From creator Mark Heyman and based on the book of the same name, the drama series Strange Angel is inspired by the real life story of Jack Parsons (Jack Reynor), an ambitious blue-collar worker in 1930s Los Angeles who helps to pioneer the unknown discipline of rocket science, as he dreams of building rockets that will take mankind to the moon. After meeting his eccentric neighbor, Ernest Donovan (Rupert Friend), he finds himself pulled into a new occult religion, created by Aleister Crowley, that performs sex magick rituals meant to turn fantastical dreams into reality.
Collider recently got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with actor Rupert Friend about the series, for which the full 10-episode season is available to stream at CBS All Access. During the interview, he talked about why he initially hesitated about signing on for the project, what appealed to him about playing Ernest Donovan, having one of the most memorable character introductions ever, being bummed about the things he wasn’t allowed to do himself, getting a custom-made wardrobe, working with such a talented line-up of directors, and the future plan for the series. He also talked about playing Theo Van Gogh and working with director Julian Schnabel for At Eternity’s Gate, along with playing a fun cameo in Paul Feig’s upcoming movie A Simple Favor, opposite Blake Lively.
Collider: I know that when you were sent the synopsis for Strange Angel, you initially resisted signing on for it. What was it that made you hesitate about the project, initially?
RUPERT FRIEND: The thing was that I didn’t have a huge amount of time to consider it. I was getting on a plane to go to the Antarctic, where there’s, thankfully, no phone signal or wi-fi, or anything. The script landed – or all of the scripts landed – with, “You need to decide now because we don’t have time for you to take a couple of weeks to read it. We start shooting in a couple weeks.” I was like, “Oh, hell, okay.” The synopsis that they sent was very, very interesting, apropos Jack Parsons. I didn’t know about him, and he is just an endlessly fascinating figure. I thought that was a pretty damn good basis to begin a television show with. But the guy they wanted me to play, they had likened to a Kenneth Anger figure. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that guy, but he’s a filmmaker and has been involved with various cults, at various points in his life. I just had this sinking feeling that I would be sacrificing virgins under a full moon, or something, and I didn’t really fancy that. But then, I read the first script and met Ernest Donovan, as we all have, those of us that have seen it now, and just was completely charmed and bewildered by this man, answering the door with a goat in his arms. Every episode that I read, the more sucked in I was, and the more I found him to be completely compelling and fascinating, if a little perplexing, at times.
I think Ernest really has one of the most amazing introductions of a character, ever, coming to the door holding a goat with no explanation, and it just kind of is. What was it like to have to pull that off? Was that a weird scene to film, having a goat that you have to carry around?
FRIEND: Yeah. It was actually one of the first scenes that we did. No one had been forewarned about anything, particularly. It was great, because as you very rightly said, it just is. It’s incredibly surreal, but a brilliant bit of writing by the guys because all of your antennae are just freaked out. You’ve met this quite suburban, domesticated couple, Jack and Susan Parsons, and then their neighbor couldn’t be more different. That, of course, is the beginning of Jack’s pull to exploring his spiritual and sensual side. But practically speaking, obviously, it’s a real goat and it was adorable. He peed on me, quite a lot. There was one take where he got a bit bored and did a big old wriggle in my arms. They weigh like a big dog. They’re not nothing. He just gave this almighty kick, and he kicked the screen clear off the door. It was really brilliant. I don’t think they used that take, in the end, probably because Bella [Heathcote] laughed because it was all getting so ridiculous.
It seems like it would have been hard not to have a little bit of a laugh when someone is trying to get through a scene while holding a goat.
FRIEND: Oh, yeah. Every take, the main problem was more about Jack [Reynor] and Bella not laughing.
This is a character that really has allowed for the opportunity to do a lot of different things that you wouldn’t typically get to do, especially with one character. What’s been the most fun aspect of that, and was there anything that was particularly challenging or difficult to do?
FRIEND: You’re quite right, every script was just a complete adventure playground of wonderful, zany, out-there things that Ernest decides to do. The only bummer for me, to be perfectly honest, were the things that I wasn’t allowed to do. I ride a motorcycle, in real life, but wasn’t allowed to do the motorcycling, even at one or two miles per hour, because they didn’t wear helmets back then. I get that it’s for safety, but that was a bummer. And then, with flying the plane, which was an original ‘30s biplane and a thing of absolute beauty, the original idea was that this very, very accomplished pilot would fly with each of us, in the different seats, and the cameras moved around, so that we actually would go up with the plane. On the day, it was too windy. I was like a kid at Christmas who had his toys taken away. I was so upset. I was like, “This is proper flying.” It’s not like getting into a modern jet. It’s basically like sitting in a taxi or something. It was a fiberglass, wood and canvas thing, and it felt visceral and alive, in a way that I’d never felt in a conventional, modern aircraft. I definitely got bitten by that bug. One of my resolutions, post doing Strange Angel, is definitely to try to get up in some of those older aircraft again.
The surroundings on set seem like they must have been so beautiful that it was just a giant distracting playground with so many things to look at and play with and do, and then there’s the wardrobe. Was this just a really cool set to be on?
FRIEND: Yeah. Good spot on the wardrobe because J.R. Hawbaker, who designed the costumes, and I were allowed to really go to town and reference everyone from [Willem] de Kooning to Norman Mailer to E.E. Cummings to Jack Kerouac. All of those people were in our sphere, when we were building Ernest. She just let it fly with a lot of beautiful custom-made pieces, just for me. She did such an incredible job. Then, there were the cars and the motorbikes. It really is a postcard to California and the beauty of California that people were discovering in the ‘30s, and that’s still the same. There orange orchards where the plane flies is all the same as it was, and just as beautiful.
This is a show that’s definitely very hard to describe and explain to people because there are so many elements to it. Was that part of the appeal of it for you? Do you like the fact that this is a show that can’t be pinned down, as one thing?
FRIEND: Take a wild guess. I love it! There are plenty of shows about doctors and nurses, and about cops and robbers. This is a show, as you rightly said, that you can’t really describe, which probably makes it very hard to market. But I think the rewards are in the watching because it’s a rich, layered story, 98% of which is completely true. It’s written brilliantly, and I think it’s a world where, once you delve into it, you’re excited to see where it will take you. I’m glad that it’s undefinable.
I think these characters are all so interesting. I wonder about what each of them are up to when we’re not seeing them.
FRIEND: Well, that’s a great compliment to the writing. There’s that iceberg philosophy of writing, where you don’t see the iceberg, but you know it’s there. That was a Hemingway trope. It’s the idea that all of these people are obviously living lives, it’s just that the filmmakers have decided which chunks we’re going to get to see of those lives.