Interview with Jason Ralph on The Magicians
A dissection of his character, Quentin Coldwater, “finger-tutting”, and what could happen to the series when the trilogy is complete.
Interview by Abbie Bernstein
Based on Lev Grossman’s trilogy of fantasy novels, THE MAGICIANS is now in its second season on Syfy, Wednesday nights. In THE MAGICIANS, Quentin Coldwater, played by Jason Ralph, is accepted into Brakebills University. Brakebills is a college for the magically adept – there are people who can grow trees in seconds, people who can stop time, people who can travel through dimensions and worlds.
Quentin is surprised to find that Fillory, the enchanted land he loved to read about from childhood on, is a real place. Indeed, it is the source of all magic, though it’s not quite as innocent as it seemed in the books. Quentin and his friends have just been made kings and queens of Fillory – Quentin has been dubbed “King Quentin, the Moderately Socially Maladjusted” – and they’ve got to do something about the Beast, who has been draining magic from the land. One problem is that Quentin’s lifelong best friend Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve) has joined forces with the Beast to take down a god.
Brakebills is a college for the magically adept – there are people who can grow trees in seconds, people who can stop time, people who can travel through dimensions and worlds.
Ralph, a native of McKinney, Texas, has previously had arcs on GOSSIP GIRL, MADAM SECRETARY, MANHATTAN and AQUARIUS (created by John McNamara, who adapted THE MAGICIANS for television with Sera Gamble). Ralph’s feature credits include BRIGHTEST STAR and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR.
It’s a rare rainy night in Southern California, where people forget how to drive the moment moisture appears on the roads. Even so, Ralph and a Syfy publicist brave the traffic to meet up with a trio of journalists in a bar at Pasadena’s Langham Huntington Hotel, where the winter Television Critics Association press tour has been in full swing for almost two weeks.
With candles on the wooden tables brightening the dark space, the bar could almost be a tavern in Fillory.
Speaking of that realm, it’s where the main characters were at the end of Season 1. Things looked pretty dire for Quentin and company, as the Beast had apparently killed all of them. (We find out in the season premiere that Alice, played by Olivia Taylor Dudley, having temporarily gotten some power from another god, was able to resurrect everybody.)
Did Ralph have a moment of fear in reading the Season 1, finale script?
Not really, Ralph explains. “A lot of this stuff is plotted out, because it’s from the books. So we all read the books and are all really big fans of it, so a lot of the fun surprise is, how are we going to these big events? And I guess what was the best about that [is] how we’re getting to these certain things. That moment coming in the scripts was exciting, because the realization that we were going to spread out the final battle from Book 1 – I don’t know if you guys are book readers, if you know what I’m talking about, but the battle that happens at the end of Season 1 is one big, huge battle in the books. It’s the end of the book. We got to stretch it out over several episodes, over at least half a season. Which was kind of exciting, to know that we had the time to really excavate all of that juice.”
“Even this villain [The Beast], our Big Bad, we find out isn’t just operating from a place of moustache-twirling. He is a person who had a really traumatic childhood experience and fled to a land where he felt safe.”
As far as the themes of Season 2, Ralph says,
“They become kings and queens, but at that point, [Quentin is] kind of over the idea of it [Fillory], the enchantment of the experience or what he thought it would be has begun to fade, because the thing that he loved and had been hoping for, for forever, has turned against him. For me, the reason that he wants those things, and why he’s fleeing the reality of real life, is because reality gives you no black and white. There’s no right and wrong, and there’s no good and evil. Everything is gray. And for someone I think with a personality like his, that is frustrating and overwhelming, and why he is drawn to fantasy, and this particular fantasy novel, FILLORY FURTHER, because it is so simple, and the principles are rooted in the land. There is good and there is bad, and there are heroes and there are villains. And he gets there and finds out that the land of fantasy is just as, if not more, gray than reality.
“Even this villain, our Big Bad, we find out isn’t just operating from a place of moustache-twirling. He is a person who had a really traumatic childhood experience and fled to a land where he felt safe. And the reason he became the person he did is because he was being pushed out of his safe place. And all he’s trying to do is hold on for dear life, so he doesn’t have to face his fears. And that is like, well, then, how is that man the bad guy? And so there’s a real moral dilemma. And even facing, even trying to take down the bad guy, the ramifications of his actions are real, and are bad for a lot of people around him, but still, it’s complicated, and that’s frustrating. And so the journey is about having to let go of what he hoped these places would be, and accept the reality of them. Long-winded answer here.”
Still, letting the Beast run rampant might destroy the world, Ralph points out. “[The Beast] is draining the magic on Fillory, which turns out is the source of magic everywhere. So if magic dies on Fillory, it dies on Earth, and it dies everywhere. What does that mean? Like, are airplanes magic? Was a wizard the man who is Boeing? Was he a wizard? We talk about all these famous inventors who were actually using magic to further humanity along. So if magic disappears, are airplanes just going to start dropping out of the sky? What’s going to happen? All these things that we take for granted – that as Muggles, we have no idea what’s holding all of it together. So there’s real consequence there, is what I mean to say.”
“So in shooting the pilot, as the actors, we didn’t have any idea of how that was going to be represented. And it turned out that there was this really exciting break-dance hitting the scene, which is called finger-tutting, which is like break-dancing with your fingers.”
The mages in THE MAGICIANS often work their spells by means of complicated hand and finger gestures. Ralph describes the learning process for the actors. At the beginning of the series,
“They weren’t sure what it was going to be. Lev Grossman describes the magic being done by intricate finger positions. For the characters in the book series, the learning of that was like learning piano. At first, you can’t reach that key, but it’s about stretching and the constant practice. And so eventually, people just had crazy, weird hands, and you’d be able to walk down the street, and you’d know a magician, because you could see his hands. They’re strong and dexterous.
“So in shooting the pilot, as the actors, we didn’t have any idea of how that was going to be represented. And it turned out that there was this really exciting break-dance hitting the scene, which is called finger-tutting, which is like break-dancing with your fingers. And so we took that idea and took the lyricism out of it and made it a little bit more practical, and so that’s where the tutting came from. We have a choreographer who is a break-dancer, who choreographs all these intricate movements, and puts them online, and we watch videos, and we’ll practice them. And then we’ll come to set, and he’ll tailor it slightly. We all have different fingers. I have these big sausage fingers,” Ralph laughs, gesturing, “and so they don’t do the things that I often hope they would, but the camera is also there to help. And so much of the magic on the show, as opposed to being how it’s done is, about its intention. And so it’s easier to get away with maybe not being the best tutter.”
“The relationship evolves through the season, and it becomes something entirely new, and they learn a tremendous amount about each other in a way that is entirely unexpected and utterly fantastical.”
Quentin and Alice have had a very rocky romance. When they first got together, they had transformed into foxes. Since then, both have had sex with other people and been upset with themselves and each other about it. Currently, they seem to be a couple again, but it’s early in the season.
“The Alice and Quentin relationship is complicated,” Ralph confirms. “They’ve both hurt each other, and the relationship is in a place of turmoil, and because of circumstances, they are really not allowed to confront that together. They don’t have the luxury to sit down and have the important conversations that they have to have, because they’re stuck in a life and death scenario, where they must plan and then attack. So the beginning of this season is kind of about that. In different moments, each of them wanting to reach out, and the other person isn’t quite ready or in the position to do that, or it’s just not the f*****g time. The relationship evolves through the season, and it becomes something entirely new, and they learn a tremendous amount about each other in a way that is entirely unexpected and utterly fantastical.”
How does Quentin feel about Julia leaving him and her friends to team up with The Beast in her quest for revenge?
“This is the same kind of thing – or no, it’s not that, but it’s this idea of black and white,” Ralph replies. “You’re not allowed to just be mad at anyone. There are these two warring nations – there’s Team Julia, there’s Team Brakebills – who are after the same goal of killing The Beast and saving magic. The way they want to do that, and the way that they have plotted the other things they need along the way to get that done are very different. And Quentin is kind of stuck in the middle, having fully understood why Julia made the choices that she made, and understands why she must do what she’s doing, but if he could just get the two parties to communicate with each other, so much more could be accomplished so much quicker. That’s kind of the struggle there. But no, he can’t just be mad at her, because he’s a human being.”
Without giving away spoilers, what can Ralph say about Quentin’s journey this season?
“Last season was about firsts – first time of so many things, so many experiences. Everything was brand-new and a little bit glossy. And this season, we take the time to really wallow and thoroughly explore grief and sacrifice and letting go. So if last season was about Quentin adding things to his personality, saying, ‘This will make me more the person who I think I am,’ this season is about him seeing the things that he’s added, and that they have actually not been of any help at all, and it’s about him stripping away to become, maybe not a better person, but a more clear version of him.”
“Life is not about fate, life is not about luck, life is about the work you’re willing to put in to get what you want, and the sacrifices you’re willing to make to get there.”
This is not the hero’s journey, Ralph emphasizes.
“The point is that there isn’t one. And that’s the lesson to learn. Life is not about fate, life is not about luck, life is about the work you’re willing to put in to get what you want, and the sacrifices you’re willing to make to get there. And that is the lesson that he’s learning, and that’s the lesson that rang true to me in reading the books, and part of why I was interested in telling this story.
“I have thought about it as sort of an art school analogy. But more from the perspective of, when you’re in school, you have a purpose, and every day is set, and you have very specific goals, and you’re training for something great, you know your life is going to lead to something great. And you expect the world to be waiting for you when you finish. And then you graduate, and it’s not. No one’s waiting for you. And so you have to decide how you’re going to struggle through and make your own path.”
As for Quentin’s friends, Ralph observes,
“The characters are becoming the people that they said they wanted to be, and are coming to terms with that, and having to face the consequences of saying, ‘No, I don’t want to be the party person any more. I want to be a part of the team. Well, now, what does it mean to be a part of the team? What are the sacrifices that I have to make to uphold that promise?’ It’s a lot of growing up.
Asked about favorite moments, Ralph responds,
“Well, one of my favorite moments will happen this season.” Of course, he adds with a laugh, he cannot provide details. “For people who are fans of the books, there’s a line that we didn’t get to say, but they’ll know where we’re going. Alice wakes up and says, ‘Quentin, you changed your hair.’ That’s one of my favorite lines from the series. But it’s because of its context.”
THE MAGICIANS is based on three books. If Syfy wants more, can the TV series extend past the end of the trilogy? Ralph thinks that over.
“I mean, it can. Should it? I don’t know. I don’t know if you’ve read the books, but it doesn’t wrap everything in a nice bow. There are other adventures that could happen. But a lot of the major events have been hit. We’re jumping all over the place. So I don’t know when we could ever honestly determine we’ve burned through it all. We’re hitting major points in the books, but there’s a lot of stuff that we haven’t even touched. So there is a lot more to do.”
What would Ralph most like people to know about THE MAGICIANS Season 2?
“If you liked Season 1, Season 2 is more exciting, and also gives you an opportunity to experience more of all three of these worlds that we are part of – Brakebills and New York and Fillory – and to understand how they interact with each other, and how they bump into each other, and how they influence each other’s survival.”
By Abbie Bernstein