Alexander Skarsgård plays Randall Flagg like a 'sexy Trump' in The Stand reboot
A devastating pandemic. A divided America. Two sides facing off. One group’s leader is older, measured, and calm. The other is charismatic, punishes disloyalty, and holds ego-boosting rallies.
Stephen King wrote his best-selling post-apocalyptic novel The Stand in 1978, yet the tale has so much eerie present-day resonance that the similarities even creeped out the writers and cast of the new CBS All Access limited series, which wrapped filming just three days before COVID-19 shut down productions worldwide in March.
“I got spooked,” says Nat Wolff, who plays Lloyd Henreid, a henchman for the story’s supernatural supervillain Randall Flagg (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård). “Suddenly everybody was saying, ‘Oh, [COVID -19] is just like the flu’ [like in the show], and I’m reading about prisoners in Italy lighting toilet paper on fire to get attention – I had just shot a scene where I was doing that. I went into panic mode."
Showrunner Benjamin Cavell would prefer to emphasize that The Stand, which was last adapted for television by ABC in 1994, isn’t just about a pandemic. While a killer virus (dubbed “Captain Tripps”) does wipe out 99.4 percent of the world’s population, that’s only part of the story. “Captain Tripps is the mechanism by which the world gets emptied out so that King can do his Lord of the Rings in the United States and set up a walk to Mordor," Cavell notes.
And King's version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy hellscape is Las Vegas, which is reborn as a morality-free “New Vegas” commanded by Flagg. The city stands in contrast to Boulder, Colo., where a group of “good” characters are led by the angelic Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg), along with noble Texan Stu Redman (James Marsden), troubled music star Larry Underwood (Jovan Adepo), sociologist Glen Bateman (Greg Kinnear) and others.
Until now, little has been disclosed about the show’s version of the dark side characters, though recently EW revealed that King’s crazed pyromaniac Trashcan Man would be played by Erza Miller (Fantastic Beasts 3). “Trash is the underestimated and misinterpreted amongst us; the divine genius concealed beneath apparent mental illness and personal dysfunction,” Miller wrote in an email from the Fantastic Beasts 3 set. “The world hinges on people like Trashcan Man — mad artists and depraved engineers, constantly overlooked in how pivotal they ultimately can be.”
Another Warner Bros. franchise star, Aquaman’s Amber Heard, tackles the crucial role of Nadine Cross, a schoolteacher with a dark destiny. “She’s one of the most nuanced of King’s female characters and not an easy part,” says Heard, a fan of King's work who says she had wanted to play the role for years. “She owns and uses her sexuality, but that’s just part of her repertoire, not something that defines her. She also represents for me a kind of a balance between someone who is a villain and a victim."
But the most seductive character is Flagg himself, portrayed by Skarsgård as an über-bro of demonic masculinity. He’s fond of holding raucous rallies, gladiatorial competitions, and public crucifixions of traitors. “He’s sort of sexy Trump,” says Fiona Dourif (The Purge), who plays Rat Woman, a former showgirl.
“It’s a bit terrifying when you're with hundreds of extras chanting insane profanities at Alexander Skarsgard lording over us as Randall Flagg,” adds Katherine McNamara, who plays Flagg loyalist Julie Lawry as "a lost soul and erratic Tinkerbell of the apocalypse."
Producers added an additional Trump-ian touch to their version of Flagg, by having the character put his own branded mark on Vegas monuments. "We fell in love with the idea that Flagg would want to essentially block out any logos – and Vegas is obviously a place with a lot of logos – but that he would want to block out any branding that's not him with a Flagg symbol," Cavell says.
Rally swagger aside, Skarsgård surprised producers with his otherwise calm and quiet take on Flagg, a role many actors would have instinctively “gone big” with. “He’s able to be so still and quiet, which was a brilliant choice and not what any of us expected,” Cavell says.
“Flagg's such a formidable opponent, I decided to focus on his vulnerability,” Skarsgård says. “He needs adulation and accolades from his sycophants, and that fuels his ego. That’s interesting because he shouldn’t care about tiny humans at all but still craves their devotion.” Or as Wolff puts it: Skarsgård “uses every ounce of his gigantic Swedish beauty.”
The Vegas side of The Stand provides some of the show’s most tense action but is also a meditation on the ethical responsibilities of a society. In Flagg’s hedonistic world, it becomes clear that limits are needed for survival — or humanity is destined to make the same mistakes that led to the deadly pandemic all over again.
“The freedom to ‘do whatever you want’ has a nice quality to it,” Dourif says. “The problem is, that doesn’t really work.”
Wait, we're still talking about The Stand, right?
The Stand premieres on CBS All Access on Dec. 17.
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