"The Passage" is a horror series, among many other things. But perhaps the scariest thing about it for star Mark-Paul Gosselaar was wading into a crowded market.
"There are so many genre pieces out there, and I think what separates us and what was so evident in the pilot that I read was the heart of our story is the relationship between my character and a little girl, Amy Bellafonte, played by Saniyya Sidney," says the veteran actor.
Gosselaar stopped by the Los Angeles Times video studio for an Emmy Contenders chat about the first season of the show, which is based on Justin Cronin's popular trilogy of novels. The former star of "Saved by the Bell," "NYPD Blue" and "Franklin & Bash" plays former military operative Brad Wolgast. Wolgast is initially tasked with kidnapping a young girl for a dangerous government project to cure disease but bonds with her and helps her resist Project Noah. As one might expect with a so ominously named experiment, its test subjects turn monstrous and eventually set off the equivalent of a Great Flood — a vampiric plague that overthrows society.
Wolgast is a different role than we've seen him in before, including his beefier look.
"I had just come off the other Fox drama, 'Pitch,' where I played a Major League catcher; I had the beard, I had the weight," he says.
"I had a 'tone' meeting, just to get me into the mind-set of who the character was. 'Do we keep the beard?' That was a no. They absolutely said, 'No beard! Shave the beard!' I said, 'Great, my wife will love that.' I said, 'Do you want the weight?' 'Well … if you wanna lose 5 pounds … it's OK, but don't gain any more weight.'
"I felt that the weight sort of symbolized this paternal figure that I was playing, and I thought it was juxtaposed against this little kid. … I kept the character I was playing on 'Pitch' and transformed him into Brad Wolgast."
Another side we hadn't seen of Gosselaar is displayed in Wolgast's expert hand-to-hand combat. Even fans may not have expected the actor to be so good at fighting.
"I am a practitioner of Brazilian jiujitsu," he says. "I've been training for over 10 years. And the stunt coordinator is a practitioner as well, of jiujitsu. A lot of the stunt guys we were working with were all jiujitsu and Muay Thai. There was a very specific scene in which we only grappled — no punches thrown. All it was was grappling and chokes, sweeps. It was fun to coordinate that and present it to the director."
When a fan asks if Wolgast is Gosselaar's most physically demanding role yet, he affirms it.
"I got beat up quite a bit this last season. It could be my age has finally caught up to me," the 45-year-old says with a bit of a smile.
"I was very proud of the stunts we were able to accomplish. I enjoy any time we were allowed to be physical. I think that's one of my strengths, that I can incorporate that into my roles."
He explains how some elements from later books had been mixed into this first season, with some expanded and rethought — thus only a quarter of the first of the three books has been depicted so far. This season ended at the point in the books where Wolgast disappears for a while. For nearly 100 years, actually. Thus, Gosselaar says he doesn't know if he'll be back for Season 2, if there is one (he's clearly hoping there will be one, and that he'll be in it).
"When you read the pilot episode, you forgot that you were surrounded by this vampire-like genre," Gosselaar says. "Because that story [of Amy and Brad], again, was the heart of what we were trying to film.
"And it remained that way for the entire [season], and hopefully it will remain for the course of the show as long as I'm on it."
To see the entire conversation, watch the video below.