Home TVInterviews Interview: Helstrom’s Elizabeth Marvel

Interview: Helstrom’s Elizabeth Marvel

by Charles Trapunski

In things that I thought I wouldn’t open an introduction by saying, I am thrilled to confirm that Elizabeth Marvel is in fact not a Demon. However, she plays a Demon to a T on the series Helstrom. In fact, in pretty much every single television series or movie in which she has appeared, especially recently, you know that Elizabeth Marvel is excellent in it: The Land of Steady Habits, Homeland, The Meyerowitz Stories, UnbelievableManifest, House of Cards…it’s a murderer’s row and will continue with Helstrom as well as a part in Paul Greengrass’ News of The World. But her Demon / Victoria Helstrom is a real tour de force and it’s a really fascinating character study.

We were delighted to speak with Elizabeth Marvel on the phone recently and the following is a condensed and edited version of the not very Demonic chat.

Brief Take: What has it been like promoting Helstrom at this particular time?

Elizabeth Marvel: What I love with this platform, when doing this kind of material, the Marvel Universe, the comic book universe, is that it gives us access to an audience of people that may be voting for the first time, just beginning to engage with the democratic system. And we have the platform with which to encourage people to engage with that system and to help remind them to exercise their privilege and their power to vote.

BT: I read that politics and watching politics on television caused your raspy voice. Does this mean that politics was an inspiration for the series in this way?

EM: [laughs] One hundred per cent, yes. The state of our political universe right now definitely inspired the demon voice that I came up with. [laughs] Because it was the result of sitting and watching the news by myself, in Canada (Vancouver), because my family is here in New York and screaming into a pillow and feeling very frustrated.

BT: What was it like to film in Vancouver and take advantage of the landscape?

EM: I really love Vancouver. I’ve had the good fortune to work in a lot of Canada. I’ve worked in Stratford (for the Stratford Festival), I’ve worked in Toronto, I’ve worked in Montreal, I’ve worked in Vancouver, I’ve been time travelling through Nova Scotia (in Hyde Park on Hudson), I’ve worked in Calgary, so…I love Canada. [laughs] I love Vancouver. I fell in love with it and my family came out and stayed with me for a little while and they really loved it too. It’s such a special place, it’s a very haunted place. It’s a unique place, but it’s so beautiful there. Walking in a city in which you can see bald eagles in the trees is kind of remarkable. [laughs]

BT: How did you balance the lightness of the set with the heavier material?

EM: Often, in my experience as an actor, when I have to dive deep or go into a very dark territory, when I come out of it, I’m in such a good mood [laughs] because I’ve been able to deposit all of my darker feelings into the work. I feel so light and happy when I’m not doing that. It was just a really lovely cast. The people, everyone on the show, it was a very nice group of people but also very hard working group of people, there was no resentments that developed and no one got frustrated that someone wasn’t showing up to do the work. Everyone really showed up to work hard. That’s always a pleasure. That makes everybody feel respected, you know?

BT: The show’s creator, Paul Zbyszewski, seems supportive as well. What did you enjoy about working with him?

EM: I appreciated Paul’s ambition and thoughtfulness around what he was trying to make with the show. It wasn’t a cookie cutter superhero story, he was really interested in exploring the themes of family trauma, of generational trauma and how that plays out. Having these powers and these experiences emerge from a domestic family situation, which could fit into a place in which everyone would relate, but also something that was truly terrifying just on the human level, because sometimes when children see their own parents suffering trauma, breaking apart, breaking down, that is the most terrifying, that is probably more terrifying than any monster under the bed. And beginning there and building out into the supernatural from that place, I think is very powerful.

BT: What was it like to be able to play both sides, the Demonic and non-Demonic Victoria Helstrom?

EM: Just such a treat, it’s such a pleasure! It’s sort of like getting to play Peter Pan and Captain Hook. [laughs] And as a woman, you rarely get to asked to play Captain Hook and it’s just wildly fun. It’s so much fun playing an all powerful demon. It’s great!

BT: You’re extremely transformative in your work. How deep do you go in your roles such as this one?

EM: You know…it’s all pretend, right? When you were little and you were playing War, you were playing Cops and Robbers or you were playing the King of the Castle. And sure, you were incredibly engaged and dedicated and really involved in pretending you were the King or the Robber and gave it your all. It’s very similar to what I do, I’m just in the business of pretending. [chuckles]

BT: You probably call back to what you learned in the theatre as well?

EM: Oh, a lot. Everything I do is based in my training, which is from Juilliard, which was all theatre training, and then working with great theatre artists like Ivo van Hove, JoAnne Akalaitis and Mark Wing-Davey, so many great, great directors, that taught me about space and my body in space and how powerful stillness is and so much of what I do is based on what I learned on stage.

BT: You work with extremely interesting people on this show. Do you play off the energy of your scene partners?

EM: A hundred per cent. My scene partner is my target, so all of my energy is going to them. They are absolutely fundamental and necessary for me. And this was a wonderful group that way. As I said earlier, it was a very hard-working, experienced group of people that were very tame, that were not precious about anything or difficult, so it made the work really easy and joyful.

BT: How does it feel for you to be Elizabeth Marvel within the Marvel Universe?

EM: Awesome, I must say, in my Universe, my little personal Marvel Universe. [laughs] It’s awesome because I have a son who is very dedicated to that world, he loves comics and he has for his entire life. And he is really into it and that is a great privilege and pleasure to be able to share that with him. It’s very cool to have this connection and to have him enjoy it as much. I’ve had my fingers crossed for a Marvel or a Star Wars experience for a few years now so I’m really happy that this happened!

BT: How has this time been treating you as a performer and as a person?

EM: As a performer, it’s amazing to be given the gift of time. For all of us, I’m sure that you’re in the same boat, there’s never any time! We’re always running to get to work, get the groceries, cook the food, clean the house. It’s a never ending hamster wheel. To suddenly have time with my family, because for a lot of the work that I do, I often have to be away. To be consistently with my family for meals every night and for breakfast every morning is a luxury that we’ve never experienced. We’re incredibly fortunate to be in good health and have a roof over our heads, we are grateful and really fortunate.

BT: What have been some of your quaranstreams?

EM: We watch a lot of British comedy, like Inside No. 9, The League of Gentlemen, a lot of weird British humour. [laughs] We’re big Monty Python fans. Weird humour is what we are drawn towards. We also watch a lot of horror, we love horror movies. [chuckles] We have weird viewing habits. We don’t watch a ton of television but when we do, that is what we tend to watch.

BT: This show is ideal for Halloween. Do you have a best memory from a past Halloween?

EM: Gosh, in our household, Halloween is huge. We start working on our costumes…mmm, probably end of September, we begin to plan. And our neighbourhood in Brooklyn is a very serious Halloween neighbourhood, too. All the funeral homes, like [chuckles] fill coffins with candy and [laughs] dress up. It’s great, so it’s hard to pick a favourite. It’s really an annual celebration. We love Halloween.

BT: This series goes into a number of fascinating themes, the nature of trauma and evil and demonic possession especially. Which do you tend to believe in real life?

EM: Well, evil is real. It manifests in the world. I don’t really know what to say about demonic possession. I do feel that people can become obsessed, though, and possessive. It can often feel like one is dealing with a demonic possession. That is a technique that I used in the work on this show. Like a person who had been taken over by an addiction to gambling or drugs and alcohol and they are completely single-minded and gone. They are someone else. What has replaced them is very dark and dangerous. Then the true soul of that person comes to the surface every once in a while and you remember who they are. While they are engaged with that thing, with that Demon, they are gone.

BT: I had the opportunity to see All the Little Things We Kill, which was an underseen but great movie and also touches on important themes. What was that one like for you?

EM: I loved that film. I think that this film was a smart film. I think that the screenplay of that film is fantastic. I hope that it finds a release. It was made on five dollars, so… [laughs] But we worked hard on that movie! We shot that fast.

BT: What leads you from one role to the next?

EM: I think that something I haven’t been asked to do before. I love learning. I love trying things that I haven’t done. It is usually about who is involved. It is about working with smart people, people who ‘get it’.

BT: Do you have performers or directors for whom you immediately sign up to their projects?

EM: Sure. Absolutely, yeah. I just did a movie, I did Paul Greengrass’ new movie (News of the World) and I’ll do anything he wants me to. I’ve had the good fortune to work with the Coens a few times, (Burn After Reading and True Grit) and I will do anything that they want me to do. I had the good fortune to work with a lot of awesome people. Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories), I’ll do anything he wants me to do. Nicole Holofcener (The Land of Steady Habits), I’ll do anything she wants me to do. [laughs] I’ve really gotten to work with some awesome, awesome directors, that’s usually my great pleasure. I definitely focus more on who is the director rather than on who is the performers. My primary engagement in my work is with my director and my DP if I’m going to do something. If there is a director and a DP that I want to work with, that’s very exciting to me.

BT: Do you think part of being a good actor is being a good teammate and setting the tone for everyone on set? 

EM: Absolutely! Absolutely. All of the best people with whom I have worked are very interested in the temperament of the people in the workplace because it makes such a difference. It makes such a difference if you’re going to have a good time together and get the work done in a timely fashion. Or you’re going to have to wait for someone to finish playing their Nintendo in their trailer for two hours. [laughs]

BT: Do you think that if the election turns out a certain way that you will slip right back into that voice and freak out a little bit?

EM: Please, then I will be heading to Canada and talking like a demon! That’s right.

Helstrom is now streaming on Hulu

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Brief Take