As a massive fan of author Lev Grossman’s brilliant, immensely satisfying, and intensely human fantasy trilogy The Magicians, I approached Syfy’s TV adaptation with cautious optimism. The story follows the arc of a disillusioned young man named Quentin Coldwater, who discovers that magic is real and that eh himself possesses the qualities necessary to become a magician via the Brakebills School of Magic, albeit with many twists and turns along the way. I’ve written previously about my journey from being taken aback by the show’s sometimes significant changes from the source material to eventually coming to embrace and enjoy the deviations, and with only two episodes left in the first season, I’m beyond eager to see how showrunners Sera Gamble and John McNamara wrap things up.
One of the pleasant surprises of The Magicians thus far has been Arjun Gupta’s performance as Penny, a fellow student who provides a point of contention for Quentin in the books, but has been dimensionalized as part of a core ensemble in the series. Gupta embraces the inherent dickishness of Penny, a gifted magician who has the added ability to travel to anywhere in the universe within the blink of an eye, but Gupta’s charisma and heart layers the character with a level of empathy and attraction that has quickly made him a fan-favorite.
With the first season winding down to a sure-to-be-explosive close, I recently got the opportunity to speak with Gupta about his work on the series and much, much more. During the course of our conversation, Gupta discussed the close camaraderie of the cast, his relationship with Lev Grossman, why he feels the show’s Penny actually isn’t all that different from the character in the books, how the series is able to get away with such mature themes and language, and much more. If you’re fan of the series and/or Gupta’s work, I think you’ll find this interview fascinating.
Check it out below. The Magicians airs Mondays on Syfy at 10pm ET, and if you’re not caught up, all episodes are currently available to watch on Syfy.com.
Collider: Had you read the books when the project first came about?
ARJUN GUPTA: So, I was oddly unaware that these books existed in the world until I got the audition. Then I read the script and I was really intrigued and excited by it the project itself and I decided that I am not going to read the books until I knew if I got it or not. Because I didn’t want to get too attached, and fortunately I ended up booking the role of Penny and I dove head first into the books and read all three almost the day after—the day of I actually got them and dove right in and I love, love those books. So yes, I’ve read them.
Well Penny is pretty different than he is in the books. When you were reading the books did it feel significantly different from what you had read in the pilot?
GUPTA: It’s interesting I have been hearing this a lot lately but it’s fascinating to me and it’s funny, Lev has been really involved with this project which has been such a really huge blessing and I remember when he came out to New Orleans when we were shooting the pilot, and I remember him telling me about how my Penny was really different and I always find that really interesting because I find the Penny that we are doing is not that different. Yes there are differences. I don’t have mohawk, I don’t wear diamond studded jackets, but the edge of that guy with me signifies somebody who is distrustful of authority, who is not comfortable around people. For me it was just about expanding that. It was more a question about expanding instead of changing and Penny is fortunate because Penny doesn’t really come out a lot in these books. He’s like in, makes a huge impact and dips out and then comes back makes a huge impact and dips out again. So we had a little bit of creative freedom to build upon that. So for me it was taking, who is that person, who is that person that is really distrustful of authority, someone who has been really hurt by authority and doesn’t really feel safe in the world, and it was working with [showrunners] John [McNamara] and Sera [Gamble] trying to craft that person and then building upon. So I never see it as being that different.
So as someone who had read the books first it was striking because Penny isn’t this whiny, petulant little jerk anymore in the show. But Quentin is whiny and also kind of a prick, so if you have two of those in the ensemble then that gets to be a bit much, and with the show Penny is a much larger and more important part of the ensemble here, and I think it works. It’s something that fans had to adjust to but it makes a lot of sense now.
GUPTA: I’m glad to hear that.
What was the fan reaction like at first. I know you’re pretty active on Twitter and it seems like everyone has embraced this Penny now, but at first did you get a lot of people that were like what are you doing? What’s going on?
GUPTA: No, I was expecting more of that. Even though I know, in my mind that the character isn’t that different from the book I am totally aware that people are going to see it that way. The costume design, the wardrobe design that Magali Guidasci created which I was in small collaboration with, she made him a gypsy and I knew that it was going to be very different and people have been incredibly supportive and embracing. And I think this is where Lev being involved, I mean he wrote a brilliant open letter to the fans saying that there are differences that are coming. I think he softened the ground for us a little bit and then also it was really big when we went to Comic-Con and it put us in a position for us to show how much we are passionate about the books and how much we care about the books and I hope that made people feel a bit more comfortable, but we’ve gotten overwhelmingly positive responses. I personally really appreciate the patience because I wanted to let Penny unfold slowly and John and Sera as well and so they allowed that to happen in a really wonderful way and the fans stuck with it and have been really great.
You said Lev’s pretty involved in the series. Do you guys speak often? Has he given any essential pieces of insight?
GUPTA: He came on set to do his cameo and he came on set another time. I email Lev as often as I want to. He’s incredibly accessible he’s wonderful to talk to about where he comes from for the character’s standpoint and we take that information and we talk with John and Sera and we take all the information that we get and are able to make it into what we are interpreting, but he’s been great. I know that he sees every script and I know that he gives notes and he is constantly in conversation with John and Sera. It has been such a blessing, I’m going to use that word again, for him to be involved. He’s so smart it’s annoying actually. (Laughs)
Do you remember any single pieces of essential information or insight that he gave you about Penny that really helped you?
GUPTA: It wasn’t a single insight, it was more of just like a general conversation about differences and in that conversation probably what I thought the essence was and what he thought the essence was with Penny was really interesting to help me understand him more and build more from him. A lot of what we talk about is what magic is and what this world is and what his intention is. His desire to flip the tropes of fantasy on its head and that’s what made me try to understand what we are trying to do with this show. We speak about magic and it’s every part of this world, it’s in the trees, it’s in the air, it’s tapping into an energy. And he phrases it so beautifully and much more eloquently than I am at this moment, but that has been the really important thing for all of us, myself included.
In the show also one of the more pleasantly surprising differences is that it feels like a genuine ensemble and it’s a delight to see your characters all interacting episode to episode. What’s it like on set with this cast?
GUPTA: Aw man, we are a family. A beautifully, amazingly, wonderfully tight-knit and dysfunctional group of people that love each other. We spend all of our time together, we go to dinners a lot, we have a lot of fun on set. We have a blast. It really is a lot of fun. It’s just an amazing way that we all have each other’s back. It’s an ensemble show but it’s also taking risks. It has characters that go to some really dark places and having a group that creates safety to do that is so important, and we as a group have really set a culture where that is what the set is. And that safety is only heightened and supported by the incredible crew that we have on set. I have to give an incredible shout out to every single person that is involved because they were true collaborators in the process as we were. Everyone reads the scripts, which is unheard of in the States. It was amazing. It was an amazing experience and I can’t wait to be back with those guys again in a few months.
Penny’s relationship with Quentin has been delightfully contentious. Has it been fun exploring that with Jason?
GUPTA: Yeah we have a blast. Jason and I love it. Jason and I do these buttons at the end of every scene that, because of time, we never make it to air, and also it’s very inappropriate but it’s really fun. But because Jason and I have so much love and respect for one another it’s so much fun to just explore that contentiousness. Which we are all starting to see there’s a deeper sort of brotherhood underneath. They are brothers. You don’t really know it.
You guys nail it. But speaking of inappropriateness when I heard the show was going to Syfy I was a little worried because there are a lot of adult and mature themes in Lev’s books that feel essential to the storytelling, and the show has not shied away from that at all. You guys say “Fuck” a lot for a show that’s on Syfy. Has there been any pushback from that? What is the relationship like?
GUPTA: I worked on Nurse Jackie and I have always been well versed in the Cable world, and even there we would do the TV safe lines so after shooting scenes they would roll ADR and instead of saying ‘shit’ we would say something else or change the line. I was expecting that when we first got the script. Before the pilot I was like cool, this is just the script and we are going to get the TV safe script soon, and that never came. And I was like, “What’s happening?,” and I didn’t want to talk about it because I was hoping that it would never come, and it never has. It’s been amazing. The story I heard, which I don’t know can be confirmed, is that Syfy told us to go darker and has been incredibly supportive of pushing the boundaries. I think Syfy is really excited about embracing a new kind of content and from what I see they have been incredibly supportive and embracing. It’s been great but I think that is definitely more of a question for John and Sera, they have been working with them a lot more.
Well John and Sera have said they envision seeing this as a long running series that if given the opportunity, are you excited to explore Penny beyond where he goes in the books?
GUPTA: Sure and I think that we’ve been able to do that, I think I said that earlier the exciting this is he comes in makes an impact and comes out. We have already gotten to explore how Penny has a mentor, Penny has a relationship, so I’m totally thrilled with where we go and to get to work as an actor, that is a beautiful and incredible thing that I will always be grateful for so let’s run this thing. (laughs)
Is there a particular part of the books that you’re looking forward to exploring on screen with Penny?
GUPTA: Oh yeah, I was always really excited before the season but now I can talk about it openly. But I was really excited for the Neitherlands, and the Neitherlands were so beautifully conceived. I am really excited Penny ends up spending a lot of time in the Neitherlands. That’s a big part of his life in the books, and I’m curious to see where John and Sera take that. We have a couple more scenes in 12 and 13, both, there is more time spent in the Neitherlands and I’m excited for people to see that because 1. It’s fun, and 2. The production design that Rachel O’Toole and the art department did and the look that Ellie, our DP, put together is out of this world. Really incredible.
Seeing the Neitherlands realized onscreen was fantastic. It’s great to see that come to life on the show and, like you said, with the support of the network that’s embracing the mature themes of the books.
GUPTA: Yeah, you can’t dumb this stuff down. That’s the thing about Lev, you dumb down the material, you are not doing the material. So I think when everyone signed on to adapt his books that they would have to everyone, step up their game and in my opinion everyone has. I am excited for the opportunity to keep on doing it I really am.
Do you know when you guys start filming Season 2 yet
GUPTA: I hear around the end of June in Vancouver.
Have you had any intel into where things might pick up? Are you still waiting for those scripts?
GUPTA: No I don’t know yet. I think they’re just starting in the writing room. They’re finishing 13, I know I’m popping in to do some ADR later today. I am assuming that John and Sera are going to finish this season first and then dive into the new season. We also have a new producer/director and I’m excited for what he is going to bring to the show.
Well there are two episodes left is there anything that you want to tease for fans?
GUPTA: I mean if you have a harness that you can harness yourself to your seat and bind it, because it’s about to get super crazy. It’s amazing, the next two episodes are really—what’s amazing is that every episode is kind of in stand-alone, and I think that if you watch it in and of itself they have this beautiful way of being standalone and yet integrated. I’m not saying everything has been building towards 12 and 13 because they are all important in their own right, but there has been an undercurrent towards something and it’s really exciting to reach there in 12 and 13.
It’s said that we are living in the second golden age of television, so I’m curious, what are some of your favorite shows that you are watching right now.
GUPTA: I am embarrassed to say that I haven’t been watching a ton of television over the last year. I did enjoy Master of None, I thought that was wonderful. I have watched Brooklyn 99, which I think is brilliant. Making A Murderer is on my list of things to watch. The Chelsea Documentaries, because I’ve heard really wonderful things about that. There is so much content out that I feel like I need to watch. Every day people are telling me about a new show and they’re like, “Yo are you watching this?” No! You will have to check back with me in about a month or so.
And I feel that The Magicians will be on those lists for a lot of people in the interim in between seasons 1 and 2.
GUPTA: There were 409 shows out there in the world last year and for people to give us an hour of their week it is a beautiful thing to me right now. You know, no one has enough time, everyone is working three jobs, because the world is crazy right now. And now that we have become a part of people’s lives in that way is so humbling and amazing. I hope so.
A lot of friends of mine had read the books before the show and they’re enjoying it the same way as me, so you’re doing something right.
GUPTA: Thank you, I appreciate that truly. You know those book fans are the ones that we really were like “Oh I hope we can make them happy.” Rightfully so, there is an ownership to that once you create something in your own imagination and someone else brings it to life you are going to be like, “Man fuck you, the story is looking so good in my head how are you going to do better?”