“The Magicians” launches its run on SyFy tonight, introducing a new bevy of characters from one of the more popular fantasy book series to come out over the last 10 years or so -- and Jason Ralph will be right in the middle of the magic storm.
As Quentin Coldwater, Ralph plays a troubled young man transitioning to adulthood and out to enroll in Yale University. Instead Quentin is diverted to a school that produces magicians -- real magic, not the Penn and Teller stuff -- called Brakebills. Like most magical schools our culture has become currently obsessed with, there are forces allied against he and his new-found classmates.
Were you a huge fan of fantasy fiction before being cast?
I think I gravitate towards the genre more than most. Right now, I’m so into “The Walking Dead.” I guess that could be considered fantasy, right? Like, gore fantasy.
Sure. We all HOPE it’s fantasy. About “The Magicians” ... were you aware of it?
I wasn’t aware of it before I started the audition process. I quickly became a very passionate and rabid fan of the series. [Reading it] armed with the knowledge and the desire and the need to make sure that we were going to be doing this book series justice. So I could sit down with the creators before accepting the role and say, ‘Why are we telling this story?’ ‘Are we here for the same reasons?’ ‘Do we love the same things about the series?’ And we had a really great conversation about that.
The author, Lev Grossman, was on set a bit, right?
He made a couple of set visits. He was more with the writers as a consultant through the process. He was around a little bit for us, but it was mostly through email.
So you did get to talk to him about the show and the books?
Yeah, I did. He’s been the most supportive guy and been extremely helpful along the way -- just with tiny little hints and the way he talks about the characters. I remember when I first met him and I was sitting across from him. He had this amazing, hyper-intelligence and self-deprecating thing happening at the same time, but he’s also very proud of where he is and how smart he is -- and he should be because he is. But he still has the self deprecation, and I was like, ‘Oh my God. That’s Quentin Coldwater.’
You’ve probably heard a lot of the comparisons of “The Magicians” being a more adult “Harry Potter” ...
The books are certainly inspired by “Harry Potter” and by “Narnia” and all the things that have come before it. It just tackles different problems because the characters are different ages as opposed to those high school years. It’s looking at the post-grad part of life where you’re just being shoved right out into the real world and you’re expected to know what you want from it and what your place in it is. But in reality you have less of a clue than ever.
Some of the controversy surrounding the book and its adaptation centers on a kind of sexualizing of a magical world (“Harry Potter Goes to College” was one response). Add to that sexy/good-looking actors playing parts that -- in the books -- were more homely characters. What do you think of this view, and how does the show deal with this more adult of young adult issues?
The series is dealing with real people, and real people have sex. Some characters/people have sex in a hyper-sexualized manner, and some do it in an awkward, self-aware, less than appealing kinda way. The books and the show are an honest look at what it is to be human, and sex is a part of that human experience. And thank you for the compliment!
No problem. On to the sets, which look like (mostly) fun places to be.
It’s been so incredible, and such a gift as an actor. In our job we’re constantly playing 30 levels of pretend, and having these worlds that are really fleshed out that we can just live in is one less thing that I have to pretend is there. It helps us tell the story. Most of the magic [on the show] is being done as practically as possible. When we’re doing magic, the set is changing around us. I haven’t done much green screen, which is just phenomenal.
How’s the whole camaraderie on set?
It’s great! We all met in New Orleans ‘cause we shot the pilot down there. New Orleans is the kind of town where you create friends for life -- and that energy has lasted throughout. We’re all very close.
Having read the books, was there any thing or scene you’re really looking forward to filming?
One of my favorite moments... There’s a line in book three where Alice says, ‘Quentin, change your hair.’ People who have read the books know what I’m talking about, and it’s a moment that I’m really excited to do. I won’t say any more on it.
Is there a scene that you’ve filmed that turned out differently than you envisioned?
There’s a point in the books where we travel to Brakebills South, which is another campus. That journey, both physically and psychologically, is a moment in the books that I found extremely compelling, and I was really looking forward to figuring out how we were going to represent it on the TV show because it would be kind of awesome if it was done exactly as it was in the books. This adaptation was very exciting and very true to the emotional experience of the trip in the books.
What are your views on magic? The kind practiced by Neil Patrick Harris ... and the other kind. Did you learn any?
I’ve learned a lot of sleight of hand and coin tricks, but as far as the occult is concerned, I have not dabbled. I’m sort of an internal skeptic about those things. I’m very happy to be proven wrong, but I can’t say that I have any actual belief.
What should the fans get out of watching the first episode?
Quentin is not the most likable character or person, and I think you should hang in there for him because I think he comes around in the end. And watch the series for his development -- and read the books for the same reason. His journey is, I think, really rewarding.
It’s really great what the show has been able to do in terms of expanding the universe a little bit. In the book, it’s really all told through Quentin’s POV. In the show we have the luxury of seeing through others’ eyes as well.
So is that one of the big differences that you see from the books to the TV show? A filling out of some of the other back stories?
I think we tried to change as little as possible from the books. And when we do venture out it’s been to try to explore other people’s vibes. We’re always going to the same point, it’s just that how we get there is different, and it’s because we’re looking through other perspectives to get there.
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