Henry Ian Cusick on Moving from Stage to Screen and Why The Passage Reminds Him of Lost

TV Features The Passage
Henry Ian Cusick on Moving from Stage to Screen and Why The Passage Reminds Him of Lost

[Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.]

Paste: Growing up in Glasgow, tell me about that. What’d your folks do?

Henry Ian Cusick: So, my father, my mother is Peruvian, and she… her name is Esperanza Chavez and his name is Henry Joseph Cusick and he’s Irish Catholic. He at the age of 16, I believe, left home and joined the Merchant Navy, and then at the age of 18 he was signed up for the Second World War. He was always in the ships and traveled and, actually I did a bit of Ancestry.com on him. I found out what he used to do on the ships. He ended up working as an engineer on the ships and traveling the world and ended up in Peru at the age of 40-something and married my mum. They had my two sisters and me in Peru and then we moved to Spain, where my little brother was born. Then Scotland for a bit and then we spent, I spent most of my childhood in Trinidad, in the West Indies—

Paste: Oh, wow.

Cusick:And then I moved to Scotland when I was 14, 15.

Paste: That’s quite cosmopolitan.

Cusick: Yeah, you know, I’m very lucky that I had the opportunity to travel and see different cultures and different places. I think it helped me a lot as an actor and just as a person to realize that we’re all essentially the same. I think it would be great for more kids to travel and just experience different cultures.

Paste: Probably gave you a lot of friendships and acquaintanceships to draw on as you’re building a character, to think of the way that different people acted—not “acted” as in on stage, but acted as in acted in life, you know?

Cusick: Yeah! Essentially we all want the same things.

Paste: Tell me about, training—acting school? What did you do?

Cusick: I went to, there was a school called The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Scotland. It’s now called The Conservatoire. It got changed.

Paste: Because the name wasn’t douchey enough before?

Cusick: [Laughs] Because the name wasn’t douchey enough, obviously. But I didn’t finish my training there. I was pretty selective about my classes, so they asked me to leave. And that was actually a really good thing for me. It made me realize what I really wanted to do. It was a BA in Dramatic Studies, which encapsulated many things about the theatre, and it made me realize that I just wanted to act—that’s all I really wanted to do. I started doing some amateur dramatics, and I got my first acting job at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre as an understudy for the polar bear. So, we basically cleaned the stage, made the props, and then halfway through the show we’d come on. I was in a polar bear outfit, running around chasing the kids, screaming, “It’s snowing, it’s snowing, at last it’s really snowing!” So, that was a lot of fun, and that was my first professional acting job.

Paste: I love it. And at that stage, what did you consider your wheelhouse? Were you a classical guy? Were you a modern guy?

Cusick: There was a film theatre in Glasgow called The Glasgow Film Theatre and there were always some great indie art films there. On a Friday afternoon, you could go in there and show your unemployment card and you could watch movies for 50 pence. That, for me, when I came out of those shows, I was still in them, you know? That was my dream to be in something like that. The best theatre in Scotland at the time, or certainly in Glasgow, was the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. When I got a leading role there, I thought that was the pinnacle of my career, and then, of course, you move the goalposts and you think, “Well, what now?” and then I moved to London and then across to America and here I am now.

Paste: The lateral move to London and then the step down to America. [Laughs.] When was it that film and TV stuff started to happen for you?

Cusick: Quite late, because I was doing so much theatre that I couldn’t get out to do film and TV. It was only when I had three kids, living in the south of England, [that] I realized if I carried on doing theatre I’m just never gonna have any money. My wife was running a theatre company in London at the time called Polka, and I just said, “I have to stop doing theatre to make money.” It got me back into TV and film, which is what I really wanted to do. It was always there. So, that must have been about 2000, Lisa was born in 2000, and I thought no more theatre. I’ll hold out for those little—you know, I could get a day on a TV show and that was £1,000, which was a lot of money to me then. So that’s when I tried to pursue film and TV.

Paste: Lost must have been pretty soon after that, right? I don’t have my years completely straight.

Cusick: I think it was 2004? But I got on the show in 2005, 2006. That’s when I joined.

Paste: So, that’s not a long slog between “now I’m gonna get started in TV and film” to “I’m one of the most important characters on this revolutionary, biggest-thing-in-the-world show,” right? It probably felt long (laughs].

Cusick: It felt long, and also when I joined the show I didn’t know what it was and I was only on for a three-episode arc anyway and I thought, “I’m gonna do three episodes and I’ll head back home.” And then, when they didn’t kill me off, I thought, “That’s a good sign.”

Paste: You know, going back to theatre for just a second, I can see you as a theatre actor. If I was not sitting in front of you and someone said, “He was a big time theatre actor for years.” I mean, as I think about you and things I’ve seen you in on television and film, your face is so expressive. Your face has such an intensity. That character in Lost has such an intensity. I think about those people as being naturals for film and television, because you can do close-ups, you know? But, just sitting here talking to you, you have this whole body presence, a very strong presence and I can imagine walking on to a stage you would establish yourself very quickly on the stage.

Cusick: That’s very kind of you to say that, having never seen me on stage. [Laughs.] I had some good times on the stage and I’ve, you know, I’ve been in some big hits and some big turkeys. There was nothing that was better than coming off the stage after a great performance. I loved that sensation. But still… your half hour call, I could have been doing a show for three months and every time they called the half I was like, “Oh, God, how many’s out there? Oh God. Ah, fuck. OK, here we go.” [Laughs.] You know, it was always like, I wanted to do my best and give it my all, but it was exhausting and it’s hard work, every night. Doing six nights a week, plus your matinees, that’s—I don’t know if I have the energy, and prior to that I’d been traveling do the set up for the next town. It’s all fun. The theatre was a really fun life. I would highly recommend it to anyone.

Paste: Sure. It’s like joining the circus, right?

Cusick: It really is, when you’re working in it and you’re all in it together. You develop some great close friendships. I never see them now. [Laughs.] But at the time, they’re your best friends. You’re in the trenches and it’s so much fun.

Paste: Some friendships have their time and place, you know. Doesn’t detract from what they are.

Cusick: When you meet up with them again, you pick up where you left off, that’s always cool.

Paste: I mean, the same thing happens on film sets, right? You’re intensely with them for a couple of months and then—

Cusick: Yes, yes, that’s true.

Paste: Were you the kind of stage actor that you’re very much aware and responding to the crowd so that they were part of everything being different each night, or did you kinda go into your own space and you were all about this part of the stage and not the whole house?

Cusick: I was very much the latter. I was very much into what I was doing and really played the fourth wall. There were some actors, you could actually see them: waiting for the laugh, got the laugh, move on. I was always pretty safe, didn’t play the crowd very much. I’d rather play the scene with another actor and go, “That was great! What was different? How do we get that tomorrow?”

Paste: I know that can an adjustment for stage actors. Or even stand-ups—the same thing. Stand-ups especially, because I know more of them that go into film, they’re acting in a comedy film and they think they’re bombing because nobody’s laughing. Even though they know nobody can laugh, because it’s a movie set.

Cusick: Yeah.

Paste: That rhythm of joke, laugh, joke, laugh is what they’re used to and they can’t shake the feeling that they’re not being funny, and they have to be handheld a lot. A couple of stage actors have told me the same thing. It’s so hard without an audience there.

Cusick: Yeah, you know when I did get a laugh, I would talk over my laugh. I was given the note many times, “No, wait for the laugh, wait for the laugh.” And I would just be like, no I’m in it, let them catch up to me.

Paste: My character doesn’t know there’s a laugh going on! [Laughs]

Cusick: You should wait for them to die down, so they can hear what you’re saying.

Paste: Tell me about The Passage.

Cusick: It’s based on a trilogy written by Justin Cronin. I play Dr. Jonas Lear. My character goes to Bolivia to look for the cure for his wife—she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s— with his best friend, Dr. Tim Fanning [played by Jamie McShane]. And Dr. Fanning, who’s a bit of an egomaniac doctor, we need to get some funding and we enlist the help of the military. And, of course, when you enlist the help of the military, everything’s going to go downhill, because they’re going to weaponize everything—which they do when we get the virus. Fanning is attacked by this 50-year-old man, and that’s how we get the virus back to the U.S. We start doing experiments on him in a project called “Project Noah.” This virus has the ability to cure all diseases, but should it get out to the public—because we haven’t perfected it—they will all turn in to “virals”—they’re basically vampires. That’s the premise of the show, and there’s an epidemic approaching us and we need to inject it in to a young person because it’ll work faster. So we get an anonymous young girl, Amy Belafonte [Saniyya Sidney], and her mother’s dead, so she’s anonymous. We can just discard her. Unfortunately, she’s brought in to Project Noah by Brad Wolgast [Mark-Paul Gosselaar]. He’s recently lost his daughter and he takes a shine to her and he tries to defend and befriend her. That’s really the start of the show. From there on it just gets crazier and crazier. This—it’s an epic, huge, huge story, spans over 900 years—

Paste: Wow.

Cusick: It’s got vampires, it’s post-apocalyptic—

Paste: Is the tone broad and kind of campy, like True Blood or is it more intense, epic kinda feel to it, like Interview With A Vampire?

Cusick: Neither. At the moment we’re going in a sort of chronological order, although we do flashback, to learn more about how characters have got there. And we’ve got this mindscape thing where Dr. Fanning can communicate with people through their dreams. It’s good, exciting TV. It reminds me of Lost in that way, in the way that it was exciting and it has the flashbacks, but it’s just good storytelling. The performances, especially by our young lead, Saniyya, and Mark-Paul, really is the heart of the show. And then you have, I work closely with Jamie McShane, who’s from Bloodline and is terrific and we have lot of good stuff together. I would highly recommend it, and I’m not just saying that because I’m in it!

Paste: What is your favorite part about playing this character, different from other characters that you’ve played?

Cusick: The ambiguity of what he’s doing I find fascinating. So, he goes to Bolivia to find a cure for his wife, who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. And the wife says, “Don’t, just stay here and be with me.” Now, most men would do that. But he says, “No, I will fix this.” And he goes to find a cure. What kind of man does that? Now, as a scientist, a well-known scientist, is he doing this to really save his wife? Is he doing this for ego, knowing his place in history? So, every time he’s saying something [like], “I’m doing this because I love you,” there’s also ego. And when the military is brought in, he doesn’t say “stop,” he says, “OK, let’s keep on.” It’s like he’s always being tempted by the devil, and the devil is saying, “Just one more thing and you’ll cure it. One more thing and you’ll find it.” And eventually it’s all going to hit the fan. And although he’s always saying he’s noble and good, so I find that fascinating and that’s kinda cool.

The season finale of The Passage airs tonight at 8 p.m. on FOX.

Michael Dunaway is a filmmaker, journalist, film festival director, and professor. He is Paste’s Editor at Large and host of the Paste podcast The Work. His latest film is Six LA Love Stories.

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