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There’s a small town nestled in the heart of Massachusetts, an hour and a half west of Boston, called Orange — that for now, doesn’t look like Orange at all.
For four months, it’s been posing as Castle Rock, home of the Hulu anthology series based on the works of Stephen King. Locals aided with Orange’s temporary transformation into the unluckiest fictional town in America: Business owners placed Castle Rock signs in their windows, shops sell show-branded souvenirs — one even stocks “Castle Rock” coffee — and residents regularly gather to observe production.
But today the streets are quiet — a mid-December snowstorm will do that — and inside a building on Main Street posing as the Castle Rock police station, actor André Holland (Moonlight) has grown restless. He’s about to film a scene from the season finale in which his character, lawyer Henry Deaver, dashes into the precinct to … well, the reason’s a spoiler. Point is, it’s an intense sequence, and Holland’s preparing by doing push-ups. And jumping jacks. And running in place. And more push-ups. Until finally he bursts into frame, out of breath, over and over again, take after take.
The physical demands of playing Castle Rock’s protagonist, though, are nothing compared to the character’s emotional turmoil. This — his hometown, the police department, all of it — is the last place Henry wants to be. “It’s definitely taken a toll on him,” Holland says. “He wanted to get as far away from this town as he could. He has a complicated history with it.”
“Complicated” is putting it simply. As a child, Henry was involved in an accident that left his father dead and him the sole suspect, but he has no memory of it and eventually fled when townspeople turned against him. Now a death-row attorney with few connections — his clients, see, usually die — Henry only returned home because a mysterious inmate at Shawshank State Penitentiary (Bill Skarsgård, below), who was discovered in a cage deep beneath the facility, asked for him. Only him. Yet, Henry has never heard of the inmate — and the inmate, nicknamed “The Kid,” has been in solitary confinement so long that he may be insane.
“He’s a very traumatized creature,” Skarsgård says of his character. “He’s very feral. He’s not normal. Everything is off and wounded in some way.” But why? “A lot of what he’s been through has shaped who he is, and …” Skarsgård chuckles. “I can’t say who he is without revealing what he’s been through.”
He’s not really spoiling anything; this is just how Castle Rock begins, and it’s all J.J. Abrams needed to hear to sign on as an executive producer. Co-creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason’s (Manhattan) plans for the pilot alone got the Lost co-creator so excited he broke out laughing: “I was like, ‘This is going to be so much fun,’ ” recalls Abrams. “There were things they were pitching that were truly terrifying and truly creepy.”
And truly ambitious. Shaw and Thomason — both, as Shaw puts it, “unreformed total Stephen King heads” — want to take the author’s (arguably) most terrorized Maine locale and, um, terrorize it further. Their vision is a Fargo-like series in which each season not only matches King’s tone and aesthetic, but also plucks characters and settings directly from his work.
To avoid being overwhelmed by the author’s extensive oeuvre (56 novels and counting, not to mention more than 200 short stories), they focused on finding a type of King tale that would resonate today. “When we returned to his library, a lot of his stories about prison and justice were really compelling to us,” Shaw says. “They’re the closest things to true-life monster stories that we tell ourselves as a culture. How do we assign blame? How do we reckon with the idea of evil and whether we believe in it?”
“Our intention was always to tell an original story in the tune of Stephen King,” Thomason adds, pointing out that the town of Castle Rock offered the most opportunity for invention. “The germ of the idea was to think about the kinds of people who have the grit to stick it out in a place that’s been terrorized over and over again. Who stays in a place like that?”
For starters, the introverted Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), whose real-estate business seems like a cruel joke she’s playing on herself. (“It’s just the strangest choice,” Lynskey says, laughing. “Why would you have that job in a town where no one wants to buy real estate?”) There’s also world-weary Alan Pangborn (Scott Glenn, above), the iconic hero of the novels Needful Things and The Dark Half. He’s no longer Castle Rock’s sheriff, but a lion in winter living with, as Glenn calls it, “a bitterness, day by day.”
That bitterness has to do with another permanent resident: Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek), Henry’s adoptive mother, who suffers from dementia and struggles to remember where — and when — she is. The role’s complexity drew Spacek back into the King universe 41 years after starring in Carrie, the first screen adaptation of one of his novels. “The Stephen King world is a good place to be. This story, really, is an homage to him,” she says. “I hope we were able to do him proud.”
She needn’t worry. The author approved the project and signed on as an EP. After watching the pilot, he even emailed Abrams a positive review, which Abrams promptly sent to Shaw and Thomason. “It was a very, very cool moment, when J.J. forwarded us the email,” Shaw says with a laugh. “You want to be sure that when Stephen King watches your Stephen King show, he’s happy.” And maybe just a little scared.
Castle Rock debuts July 25 on Hulu.