The Magicians has been a huge hit for SyFy, already earning a second-season renewal. What’s so magical about the show? And what’s it like to be on a series that gets so quickly picked up? LA Fan Cultures Examiner conducted an interview with series star Arjun Gupta, who plays Penny, to find out a few clues about the spell The Magicians has cast on audiences.
“We were all cautiously confident, let’s put it that way,” Arjun said of finding out the show had been renewed. “There’s always noise that surrounds these things, whether it’s getting a [series] pick-up or you got that job. So I’ve just learned from my experience to ignore the noise until there’s something final and confirmed. [Renewal day] was really great – it was the day I allowed myself to celebrate and be like, ‘Awesome.’ We get to come back and live in these worlds again and I get to play him again. It’s exciting.”
There are parallels that have been drawn between the magic-filled school of The Magicians (which is based on the Lev Grossman novel of the same name) and J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular Harry Potter series, but he doesn’t necessarily believe those comparisons to be detrimental. “I don’t need to separate it that much, only because I think there’s a lineage that we’re coming from,” he explained. “I think there’s the lineage of Harry Potter and we are the next step in that. We are the grown-up version set in a very real world.
“What I mean by that is that Narnia and Harry Potter were very black and white. There’s good and evil. There were nuances in puberty that they were dealing with, but the world was good and there was evil,” he continued. “Our world is not that black and white. It’s very nuanced. We’re living in the grey a lot. You’re finding this group of people that are trying to navigate those shades of grey as they discover who they are. There’s so much going on and it’s incredibly true to this day and time that we live in now.”
What made the character of Penny, the roommate and somewhat of a foil to protagonist Quentin (Jason Ralph), appeal to Arjun in the first place? It wasn’t the ability to have magical powers.
“There’s so many things that were exciting for me,” he said. “One was, I had worked with [co-creator] Sera [Gamble] before and so I was excited to get to work with her again. I have a lot of respect for her; I think she’s incredibly talented and she’s a great writer. That was one thing.
“Two, I read the script and said this is taking a risk. This feels like something I hadn’t read,” he added. “Reading so many scripts and reading so many TV shows, whether it was in pilot season or just throughout the year, you get a sense of okay this is that again or this again, and when I read this I was like whoa, this is different. Then with Penny – Penny is a stretch, a challenging character for me as an actor and an artist. I was excited to take that challenge on and try to honor it.”
“I feel what’s really lucky for me as Penny is that you get a understanding of Penny through the books and there’s a lot to glean from him from the books,” Arjun continued, “but there’s so much that’s left off the page that happens when we’re not reading. We get to, in the show, really describe and explore what happens to Penny when he’s gone from the story for six months and comes back. We get to explore that stuff, but we honor the stories.”
Those who have read The Magicians or any of Grossman’s further novels know that Penny in particular goes through a lot of physical and emotional challenges, so it’s no surprise that in the series there’s no shortage of adventure in front of him and his classmates. “I think it’s so fun,” Arjun enthused when we asked him what stands out from the first season so far.
“I think every episode is so exciting and each episode is quite different,” he added. “It’s not just the same formula every episode. These guys are going through stories in every episode where we’re dealing with a different circumstance. It’s such a rollercoaster that I can’t highlight just one or two episodes.”
The series is right up Arjun’s alley thematically as well. “I love reading fantasy,” he told us. “I’m a huge fan of Harry Potter, I’ve read Narnia, I’ve read Lord of the Rings. I relate to fantasy in some ways, but I’m a huge fan of the genre. I’ve never gotten to do something like this; this is my first time getting to be acting in the genre. From that standpoint I’m really excited…Every episode isn’t about the magic; it’s about the people as they experience the magic.”
“I’m very fortunate that I’ve gotten to play a lot of different characters from Sam on Nurse Jackie to Kan on How to Get Away with Murder,” Arjun reflected, “but actually there’s a film out that me and my friends made and we did it super guerrilla-style, super indie-style in LA two years ago, it’s now on Netflix, called French Dirty. It’s such a different character. I play a very rambunctious, boisterous guy named Steve.”
He’s also busy off-camera, involved in both the Los Angeles-based Ammunition Theatre Company and a podcast. “I have a strong belief in artist service and we are a group of people that are merging our art with activism, and the form of creative activism really excites me,” he explained. “My other project that I’m really excited about is a podcast that I host with one of my close friends.
“We have conversations with people exploring identity and exploring these things that are quite universal but through a specific South Asian lens in an effort to open space to talk about this,” he continued. “I think too often of minorities are regulated to having only a few images as to who they are, and I think it’s super-important to keep fighting them, because humanity is quite complex and we as people are incredibly expansive.”
You can find out more about Arjun’s theatrical ventures at the Ammunition Theatre Company website, while The Magicians airs Mondays on SyFy.