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SYFY’s The Magicians has been likened to so many things since it premiered in 2016: “Harry Potter for adults,” “The next Buffy.” Yet, the comparisons fall short because the show is so idiosyncratic. Superficially, this mercurial and snarky series is about the adventures of a group of twenty-somethings enrolled at a graduate school for magic; however, the writers use its fantastical premise to deconstruct the fantasy genre, explore mental health issues, and tell a powerful story about entering adulthood.
In season 3, Quentin (Jason Ralph), Eliot (Hale Appleman), and Margo (Summer Bishil) embarked on an epic quest to restore magic to the world. They succeeded, but it came with a price: Adults they trusted erased their memories and gave them new identities and Eliot, possessed by an ancient monster, tracks down Quentin (now known as Brian).
Production on season 4 recently resumed in Vancouver; however, Ralph, Appleman, and Bishil took a break to visit the legendary Magic Castle in Los Angeles, where real-life magician Matt Vizio wowed them with sleight-of-hand tricks as they indulged in some revelry that would make Eliot proud. Read our conversation below:
Round One: Vodka and Perrier for Bishil, tequila on the rocks for Ralph, gin and tonic for Appleman, and an old fashioned for EW.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You guys just started production on season 4. How’s that going?
SUMMER BISHIL: It’s going really well.
HALE APPLEMAN: We’re just forming this new alliance between our characters, I guess you could say.
JASON RALPH: It’s a funny thing. The end of season 3, you see everyone’s minds get erased, and you become different people. So, the beginning of this season feels really like starting from…
APPLEMAN: …square one. Season 3 was about a really well oiled machine leaving the station. We knew what was what. We’d established these characters over two seasons previously. This season is about finding our bearings with this new point of awareness. And that’s been really weird.
With these new identities, I’m assuming you guys haven’t had that many scenes together. Has that been weird?
APPLEMAN: It’s particularly weird for me.
BISHIL: Me too.
APPLEMAN: She’s my partner on this show. Summer and I have built something really specific together over three seasons, so it’s been really interesting shift to establish something new without her.
Hale, what’s it like playing an entirely new character?
APPLEMAN: It’s been strange. I’m being given an opportunity to shake up expectations of the audience and what they think I’m going to deliver, and I’m excited by that.
Jason, how are you adjusting to Hale’s new character?
RALPH: I’m not Quentin, so I don’t know who this person is.
APPLEMAN: Weirdly, I think we’re still finding points of connection between them, or at least the monster has to believe that he has a close point of contact at all times, a kind of surrogate parent. I feel like he’s decided that Quentin is this, or Brian, who Jason is playing.
RALPH [Joking]: The first episode is actually a little pocket episode where you get to see Brian grading papers.
APPLEMAN: And the monster looking over his shoulder correcting him.
RALPH: Yeah, and trying to give the students better grades, but Bri-Guy just won’t have that.
APPLEMAN: And if he messes up, I take a bite out of his shoulder.
Jason, do you at least get to smile as Brian?
RALPH: You know I thought that I was gonna have like a great opportunity for this new guy who had a different kind of outlook on the world but we really dove right back into…
APPLEMAN: …Being terrorized.
RALPH: Constant and utter terror. The brand of terror is a little different.
APPLEMAN: That’s true.
RALPH: I think Quentin is more of a problem solver, so inside of the terror he’s trying to figure out the way to solve it. And I think Brian remains more paralyzed. So, I guess that’s the difference. We’ll see if you see that or not.
APPLEMAN: At least to me, I didn’t see anything. No, I’m kidding.
RALPH: Just idiot Jason over there looking afraid like always, falling over s—
APPLEMAN: He’s the most physically comedic performer I’ve ever met.
APPLEMAN: He’s got some like Buster Keaton in him or something. It’s pretty great.
RALPH: Yeah, I was born for something else.
APPLEMAN: Like why is he on this show, actually?
RALPH: I get that a lot.
APPLEMAN: He should literally be doing like Chaplin-esque stunts.
RALPH: There was a great video I was watching this morning of hockey players playing soccer on the ice and they were wearing tennis shoes. So, they were just like slipping while trying to kick the ball. If you watch that video, that’s sort of my method for acting.
APPLEMAN: That’s good. Keep yourself surprised.
RALPH: It’s Quentin on ice in sneakers is sort of the method.
To be fair, if there was one show where Jason could do physical comedy, it would be on The Magicians, which changes what it is from week-to-week. One week the characters pull off a heist and the next you’re doing a full on musical episode. Does the show’s versatility make it exciting to work on?
APPLEMAN: The genre’s ever changing, right? I feel like it’s a great opportunity. [gestures to Bishil] We’re saddled with a responsibility to be funny when called for and to also ground those very comedic scenes in some kind of emotional truth or reality…
BISHIL: …while being aware of the camp.
APPLEMAN: The camp is an inherent part of the show.
BISHIL: And protecting that as well. That is [the element] of the show that we deal with more.
APPLEMAN: That’s true. The most outrageous, whimsical circumstances were often thrown at the two of us. So our job was always about to maintain the integrity of that while also keeping it…
BISHIL: …grounded. I think the one thing that has sort of kept me grounded throughout all four seasons of being thrown strange and surreal material is being completely present and engaged in what is happening, and if I’m not, finding what could take me there physically, whether it’s feeling something or connecting to somebody.
APPLEMAN: I’m really lucky we were paired together for so much of it cause I feel like you can’t cheat chemistry.
Round Two: More of the same
Season 3 received a lot of critical acclaim. Did it feel special while you were shooting it?
RALPH: I think we knew that we had characters that people related to and love. In season 3, I think for the first time, the show really had a through line from the beginning to the end. It allowed these characters that are sort of all over the place to shine more and people to go on the journey with them a little easier than they had in a past.
What was your favorite part of that season?
BISHIL: My favorite scenes are when I’ve come in with a very specific choice that I feel very strongly about, and by the end of the scene I’ve taken it somewhere I would have never thought about. [There’s] a scene in particular where I basically raged to Tick Pickwick [Rizwan Manji] on the boat Muntjac about how angry I was that this fairy queen had smashed my eye, and I played it extremely angry, and it didn’t end up being that at all. So, that was my favorite just because I learned so much and I grew.
APPLEMAN, to RALPH: I loved our episode [“A Life in the Day”].
RALPH: That’s what I was going to say.
APPLEMAN: I had been waiting for an opportunity for Quentin and Eliot to really bond and have a full-fledged friendship, relationship that’s sort of explored in [Lev Grossman’s] books, and this was really the first real grounding of that potential.
RALPH: On a show that moves so fast and has so much-plot, it was such a privilege to have just a moment in time with two people and let their relationship show and grow.
After that episode, how did you incorporate that experience in the alternate timeline, which they both remember, into your performances?
RALPH: You know how Quentin lives here? [anxiously gesticulates] After living a very slow life and accumulating the kind of wisdom that comes with that, he can’t really live there anymore. I don’t think he knows why, but I think that’s something that has fallen away, and I think he’s a more grounded, whole person now after going through that. But I don’t know if he could necessarily speak to that and say why but he definitely is changed.
APPLEMAN: With Eliot, from season 1, the pretense has sort of been stripped away, little by little, and I think after that episode, he relies on it like a trick but he knows better and you can’t unknow that information.
Summer, were you disappointed when you found out that Margo wouldn’t actually get to spend time as King of Fillory because of the mind wipe?
BISHIL: Sure, I’d be lying if I didn’t have a moment of “ugh, it would have been fun.” But, it is The Magicians, and you know, they giveth and they taketh away…
APPLEMAN AND RALPH: [Laughing uncontrollably]
You guys okay?
RALPH: It’s just so true!
APPLEMAN: Summer drops like the deepest truths so nonchalantly. She’ll just pour it out on the table.
RALPH: That’s the whole experience!
BISHIL: But you know the world can be that way. And I think it creates a more interesting dynamic for your character. It does you favors to have things taken away from you and to have a struggle.
RALPH: Am I still a king?
APPLEMAN: You’re my king.
RALPH: That’s all that matters.
The Magicians has been compared to so many things, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Do you feel added pressure to live up to that comparison?
BISHIL: I love Buffy, and I do understand the reference to the work I do on the show. [Buffy] did what we do sometimes, these just random, one-off episodes where we just go on a tangent. Sometimes they were really emotionally invested and nuanced episodes. There’s an episode of Buffy where her mom dies, and how that episode is handled — that she’s actually not going to come back — there’s no gimmick, there’s no trick. Just like last year in season 3 without the supernatural, we just suffer. We suffer loss, and it just dropped in in a way that the show really never dropped in before, and we do that on our show. We go in and out of genres, it feels like sometimes.
APPLEMAN: Totally. Some days I feel like I’m on The Magicians, and some days I feel like I’m in Buffy, and some days I’m in the Princess Bride, and some days I’m in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and then sometimes I’m in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Some days I’m in a horror movie and some days I’m in like a sweet independent feature about relationship.
RALPH: I don’t feel the pressure of that. That part’s not our job. That’s the writing. [The writers] are the ones that have to frequently go all over the place. And it’s our job to make it seem real.
Round Three: More of the same, plus water for everyone.
Your characters on the show do like to party. Do you guys ever go as wild as they do while filming in Vancouver?
APPLEMAN: God, I am like the straightest edge. This is the most I’ve drank in like seven years.
RALPH: That’s not true. We drank a bunch of wine the other night.
APPLEMAN: That’s true, that’s true. That was like the first time in seven years.
RALPH: Wait, that’s not true. The time before that, remember?
APPLEMAN: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I have that goldfish memory. But truly, yeah, I’m not much of a drinker. It’s funny because fans at Comic-Con are always like, “What’s your favorite drink?”
BISHIL: They always ask you, too! It’s always you!
APPLEMAN: “I don’t know. Ask Jason.” Kale smoothie? Something to keep my energy up so I can get through a 17-hour day.
That’s funny because I was going to ask all three of you to create cocktails for each other’s characters.
APPLEMAN: I said before, “Can I please have a drunk nun on the rocks?” and no one batted an eye. They were like, “Get him a drunk nun on the rocks.”
RALPH: It’s not a drink. He doesn’t know.
What would you put in that?
APPLEMAN: One drunk nun and some gravel. Shaken not stirred and a punchline to top it off.
RALPH: With a twist!
Jason, if you had to create an Eliot-themed cocktail, what would you put into it?
BISHIL: It would have to be green.
RALPH: No, it’s not the kind of s— they do on the show. It’s classy.
APPLEMAN: Oooh a read.
RALPH: He’s so simple. It’s just a very simple gin martini with two olives and a splash of olive juice but he wants extra olive juice on the side so he can curate the drink as it goes.
APPLEMAN: And a kiss on the mouth.
Summer, what would you make for Quentin?
BISHIL: I’d probably try whiskey. Seems like that would be a good option.
The Magicians is a very musical show. If you had to pick songs for each other’s characters, what would you choose?
RALPH I think Eliot would do a terrific “[I Am the Very Model of a] Modern Major-General.”
APPLEMAN I like that. Classic.
BISHIL Probably Cyndi Lauper for Margo.
APPLEMAN: Or maybe like Paula Abdul.
BISHIL: Yeah, like something ‘80s and super aerobic.
APPLEMAN: I think Quentin is more like Radiohead.
RALPH: Or Death Cab for Cutie.
APPLEMAN: Oh my god, no.
RALPH: But that’s like his guilty pleasure.
APPLEMAN: Or maybe it’s like Fiona Apple. Quentin is like a Fiona Apple break-up song.
BISHIL [To Appleman]: What would you choose [for Eliot]? I wouldn’t choose or ever dare to.
RALPH: Something from the last Bowie album.
APPLEMAN: The last Bowie album? That’s so funny. Yeah, there’s like Bowie, Lou Reed part of me that wants Eliot to be expressed in that realm, but then there’s also like a [Elton John’s] “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” situation that’s very obvious to me when I read the lyrics to that song, I’m like, “That’s Eliot.”
I remember when we spoke about the Les Misérables number last year, you said you imagined Eliot descending stairs singing a jazz standard.
APPLEMAN: I could see him in a coat and tails walking down the staircase in the castle or something. Weirdly there was some odd ball connection for me because I had done a production of Les Mis in high school, so I knew the material well enough and I had been a musical theater fan as a child so I was very familiar. I didn’t have to learn the song, just had to try to sing it and not f— it up.
What was it like doing this season’s musical episode?
APPLEMAN: The Pandora’s box of unholiness is attempting to sing anything that Freddie Mercury ever sang. Why would you? Who am I to even try? I am the biggest Freddie Mercury fan in the world and so I was embarrassed for myself to have to attempt to cover [“Under Pressure”].
That song involved all of you…
RALPH: I think I f—-n knocked it out of the park.
BISHIL: I had a Hallmark moment that I hate myself for where I’m smiling, remember?
APPLEMAN: Yes, we were so tired.
BISHIL: I was so tired and I was just like “eeeeeeeee…” [gestures to demonstrate perkiness]
RALPH: The problem is when you get too tired, you listen to the directors, and they’re like, “Smile, smile! Fun, fun!” And we’re like “No, you don’t get these people!”
APPLEMAN: “They don’t smile!” I remember, hilariously, that one time we had to smile and rejoice, I got a very serious injury.
RALPH: It was the first time that these two characters had ever celebrated or been happy together and we didn’t know what to do. So we were like what do people do? They just like…jumped.
APPLEMAN: We literally jumped at each other and Jason picked me up and swung me around and we were standing on this sort of uneven mountain terrain and I shredded like 30 percent of one of my quads, and I was in physical therapy. And then I shredded it more as the old man in old man makeup. It was just like the most ironic situation of all time.
BISHIL: Remember your cane though?
APPLEMAN: And then I walked around with a cane for most of the last season and you wouldn’t know it because I’m always just like propped up or pacing like two steps for the entire season.
BISHIL: No seriously, they would block things around his legs. It was like always the last thing.
Finally, what are you guys most looking forward to at San Diego at Comic-Con?
APPLEMAN: Being with you guys.
BISHIL: Good Mexican food cause you don’t have a lot of it in Vancouver.
APPLEMAN: And the fans who show up are so incredibly, genuinely lovely and very committed and very protective of us, as characters and as actors. There’s a very genuine pulse that I feel from them and I feel a little re-energized to go back and shoot every time we get to do a Comic-Con.
Catch the cast and EPs of The Magicians at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday, July 21 at 7 p.m. in the Indigo Ballroom, Hilton Bayfront. The Syfy drama will return for season 4 in 2019.