Actor Hale Appleman discovered his love of acting at a young age. He attended and graduated from the renowned LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts and studied at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama. From 2008-2009, he starred in the Roundabout Theater Company’s revival production of David Rabe’s Streamers, directed by Scott Ellis. His other stage credits include Clifford Odets’ Paradise Lost at the American Repertory Theater, the New York Premiere of Passion Play, Moonchildren at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and The Last Goodbye at The Old Globe Theater. In 2006, he made his film debut in Beautiful Ohio, which was followed by roles in the movies Teeth, Pedro, and Private Romeo. Then, in 2012, he scored his first role on television: a guest spot on the hit series Smash.
Now, he’s starring in the new hit Syfy show The Magicians as the snarky yet lovable Eliot Waugh. I recently had the chance to chat with Appleman about his role on The Magicians, how he feels about the show being compared to Harry Potter and the responsibility that stems from playing a gay character on mainstream television. Keep reading to find out what Appleman had to say!
What drew you to the show “The Magicians”?
Well, my agent sent me the script for the pilot and I loved it, and my best friend Anthony Carrigan, who you may have talked nerdy with–he plays Victor Zsasz on “Gotham” and he’s super cool–anyways, he heard that I was auditioning for this show and he was like “That’s my favorite book series! Here’s the first book” and he handed it to me. Then, I started reading them and I loved them.
What appealed to you about the series?
Oh man, just all of that childhood fantasy stuff that I grew up loving myself–all of that stuff also plays into “The Magicians” but it kind of sees it through an adult lens. I thought that was really refreshing and really meta. In a way, this show represented everything that I wanted to do in terms of acting, which was inherent in the show that Lev Grossman wrote. It was like “This is the world that I want to play in as an actor.” That was all very exciting to me. So, I read the first book and I couldn’t put it down, and I read the rest of the series while I was auditioning for the show. Even if I hadn’t booked the role, I think that I would’ve gotten so much out of the books and it still would’ve been a favorite series of mine. I think Lev Grossman is a literary genius, to be honest. So, yeah, I loved what he wrote and it appeals to every part of me.
How would you say the television adaptation is different from the book series so far?
Essentially, I think the tone is quite similar to the books. The feeling is similar. Some of the adventures are different; some of the episode events that transpire are handled in a slightly different way. You know, we’re in grad school, which I think is actually a good thing because it would’ve been hard to find actors who could play characters from age 17-35–I don’t think that would’ve been easy to find. (laughs). But, I think coming-of-age also extends into your 20s. I think we’re all very much evolving and growing at that point in our lives. And I think that is universal. I think everyone is constantly shifting and growing as people as they face the challenges of real life. Relationships, death and spirituality all factor into the world that Lev writes about, and I think that’s universal. It’s really great to see a fantasy tackle real-life issues in such a complex way.
How do you feel about the series being compared to other series, such as “Harry Potter”?
I think that because this show features young people at a magic school, inevitably that comparison would happen. I don’t have a problem with it; it’s kind of flattering on some level. But, it’s inevitable–we’re in magic grad school, or magic college if you read the books so that comparison is undeniable. But then, I think over the course of the book series and hopefully over the course of the show, we leave school. School really isn’t the essential aspect of “The Magicians.” It’s just kind of where we start. It kind of takes more of a turn into the fantasy realm, so the C.S. Lewis “Narnia” books will be the next big comparison, you know? And I think that’s also appropriate and I think that Lev has really spoken about his connection to that series. I don’t think it’s bad to be compared. If anything, “The Magicians” very deliberately takes the fantasy tropes that C.S. Lewis featured in his novels and kind of turns them on their head and gives them new breath by making them more complex, as we were talking about earlier. So, I think the comparison is an actual starting point but what the series and the books do is examine these fantasy ideals and take a harder look at them through the lens of reality.
I think you’re exactly right. I confess that I read the books a long time ago, so I don’t remember them as well as I used to, but one thing that I do remember is that, unlike the “Harry Potter” or “Narnia” books, where those fantastical worlds are very exhilarating and exciting, the fantasy world of “The Magicians” almost ends up being as boring and repetitive as the real world, and I thought that was an interesting spin on fantasy, too.
Yeah, yeah, definitely! I think that, in the world that Lev created, it’s a really rigorous, long-term study to put yourself through magic school. It’s not all waving your wands and reciting an incantation. It’s a really in-depth and complex and arduous task to learn even one spell. I think that’s something that we all know as actors and as these characters. We’re all big fans of the books and we all stand behind the blueprint that Lev Grossman has laid out for us.
Because you mentioned the arduous process that goes into spell-casting on the show, I just want to say that I love the choreography–the hand work–that you all use to cast magic. They are really cool and intricate.
Oh, thank you! Thank you so much! Yeah, we have a really awesome choreographer named Kevin Lee–his dancer name is Shazam. (laughs). He’s super cool and also open to collaborating with us, because I think Eliot probably has a different casting style than, say, Alice does or Quentin does, so it’s open to being able to look at what he’s choreographed and be able to say, “Hey, I think Eliot might do this move a little bit more this way.” So, the spells are very much adapted to the styles of each character, and that’s really special and cool. I love that.
When you first encountered Eliot as a character, what was your first impression of him?
Well, I think I had read the pilot and when I picked up the book, I think I found a lot of the scripters about Eliot and I was immediately just drawn to his wit, first and foremost, and his sense of play. There’s kind of this air about him that he’s kind of been-there, done-that, like this isn’t new to him. He’s showing Quentin the ropes. He’s kind of over it, but he’s also kind of intrigued by this person that he doesn’t yet know but feels a connection to somehow. I love that whole chapter in the books where Quin and Eliot are kind of getting to know each other; they’re on the boat and they’re aren’t able to row very well. They’re clumsy and new to each other, and I love that. There’s a certain unspoken tenderness between Quentin and Eliot. But what struck me about Eliot was his charisma and his dynamism and his complete complexity. He comes from this place that he doesn’t want to talk about and he’s recreated himself in the image of all of his idols, whoever they may be–like Oscar Wilde or even David Bowie. Eliot is sort of playing this part, and I found that fascinating because it speaks to what he’s hiding behind. So, when you have a character with that many layers, it’s just sort of fascinating to put everything together yourself. I’m super honored to get the chance to play him because I know that it’s a huge responsibility and that’s not lost on me.
Are we going to learn more about Eliot’s backstory this season?
You will learn a little bit more towards the middle….you’ll learn a little bit more around episode 8, I believe. That’s a big episode for Eliot. I’m really excited about it. I’m cautiously optimistic. Actually, I don’t know. I’m a little terrified (laughs). A lot happens. You kind of learn a little bit more about Eliot through…events that I can’t really talk about (laughs). You learn a bit more about where he comes from, so we get a little taste of that. And I hope next season and beyond that we really get a chance to delve really deeply into Eliot’s backstory, his character, and his relationships. I hope that we really get to look at his evolution through all of the contexts that support who he is now.
I really hope so! We got a taste of his backstory in episode two when we learned about his past with his abusive boyfriend–and I loved that conversation between him and Quentin–so I hope that we see more of it.
Oh, I love that you said his abusive boyfriend! Actually, I would agree with you, and I think that is probably what it was. As scripted, it’s his like bully–this guy that bullied him–but I think that there was a very fraught sexual situation, in which this guy took advantage of him in a lot of ways and who also possibly beat him up after school. So I think it was both. I’m gonna give myself credit for giving you that idea (laughs).
In the last episode, we saw a lot of the characters getting sorted according to their magical specialties. Can you tell me what Eliot’s magical specialty is? Is it telekinesis?
Well, we can move things–the physical kids can move things and we can fly. Eliot does a lot of–Eliot breaks a lot of stuff and breaks into a lot of things this season. (laughs). He sets a lot of things on fire. I don’t know his absolute specialty; I think that’s something that hasn’t yet been decided on. I sort of threw a bunch of ideas at Sera Gamble and was like “Is it like air magic because he’s always smoking? Is it smoke and mirrors? Is it mischief? Like, what is it? What is Eliot’s specialty?” And I still don’t think that we know. But he can do a lot of amazing things. He’s really great at accidentally killing people (laughs). So that might be his specialty!
That’ll look good on a résumé! (laughs)
So, what has been your favorite scene to film so far?
A scene that I can’t talk about (laughs). It’s really exciting and really intense, and it’s a really cool moment. It’s the beginning of a very dark moment for Eliot but it is still so special. I hope. I haven’t seen it. I think it’ll be good!
Is it weird for you to watch yourself on-screen?
I have a really hard time watching myself on-screen. I will say that I love the show. I have a great time watching the scenes that I’m not in, so episode 4 was a treat for me because I wasn’t really in much of it–I mean, I was, but you really follow Quentin’s journey in that episode. I also just love that episode; I think that it’s an amazing hour of television, and I’m so proud to have even gotten the chance to be a part of it. But I can’t really watch myself; I can’t be objective about my face on camera. I have to, weirdly enough, either not watch it at all or watch it a couple of times in order to see it objectively, but the first time I see it, I’m like “NOPE!” During the audition process, you’re able to reject the tapes that you don’t want to use, but when you’re filming, you have no control over what your face is doing or the scenes that get put into the show or movie, and that’s scary.
So did you enjoy the “Shake It Off” karaoke cover in the last episode?
When I first heard that they were going to do that–it was like way before we even went to Vancouver to shoot the series–but we had done the pilot, and John McNamara and Sera Gamble told us to get ready because there was going to be a Taylor Swift song in one of the episodes, and I kind of didn’t know how to take that information and I didn’t quite understand how it could possibly fit into the show that we were doing and it was like “Oh my god, your face! I thought I knew you!” (laughs). I think that’s what Sera said, I can’t really remember. But ultimately, it was so fun and I think that they really handled it well and it paid off. So, I think it really worked. I think that it was the best anti-“Glee” moment that ever happened (laughs). No offense to “Glee”; I love you, “Glee”!
What do you enjoy the most about working with the rest of the cast?
Honestly, I think that we’re just really lucky in general. We have a really beautiful group of people who love the material. We are a family and we take care of each other and we love our job, so it’s kind of the best possible situation. You don’t always have a connection with everyone that you work with and we’re just really lucky. I get along with everybody in the cast, and that’s rare. I really love these guys. They are really great people. We all pour our hearts into this show–and not just the cast. The entire crew up in Vancouver, they are amazing; I love you guys. I love the crew. I love our showrunners and our execs. I love our writers–the writers in the writers’ room are wonderful. We just really have an incredible group of people. The transport guys who drive us to set sometimes, they read the scripts of the show. Like, that’s unheard of. They’re invested. They’ll be like “Oh, hey, episode 8 is a real crazy one for you, eh?” They’re all Canadian so they all say that. (laughs). But they’re just wonderful people. It’s like this crazy stroke of luck, this lightning in a bottle thing where everyone is passionate about what they do. Our hearts are attached to the material, and I’m really grateful for that.
What is it like working with John McNamara and Sera Gamble?
They’re so funny together. They’re both passionate about the show in very different ways. Sera is a fantasy geek and comes from that place, and knows everything about every fantasy show ever and is so invested and passionate about it. And John–if you ask him, he’ll be like “Yeah, I don’t really care about fantasy.” He cares about the characters and he cares about these characters on this show, so I think that combination is just so incredible. They’ve been so wonderful and so supportive and I guess that they just saw some kind of potential in me that I’ll forever be grateful to them for. I was not working a lot, and then Eliot happened, so I’m really grateful.
One of the things that I love about your portrayal of Eliot–and I think that this is also important for all gay characters on television–is that you add so much nuance and so many quirks to the character without him becoming stereotypical. There are some actors or actresses that you watch and you’ll be like “Oh, they are really accentuating that.” Do you find yourself consciously making decisions as an actor to prevent him from becoming stereotypical?
That is a great question and I think that is a huge responsibility on my part to make Eliot as–regardless of what’s written on the page, it’s my job to make him as complex and dynamic and as far from a stereotype as I can find. Of course, he’s an aesthetic dandy and there have been aesthetic dandies in literature and in some films, and a little bit on mainstream television but in the way that Eliot is such a complex and dynamic character, I think that he’s kind of a first. I don’t think a character has existed like him before on mainstream American TV. I am very conscious of that and it’s my job to make him three-dimensional in every moment. I hope that we get to explore specific experiences that are relevant to Eliot as a queer character not only in fantasy but also in real life, and I hope that we got there on the show. But thank you because I think that is a really great question and it’s true–you don’t see queer characters in the fantasy genre ever, especially on fantasy genre television shows. So there’s something about Eliot’s vulnerability and his power and the points between those things that I feel like hasn’t been done yet, and I’m so excited to go there.
I’m excited, too, especially with the season two renewal. With the renewal, what can we expect from the rest of this season going into next season in regard to these storylines?
That’s a great question because there are certain things that have been set up by the end of the first season that I’m sure will play into the next season, but to be honest, I know nothing about what’s going to happen and how it’s going to unfold. I’m sort of in the dark as well as you guys. (laughs). I don’t really know yet so we’ll see.
What shows, books, movies, etc. bring out the nerd in you?
Well, “The Princess Bride” for sure. Ummmm….nerdy movies….”The Matrix.” I love “The Matrix”! That’s pretty nerdy. When it came out, I think I saw it twice in theaters. What else….I like “Star Wars.” I grew up liking “Star Wars”…..what are other nerdy shows? I didn’t watch “Star Trek”; I wasn’t a Trekkie but I get it, you know? Is that enough? (laughs)
That’s perfect! Thank you so much for chatting with me today, and I can’t wait to see the rest of this season and next season and hopefully fifteen more seasons!
(laughs) Thanks! That’s awesome. We’ll have to see what happens. I’m just grateful to be a part of it, and I love the character so thank you for embracing him and we’ll see what happens, right?
Thank you for breathing life into him, too, because he wouldn’t be the same without you playing him.
Thank you, that’s a huge compliment and a huge honor. A huge honor.
New episodes of The Magicians air on Monday nights at 9:00 pm ET/PT on Syfy.