In its fourth and final season, the FX series The Strain has seen nine months pass since a global nuclear apocalypse was set off, allowing the strigoi to gain control and the Master to establish a totalitarian regime. The majority of humans are now working for the strigoi as part of The Partnership, where they must collaborate or die, and the heroes that we’ve been rooting for have disbanded and will have to overcome personal hardship and stay alive long enough to possibly make it back to each other and save humankind.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Rupert Penry-Jones (who plays the mysterious and intriguing Quinlan, a rare vampire/human hybrid with an unwavering focus on killing The Master) talked about what originally drew him to the character, the challenges of wearing prosthetics, Quinlan’s dry sense of humor, insightful flashbacks, why less is more with his character, and what he’s most enjoyed about being a part of The Strain. He also talked about getting to have closure in the final season of Black Sails, and how he’d like to do more American television.
Collider: What originally drew you in with this character and made you want to play him?
RUPERT PENRY-JONES: To be honest, I was actually working on another show, at the time, for the BBC, about the Bloomsbury group, called Life in Squares. In my downtime, I’d started watching the first [season] of The Strain and I was hooked. So, when they rang me up and said, “Do you want to actually join the show?,” I was already a fan of the show. But then, when I looked at the books and realized that Quinlan had no ears and no nose and spoke to people through telepathy, I wasn’t 100% sure. And then, Guillermo [del Toro] rang me up, spoke to me, told me what he was going to do and what his ideas were, and convinced me that it was going to be a wonderful experience, and he was right. It was great. I loved it. I found the prosthetic side of things difficult to cope with, but it was a necessity, really, for that part. I certainly understood that I had to wear them. I would have liked to not wear them, but if it had been painted on my face, it would have been a lot longer in the make-up chair. That’s why they stuck the prosthetics on, but it was still three and a half hours. But by the end of it, I’d definitely had enough of the prosthetic. I enjoyed the show. I enjoyed the fact that I was playing a character that had been around so much longer than everybody else and didn’t really get emotionally involved with anybody because he’d seen it all and done it all before. I loved that. And it taught me something new about acting, that less is more. That was the order of the day with Quinlan. You don’t need to do much when you have a face like that.
It seems as though Guillermo del Toro can convince anybody to sign on to do just about anything.
PENRY-JONES: He wouldn’t convince me again to sign on for prosthetics in a TV show. I’d do it in a movie, definitely, but not in a TV show again because it just goes on for years.
By the time you got to the end of your time with Quinlan, did you feel differently about him, at all?
PENRY-JONES: I knew his backstory from the books. They changed it a bit for the TV show, but I was always aware of where he was going to go and how it was going to end up with him. I liked him at the beginning, and I liked him even more at the end, to be honest. I’m going to miss him. It was an experience I’ll never forget. Every day, walking on set in that costume with that face, it was just a joy. It really was. It was wonderful.
Are there ways that you could personally identify with Quinlan, or did you enjoy the fact that he’s so very different from you?
PENRY-JONES: I enjoyed the fact that he was so different from me. Normally, I’m playing somebody who has some similarities that I can draw from myself, but this is a supernatural character. The sensitive side of him comes through a bit. You’ll see a bit. There’s a big Quinlan flashback in the last couple of episodes of the series, where you see his emotional side and how his heart was broken. It’s when he really becomes determined to find and kill The Master, I think. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed finding a human side to him.
Quinlan also seems to have a bit of a dry sense of humor. Is that something that the writers injected into the character, or is that something that you brought to him?
PENRY-JONES: I think it’s a bit of both, to be honest. I won’t take full credit for it. There’s humor throughout the show, really. They did give Quinlan some lovely one-liners, and there’s more of those to come in this season. But, I did tweak a few things to try to get more humor in there. It’s a definite joint venture, the creation of the part.
How did you tap into and find a character like this? Is it the prosthetics and costume that helps, or is there somewhere you have to go mentally to play somebody like this?
PENRY-JONES: Well, you have to go somewhere mentally, just to wear the make-up. I have to find a zen place in my soul in the make-up chair, and if you don’t find it, you go a little bit mad. I would have to step out of the make-up chair, have a breather, go and scream in my trailer, and then go back. Once I’d nailed down and found this place, I took that on set with me and would sit very quietly, a lot of the time, and would stand aside from the banter. Certainly for the first couple of seasons, I didn’t get that involved. As my character wasn’t in with a lot of the regulars for quite awhile, I was very much doing my own thing, so I was able to get quiet and zen with it. And when I realized that the smallest movements, the smallest flick of the eyes, and the smallest head move would say so much with that make-up, the more I realized that his stillness was his power. The make-up definitely helped, and the costume helped a lot.
What do your friends and family think of Quinlan? How do they feel about you playing a scary vampire bad-ass?
PENRY-JONES: They thought I was mad! A lot of people thought I was completely mad. To be honest with you, the show is quite underground, so a lot of my friends actually haven’t seen it. Unless you have some way of getting it online, it is on tele, but it’s on an obscure channel, so a lot of my friends haven’t seen it. My wife really enjoys watching it with me. We sit down together and watch the episodes as they come out and I can manage to download it. And if she’s enjoying it, I’m happy. It was a tough experience. Being away from home was tough, and being in all of that make-up. I’d be walking through the streets of Toronto with other members of the cast, and people would come up and tell them how great they thought the show was, and I’d be standing there thinking, “They don’t even know it’s me! All of that work and pain!” It was a huge blow to my ego. I’ve learned a lot of lessons on this show, but it did me an awful lot of good. Whatever I do next is going to seem easy, after The Strain.
Quinlan has always been the character that pops in and out of the story, and that you always want to see more of and feel like you never get to learn enough about him. Now that he and Fet are off on their own mission this season, what can you say about their journey and what we’ll see of their dynamic?
PENRY-JONES: They end up caring for each other, looking out for each other, and saving each other’s lives. There’s a lovely banter between the two of them. Quinlan finds a friend, for the first time ever. Fet becomes his friend and his brother-in-arms, which was great fun. Kevin [Durand] and I really enjoyed working together. It was a lovely experience. I can’t tell you much about the flashback because it’s going to be quite a surprise when you see what happens and I’m really excited to see how people react to what happens. I don’t know if it will be a good reaction or a bad reaction. We’ll have to see. I can’t really say more than that because what happens is going to be kept secret, but in that flashback sequence, you get to see the human side of Quinlan, which has been there all along but now you really get a taste of it. It was a long time coming and I’m glad they did it before the end.
Do you think that Quinlan is surprised that he cares so much about Fet?
PENRY-JONES: He has had human friendships in the past, but by this time in his life, I think he’s had enough of humans. They’re just things to be used whenever he needs to, really. Obviously, he still feeds on them, at some point, so he has to keep a bit of a distance. But, I think he is surprised that he finds this band of guys and gets accepted by them. He’s quite touched by that, actually. You get a few moments of that, towards the end of the series, where he acknowledges that with them.
Because Quinlan has been pretty mysterious, it seem like every time we learn little bits about him, there’s still so much more that we don’t know. Why do you think people have been so drawn to him and what do you think it is that’s given him such a fan following?
PENRY-JONES: When I was watching the show, I got up to the point when Vaun first appeared, and when that happened, the level of my interest in the show just shot up, ten-fold. To have a walking, talking human-vampire good character that was also cold and calculating and who kill people because they need to be killed, but also had this human side was superb and such a brilliant thing to bring to the show. I knew nothing about the stories. I hadn’t read the books or anything, so I had no idea about the Quinlan character, or anything like that. I think it’s partly the same with Quinlan. I think Quinlan picked up where Vaun left off. Also, there’s the fact that he is mysterious and he hasn’t been overused in the show. I would have liked to have done more and I would have liked to have been more involved, but less is more. If I’d been sitting there with a lot of exposition, explaining what we had just done and what we were about to do, he wouldn’t have the same draw, I don’t think. I’ve always wanted them to explain where the bone sword has come from and what the whole idea of it is. I’d have loved to have had a flashback story explaining whose bone it is, what the bone means, and why it’s the handle of my sword. I kept saying that to the producers, but they didn’t take any notice.
What was your favorite scene, moment or sequence to shoot, either in the series as a whole or in this season specifically?
PENRY-JONES: There are quite a few. All the fight sequences were just brilliant because I’d never done anything on that sort of scale before. The sequence in [last season], where I’m escaping from the Ancient’s lair, slicing my way through all of the vampires that were charging at me, was brilliant fun. I absolutely loved that. And the flashback sequences were all of my favorite bits in the show, from the Roman stuff to Bulgaria. The flashback stuff this season was just a joy and I really loved doing it. There’s also a big fight that I have with a big nasty vampire on top of a moving truck, going 60 mph. That was great fun, as well. That was really cool!
Do you see Quinlan as the superhero of this story?
PENRY-JONES: Yeah, he’s kind of like a Hellboy character, in a way. The thing that’s great about him is that he’s kind of heroic, but he’s still a monster. He’s kind of a bad guy who could, at any moment, kill anybody. That’s exciting about him. His dogged determination to find and kill The Master is admirable. He’s very honorable and he’s had a long life.
What have you most enjoyed about your time on this show, playing this character and working with this cast and creative team? What will stand out for you the most?
PENRY-JONES: The feeling that I would have, at the end of every day, when I could dig my nails into the top of my make-up and just rip it off. It’s just the most exquisite feeling of release you’ve ever had. It was wonderful. It was worth all the pain, just to have that moment of being able to tear it open and let all of the sweat pour out. People would find bits of my face on the backs of chairs and on the floor. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever worked with such a lovely crew. The crew and the cast were really nice people. David Bradley was someone I’d worked with before. Jonathan Hyde, who plays The Master, became a very good friend of mine. They’re all such lovely people, and I’m going to miss them all. When you do a long job like this, it’s always the people you work with that you miss the most. I just loved every minute of it.
You also did some really terrific work in Black Sails, and even got to return for the final season. How did it feel to be able to have closure with that character and story?
PENRY-JONES: I wouldn’t have done that, but I watched the show after I had done it and was in it, and I was such a fan of the show. I saw how nice it would be to be able to come back and tie it up and appear at the end. And Toby Stephens is a very old friend of mine. Who would turn down flying out to South Africa for a week to stand in a field and give your best mate a hug? It was great! I enjoyed doing it. They were a lovely bunch of people. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but one of the main characters from Black Sails comes in and works with me in The Strain, which was great.
Aside from wanting to stay away from prosthetics a bit, do you have any idea what you’ll be doing next? Would you like to do or would you consider doing more American television?
PENRY-JONES: I would love to do more American television. I’d love to do another thing in Toronto. I fell completely in love with the city. I thought it was an excellent place. I found the first year tricky, but by the time I was at the end of the show, I realized that I really am going to miss being there. I would definitely do an American show. Being on a set for a show as big as The Strain was so exciting. It’s great doing British television and British television is excellent, in so many ways, but you don’t get that feeling of scale and that anything is possible, like you get with The Strain. We’d never be able to make a show like The Strain here in England. Not unless they had a lot of American money to pay for it. My favorite shows are generally American shows, and I want to be in the kind of stuff that I want to watch. I’m going to go where the work is. There are a few things around, but nothing that I can talk about because it might not happen in the end, and then I’ll just look silly.
The Strain airs on Sunday nights on FX.