Christmas is a time of joy, togetherness and goodwill toward family, friends and one’s fellow man. Except, that is, in NOS4A2, AMC’s new series based on the novel by Joe Hill (Stephen King’s son), when twinkling lights, seasonal songs and beautifully wrapped presents herald the coming of a soul-sucking specter named Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), who kidnaps young children and drains them of their life force while spiriting them—in his classic 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith—to a demented locale in his own imagination: Christmasland.
Asked ahead of the show’s Sunday, June 2 premiere what it was like to warp everyone’s favorite holiday into a vehicle for sinister evil, showrunner Jami O’Brien laughs before pointing the finger elsewhere. “I feel like I can blame Joe Hill for that. It’s 100 percent in the source material, this perversion of Christmas joy.”
The trick to making Christmas malevolent, she continues, is context. “One of the first things Joe said to me was that there’s nothing scarier than a candy cane in July. I really held onto that as a way to think about Christmas and the horror elements in the show. Hearing Christmas music in December can be jolly and delightful. But if you hear it in the middle of a summer night, that’s a different experience entirely—and probably one that would alarm you.”
Even more disquieting than a mid-July rendition of “Jingle Bells” is Manx himself, a vampiric fiend (hence the show’s “Nosferatu” title, taken from his Wraith vanity plate) who’s spent the past two centuries feeding on kids that he believes he’s saving from abusive parents by making them permanent residents of his Yuletide amusement-park wonderland. “We thought a lot about what Christmasland looks like. This is a place in Charlie Manx’s imagination. It’s the reflection of what he thinks Christmas should look like. And it’s also a place where the kids that he brings will be happy all the time.
The twist is that these kids have had their souls drained, so it might be a little different than the Christmasland they would have had fun in before they had a ride in the Wraith.”
NOS4A2 is the story of Charlie Manx’s reign of terror across the United States. Yet more specifically, it’s about his budding conflict with an unlikely adversary: Vic McQueen (Hounds of Love’s Ashleigh Cummings), a Haverhill, Massachusetts 18-year-old struggling with an unhappy home life (thanks to a mom and dad on the brink of separation), insecurity about her working-class circumstances, and blossoming new abilities. As she learns during a fateful motorcycle ride, she’s a “strong creative”—i.e. a unique person with the imaginative ability to bend time and space via the use of a “knife,” which in this case takes the form of a covered bridge (known as the Shorter Way) that lets her travel to wherever she needs to go to recover lost things.
Despite the insanity that NOS4A2 has to offer—including Bing Partridge (Olafur Darri Olafsson), a slow-witted janitor who eventually transforms into Manx’s sevoflurane-wielding henchman The Gas Mask Man—it was the resilient Vic that convinced O’Brien to adapt NOS4A2. “I picked up [Hill’s book] on a Friday and read it over the weekend, and I immediately fell in love with Vic. She’s from Haverhill, Massachusetts, which is right down the street from where I grew up, and I felt like I knew her, I knew the town, I knew the family. I was really excited that a regular kid from Haverhill was going to go on this very exciting adventure, and have a coming-of-age story that culminates with her becoming a heroine.”
Charlie and Vic’s dynamic is the engine that propels NOS4A2 forward, and it benefits from the performances of Quinto and Cummings. “I think he’s fantastic,” says O’Brien about the former, who’s no stranger to small-screen villainy, having previously played serial killer Sylar on NBC’s Heroes. “He’s such a powerful actor, and it didn’t occur to me that he would even be available to do this. My casting director suggested him, and as soon as she did, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, do you think he would do it?’ Because I was such a big fan, I thought that would be amazing, and we’d be so lucky,” she admits. “I’m so glad he signed on, because I can’t imagine anyone else doing it.”
While Quinto is a marquee name, Cummings is a relative newcomer, and O’Brien was quickly impressed with her ability to capture Vic’s tough-yet-damaged personality. “The role is really tricky, because on the one hand, you have to believe that this character is capable of going toe-to-toe with Charlie Manx. And in our show, Charlie Manx is played by Zachary Quinto, who’s a very powerful actor. So she has to have some grit, some toughness, some badass to her.
At the same time, when we meet the character, she’s in high school, and she’s kind of a confused kid,” O’Brien continues. “She has an internalized sense of class inferiority, she doesn’t know what’s going on with her parents—she’s mixed up. She has this tremendous vulnerability to her. Ashleigh was really able to embody both those aspects of the character in a beautiful way, right out of the gate. I think she had three scenes with which to audition, and we just saw it. She has not disappointed us—she’s amazing.”
No matter that Quinto and Cummings are its nominal headliners, NOS4A2 has a third main character—Manx’s Wraith—and the production was fortunate enough to find two original models for the show. “My suspicion is that we own more Wraiths than anybody else in the world!” O’Brien proudly proclaims. “We were really lucky to find one early on in Canada, and we had to do some work to it—it was yellow and black, so we had to paint it black, and rip out the interior and build an interior that would work for us. But it ran. And it still runs pretty well.”
Not that the Wraiths haven’t posed their own practical on-set challenges. “It is an 80-year-old car, and we had to have a mechanic with us constantly,” O’Brien discloses. “We did have problems with it. The first time it broke down while we were shooting, we thought to ourselves, ‘Maybe we should get another one of these.’ Then as luck would have it, one came up for sale in Massachusetts. So we got that one too.” To be on the safe side, NOS4A2 also outfitted a Ford with Wraith parts that can be used for stunts.
Fans will recognize that NOS4A2 tweaks Hill’s story in numerous ways: focusing on Vic as a teenager, rather than across multiple ages; linking Vic to Manx and Bing in initial, novel ways; and expanding the role of Vic’s stuttering friend Maggie (Jahkara Smith), who gets messages about the future from her bag of Scrabble tiles. The biggest change of all, however, is that, whereas Hill’s book is a closed-ended affair, O’Brien’s version aims to be an ongoing series, meaning that its narrative is far more expansive. As with flashbacks to Manx’s origins—“It’s really fun for us to explore what it was like for him before he lost his humanity,” O’Brien says, citing Hill’s Wraith graphic novel as a source of backstory info that she has in reserve for a potential second season—NOS4A2 fleshes out its premise in numerous directions, all while plotting a collision course between Vic and Manx that, inevitably, must culminate at Christmasland.
Or must it? Christmasland is a constant topic of conversation in NOS4A2 but, at least in the first six episodes provided to press, a milieu that’s barely seen. Nonetheless, O’Brien promises that viewers will get a chance to visit Manx’s hideaway sooner rather than later. “We will go to Christmasland in season one—so tune in!” she teases. Nonetheless, she contends that there’s a delicate balance to be struck when handling that signature venue, since its reveal is both something the show is building toward, and yet also not its end point, provided that future seasons materialize.
“It’s an ongoing conversation, because you don’t want to feel like you’re holding it back for no reason. But you also don’t want to just show it for no reason. So when we go to Christmasland, we’re really careful that the character drama is bringing us there, and that we’re not going solely for the eye candy.”
In light of recent fan backlash to the finale of Game of Thrones, NOS4A2’s plan to eventually go off-book poses its own challenges. Yet O’Brien explains that that’s part of the thrill of doing such a show. “Like all great ventures, it’s both terrifying and exciting,” she confesses. “The good news is that the book itself implies where it could go at the end. So we have Joe with us, and we have some jumping off points offered by the book already. I hope we get there; I hope the show does well, I hope AMC likes it, and I hope it stays on the air. I would love to be talking about what happens after page 720.”