The Fox drama series Houdini & Doyle follows Harry Houdini (Michael Weston) and Arthur Conan Doyle (Stephen Mangan), as they begrudgingly join forces with New Scotland Yard to investigate unsolved and inexplicable crimes with a supernatural slant. The master magician and escape artist is the skeptic while the prolific writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes believes in the unseen, and their diverse viewpoints will help them face cases that appear to involve vampires, ghosts, monsters and poltergeists, and determine whether they are just a ruse to conceal murder.
While at WonderCon, actor Michael Weston participated in a small press roundtable to talk about playing the iconic Harry Houdini, having only about a week to do research and prepare once he was cast, finding the chemistry with co-star Stephen Mangan, whether he’s a skeptic himself, what it’s like to recreate some of Houdini’s performances, and the advantage of a shorter season.
Collider: How much research did you do into Harry Houdini? Did you want to learn everything you could about him, or just the parts of him that are in the story you’re telling?
MICHAEL WESTON: I had a very light working knowledge of Houdini, so I didn’t really understand who he was, in terms of the place he held in our history and in our culture. I knew that people say, “Hey, he pulled a Houdini,” but he held this place in people’s hearts. My wife said, “Oh, my god, I love Houdini!” I’ve been with her for 10 years, and I had no idea. There’s a sense of wonder in people’s imaginations, when it comes to Houdini. And then, probably even deeper in that thing of being able to free yourself from whatever oppresses you and whatever shackles are in your life – from your religion to your family, or whatever is pulling you down – this guy, at his time especially, was a tangible symbol of freedom and actualizing the American dream. So, I learned a lot, going into it, but I literally got this part a week before we started shooting.
How did you end up getting cast so soon to when the show started filming?
WESTON: It’s just this process of being an actor. You just never know. I was doing a play [in L.A.] with my buddy Scott Caan, and I was running lines with my mom in my living room when I got a call that they needed me to audition in London. So, I got on a plane that night and flew to London, and then the next morning, I auditioned. I had done an audition months before that, and then suddenly, everything came together and we were shooting. The thing about this series is that we steer history a little bit for our own purposes. Houdini is a great character, and so is his friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle and Adelaide Stratton, the first female Constable. She wasn’t a real person necessarily, but there was a first female Constable. So, they compressed it all into this turn of the century period piece. It’s Houdini, but it’s also me and Stephen [Mangan]. The series plays on our nostalgia and who we are today. It feels very present-day.
Since you were thrown together so quickly, did you and Stephen Mangan feel the chemistry right away?
WESTON: That’s the magic of this stuff. I definitely think that, as the series goes on, our rapport and our comfort level gets deeper and better as friends, on and off set. When you work with old friends, you have that immediate connection, but these guys are searching each other out, in this series. They find each other in the first episode. And even though it’s an embattled friendship and they don’t really agree on anything, they gradually, over the course of time, find a really deep friendship and need each other. I feel like that’s the deepest and most fun element of the series, aside from all of the procedural and supernatural. There’s a really fun, deep friendship between these guys who are bitter enemies.
Just how much torture did they put you through, during the filming of this?
WESTON: There was a lot of torture. First, we were living in Manchester, which is not torture, but it is definitely north of London. It was cold, and I was often wet and in weird situations, hanging upside in tanks or buried alive. But I saw the fine print, so I knew what I was getting into. If you’re going to play this guy, you have to be willing to do that.
Houdini was a skeptic. Are you a skeptic, yourself?
WESTON: I’m pretty pragmatic and I think of myself as a realist. And then, I have weird doubts about it. No one can really just put that period on it, except maybe David Shore thinks he can. There’s always a question mark. Anyone who says they have it all figured out, there is no proof of it. I think there’s enough out there in the world that breeds uncertainty. And I’ve had a couple weird experiences in my life that I’ve never really talked about before doing this series. I didn’t want to admit it, but I’ve had a couple of those things happen that I have no idea how you’d explain. Even though I’m a cynic about that stuff, it breaks you down a little bit.
So, what happened?
WESTON: My grandma lived in this old house in Paris. It was there for hundreds of years, and it was occupied by the Gestapo. They fled to America, and then when they went back, the house was stripped of everything. It has this very sinister other side to it, as well as being a great old house. She passed away there and my grandfather passed away there, and right after they did, I went there with a friend of mine, just to say goodbye to it. We were standing in this hallway looking at these old pictures that hadn’t been taken down yet, that were just of our family from youth. I was with my friend from New York, and I can’t convince him of anything, especially that there’s a ghost. He’d laugh you out of the room. So, he was standing there and he turned his head, and I was like, “What?!” He was like, “Someone just brushed my head,” and he was freaking out. And then, I went there about a month later with a girlfriend of mine, and I was going to the bathroom down the same hallway, and at the very end of the hallway was this weird, amorphous, globular thing. I was half asleep, but I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go in.” I went to the bedroom and my girlfriend, at the time, was sitting up and pale and hyperventilating. I was like, “What did you just see?” And she was like, “I just saw a ghost. There was a ghost. I swear to god, there was a ghost.” Even after that, we were like, “All right, we’re going to go to sleep now,” and we just sat there staring at the ceiling for awhile. I haven’t been able to explain that or get over it. Even though your life goes on, and I buried that deep in the recesses of my imagination, it’s still there. So, I guess I have to admit that, even though I’m not sure.
How can you not be sure?
WESTON: Because I never got to grab the globe and be like, “Who are you?!” And that’s what the series is about. These guys want to get their hands on it and prove it. Until they can really prove it with science and they have the evidence in their hands, there are so many question marks. Even though they solve the crimes sometimes, there’s still a sense of, “I don’t know. I’m not sure.” I love that Houdini is a skeptic because he’s a magician, but he doesn’t believe in this stuff.
Is it fun to get to do the big performances, or is that all very technical?
WESTON: I did the Chinese water torture one, and they hung me upside down. There are these two relatively strong-looking guys, who I wish had looked stronger, holding a rope on a pulley, and you trust them with your life. I was so cocky about it, I was like, “Yeah, I’ve got this.” They lure you into the water and you’re completely out of control. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. We were actually shooting in the old theater where Houdini did his performance, a hundred years ago, almost to the day. I was looking at this gorgeous old theater, called The Palace Theatre, in Manchester, and you see all of the extras dressed up. There was this moment that you rarely get, as an actor, where you’re in it enough and scared out of your mind enough that you’re there and so present in it that you believe it for a second. There’s a little bit of magic in that.
Do you enjoy the short season of episodes?
WESTON: The terrain of TV has changed so much, and maybe people’s appetites with it. I binge-watch shows and I’ll watch 10 episodes in a weekend, or something like that. It changes the way that people write, and it changes our lifestyle as actors. I love that you get to do 10 episodes of something and you can really concentrate on it. Twenty five episodes is a lot to ask of anyone. My friends who have been on those shows for years are like athletes. They’re exhausted, but they’re just wired for that. It’s a luxury to be able to do that for six months, and then have six months off. I just had a baby, so I’ve just been staring at my kid for the last four months.
How was the experience of shooting this show on location?
WESTON: The scripts are so dynamic for me because the friendship really grows, each time, and the triangle between these three deepens and the repartee is more fun, and we were shooting in these amazing places. We got to go to Derbyshire. We were shooting while we were entrenched in the cities, most of the time, but we went out to the country to where there are these gorgeous green meadows with extending hills and fluffy sheep, and you’re like, “This is what I imagine England to be!” So, I had those moments when you sit in a pub and you’re like, “I’m into this! This is lovely!”
Houdini & Doyle airs on Monday nights on Fox, starting May 2nd.