The Lost Symbol star Ashley Zukerman reveals the key advice Dan Brown gave him
Robert Langdon loves an enigma.
The swashbuckling symbology professor at the center of best-selling Dan Brown novels like The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons is known for playing things close to the vest as he races against time to solve mysteries laden in art and history before something dire occurs.
Now, after being portrayed in three feature films by Tom Hanks, the character is getting a new screen treatment in Peacock's prequel series The Lost Symbol, with Manhattan alum Ashley Zukerman playing the good professor.
And while Zukerman had five books and three films to look to as source material, he tells EW that it was a piece of advice from Brown himself that really unlocked who Langdon was for him. "Those books are such that if you're a person of faith, you read them through that lens, and maybe it offers you an argument for reason, and if you're a person of reason, then it offers you an argument for faith," the actor says. "I absolutely read the books believing that the unknown was impossible, that magic isn't real, that fact is fact and fiction is fiction, but that is my personal M.O."
Zukerman continues: "I think Dan Brown observed that in me. He said to me that Robert Langdon would love to have faith, but he can't. I thought that was a fascinating idea, and that's something that I had missed. Playing him with that idea changes everything because it means that there's a possibility for everything. He's not just the simple academic cynic; he's actually quite enamored with the possibility of it, but he just knows too much, and it traps him. From there, there's a very easy jump to this guy who has trouble trusting his feelings because of his mind."
The Lost Symbol premiered Thursday, and we called up Zukerman to discuss researching the Freemasons, how Indiana Jones influenced the series, and why it was important to make Langdon less physically adept than he is in the films.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The character of Robert Langdon has been with us for a while now. Had you seen the films or read the books before signing on?
ASHLEY ZUKERMAN: I'd seen the films, but I hadn't read the books, which ended up being a pretty amazing thing. Because it meant that once I got the role I was able to read all the five books, but through the lens of it being a character I was about to play. That was a very nice experience. So I'm glad I had missed them earlier.
It's a prequel, so it's a bit different, but was it intimidating to step into Tom Hanks' shoes in a sense?
Not really. For a few reasons, it wasn't. I'm not immune to feeling pressure, but for some reason that wasn't something I felt. Part of it is because it's an origin story. So we could lean on the idea that the person I play will become whatever people imagined Robert Langdon to be, either from the films or from the books. That gave me some distance. And the writing in the pilot and the first few episodes is so compelling that I didn't have time to get caught up in that.
Okay, but you have to admit you're super-bummed not to have Hanks' distinctive hairstyle.
From the first film?
[Laughs] Who knows? One day I could have that hairstyle. You're just gonna see my hair grow for the next eight years. That's the real story of Robert Langdon, he just doesn't get a haircut.
We're getting to see you play a younger version of this character — and to be honest, I thought Hanks was a bit too old in the films. You are the age you are (37), but did coming at it from that angle shape your performance?
Whether it's Tom Hanks or whether it's the character of Robert Langdon himself, both loom as large. The books are so widely read that people have as much of a connection to him as they do to him in the movies. I was able to read the books and mine the behaviors and look for little clues and unravel them a little bit. That was my approach to bringing the younger version. For me it wasn't as simple as me being younger; I was trying to find nuances in the behavior of who he becomes later on that I could pick at a little bit. There's things about his claustrophobia and this loneliness to him. There's an oddness about him, which he later on wears as a badge of honor. In the first book, it even said that because he doesn't have a partner, it frees him up to travel the world. So I looked at little behaviors like that. I tried to look at what was underneath and felt I had a freedom to play those things. What's the loneliness? What's the complication he has with intimacy? Where does his mind get in the way of his feelings?
It sounds like you were doing your own version of Langdon's studying symbols on a page to make sense of something.
Exactly. Look for clues in the pages and then mine them. But in my mind, the Robert Langdon people connect to from the books or the films is the person that my character will become. I was leaning on that.
From the academic side, did you do much research into symbology or the Freemasons, that sort of thing?
I had to read up on the Freemasons, about secret societies, and dip my toe into art history. Obviously I will never be able to catch up to his level of knowledge. But I did feel like there's something about playing someone who knows this much or is this deeply intelligent. It's not about just knowing what it is you're talking about, it's being able to know everything around that thing as well. There's a confidence to knowing that depending on what everyone might say next, you can go down that rabbit hole as well. Confidence in speaking was actually far more integral than just knowing what it was that I was saying.
In the books Langdon is described as "Harrison Ford in tweed," and the show has a direct reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark. How much did Indiana Jones influence the show? Was that an archetype you were drawing on?
It definitely lives in the genetics of the show. That's a genre that we haven't seen much of for a while. Those action-adventure-comedy, but yet intellectual films. Indiana Jones is in the DNA of the show, and that's something that [director] Dan Trachtenberg observed and wanted to bring into it. As a means of bringing the book to life, he did think that that was an important step to making the world fun. That's what those films are able to do — they subvert the intellectual by bringing stakes and joy into it. In terms of playing it, I don't know how much I thought about it, but I do love those films so much. They are in me. There is something about being able to drop the reality to have some fun that's an interesting thing to play. If we took ourselves too seriously, it would be a heavy show. We do take ourselves quite seriously, and it is a heavy show. And yet what I think we've done really well is incorporate this idea that the unknown is possible. We've incorporated that in our world in a way that sometimes manifests as magic and sometimes whimsy.
Langdon is an academic, but this ends up being a very physical adventure. What's the most difficult stunt you've had to do so far?
It's in episode 4. But something that we also thought was important was that we didn't want to — hopefully we get to do this for many years — and we didn't want to undermine his lack of physical capabilities. In the books he's spoken about as someone who's very physical, who plays water polo and swims. We actually wanted to compartmentalize him a little bit and start him off as more of an academic, someone who hasn't experienced much outside of that world. So that when he gets tested, it's a real test.
Yeah, I did a master's and I would not be up for any intense physical adventure.
We just want to ring the bell for academics everywhere. Finally you can see an academic on the screen for people who can go, "Exactly."