do it at the same time.
STELLA: I think with the showrunners, when they’re done telling the story of these three books and their interpretations, it’s not something they want to push to seven or eight seasons. When they’re done then they’re done.
Is 13 episodes an unlucky number?
STELLA: I disagree with that. I think 13 is very lucky. My mother instilled that in me.
You’re both very active on social media. Has that become important for actors?
JASON: It’s become part of your resume, how many Twitter followers you have, but it’s also an opportunity to get to talk to fans and see what people are saying.
STELLA: And to interact with people. I used to think it was completely isolating and I was not a fan of it at first but now I’ve succumbed and realized this is the world we live in and it’s getting more and more prevalent. There are ways to use it for good. There are ways to communicate with people you would never normally get a chance to communicate with.
JASON: I can get a lot of Twitter followers, then I can get them to donate to a good cause.
Are they good at not giving away the spoilers?
JASON: I don’t care about spoilers so much. It’s not something that bothers me. It’s not something that would stop me from watching, like if I found out the secret about Game Of Thrones.
STELLA: ‘Open the door!’ Is it called ‘Open the door!’? ‘Don’t go through the door!’
JASON: No, it’s ..’Hold the door!’
STELLA: ‘Hold the dooooor!’
JASON: Just stop, Stella! Please, just stop. (Laughs.)