Q&A: Drew Nelson on “THE STRAIN”
As horror increasingly finds both an audience and critical acclaim on television, it’s no surprise that Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire epic THE STRAIN has become one of the most highly anticipated projects of the summer. With del Toro serving as executive producer (as well as director on the pilot) and BATES MOTEL and LOST mastermind Carlton Cuse serving as showrunner, the pedigree associated with the series only intensifies those expectations. Yet THE STRAIN also sports considerable talent in front of the camera as well, exhibiting a diverse cast that includes Corey Stoll, David Bradley, Mia Maestro, Sean Astin and Drew Nelson. Nelson spoke to FANGORIA about his role on the show, working with Guillermo del Toro and if fans of the book series are in for any surprises…
FANGORIA: So, how did you get involved with THE STRAIN?
DREW NELSON: Basically, it was through the normal audition search. I had a call for an audition, went in, did some good work, but for some reason, the project stuck with me. Usually, I’m pretty good at getting an audition, doing it and moving on to the next one. But this one stuck with me for a while.
I knew that for THE STRAIN, I’d probably have to jump through some hoops to get the job. Usually with directors of Guillermo [del Toro's] caliber, there’s usually chemistry tests and screen tests. But the first time I saw the breakdown of who was involved in the project, I thought to myself, “Okay, I’ll read for this but I’m probably not going to get it. If it’s an American show, they’ll probably offer it to an American.”
But lo-and-behold, I went into the audition and got a callback two weeks later saying Guillermo wanted to meet with me in the production office. So I went in to meet him and Carlton Cuse, the showrunner, where we had a really rigorous second audition where he was directing me moment by moment and getting the performance really precise by trying different things.
It was a lot of fun and Guillermo was really great to work with in that way, since he’s a collaborator. A week later, I was called in for one more callback where my only notes were, “Do this exactly how you did it in the room for Guillermo the other day.” Those were pretty promising notes to have, so I went into the studio in Toronto and we laid it on tape this time. Five days later, I got the word that I got the part. So I was glad that I didn’t have to jump through so many hoops; that made it nice.
FANG: Were you involved in Guillermo’s initial pilot or did you come aboard after the series was picked up?
NELSON: I actually worked on the pilot, since the casting was preliminary to that shoot. I had a couple days on the pilot where I worked with Corey Stoll. In fact, on the first night of production they scheduled a scene between myself and Corey, and our dynamic on the show is adversarial since I’m pretty much a threat to his character.
So there’s some really great stuff between us that you’re going to be seeing. It was really awesome to be shooting on that very first night, though. It was basically just us shooting all night in downtown Toronto on THE STRAIN, which is a unique production.
FANG: What’s it like to play a human adversary on a supernatural genre production?
NELSON: Well, I’ve done the supernatural thing before on SUPERNATURAL; I played one of the crossroads demons. I can’t reveal where the arc of my character goes on the TV series, but I will say the arc is pretty kickass. The threat lies in the disease that’s traveling around New York, and I see my character as a pragmatic, practical thinker among the chaos.
So my character is much like a grounded guy trying to calm people down, and I’m working with Corey a lot in those scenes. Working with Corey, you can already tell that he’s going to be a huge, huge star. This show is going to be a big break for him and make him a household name. Corey is a lot of fun to work with, and when you work with him, you don’t have to do much because he brings it out of you.
FANG: Were you familiar with the book series? If not, did they recommend you read it once you were cast?
NELSON: I read the first book, which I was recommended to do by my agent once I was called for the audition. So I had the first book completely read by the time I went in for the second callback. I thought it was important for me to know the trajectory of where the story was going, as to inform my performance and where my character fits in the cognitive wheel.
FANG: Was it more comfortable to work with a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro on the series, considering he was one of the brains behind the book?
NELSON: Oh absolutely! Guillermo knows those books and that world he made inside and out. He knows exactly how the vampires are going to look, he knows exactly how it’s going to be shot and how the story is going to go. He’s like a surgeon when it comes to the details he puts into his work.
Working with a director like Guillermo is phenomenal because you can put all of your trust into him. When I first saw PAN’S LABYRINTH, I thought, “This guy is a friggin’ genius. I would dream to work with a director like that some day.” And the fact that he directed the pilot and is the mind behind the show makes this experience a dream come true for me. Guillermo and I collaborated a lot on the character of Matt Sayles, but fans of the book will be happy with how he comes off among all of the other characters. I have a lot of respect for him, and not just as a director, but a wonderful person.
FANG: What was your experience like working with Carlton Cuse, considering his penchant for genre television?
NELSON: Oh yeah, to work with Carlton and Guillermo on a series like that is like working with a dream team. Not to mention the writers involved, some of whom came from BREAKING BAD and SONS OF ANARCHY. THE STRAIN has some top notch creative minds working on it, which was really lucky. The scripts were really engaging; we’d race right through them because they’re so exciting and set the tone so well.
Carlton is a really nurturing guy too. Whenever we were shooting, he’d always tell me I was doing a good job from the dailies he was seeing. That’s nice and he didn’t have to always do that, so it’s cool that he went out of his way to say that. It’s really special, and I hold both Carlton and Guillermo really highly.
FANG: Just from being an actor on set and seeing the designs for the SFX, were you ever taken aback by just how extensively they were working on the supernatural element of the show?
NELSON: Yeah. You guys are so in for it; it’s crazy. I know FX put a lot of money into the show, and rightfully so, but you’re going to be blown away by the final product. You know, I have so many pictures I wasn’t supposed to take, but did anyways, that I won’t show anybody. But the sets are phenomenal, and some of the things they’ve built for the Setrakian character is unbelievable.
I didn’t get to meet everybody in the cast or be on set for everything that was shot, but I’ve seen pictures and it matches the vision of the books completely. They recently showed scenes from the episodes at the wrap party and it was a madhouse in the room. Everyone is so excited from the footage we’ve seen and we can’t wait to show off this little secret we’ve been keeping.
FANG: Are fans of the book going to be surprised at all with any liberties taken with the adaptation?
NELSON: I think they’re going to be really satisfied with what they see. It does some really solid justice to what’s in the books. I’m not sure of what I can say. But there might be a few surprises thrown in that people might not be expecting, But I can’t speak exactly as to what those are.
You can see Drew Nelson on THE STRAIN, which debuts on July 13th at 10 p.m. on FX. You can follow Drew Nelson on Twitter: @drewnelsonlive.