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David Duchovny, Gethin Anthony, and Claire Holt on TV’s Age of AQUARIUS

The twisted tale of homicidal cult leader Charles Manson is one of the most famous true crime stories of the twentieth century, having been told in a variety of media. Its latest iteration can be found in TV’s Aquarius, airing Thursdays at 9/8c on NBC. A thriller set in the Los Angeles of 1967, the series stars David Duchovny as Detective Sam Hodiak, who finds his path crossed with that of Manson, played by Gethin Anthony (best known as Renly Baratheon on Game of Thrones). We recently heard from Duchovny and Anthony, as well as co-stars Claire Holt (The Vampire Diaries, The Originals) and Emma Dumont (Bunheads) and creator/executive producer John McNamara, on the show’s unique blend of social commentary and period procedural…

On how Aquarius began…

John McNamara: [Executive producer] Marty [Adelstein] and I have known each other for many, many years, in a former life as agent and client. So I went to him one day and I said, “It’s a great idea, detectives, L.A., 1967. They end up crossing paths with Charles Manson. So we take a year off from TV and write a quintet of novels.” And Marty’s like, “That’s a terrible idea.” I was like “Aquarius is a bad idea? He goes, “No, doing it as novels is a bad idea, because in a novel you can’t hear the music, and that’s one of your main characters. I said, “Oh, gosh. We’re going to do a TV show.” That was 2008, and we’ve been developing it ever since. We finally kind of pulled all the threads of it together in 2013 when we met with David for the first time, when there was finally a script and something to talk about.

On what makes the show different from other stories about Charles Manson…

JM: It’s not purely about Manson. It’s sort of a work of historical fiction that weaves some things about Manson that are true, some things that are fictional, and entirely fictional characters like David’s character of Hodiak. Emma [Dumont]’s character is also fictional. Grey [Damon]’s character is fictional. So it’s really a large tapestry look at social change, politics and crime in Los Angeles. Manson is one of the main arteries but not the only artery. The political and social change…it’s as much about that as it is about the evolution of Manson.

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On Duchovny’s initial reaction to the project…

David Duchovny: Being as young as I am, I had to research. I had never heard of Charles Manson or anything like that. [Laughs.] I mean, to me what’s interesting, what you guys were talking about a moment ago, is Manson is a historical figure, yes, but he also has come to represent so much symbolically to us as a country as we look back on the ’60s, which is an era that we keep coming back to as if we’re looking for something. We’re trying to figure out something from the ’60s that we haven’t figured out yet. Manson kind of stands symbolically as flower power, hippy, go this way, or we can go Reagan, America, Bush this way. Manson is kind of the guy symbolically that pushed us to the right, because this is what happens when the hippies take over — mayhem, murder, madness, all this. This was the bullshit that was sold at the time. So it’s very interesting to me to keep coming back to this point, and I think as a country, we keep coming back to this point to try and learn again.

On whether Duchovny was creeped out by the idea…

DD: I do The X‑Files. Nothing creeps me out.

On playing Charles Manson…

Gethin Anthony: One of the useful things about someone like Charles Manson is there’s a wealth of material you can delve into. I actually read a couple of books, the biographies. There’s one in his own words that was a good starting point to understand who this person was before — where he was born, where he grew up. There was also an incredible documentary called Manson, which was nominated for an Oscar, which is about the people around him. There’s a lot of footage about the people he affected, and that was very useful. The documentary took place in the early ’70s, just after the court cases. So to see those young people, still kind of fresh from their experience, that was something I watched quite closely. I actually just listened to his voice-over over and over again, a recording from an interview he did in 1967. So there was a lot. Yeah. It was just a lot of material. We actually got homework from John. We got sent a ready list and a viewing list of films, more about the period, about everything that was going on, the war.

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DD: I think what is great about what Gethin did and what he does is he’s not trying to impersonate Manson. He created a character that happens to be named Charlie Manson that he’s playing, and it’s totally his creation. I didn’t do a lot of work with Gethin in the show because our worlds don’t really collide that much, but when I watched it, I was just amazed and just so impressed by the fact that he’s not enslaved to the ticks and the sound. He’s not trying to be Frank Gorshin doing Charles Manson. He’s doing a character. He’s being an actor. I think that’s part and parcel with everything we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to do a Charles Manson story. We’re doing a historical fiction with characters in it.

On leaving the world of The Vampire Diaries for Aquarius

Claire Holt: In this show, I play a police officer called Charmain Tully. She is independent and driven and dynamic, but she’s living in very much a man’s world. Women really had no rights. They were seen to have no use. I had to carry my gun in my purse, which was insane and abominable to me. So I play a woman who is somewhat shepherded and taken under Hodiak and Shafe’s wings and she’s making progress in the world, in the police force, but it’s still very archaic. It’s such a great role for me to play. I think it’s topical even today with gender equality and women’s right. I think I saw so many parallels to what we are shooting and issues of today, so it’s a really inspiring character for me to play, and I really love her. So that is that question.

And The Vampire Diaries, that was my home for a long time and I love it. But I’m really focused on this show now and this is really near and dear to my heart and I’m pleased to be working with these phenomenal actors.

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On the show’s shooting locations…

Emma Dumont: We shot all over L.A. We didn’t shoot at any of the Manson spots. Some places were around in the ’60s.

DD: Again, it’s like the focus of the show is not to be historically accurate to the place completely. It’s to be historically accurate, yes, but it is historical fiction. So the idea of shooting in actual places, if they’re not friendly to be shot at…

JM: When you’re doing a TV show, part of what you’re trying to do is do a puzzle so that all of the locations and sets fit into a seven‑day schedule. We make the show in seven days… One thing that we noticed was that when Manson was putting together the family at first, he lived in a place called the spiral staircase in Topanga Canyon that’s now gone. Our wonderful production designer, Carlos Barbosa, built an iron staircase just like that one and put it on this ranch.

On how long the show will run…

JM: There are 13 episodes in Season 1. And we have planned it out for six years, six seasons.

On whether the show will have subplots that the two detectives can solve within a season…

DD: Yeah, the first season is full of subplots. One of the great ways that I think John has figured out to tell the story is that when I first hear of Charles Manson, nobody’s ears prick up. It’s just a name. It’s just Charles Manson. I look him up. He’s been arrested for being a pimp. He’s done this. He’s done that. But to me, he’s nothing. I’ve got my job to do. I’ve got other more pressing things to take care of, and I think that’s the attitude of the show, which would be the attitude of the world at that time. It’s like Charles Manson is nothing. It’s not until he becomes Charles Manson that we all turn around and look at what happened.

The show is kind of this cool combination of a ’60s procedural… I don’t have access to all this bullshit CSI stuff to solve cases. We actually have to use our brains and follow clues and do police work.

Also, what makes this kind of worse police but better characters to play, is that we get to crack some heads too intentionally. So we’re cops of that time. It’s a very interesting show, two shows side by side. Grey and I ‑‑ Grey’s playing undercover. We’re two cops over here doing our daily job, looking at our cases, and then we’ve got this guy named Charlie Manson who’s turning into something over here while we’re looking away a little bit too much.

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