Channels a Legendary Mad Man in Aquarius
by Jay S. Jacobs
It takes a certain amount of fearlessness to portray one of the great sociopaths of the past century. Charles Manson, a magnetic cult leader, instructed his followers to commit a series of brutal murders which included actress Sharon Tate, coffee heiress Abigail Fulger and supermarket executive Leno LaBianca.
Coming off of the summer of love, Manson and his family showed the dark side of the counter-culture of the 1960s. In fact, in the eyes of many people, the Manson family and the killings at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California (which is the subject of the documentary Gimme Shelter) are the two main reasons for the collapse of the hippie ideals of love, peace and protest.
British actor Gethin Anthony, who is best known for a standout part on HBO’s acclaimed Game of Thrones, has taken on this dangerous role in the new NBC series Aquarius.
Aquarius takes place a couple of years before the crimes which would make Manson a household name. At the time, Manson is an aspiring singer/songwriter, petty criminal, pot dealer and has created the infamous Spahn Ranch, a commune in which Manson leads a group of hippies – a great deal of them women – a haven for peace and love which has been corrupted by Manson’s own demons and control issues.
The story of Aquarius does not revolve around Manson, though he is always there, a mysterious and seductive emblem of evil in the summer of love. However, as Aquarius shows, life in 1967 was much more complicated than the hippie flower-power ideal. The main character in the show is Sam Hodiak – played by David Duchovny – a hard-boiled LA cop who is trying to negotiate the quickly shifting changes in life and mores of the decade.
Manson first pops onto Hodiak’s radar when an ex’s daughter (Emma Dumont) either joins or is coerced into the Manson family. As Hodiak and his new undercover partner (Grey Damon) look into her disappearance, it turns out her father (Brían F. O’Byrne) – a lawyer and conservative politician with ties to then-governor Reagan and presidential candidate Richard Nixon – has a much deeper and darker connection to the hippie leader than anyone knows.
Aquarius is also notable, because after the May 28th premiere, it is the first network series in which all thirteen episodes will be dropped at once, available to binge-watch immediately if you are not willing to wait around to watch the series weekly.
A couple of weeks before the Aquarius debut, we were one of several media outlets that had a chance to talk with Anthony about playing such a legendary villain.
What was it about the premise of the show in general and about your character in particular that turns you on? Why do you want to be part of it?
My first and strongest reaction to reading the script on a Saturday morning back in London last year was to the authenticity of the dialogue that had been written for the Manson character and the characters around him in that world. I was aware somewhat of that era of history in US history, but [creator] John [McNamara]’s dialogue was really authentic for me and so it made me want to dig deeper into understanding the late 60s. That excitement they could have the courage to make a show about such sensitive subject matter with authenticity excites me.
How much research and preparation did you do into Manson before you took on the role?
When I first got the script I was aware that the process of being cast would be about a month or maybe a bit longer, so all the while I started to read the biographies that are available. One of the useful things about playing such a notorious man is that there’s a wealth of information out there. I could have almost got snowed under with reading and watching, but it really became about… listening to his voice was a very helpful thing that I did. There’s an interview that he did with a studio engineer in 1967, before he was a part of the crimes and in prison. That I found very useful to take me back to the point in the story… of history rather… that our stories take place. So, yes, it was a close listen to his voice. Also, once I was into the role we got like a college reading list from our show manager John McNamara. It was a big old list of books and films and music to listen to, which is probably the most fun bit. Actually all of it was fascinating, and the music of the era is just fantastic, obviously.
After playing Manson, do you have an explanation why people gravitated to him so much?
Having done the research that I did, increasingly I understood why that might have been the case. I don’t claim to know if there was the silver bullet of understanding why these young women were drawn to him, but I think there are a few key factors. One of the few books that was Manson said he had read is How to Make Friends and Influence People [by Dale Carnegie]. That is something he read in prison. He claims to have listened to pimps in prison, as a way of understanding how they got their way. Presumably mostly with women, but basically to control people from there on in. He describes it in his own words as his schooling, in a way. So he obviously was actively engaging in how to influence other people way before any of the crimes took place. He was a man who was let out of prison at a time when there was a lot of liberation in the air. Around young people and a lot of young impressionable minds. Out and about meeting new people with this feeling of liberation. So, yes, I think it was a perfect cocktail of circumstance really.
What do you say to the critics who feel that Aquarius is glorifying the Manson family murders?
Well, the first thing I would say about that is we’re not. Certainly not in this season; we’re not depicting that. That is not the story. It should be clear that Aquarius is really about a policeman in the late 60s. It’s not about Charles Manson. The story is about David [Duchovny]’s character and everything else that was going on in Los Angeles and the United States in the late 60s. There are huge storylines about civil rights. About the wave of feminism that was coming at that time. Young people. There’s a scene with this young person’s curfew going on in LA. So there’s a lot going on. As in history, Manson pulled himself to the attention of people by his actions. Similarly in our story that is necessarily the case. The extremity of his actions, in that way the character pulls himself into the spotlight. I think we’ve been very careful about not glamorizing him.
Beyond the intrigue of the Manson Family, like you said Aquarius is really about a look at the lifestyles and the struggles of the 1960s. As an 80s child how was it to immerse yourself in that decade? And do you think that you would have liked to have lived through that time having played a character in it?
That’s a great question. I do wonder that. I can tell you very clearly that I’m not a big fan of flared trousers. (laughs) The music is such a useful thing. I mean, [film writer/director] Richard Curtis talks about using music to get into certain mood when you write. So music, I started listening. I actually bought a vinyl player for my trailer and vinyl from a music shop down in LA. So I was listening to the Beatles in vinyl. And actually I’m a big fan of old rock music anyway. Yes, so, doing things like that. Also, it’s like with any period drama, if you’ve got fantastic costumes and set working – which we absolutely did – it really helps you do that. This is beyond the reading. Even just reading off topic books on the studio and that system back then, which is just fascinating to those looking for LA at the time. Watching a couple of movies. It’s also like building an atmosphere around it. But it was a challenge to reset some, trying to get into some of the attitudes and perspectives. That was a learning experience. It’s something I hope to continue to do, to try deepen that understanding. And just the end question, would I have liked to live through it? Yes, probably I would have actually. I think I actually would have. Just a bit late.
I’m so excited for the series especially since the entire series is going to be available to binge watch a day after the pilot airs which is pretty cool.
How do you get into a place mentally to portray the character? What aspects of what you learned about Charles Manson have you pulled in to influence your performance?
That’s a really good question. I think the main thing I did was to learn about how he was brought up. How he grew up. Actually what I mean with brought up, how he grew up in institutions around the country, at a prison-like institutions throughout his life. Educating myself about how a human being can can be born and get to a position in their life where they are viewed so publicly as almost a mythological villain. For me, it was really important to try and understand as much as possible, learn more factually or anecdotally, what his life was like. There are some surprises in there. There’s lots of information out there, but the biography about his life up until the age of 21 I found fascinating. That no doubt helped me be able to justify the actions as any actors is obliged to do. We are telling a fictionalized version of the late 60s. Indeed the story was based in true events, but we fictionalized it for more specific reasons, which the show writers can explain. Then it was just about connecting to the stories that we were telling and the specificity of that.
I write for a bunch of LGBT publications and I just want to say thanks for doing that role in Game of Thrones. The journey from that part all the way to this part… how did that happen? How do you learn about the role for Aquarius coming from Game of Thrones?
Obviously Game of Thrones was a huge privilege to be a part of, so I was very grateful for the opportunity. [Co-star] Finn [Jones] and I are both are very excited about the storylines and what actually we could bring to them. Beyond that, you start to get a few opportunities to get into a few different ones. One off the chart an Indie movie with Copenhagen. I went back to the Royal Shakespeare Company to do a season there doing some Russian and German theater. Then along the way, you’re going for a bunch of things. I had the opportunity to come out to the US and meet people working here. They brought this opportunity to me. I guess it was one of those situations where I was at that time able to really engage in the material and process of bringing an audition tape. I was very lucky to have very good friends [to] help me make the best audition tape I could possibly imagine, because I really thought that I wanted to engage in the challenges of playing this character. So, yes. I don’t know if that’s enlightening in any way, but… (laughs)
Have you ever toyed with the idea of actually corresponding with Charles Manson? Have you contemplated whether or not you would ever hear from him after playing this role?
I can answer the second question. No I haven’t really contemplated that. (laughs)I really haven’t thought about that. The first question I did yes, consider. It’s something I very seriously thought through – the implications and thoughts and very sage advice about that – because as an actor especially, I aspire to being able to transform in my performances and be as authentic as I can. With each opportunity you have to access the pros and cons. This one I came to the conclusion, along with good advice from people. Trying to contact him I don’t think it would serve either party. Not me. If I can meet him in 1966 or ’67, that would be useful. (laughs again) Meeting him at the end of his life, when he’s been incarcerated for most of it, I don’t think it would serve me in any particular [way] or rather my performance for the show. I certainly don’t think it would serve him as an individual. So, yeah, that’s not something I pursued.
All actors, it’s their job to convince viewers to come along for the ride and immerse themselves in this character. There’s a connection in a way to Charles Manson’s ability to influence people. Do you think there is an actor buried somewhere in Charles Manson?
It has occurred to me to what extent people manipulate their performances in life, to what ends. I think actually that the further along in this game you go in – I still go to class and I’m still trying to learn something from people who have been doing this for a lot longer than I have. There’s a truth to be pursued by an honesty, however you want to put that. That said, Charles, as an actor especially coming from a theatrical background and playing around, I think I got this game because I used to show off when I was a kid. I think there’s an element of a playfulness. Actually quite useful from its connector because, again, we’re telling the story of him when he was at liberty. He was out, he was in his element and so to connect with the playful nature of performance was very useful for me at a certain point in the series. Also, it’s to understand about him. Again, in one of the biographies, it talks about his adoption of a performance, basically playing crazy in certain prison situations in order to get himself out of violent situations because he wasn’t the biggest fellow in the world. That was a part of his sort of toolbox of tricks, to play crazy. It talks about it. So, yes, I suppose I’m not level but there is definitely performance element to it yes.
What was the most surprising thing that you really didn’t anticipate going into this project that happened? It could be a scene, it could be a moment. Just something that really caught you off guard while you were in production.
I can tell you about the very first Monday I walked in the set. One of the producers was suggesting when the actors had organized for a shaman to… I guess the word would be bless, but I’m not sure… but to clear my aura in my trailer. It’s not an experience I’ve had before or since, but the woman had performed it was very lovely and essentially did some very nice work, so I appreciate that. I thought at one note, like this is great. I mean, it’s really sweet that someone thought to do this and apparently they’ve done it for the whole set and all the cast and crew and everyone. Just remove any bad energy from our production, which was a nice thing to do. My thought vary on topics. The only thing is, because no one mentioned it, what do we expect to get? I thought, what’s going to happen? Yes, you know, I’m part in that. There were some scenes later on in the series which I don’t really want to spoil, but there’s some interesting family relationships. With family I don’t mean Mason family, but I mean real family for all the characters. True family drama for every character kicks in at the end of the show. I think that was pretty challenging for all the actors to get involved in so very exciting.
How much interaction can we expect to see from your character and David [Duchovny]’s character, Sam, in the first season and what’s your experience like working with David?
Obviously I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I don’t think it does spoil much to say yes we have some interaction, but he’s got a whole lot of other stuff to be dealing with in his character. But there is some interaction in the first season. Having met David, not just working way, beyond filming also around the set and around the back… I hugely looked up to him growing up and still do as an actor so… but he’s just a generous and lovely, very professional presence and a heck of a leader on the set. It’s very nice to be around. I’ve been very lucky in my career to work with some fantastic professionals and I definitely count him in the top of that league.
When you were first offered an audition for the role, was there ever any hesitation or concern with stepping in to portray such a well-known and notorious individual such as Charles Manson?
I guess I’d be lying if I say there wasn’t at some point that I thought like: oh, is this a weird place to be getting into? But, when I first got the role, what I did do was actually want to learn a little about the project and how it’s going to be executed from John [McNamara], the show runner. He is such a fantastic writer and leader of the show. I guess that side of it never really came into my present thought. It was more about getting excited about how they were going to shoot it. So it looks like authentic people from the 60s and things like that. In my mind I haven’t addressed it towards that, but yes, you do think about what went [before]. His life pops up in the news, because he really is present in a lot of people’s mind. Also it’s very sensitive. I’m more concerned about the people who were affected by the crimes rather than the people who are committing them, if you see what I mean.
Since you’re playing Manson as he’s trying to be a rock star, will we get to hear you sing?
Very good question. A really good question. Yes, you will hear Charles sing because in our story that’s basically what he’s done. He’s just trying to get record deals. Just a guy who spent some time in prison and is looking for a record deal. He goes about that particular quest with some very unconventional methods. But yes, you will hear the character sing. I had to learn to play guitar to play the role as well which is initially probably unfair on the neighbors, but I can sort of throw a few chords together now, so I’m getting a bit better. Yes, you’ll absolutely hear him sing.
Will he be hanging around the Beach Boys at this point?
In history we’re not quite near where he was interacting with any famous pop stars yet. So not in this series. But he’s absolutely doing the things that was recorded in old biographies that he was communicating with record executives and meeting them, but not yet.
I want to ask you about a specific scene. Could you talk about the stunt work in… I want to say the fight scene between you and David, but it’s more one-sided?
Yes. That was extraordinary. It’s a nice shoot. The good thing is, Justin [Reimer, the stunt coordinator] and the rest of the staff were so fantastic and give you confidence that it was just fun. I really enjoy anything physical that you get to do on camera because it’s cathartic. A lot of time you’re in close up and your body doesn’t get to express it very much. In that case, I mean, David is an absolute pro to work with so we’re just kind of… yes, it was allowing myself to be a rag doll and just going with the writer. I guess I was that kid like in high school – secondary school as we call it back in UK – when we did any kind of fight, you’ll be the one making all the noises. The uh, uh and a reason to actually get to make those noises is fun. I don’t know why, I like that, but I think I like the hit noise. That’s all I really had to do with those huge, just trying to be authentic, [like I] would be really harmed. The cool thing about that was getting all the prosthetics. Stephen Bettles did the prosthetic work on that. The main piece he did it 23 minutes flat. Just me looking like me, to the end of that take was a piece of prosthetics genius. So, that was a fun evening, but it was a long night. I showered five times to get all the gunk and dust out of my bodily hair.
Like you said Aquarius takes place a couple of years before the crimes Manson is best known for. If the series does really well and they bring it back, do you think that they’ll eventually take on the Tate-LaBianca murders or do you think they’ll stay with the Los Angeles of the 60s storylines?
I think if we continue to make the show over say a few years, let’s say that we have that kind of response from our audience which we really hope it will, then I think it would be impossible to get through to the end of the 60s like through to the 70s without that at least considered within the story line. Whether it’s detailed how that would be if that would be depicted is definite but not necessarily a necessary thing. Having come here from London, I’m struck by how vivid that atmosphere is in the memories of people who live through it throughout the city. The story is about LA. It doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be about one thing on that evening necessarily visually, but the response to it, everything around it, could very well be a part of our story later on. I hope we get there.
Was it hard moving away from that darkness after you’re done filming the scenes? Was there something you did to step back from that?
Watch Disney movies. (laughs) No. Funny enough that was actually a real challenge with this, was figuring out how to let go of it a little bit. Mainly because it was a performance that I had to sustain over an extended period of time where I wasn’t working seven, six days a week. I was working a few days a week, so I had to figure out a way of balancing it. I didn’t do that very well. (laughs again) I was probably the only person in LA who was in on their own on Halloween this year. I just wasn’t that interested in going out being spooked or spooking because I get enough of that at work. I just kept playing guitar and trying to find less intense elements. Immersing myself in that world and listening to the lighter side of the music. Doing stuff like that. Apart from that, I think I did employ Finding Nemo once or twice.
Is it your voice? You talked about playing the guitar. Was it you singing?
Yes. It’s me singing. And me playing for some things… We did need a professional guitarist once, but yes, that’s me.
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 27, 2015.
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