Talk about sympathy for the devil. The second episode of NOS4A2‘s second season, titled “Good Father,” was brutal, horrifying, and by turns tragic, as the psychotic killer and child-kidnapper Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto) came back to life, regained his youth and headed off on the trail of Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings). But perhaps more thrilling for fans, we finally got a glimpse of Manx’s backstory, as the series flashed back nearly a century to show what Manx’s life was like before he bought his killer car, The Wraith.
“Charlie in episode two is back from the dead and ready to party,” joked EP and NOS4A2 creator Joe Hill to Decider. “His desiccated, sliced open corpse makes its escape from the hospital. And I think that episode’s a real charge, and you do get to see what Charlie comes from.”
While in the present Manx is brought back to life thanks to his monstrous helper Bing Partridge (Ólafur Darri Ólafsso) replacing the engine in The Wraith and capturing a young boy for Manx to suck the life from, in the past he’s a simple chauffeur in love with his boss’ daughter. He’s got big plans, too, to start the first local high-end taxi service. Unfortunately, it’s a bad plan; and instead he ends up angry and destitute with his increasingly distraught wife and constantly loyal child.
“Like Vic in episode one, we try to dig into Manx a little bit so that we understand where he’s coming from and the choices that he makes,” added showrunner Jami O’Brien, “even though there’s an argument to be made that even the choices that he makes in that backstory are not coming from the same kind of place of enlightenment that we would maybe like.”
A good chunk of that backstory was laid down in Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland a companion comic book series to Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 novel co-created with artist Charles Paul Wilson III. There’s more to come from that book on the TV series, but the gist is that Manx was already a little off by the time he got The Wraith — though his first victims, the first people he took to the deadly theme park known as Christmasland, were his wife and daughter.
“We get a look finally at what his starting point was in an episode, and I think it’s really scary,” Hill continued. “My favorite thing, though, about the second episode isn’t necessarily delving into his past. My favorite thing is at one point, Charlie finds himself behind the wheel of a vintage ’80s Trans Am. And I love that because it’s the tip of the hat to the great secret of NOS4A2, which is basically Charlie Manx is evil Michael Knight.”
All (potential) joking about K.I.T.T. aside, Decider talked to star Zachary Quinto to find out more about the episode, as well as Manx’s arc in the season, filming in both the past and the present, and why you’ll be seeing a little less of Old Man Manx this year.
Decider: Playing a villain like Charlie Manx for one season is one thing, but what was it like returning to his head for season two?
Zachary Quinto: The stakes are a lot higher in a way in season two. Because we’ve already established the conflict, right? And the central nemeses being Charlie and Vic. And so we got to dispatch with all of the exposition and get right into who these people are, where they are. The circumstances have obviously changed, it’s eight years later, they’ve both had kind of a rough go of it, and revenge is the theme of the season for Charlie and that starts right off the bat. … For me, it was really, the second season went so much faster than the first season for me.
And it just felt really familiar. We all showed up and hit the ground running. There wasn’t a lot of figuring things out. First season was a lot of figuring things out, make up and what’s it going to look like? And what’s my voice going to be like, and what’s… There were all these decisions that had to be made that started months and months before we even started shooting. With season two, we had all the answers to those questions that we didn’t have to spend any time focusing on, that we could just get into the work right away. And that was really fun.
Clearly he’s the sort of bad guy who doesn’t think he’s a bad guy… We get to see a little bit of his backstory as the season goes on, but how do you get into that headspace still thinking, “I’m doing the right thing,” while you’re, say, hitting your castmates with a hammer and whatnot?
[Laughs] I think the motivation of any [character] has to be traced to the origin of their psyche, right? And with Charlie Manx, we get to see this in season two, which is I think another really exciting aspect of the season for fans. My job as an actor is always to understand the characters that I’m playing, and to, in some way, be able to love them.
I know that sounds crazy when you’re talking about this psychopath who’s willing to steal children and basically drain them of their souls, but you then have to understand that Manx was the child once too, and was innocent and was helpless and was neglected and abused and traumatized by people in his life in a way that created this psychological infrastructure that he tried desperately to get out from under the weight of, and simply wasn’t able to. So it’s my job to have compassion for that and to try to approach it from that standpoint. And this season, we share that with the audience. In some weird and twisted way, the audience might actually develop some sense of compassion for Manx as well.
We’ll get to the second episode in a second, but you stay pretty much regular-age Zachary Quinto for a good chunk of the season… Was that just a nice happenstance of the story? Or did you feel like you wanted to calm down on the back and forth makeup this season?
Yep. Sure felt like I wanted to calm down on the back and forth makeup this season! No, I mean, it was a combination of the two, I would say. I had a conversation with Jami O’Brien, our showrunner, who I adore, and we collaborated really well together throughout the course of these two seasons. And then I said, “Look, the trope of Manx aging and getting young…” We had a meeting, she invited all the actors into the writer’s room as they were starting to write Season 2, which in and of itself is just a classic thing to do, to have conversations with the writers and get to know the people that are responsible for telling the stories in this season, the new people.
And so in that meeting, I said, “Look, we’ve established that Manx gets old if he doesn’t have a soul to drain and a kid to take to Christmasland. So we don’t need to…” Again, it’s about what you need to spend time for the integrity of the story, familiarizing the audience with. And I didn’t necessarily see that there was as much of a need in Season 2 to establish that. It’s already been well established.
On one hand there was the practical element of it, which is the unique challenge of having to go through that much hair and makeup on a regular basis. But I also felt like from a story point, it was just more interesting for us to see Manx laid more bare, not behind all of the walls of silicate and make up. So for a lot of the middle of the season, and he starts, obviously, in the most extreme look ends the season, but in the middle, it was a nice sort of respite from that. And a nice opportunity to kind of just tell the story with Manx as human as he can be.
The bones of episode two were laid out in Joe Hill and Charles Paul Wilson III’s The Wraith comic, but what was it finally like exploring this backstory, going to this past time period and working with almost entirely a new cast?
Well, that was all stuff that I was really conscious of in the first season, right? As I was saying before, the psychology of Manx and what makes him, the way he is, the way he is. So for me, the great joy in that was really being able to share it with the audience and give this other picture, for people that haven’t read The Wraith, of what made Manx.
He was such a poor unfortunate, there was a weakness about him that he was never able to escape and he was never able to outrun. And everybody in his life, even the people that he thought he could rely on or look to for reassurance or for support, really were just horrible to him, starting with his mother, which is another part of the story that you’ll get to see later in the season, which is also really exciting for audience members to be able to have that context.
So in episode two, you really get a frame of reference for how people in Manx’s adult life were so horrible to him. And then later in the season, you’ll get a little bit of a glimpse of how people in his younger life were unfathomably reprehensible to him, and then things add up, right? He had nowhere to go. And then this car who has a spirit of its own picked up on that and exploited that. In a way, the car represents a kind of manipulation and ruthlessness that Manx would then embody once he becomes inexorably tied with it. So that was quite fun. And Celeste [Arias] and Victor [Slezak] and the other actors — we really see Mattea [Conforti] who plays Millie Manx, all those actors were great to welcome into this story and to have around the season. So I’m so grateful to them. And yeah, all around I would say it was a fun and unique episode.
On the other end of the spectrum, you do spend a good part of the episode stumbling around in a truck stop bleeding out in old age makeup.
What was it like filming those scenes?
That was definitely brutal. I mean, that was extreme. That was the extreme look. So I would start my mornings, I remember I had one morning that I had to be at work at like 2:45 in the morning, it was a very long makeup sessions and then long days. And it was still September when we were shooting that in Rhode Island. So it was still really hot… But the crew on this show was just so tireless and so fully committed to telling these stories and never once complained.
And I feel like it’s my responsibility to set a tone of commitment and showing up and just… It’s not always easy, but that is our job and we’re there to do it. The work itself was quite fun in that episode, finding his power again and desperately going after his ultimate goals was really fun.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. NOS4A2 airs Sundays at 10/9c on AMC.
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