I’ll admit it took me a while to start watching “The Exorcist” TV show. I just didn’t see how it could be as good – or hardcore – as the novel and the subsequent 1973 now classic movie. Not that I’m close-minded by any means; there are a few series based on movies that I love. I mean, “Fargo” is incredible, right? Who would have thought such an outré world would translate so well by the week?
But “The Exorcist” is on Fox. Not even FX. Of course, I was wrong. It’s awesome, and I binged the entire first season faster than Regan MacNeil purged her pea soup.
Naturally, I was looking forward to Season 2. But now, having gotten a sneak peek of the first episode and talking to the cast and producers, I can’t wait. The scenario and setup are completely different. John Cho joins the cast as a foster father with a houseful of troubled kids (who are, of course, susceptible to the seduction of evil), while team players Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera) and ex-priest Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels) are at odds, yet still united in their fight against Satan.
We caught up with the team behind the scares at Fox Studios, and here’s what they had to say. Comments are included from John Cho, Alfonso Herrera, Brianna Hildebrand, Jeremy Slater (creator/executive producer), and Sean Crouch (executive producer/showrunner).
DC: Can you talk a bit about the direction for Season 2, which is completely different from where Season 1 left off, and why you made that choice?
JS: One of the things we wanted to do this year was hit the ground running. Any time you tell a possession story in the space of ten hours basically, you always have that “getting to know the family, getting to know the possessed case” story. You have to slow burn it. If you just started and by the end of the first episode this person is bouncing off the wall and vomiting pea soup, it doesn’t leave a lot of room to escalate in the next nine episodes… and last year we definitely struggled in those first four episodes, finding compelling, exciting stuff for Marcus and Tomas to be doing while we were slow burning the Casey Rance storyline… that’s why we had a lot of “let’s go and investigate the homeless people in Chicago” and “let’s go have these sort of weird little detours” that didn’t necessarily pay off in the larger picture the way we wanted to.
So this year we still want to slow burn the family storyline because it’s important to get to know these characters, care about them, before the shit hits the fan. So with Marcus and Tomas let’s kind of tell a very aggressive dude – sort of a James Bond opening, where you come in at the end of one mission, before the next mission starts. So for the first two episodes of the season you’re going to see a big propulsive, exciting storyline for Marcus and Tomas, while we’re getting to know this family. And then it’s going to settle down into probably the rhythms of the show that fans are more familiar with for the back eight as we slowly bring these worlds together.
DC: John, how does it feel to be a part of the franchise?
JC: It feels great – in a short word, in a monosyllabic word. It’s been a really gratifying acting experience and an intellectual one as well. On the acting front, the characters are very deep and the situations are very expansive and I thank these two over here on the end [Jeremy and Sean] for giving me the opportunity to play him [Andrew Kim]. Having a foster family feels even more precious sometimes than a biological family in the sense that it’s more fragile, so that’s been really gratifying. And on an intellectual level, I’ve just been learning the language of this genre because I’m new to it and it’s been very exciting. And of course there’s just been the honor of joining the franchise. So it’s been a tremendous amount of fun.
DC: Do any of the storylines from this season pay homage to any of the Exorcist films of the past?
JS: A little bit. Much less so than last year. We don’t have another twist where this person is actually from that movie or whatever. There’s a few shocks, there’s a few gags that fans of the franchise really love that we are determined to get in there at some point. And we like twisting heads around, we like vomit (laughs). You will probably see some of these things again throughout the course of the year. But in terms of tying it back to the larger mythology, that was really the goal of Season 1, to prove we were really part of “The Exorcist” universe, and we feel by now that we’ve done that. If you’re tuning in to the show, it’s because you love Marcus and Tomas, it’s because you like our approach to horror or character work, and so we feel like this year we can stand on our own and we don’t have to continuously be hearkening back to something that came before.
SC: We hope. We are trying to reach out to other horror movies, to others in the genre and pay off some of that which we can answer more, halfway through the season.
DC: Who are your writers this year? Are the same ones returning from last year, or do you have some new folks?
JS: Yeah, we’ve got Heather Bellson, who wrote this first episode; she wrote Episode 2 last year. Our second episode is by Adam Stein, who is also returning. A writer, Manny Coto, just came over from “24.” We have Rebecca Kirsch and Alyssa Clark, who are both huge horror writers. It’s a really great mixture of people who are deep fans of the genre, but also people who have a lot of experience with character writing and storytelling. We never set out to only hire horror people or only hire genre people; we just try to hire the best writers possible because we know that being horror fans, we can get the scary stuff in there; it just has to work on the page, it has to be about bringing the characters alive.
DC: For a show that can go anywhere, is there a certain thing that won’t happen this season?
JS: It’s network, so there’s a couple of words we can’t say… Trump (everyone laughs). We can’t show side butt apparently – side butt is not allowed. In terms of pushing the envelope with gore and horror, the network wants this to be a conversation starter; they want to gross people out and shock people. We never really get pushbacks in how far we can take it.
SC: As for just narratively, we try to keep it – this is a real world show – there are a few demons here, but most people don’t know about them. So we’re not ever gonna go do big angels or big huge supernatural things. We try to keep it as grounded into the real world as we can, while having a demon or two running around.
JS: No musical episode!
SC: Season 3 – it will be all musical (laughs).
DC: Brianna: You play a character who’s skeptical…of God, demons, etc. It’s a show where these things have to exist on some level. Can you talk about playing someone who is living in this universe as a skeptic, but the fact is there are demons?
BH: Well it’s been fun so far. She definitely is an atheist, and she butts heads with Shelby [Alex Barima] a lot. Shelby is a born-again Christian, so he’s all about that life. It’s been fun to participate as a skeptic. I think it’s also interesting that her name is “Verity,” which means truth, and in a way she is one of the only characters in the house who is not blinded by anything. In a way… I mean, Caleb’s [Hunter Dillon] literally blind (laughing) so it sucks for him – but Shelby literally is blinded a little bit by his religion. I think that’s interesting and that should be fun to see.
JS: You point out, right now, the world she lives is our world. For her there is no other sign, yet, but to hold on to the truth of her character, as she said, rightfully so, she will have to keep being sort of that voice of skepticism. The “verity” of her.
DC: Was it hard for you to shut down when you first started playing the characters – like when you get home, how do you shut off from filming such intense scenes?
BH: We talked about that a couple of times today. I didn’t think of a time until a couple of hours ago, but this past week especially, we had a really emotional scene and a lot went down with the family, the foster family, and it was really hard to shake off. I spent a couple of days feeling really sad about it and really sad for some of the characters, super upset by the situation, so yes, that was difficult. And I think it should only get progressively more intense from here.
DC: I have a question for Alfonso. You shot in Chicago last year. How is it shooting in Vancouver compared to Chicago?
AH: Less cold. But I would say that the crew from Chicago and Vancouver, they’re both amazing. It’s good to be part of a show that everyone’s working so hard on. They love what we’re doing, and some of them watched the first season, the Vancouver crew, and they were so excited about being part of the show. Actually, I would say that the surroundings, the atmosphere, is completely different. In my opinion, what we are doing in front of the cameras, the energy, the intention we are applying, is exactly the same as the first season; but the tones, the atmosphere, is different, so that gives a completely new – I would say taste, or flavor, to it. But it’s fun. It’s an amazing show to be on. And to be with Ben [Daniels]… he always likes to joke around, and we’re starting to collide here; these universes are going to collide soon.
DC: How do you push off the boundaries of language in situations on network TV?
JS: Honestly, we don’t push the language thing too far just because I feel our writers are telling enough that we don’t need to. So when we get the script in and there’s a “motherfucker” in there, we just take it out. It’s a battle we’re going to lose, so I would prefer to fight the battles where it’s creatively more important. The one advantage of being on the network is that it has taken away profanity as an easy shock value. Where I think if we were doing this show for HBO or even AMC, there would be a lot more pressure to kind of be duplicating the original film and having our characters just spew profanity – which is great for a two-hour movie but I think would become very wearing and one-note over the course of ten hours. So the fact that we have that limitation forces us to be a little more creative with the words to get inside your head and creep you out – I think it actually helps us tell better stories. That’s why none of us has pushed too hard against those boundaries. But I’d love to say “shit” (laughs). There’s a lot of times when you have a character just saying like, “I’m tired of this crap,” and I’m like, “Arggg, I wish I could have a ‘shit’ here” (laughs).
DC: For the actors, horror obviously historically hasn’t been that kind to women and people of color, but this show is very inclusive and seems to be especially so this season. Can you tell us how it feels to be involved in that and whether you think that’s important, especially in the political climate that we’re in right now?
JC: That was one of the reasons I was compelled to join – I’ve spoken about this – I just couldn’t think of an Asian face in American horror. And I thought it was just interesting to do that. I had no particular political agenda there, but I thought it seemed fresh. The show was already diverse, and it felt to me that when you have a diverse world on camera, my personal reaction is that it feels more real, and you’re therefore more inclined to care about that world and the characters in it a little more. Because it feels like the world I walk around in, and so I’m into it.
AH: Well, I would have to say, as a Latino, I said this if you remember when we were going to shoot the first season, to be part of a show of content that doesn’t portray Latino as a stereotype is something that I really celebrate. And I thank Jeremy and Sean to allow me as an actor, and allow me as a Latino, to give something more real and grounded about my culture about who I am as Mexican, and Tomas as Mexican, so I celebrate that.
JS: That is one of the strengths of television over film honestly. As someone who comes from the film side of things and had ten years of experience, it’s really, really hard to get diversity in films because everyone is afraid. They’re gambling a 100 million dollars on something, and it just becomes like, “How do we make this a lead role for Channing Tatum and no one else?” So that was one of the most gratifying and liberating things about coming to TV; it’s kind of the exact opposite, especially here at Fox, where there is a mandate to “Let’s get different voices in front of and behind the camera. Let’s tell different stories about different people.” It’s part of the reason I think TV is experiencing a sort of golden age right now whereas the film industry is not. So it really is a testament to Fox how much they were supportive of that vision from the very beginning.
SC: And behind the scenes too – we came into it – we aimed for 50% everywhere. We wanted 50% in the writer’s room – we got four female writers and five male writers. We got every major religion in there. For a religious show we wanted to make sure we got every voice that we could get. For directors, out of eight directors, we have three women, which is more than last season. It was part of coming into this, we wanted to make sure that we aren’t handicapping ourselves, to make sure we have enough voices, everywhere – in front of the camera, behind the camera, so we get every possible story point and not handicapping ourselves.
DC: Alfonso – this episode particularly, you were able to show, grief, fear, weakness, and strength in one scene. As an actor how to you approach that?
AH: I have to say that working with Ben [Daniels] sometimes makes the job easy because you connect with him. He’s such a delight to work with. I say this because most of my scenes I collaborate with him. And I just have to say that I try to connect with him, and he makes the job much more easier. I have to say that.
JS: These guys are also very humble. The amount of prep that Alfonso and Ben and John and Brianna and everyone put into this show – they will rehearse these scenes endlessly over the weekend. They show up to set, and they know the scripts better than we do. They really bust their asses on this show. They make it look easy, but we have the hardest working cast on TV.
SC: And the crew. As he said, thank god the crew loves the show – they’re very passionate about the show and getting it, as Alfonso said. It’s really nice to work with a crew that’s really passionate about the show and loves it – we’ll send in scripts and get emails and calls from people on the crew to say how much they love the new script. I’ve never had that on any other show. That’s really nice.
DC: Alfonso, just getting back to the collaborating with you and Ben, that sounds unique, not just in the TV world but in the production environment in general, right?
AH: I have to say those boundaries, specifically in this show, are not like in any other show. Sometimes Jason [Ensler, director/exec producer] can ask my opinion and Jeremy can come to me and say, “Hey, you know about Mexican culture; what do you think about this?” And I can generate an opinion. Sometimes that doesn’t necessarily occur in other shows. And I think that to have – for all of us to have communication makes it more rich, and I feel very fortunate for us to be part of that.
JS: It’s also part of the reason we send our writers to set for each episode so they can sit with the actors and actually workshop the scripts before they go on camera so that by the time you’re rolling, Alfonso, Ben, whoever else wants that opportunity can really have the scene locked down and know exactly what kind of emotion they’re bringing to it. So then once you get to set, it’s really just the job of where you put the camera and where you stage the action. The heavy, sort of, emotional lifting has been done by the actors in advance.
DC: Can you break down the different dynamic between Marcus and Tomas – this episode seems to be setting up some sort of future conflict between the two?
JS: One of the things that was important to us was to elevate Tomas to the point where he is no longer the bumbling apprentice because we didn’t want to do another season where Marcus was always right and Tomas was always wrong. We wanted to get them on the same footing and make Tomas sort of a full-fledged exorcist in his own right. But this ability that you see in the first episode, that we also saw in Episode 10 of last year, this sort of ability to take the fight to the demon directly kind of flies in the face of all the established Catholic dogma, in terms of how an exorcism is supposed to work. And Marcus is someone… he’s all about the ritual and repetition and we do things by the book, and Tomas sort of says, “Hey man, I’m a Lamborghini; I’ve gotta run, we’ve gotta go fast, I’ve got this gift, why not use this?” And it’s really going to drive a wedge between them. This season one of the big, important emotional themes is the brotherhood between these two guys, and I think you’re going to see this issue specifically create a real wedge between them as the series progresses.
Season 2 of “The Exorcist” premieres Friday, September 29, on Fox.
“The Exorcist” Episode 2.01 – “Janus” (airs 9/29/17) – Season Premiere
In the Season 2 premiere, Father Tomas continues his training to become an exorcist under the watchful eye of his partner, Marcus Keane. Their travels lead them to a troubled young woman in rural Montana, where their investigation puts them in the crosshairs of her extended family. In other events, the State sends a social worker to determine whether Andy Kim’s group home for at-risk foster children should be closed.