As television explores increasingly sophisticated depictions of fantastical worlds — realms of science fiction, fantasy, super-heroics, horror and other imaginative leaps — supporting actors face a unique challenge: how to craft characters that fit seamlessly into left-of-reality narratives while also resonating with relatable human emotions and motivations. And there is no one-size-fits-all formula to do so. Key players in TV’s alternate universes approach their roles from directions as diverse as the landscapes in which they play.
Amid the multi-decade sitcom incarnations and fourth wall-breaking Agatha Harkness reveal in “WandaVision,” Kathryn Hahn decided that her character Agatha herself was playacting.
“Because I had the luxury of knowing who she was, I was able to be an actor on top of Agatha,” she says. “That was freeing for me, because I was able to really play the part of each trope and just have so much fun in any decade.”
But Hahn also wanted to excavate emotion, especially for Agatha’s motivation for toying with Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). “She’s actually quite lonely,” Hahn says of her character.
“She’s been basically living without her coven for centuries, trying to find somebody that is powerful enough, that could possibly be an interesting enough sparring partner. And she finally has found someone.”
Just as Agatha is a part of a greater Marvel Cinematic Universe than just this one Disney Plus limited series, Giancarlo Esposito’s Moff Gideon in “The Mandalorian” had to fit into the larger, rich “Star Wars” mythology. So, his preparation for the role included deep dives into the lore with executive producer Dave Filoni, research on real-world fallen empires and revisiting Peter Cushing’s elegantly imperious performance as Grand Moff Tarkin.
“I wanted Moff Gideon to be smart, sensible, and yet have something behind his eyes that linked him to a deeper spirit in mythology,” Esposito says. “Not just your average bad guy — a guy who has control over things but is not revealing how he knows everything. I wanted him to control the chaos.”
Esposito adds that the costume, which included jodhpurs, a cape and heavy boots, itself “grounded me and had me feeling powerful, like Darth Vader without the helmet.” Meanwhile, piloting a TIE fighter and wielding the Darksaber placed him “in a world that had me be graceful, eloquent and ferocious, but physical as well. Those are kind of the steps I took to really feel like I existed in that world.”
As Asta Twelvetrees in Syfy’s “Resident Alien,” Sara Tomko has to contend with the revelation that the man she thought was the town doctor and a new friend was, in fact, an alien. For the majority of the first season, though, her character doesn’t know this and just thinks his behavior is a bit peculiar.
“Unlike other sci-fi material, this is much more a small-town family drama,” she says. “It was more, ‘Oh, here’s this woman who lives in this small town and she’s got a lot of feelings about a lot of things. Now she’s got to figure out how to manage this new guy, who’s really weird.’”
Tomko leaned into human self-absorption for the role: “If you’re thinking about yourself, which you mostly are almost all the time, then you have no idea what’s happening in front of you. While there’s so many people witnessing Harry being so bizarre, nobody actually thinks, ‘Oh, he must be an alien.’”
This method easily applied to the scene in which Asta learns the truth as well. “It became, ‘I’m having a lucid dream. Is this really happening? Oh, God, you’re bleeding — I know how to take care of people. I don’t know what’s going on, but at least I can get that wound in a proper shape,’” she says.
Viewing America’s Black experience through a horror lens offered “Lovecraft Country’s” Wunmi Mosaku opportunities to truly plumb the psyche of her character. She needed to understand the motivation for Ruby’s transformation into a white woman and the physical and emotional pain that ensued in the HBO drama.
“Because she felt so close to me in so many ways, the supernatural side of it was shocking because I had never seen anything like it,” Mosaku says. “But it explored more of humanity. It actually makes you feel more real, because you’re not hiding things. You’re not stowing something away deep down in the dark pits of her, because it’s too painful. You actually explore it all.”
Blending such supernatural menaces as shoggoths with everyday threats, including being pulled over by the police, enhanced the visceral dread.
“Now your heart is pounding in tandem about two different things. Fear is personified,” Mosaku says.
While not fully fantasy, NBC’s “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” has its own unique rules: its heroine hears those around her break out into “heart songs.”
“Everybody has their own mask,” says Alex Newell, who plays Mo. “Most times when you ask a person if they’re OK, they’re going to say yes, even if they’re not. [But] your heart will say everything that it needs to say, whether you want it to or not. And I love that we can be so honest in these songs, whether good, bad or ugly.”
When Newell performs such songs, “it’s about feeling the song,” the actor says. “Having to internalize all of the lyrics in all of the songs, and the mood and the tone and what the lyrics are saying, and why the writer chose that song for that specific moment.”
Feeling a connection to their role and the material certainly helps all of these actors get into their characters.
For Carl Lumbly, whose “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” character Isaiah Bradley has a tragic superhuman backstory, recognizing the metaphoric quality in its roots was key. (The super-soldier was created in an experiment inspired by the Tuskagee study.)
“There’s the wealth of superpowers that we possess as human beings that are sometimes amplified in these stories — the compassion, the ability to change your mind, to realize that you’re on the wrong track and that there’s a chance for redemption if you take certain actions,” Lumbly says. “What grounds you in your own life is the same material that grounds you in the world of the fantastic. The challenges of a fantastic world are no more than the challenges of the world in which we live.”