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Exclusive Interview with “The Magicians” Star Arjun Gupta

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Actor Arjun Gupta made his television debut in 2008 as the character Tom in the TV movie Redemption Falls. From there, he was cast in his first major film role opposite Uma Thurman in Motherhood. Shortly afterwards, he scored starring roles in the mini-series Body of Proof Webisodes and in the show Nurse Jackie, on which he played the character Sam for three seasons. After leaving Nurse Jackie in 2012, he did a few more TV movies, including Company Town and Baby Sellers, as well as guest-starred on the shows Next Time on Lonny and CSI. In 2014, he landed the part of Kan on the hit television show How to Get Away with Murder, and when that role wrapped up, he starred in several feature films, such as the independent thriller The Diabolical and the comedy French Dirty. He also did guest spots on the shows The Walker and Limitless. Now he’s starring in Syfy’s new hit supernatural drama The Magicians as Penny, a natural psychic with a gift for Traveling. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Gupta about his role on The Magicians, what it’s like working with the show’s cast and crew and what he enjoys the most about being involved in social media. Keep reading to see what he had to say!  

What appealed to you about the show “The Magicians”?

What’s interesting is that when we shot the pilot, it was 2014, and I had auditioned for several different pilots and, you know, I was really excited about the idea of getting a job. But I wasn’t really excited about any of the pilots that I was reading. Then August rolled around, which is well after pilot season, and the script for “The Magicians” came along and I was excited because I knew Sera Gamble; I had worked with her before and I always loved and continue to love the way that she writes.

So, I read the script, and I think I was just excited that it was trying to take risks. It’s very ambitious—it’s an ambitious show. And that was exciting to me. I was like “I would love to be a part of this.” And then the character was really great. You know, I auditioned for Penny and Eliot, and was actually more interested in Eliot at first, but thank God that I didn’t get it because Hale is perfect as Eliot. (laughs). He’s doing a marvelous job. I’m so excited that people are starting to see more of Eliot and that they will continue to as the show goes on. But I’m thrilled that it worked out that I’m Penny. I couldn’t be happier with him.

What was your first impression of Penny?

When I first read [the script], the first thing that jumped out were the voices that Penny hears. This guy hears and listens to voices. And I was thinking about what it must be like to every day be able to read minds—to be trying to communicate with people while hearing these voices, these thoughts of others, inside your head. And that was a fascinating sort of experience for me to try to tap into, you know? I was like, “Man, that has to be incredibly difficult, and what happens to that person?” And to me, that meant that person was able to focus so well on the person in front of him because he has to. Otherwise, he’ll get distracted by what’s going on in his head.

That level of focus—that level of intensity—was probably the first thing that I tapped into, and then it was fun to tap into what that means, where it comes from and what else is going on with him. How complicated and layered Penny is has become the most exciting thing for me about playing him.

So would you say that’s what you enjoy the most about playing him? The fact that he’s really complicated?

Well, I think that’s what has become most enjoyable as an artist: that he’s a character with a lot of layers. As an actor, that’s what also makes it a huge stretch for me as well as a challenge. Every episode, it’s about adding in and making sure that the story is coming from a rooted and truthful place. I come from a school of thought that every time you’re on screen, you are reflecting someone. There’s someone watching that can relate to the person that you’re presenting, and you owe it to those people to be as truthful and as fleshed-out and as three-dimensional as you possibly can be because there is immense power in reflection. And so, with someone as complex as this, it was really important for me to stay grounded in it, because, otherwise, he just comes across as a dick the whole time (laughs), and that’s not interesting to me. 

I’m really interested in the evolution of Quentin and Penny’s relationship because you guys didn’t start out on good terms but you’ve become kind of reluctant allies over the last few episodes. Are we going to see them grow into being friends?

Yeah, in the next episode, there are quite a few more circumstances in which Quentin and Penny have to work together again, and you’ll see that throughout the rest of the season. There are different dynamics that will come up, different allies and different partnerships that are being built, a lot of the times due to the circumstances more than anything else. So it’s definitely going to be an interesting few episodes for everyone in the group.

Regarding Quentin and Penny: are they ever going to be friends? (laughs). I don’t know if they are going to be in the traditional way. But I don’t know; that’s more of a question for John and Sera because they have a better idea of where everything is going. In my head, I see Quentin and Penny as brothers. They’re brothers and they’re like two sides of the same coin. I think that they are both really similar in a lot of ways and I think that both felt like outsiders throughout their lives. I think Penny felt it more externally, manifested from the standpoint in which he was literally on his own. He was literally living without a safety net and relying on his own wits whereas Quentin felt it much more internally, in which he was still in a world of privilege but just didn’t know how to fit into that world. And I think that they are still cracking through their masks and their defenses to get to the point where they could actually see that commonality, and I don’t know if they will ever get to that point, but that’s how I as an outsider see it.

But it’s a lot of fun, I can tell you that! It’s a fun relationship; playing them in contact with one another. It’s a pity that we only get an hour for each episode because Jason and I—I hope that they come out with extended featurettes for our scenes because Jason and I have a blast during every scene that we’re in. Every take, we do something different at the end. There are always these crazy things that we add-on just because we’re having fun, and they are really hilarious so I hope that Syfy and John and Sera find an outlet for them. I think that people will really get a kick out of them.

Oh man, now I really want to see all that! We’re gonna have to make that happen!

(laughs). Yeah, we really do! It’s so much fun and I think people will really enjoy them.

Me too. So, going into the role, how much did you know about your character’s backstory and his storyline trajectory?

For me as an actor, it’s incredibly important to know backstory so before I auditioned and before I did the final test for the part, I had crafted quite a backstory for Penny based off the way that Sera was writing it. And Sera is an incredibly collaborative person, especially during the audition process, so I was able to run that by her and found out that we were on a similar page in regard to what kind of past he had. And then, before we started shooting, we were fortunate that the writers have been so great and that they got us a lot of scripts ahead of time, which is not always the norm. So I knew going into the second episode—when we finally started shooting again in Vancouver last August—I knew that by episode six, Penny was going to be forced to tell Kady that he was in love with her. ased on the way that we had talked about crafting Penny, I surmised that he probably has never said that before. And the upbringing that he’s had and the past that he had—it was incredibly important for me to know that so that I could craft my portrayal and so that seeds could be planted; otherwise, it would feel like everything was just sort of coming out of nowhere. So Sera and John know that I like to craft an arc throughout a season and like—I mean, I don’t need to know specifics, but I like to know as much as possible about where the character is going to end up and what emotional things are going to happen so that I can prepare. The way that I see it, so long as the writers and myself are on the exact same page regarding where this guy came from, and that’s why we had a lot of conversations before we even started shooting about who this guy is and where he came from, but as long as we are all operating from that kernel of truth, whatever they write is going to be stuff that makes sense.

Based on the way that we had talked about crafting Penny, I surmised that he probably has never said that before. And the upbringing that he’s had and the past that he had—it was incredibly important for me to know that so that I could craft my portrayal and so that seeds could be planted; otherwise, it would feel like everything was just sort of coming out of nowhere. So Sera and John know that I like to craft an arc throughout a season and like—I mean, I don’t need to know specifics, but I like to know as much as possible about where the character is going to end up and what emotional things are going to happen so that I can prepare.

The way that I see it, so long as the writers and myself are on the exact same page regarding where this guy came from, and that’s why we had a lot of conversations before we even started shooting about who this guy is and where he came from, but as long as we are all operating from that kernel of truth, whatever they write is going to be stuff that makes sense.

As showrunners, do Sera Gamble and John McNamara have very different approaches?

Yes, yes, in an incredible way that balances everything out. Sera is invested in the books and loves the genre; John loves the story. It’s interesting because what I love about the books is that Lev takes the fantasy genre and like flips it on its head. And John—John is an outsider to this genre in a lot of ways so he brings that voice to the show that allows it to be flipped on its head in a really interesting and exciting way. They have different styles but the way that they balance each other and the way that they work together—their partnership—it’s all really incredible.

At the end of the last episode, we left Penny recovering from a precarious situation. Can you tease anything about what’s coming next for him?

Yeah! I mean, Penny is getting more and more reckless. Penny is in a dark place right now. I think that moving to Brakebills has always been tough for him because he’s in a new world that he’s not comfortable with; I think he’s more comfortable being on his own and not in privilege, if that makes sense. I think there’s something uncomfortable for him about being in safety. And I think that the break-up with Kady is triggering a bout of recklessness. I can say that a group of unlikely allies get sent on a bit of a mission in the next episodes. And I’m pretty proud of that, too; I like it.

What do you enjoy the most about working with this cast and crew?

Oh man, there’s so much to say about this cast! I enjoy, first and foremost, as a professional, working with people who are serious about the craft and working with these actors who really want to tell stories, so they bring focus, professionalism and an intention to the project. And they bring a talent that is really enjoyable to be around. Then, on top of all that, we have a blast together. We’ve become—we spend so much time together that we’ve just become a family. At times a dysfunctional family (laughs), but a family nonetheless. I enjoy working with them so much and I enjoy our time together on set so much. We’re always laughing and having a good time.

It actually got to the part that during the early parts of the season, when Penny was hating everyone, I had to move my chair away from the group because it would be really difficult to be like laughing with everyone and then have to go back to these scenes in which I was hating them. But I also want to take a moment to shout-out the crew because I loved working with the crew that we had in Vancouver and I’m thrilled by the prospect that all of them are going to come back because they’re just the best. They’ve been collaborators more so than just a crew. Everyone on set has been so invested in the way that the show is and they help us create the environment that allows us to do the work that we do. You know, I get a lot of attention and I get people talking to me, which is beautiful, but I really wouldn’t be here regarding my performance in the show without those guys. They’re the best and I’m so grateful for them.

That’s wonderful to hear, too. It makes a lot of difference to have everyone on the show work so well together and be such supportive people.

Oh yeah, and let me say this, man: the Locations Department, they’re—we do a lot of stuff on location, and we’re in other worlds—worlds of fantasy—and where we film is at this university up in British Columbia, and if I’m filming outside, and if I see kids going by on skateboards and whatnot, that could be difficult as an actor to keep me in the scene, in that story, you know? So just the simple job—or the seemingly simple job that they have which is actually a very uncomfortable job of blocking people from walking on their own campus, so those guys are instrumental in allowing me to do the work that I do. And I think that’s important as an artist to remember that it takes a village; it’s never just one person. It can’t be.

If you could crossover “The Magicians” with any other show on TV right now, which show would you choose and why?

That’s a tough one. It’s funny though because I recently joined Twitter and some people on there have been trying to crossover “The Magicians” with “How to Get Away with Murder,” which is funny to me because I was on that show for a little bit and they’re all like “How can we get you back on it?” And then people were coming up with ways in which that would happen. I personally would not do that because I really don’t know how you could crossover our show with any other show. We’re a unique world. We’re not a world where—we’re not in a world where they are superheroes, so we can’t crossover in to any of that. We can’t crossover into any world without having to explain that other worlds and magic exist, and that would fundamentally shift the other world. So I don’t think you can. Have you ever thought about what you would crossover the show with?

Not specifically, but I’ve often thought: ok, if a crossover was going to work, it would have to be an alternate universe or something, and with Fillory, I could see something like that being discovered, but you raise a good point about how it would change the worlds being crossed over. It’s kind of becoming more common now, though. They did that “Bones” and “Sleepy Hollow” crossover extravaganza and I never thought those two shows were compatible at all. So, anything is possible, I guess (laughs).

True, and for me—and this is where my passion for the books comes in—we have great material. We don’t need that. And I’m not hating on “Bones” or “Sleepy Hollow” for what they were doing because I’m sure people were really excited about it, but we have rich source material in these books so I really don’t think we even need to do anything like that. We get to tell these stories and that’s what I’m excited about.

So, you’re really involved in social media. Are you enjoying the instant fan feedback that being on networks like Twitter provide?

It’s funny because I feel like I’m terrible at social media (laughs). I mean, I enjoy talking to people. I love talking to people. It’s why I started live podcasts and why I’m part of social media: I love people. And there’s something fascinating to me about Twitter and the instant feedback that you talked about. I am enjoying it. I actually really am enjoying it. And I will say, I’m probably really naïve and a little more open because it’s been very positive towards me, so I think that’s made my experience more enjoyable.

I was thinking about it the other day and, in a way, it’s like theater. I love theater, and with theater, there’s a lot of instant fan feedback and there’s an instant connection between the artist and the audience. When you’re up there on stage, you hear them laugh. You hear them gasp. You know when they are with you and when they are not with you. That’s something that you don’t really have with TV because usually you’re not in the audience with them watching. I can’t be in 1.1 million people’s homes, you know, as wild or creepy as that would be (laughs). So Twitter actually gives a hint of that which makes it kind of fun. People are—on Twitter, people get kind of ludicrous. They are so open and so brazen which is really fascinating to me.

Have you ever gotten a message on Twitter that kind of made you say “What the heck?”

Oh yeah. Especially because I have a podcast where we deal with identity a lot and we talk about relevant issues in the country today. And even for the show, I had someone who was talking about the gay sex scenes between Eliot and Mike, so I’ve gotten some comments. You know, it allows me to practice something that I’m really staunchly behind right now, which is compassion. I’m trying to bring compassion wherever I go and especially in regard to myself; I think that’s something that I struggle with, being more compassionate toward myself. But I also think that it’s important that we practice being compassionate toward ignorance.

When we start talking about race and diversity and the issues that are relevant, there’s a lot of ignorance that comes to the surface. And what I see a lot of the time is an immense amount of hatred and vitriol sent back to those who are ignorant. It hurts me when I see that because not only is it mean but it’s also not going to help us move forward. We have an opportunity when ignorance is brought to the surface to take that ignorance and not suppress it or beat it down but to shift it and the only way that we can shift it is through compassion. That is the only way that we can shift anything, and I’ve come to learn that not only through my personal experiences but also based on what I see in the world. If we offer compassion toward those people who are ignorant, we allow them an opportunity to grow. And that’s how we will move forward.

So, when I have received those messages, I take that as an opportunity to practice that, and it’s amazing the ripples that I’ve caused when I respond in that fashion. It shows them a different way than what they are used to, so I think that’s important.

I think that’s incredibly important, too.

It is. And, you know, Twitter is a pretty amazing place. It’s an incredible thing when everyone has a voice. It’s an incredible thing and it’s incredibly empowering. I mean, social media is the way that the revolution in the Middle East started. It’s impacted Ferguson and shown how instrumental social media can be to these places that need change. But we are toddlers with that voice. And it’s incredibly important for us to remember that we still have responsibilities with that voice, and with that responsibility come reflection upon how we respond to people and what people we engage with. We create echo chambers, which is also not helping us move forward. Anytime you find someone who disagrees with you, you unfollow them or block them. And I don’t think that’s the way forward either! Diversity of thought is as important as diversity of color and diversity of gender and sexuality. I would actually think that diversity of thought is even more important at this point in time.

I agree, and you know, the way that I see it is that diverse opinions—diverse voices—are the foundation of democracy. If we start suppressing voices and stop listening to those that have opinions that don’t match up with our own, we’re destroying the foundation on which democracy is built, in my opinion.

Absolutely, absolutely. Right on.

Alright, so this is actually my last question for you: what shows, books, movies, etc. bring out the nerd in you?

This is one of those times where I have to say that I don’t really understand the word “nerd” because it seems like anytime you’re really excited about something, you’re called a nerd. So—I would say everything makes me a nerd. I mean, I get really excited about—ok, in the more traditional sense, there’s this author named Jasper Fforde, and he wrote a book series called “Shades of Grey” which I think is fascinating and makes me a huge nerd because it’s set in a world where everyone is separated by color. Like, what color they can see. So if you can see reds, then you are with the Red Family, so it’s this fascinating book that’s set in this kind of dystopian world. So, maybe that makes me a nerd…I really nerded-out about “Ready Player One.” But I also nerd-out when I read “Time” articles about space. When they could hear the sound of gravitation, I nerded-out hard over that. So, just life! I’m gonna go ahead and say that I nerd-out about life. 

 

Follow Arjun on Twitter @ArjunGuptaBK and visit his American Desis Podcast. New episodes of The Magicians air on Mondays at 9:00 pm ET/PT on Syfy.

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