For the past five years, actor Hale Appleman has had the opportunity—and the challenge—of playing one of the most complex characters on the terrific Syfy series The Magicians. And for The Magicians, a show full of complicated people, that’s saying something. The journey of Eliot Waugh has been one riddled with extreme ups and downs. Eliot is at once the most charismatic person in the room, and also one of the saddest. He has been a strident heroic force of good, and a vessel for a literal monster. Introduced as the “life of the party,” Appleman has infused his performance of Eliot with complicated layers since Day One, and in Season 5 the character has reached a true breaking point both emotionally and in terms of his own maturity.
At the end of Season 4, The Magicians shockingly killed off its protagonist, Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), in an act of self-sacrifice. This was devastating for so many reasons, but for Eliot he lost both his best friend and a great love. The writers behind the Syfy show spent the last few seasons expanding upon the books, making explicit a romantic connection between Eliot and Quentin. It came to a head in the Season 3 episode “A Life in the Day,” in which Eliot and Quentin magically spent an entire lifetime together as partners. Remnants of their time together remain, but what stings the most for Eliot is his immediate post-haze refusal to give that relationship a shot, no doubt assuming the option would be on the table in the future.
A second chance never came as we said goodbye to Quentin, and Season 5 finds Eliot grappling with grief in his own tortured way. I recently got the opportunity to speak with Appleman over the phone about his work on the show, and today I’m happy to present the spoiler-free portion of the conversation. After next week’s episode, check back here for more from Appleman on that specific (and special) installment of The Magicians.
But during this portion of our chat, Appleman talked about Ralph’s exit from the show and what Quentin’s absence has meant for the rest of the ensemble in Season 5, and how Quentin’s death has provided a significant opportunity for personal growth for Eliot—albeit not an easy one. Appleman also discussed his dynamic with Summer Bishil and their joy of working alongside one another again as Season 5 reunites Eliot and Margo. Additionally, the actor beautifully went in-depth on Eliot’s journey so far, and the freedom he’s been given as an actor to craft the character in his own personal way.
Eliot is one of my favorite characters on television, and I think Appleman has been giving a wonderfully layered performance for years, so it was a genuine treat to hear how thoughtful and considered Appleman is about his take on the character and where he ultimately hopes Eliot ends up.
Read the interview below, and check back next week for more.
Just to go back a little bit, what was your reaction when you first heard that Quentin would not be coming back to life and that character was officially gone from the show?
HALE APPLEMAN: Well, we knew that there was a possibility when we saw the script for the finale last year, but we didn’t know officially until later in the game. And I suppose it’s really bittersweet in a lot of ways. On one end, we’re losing a great actor that we love and a character who obviously my character has so much depth and love for, and on the other hand, Quentin’s death allowed for the ensemble to come together in a lot of surprising ways this season, and also, for me as an actor to explore some of the deeper threads of Eliot’s psychology that we don’t always get to look at on the show.
I think the fans, myself included, probably feel the same way. It felt weird coming back to the show without him, but grief is different for everyone and it’s really fascinating to see all these characters grappling with it in very different ways.
APPLEMAN: Yeah. And Eliot is someone who historically loves to push it down and not express his feelings outright. And I suppose when we find him at the beginning of the season, it’s too much for him to process. And so the denial is pretty big at the start, at the outset, and over the course of the season, he’s confronted with situations that reflect his inner truths and grief and turmoil back to him. So he has to start to sift through issues of his own, I guess, perceptions of what he deserves, as well as his ability to come back from so much trauma and tragedy and still fight for his own life and the lives of those that he loves. So it’s a harder task than the run of the mill saving the world stuff of previous seasons.
APPLEMAN: There’s a bigger hurdle to climb over. But I think that makes for a compelling drama and opens lines of story with Eliot that we never would be able to explore otherwise. So, in that sense, I’m really grateful.
It’s so great to see you and Summer back sharing scenes again.
APPLEMAN: Yeah. Yeah.
Was it fun to finally get back and work with her again?
APPLEMAN: It was. I love working with Summer. She’s one of a kind. Completely idiosyncratic, both as a person in the world and as an actor. She’s lightning in a bottle. I really respect her, and I’m so happy that I got to reunite with Olivia [Taylor Dudley] onscreen as well because it had been such a long time since we had a proper scene together. I enjoy the chemistry that I share with both of these women and everyone on set. You know, there’s so many actors on our show who I don’t get to work with all the time, but certainly Summer and I have a longstanding history and a real ease, and we fill in each other’s blanks in a way that feels really organic and like almost automatic.
What I also really love about that relationship is it doesn’t feel like we’re going backwards in time or we’re resetting. Both of those characters grew in different ways and went through different traumas. Were you happy to kind of dig into that Eliot/Margo relationship a little bit with Summer and kind of get a little bit deeper?
APPLEMAN: Absolutely. Yeah, Summer and I had conversations about the layers behind the scene itself in terms of the circumstances they find themselves in and what they’re hiding or revealing to each other in any given moment. There was a lot of subtext in the language that we had together in the first two episodes. So part of our job was about revealing that subtext to the audience in subtle ways. And I think we had a really great time exploring that together.
Something about the show that’s a fascinating part of the job is we get to reset the clock sometimes, magically, and each episode sometimes has its own tone, sometimes each scene has its own tone or tones shift rapidly and circumstances are outrageous. But something we tried to keep in mind as actors, and something Summer and I discussed at length, was the accumulation of events around these characters experiences over the course of all the seasons of the show are helping to shape how we play any given scene. So we want to bring the aftermath of Quentin’s death into everything that happens over the course of the season, or at least I do as Eliot. And that’s the baseline around which the entire season is built for my character. But just as a rule, regardless of what the episode is or the circumstances, the characters’ previous history exists. It’s not a reset on our emotional line. It’s a continuation at all times.
I felt it was so heartbreaking to discover that Eliot missing that chance with Quentin was his biggest regret. And then Quentin dies and so now that chance is gone forever. Did that reveal kind of affect your performance and your take on the character this year?
APPLEMAN: Yeah. Of course it did. Eliot has a huge emotional arc this season and it’s really about him having revelations around what he’s willing to accept about his own worthiness, in a lot of ways. Which I might say is also the reason why he wasn’t able to accept Quentin to begin with. So he’s confronted with this issue again and again over the course of the season, and that’s applicable to his romantic life, but also his self-image as a powerful magician in the world, a man in the world, recovering addict, etc.
I think he’s one of the most interesting characters on the show, but I was just kind of curious from your standpoint as the actor who has been inhabiting him for these five seasons, when you kind of look back at that first season and you look at how far he’s come, how are you feeling about Eliot’s arc so far?
APPLEMAN: Well, what drew me to him originally was that there was so much complexity beneath the surface of what he reveals, which is true of Lev Grossman’s novels as well. And I knew that if I had a chance to play the character who could be perceived as, you know, the witty queen party boy, full stop, I knew that I had opportunities to reveal his layers in moments of dialogue or the nuance between lines sometimes. There is an opportunity to reveal the character’s brokenness when things are traumatic, and also, an understanding that the persona he’s created is a defense against a world that didn’t fully accept him.
So that was already part of the dynamic by which I understood the character upfront. And then over the course of these last five, six years, I’m really grateful that the show throws the character into outrageous circumstances, but at the same time also lets me as an actor consider and portray Eliot in ways that I feel are most true. And there’s been a lot of freedom in terms of the way that I’ve been able to play him. I collaborate in conversation with my fellow actors, and John and Sera on occasion, and Magali Guidasci our costume designer. But there’s a degree of openness that allows me to craft my take on the character and go for it. And that’s a kind of freedom that I’m extremely grateful for.
And I would say that’s the same this season as well. There’s so many outrageous things that happen to him and that I’m tasked with as an actor that are really exciting and different, even on our show. I’m really excited about episode six. Episode eight is wild. The musical episode is a doozy (laughs). That being said I haven’t seen any of these episodes, but just the making of it [was crazy]. It goes without saying, but the scope of imagination and weirdness that we get to explore on this show is continually expanding.
Oh, it’s wonderful. I mean, you know, this show consistently surprises me with the ways in which it finds to reinvent itself, but also stay true to the heart of the story. I find myself as a viewer and as a fan, what I really want for Eliot is just for him to find happiness, to be happy. But as the person who’s helped create this character, ultimately what do you want for Eliot? What do you feel is the end goal?
APPLEMAN: I would agree with your sentiment and I want those things for him as well. But I also know realistically that the character Eliot requires a process of looking inward and doing some heavy emotional lifting and work on himself in order to be able to find that happiness that we all want so badly for. So I don’t disagree at all, but I also know that in order to get there, certain things have to happen first for him as an emotionally mature adult and someone who can face his fears head on and be open and vulnerable with themselves in the world around him and with those he loves in order to get to that place.
Well, that’s one of the reasons I love this show is it’s so true to life in that respect. It’s not like a light switch that’s like suddenly he’s happy.
APPLEMAN: Yes. And it’s not an easy journey for him this season, but it’s a necessary one in the aftermath of what’s happened. And I think it’s very human for him too. You know, we didn’t just tack on a love interest for Eliot to fall head over heels with and ride off into the sunset this season. That wouldn’t feel authentic to the show or to the character at this point. But I do think we take some necessary steps that Eliot needs in order to inevitably find the happiness that we so badly wish for him.
The Magicians airs on Syfy on Wednesday nights.