If you’ve started missing Mad Men, NBC has a new 1960s era series that should satisfy your nostalgia. The premise of Aquarius is:
Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny), a decorated World War II vet and homicide detective, barely recognizes the city he’s now policing. Long hair, cheap drugs, rising crime, protests, free love, police brutality, Black Power and the Vietnam War are radically remaking the world he and the Greatest Generation saved from fascism 20 years ago. So when Emma Karn (Emma Dumont), the 16-year-old daughter of an old girlfriend, goes missing in a sea of hippies and Hodiak agrees to find her, he faces only hostility, distrust and silence. He enlists the help of Brian Shafe (Grey Damon) – a young, idealistic undercover vice cop who’s been allowed to grow his hair out – to infiltrate this new counterculture and find her.
At a recent summer press day, the cast and creators of Aquarius, Marty Adelstein, John McNamara, Emma Dumont, David Duchovny, Grey Damon, Gethin Anthony and Claire Holt opened up about the show’s direction, recreating such an explosive era, and how big a role Charles Manson will play.
Aquarius premieres Thursday night at 9/8c on NBC.
For the producers, can you talk about the genesis of Aquarius and how it’s unique?
John McNamara: It was originally going to be a quintet of novels. I’m John. I’m the creator of the show. Marty 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, so ‑‑ Did I leave anything out?
Marty Adelstein: No. I think you got it.
What makes it different from other stories about Manson?
John McNamara: 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’s character is also fictional. Grey’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.
Marty Adelstein: The period is really a character of the whole piece.
John McNamara: Certainly, the political and social change is ‑‑ it’s as much about that as it is about the evolution of Manson.
How did the actors react when they first read the script? Were you creeped out?
Grey Damon: (Raises hand.)
Emma Dumont: (Raises hand.) Hands up.
Grey Damon: Oh, we’re supposed to speak. Okay. Well, I had nightmares after researching Manson and Vietnam and things like such, but then I realized I didn’t need to know much about that, so I kind of pulled back on that. Yeah, I definitely got the willies.
Claire Holt: I was terrified. I couldn’t look at it late at night.
Grey Damon: Yeah. Late‑night readings were never ‑‑
David Duchovny: I also ‑‑ being as young as I am, I had to research. I had never heard of Charles Manson or anything like that. 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.
You were not creeped out by the idea of the show?
David Duchovny: I do “The X‑Files.” Nothing creeps me out.
Gethin, how did you prepare to play 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 and what institutions and things like that. 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 and 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.
Emma Dumont: We did, yeah.
Gethin Anthony: We got sent a ready list and a viewing list of films, more about the period, about everything that was going on, the war.
John McNamara: Gethin, I believe you’re still carrying an incomplete from one of the first assignments.
Gethin Anthony: Probably true.
David Duchovny: 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.
Claire, can you talk a little bit about your character? Then can you also talk about leaving “The Vampire Diaries”?
Claire Holt: So 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.
Would you come back for cameos?
Claire Holt: I just like when people will hire me, so I’ll work as much as anyone will have me.
Emma Dumont: We’re all going to have cameos.
John McNamara: Yeah. I actually want to do to “The Vampire Diaries” now.
Grey Damon: There’s going to be an “X‑Files,” “Vampire Diaries” crossover actually.
David Duchovny: Don’t say that word.
Where did Aquarius film?
Emma Dumont: We shot all over L.A. We didn’t shoot at any of the Manson spots.
John McNamara: No.
Grey Damon: We did shoot at some spots that were part of that, all that, right?
John McNamara: Not Manson‑specific.
Grey Damon: Not Manson, but just that.
Emma Dumont: Some places were around in the ’60s. That’s what he’s trying to say.
David Duchovny: Again, in answering that question, 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 ‑‑
John McNamara: Yeah. A good example is 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. We found this amazing ‑‑ what do you call it? A ranch? It was like ‑‑
Marty Adelstein: Altadena.
John McNamara: Altadena. The 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.
David Duchovny: I thought it was there.
John McNamara: No, sir. That’s all ‑‑ that’s Carlos.
David Duchovny: Wow. So now John has a spiral staircase in his own house.
John McNamara: I do.
How many episodes are in season 1 and is the intention to have it continue into a season 2?
John McNamara: There are 13 episodes in Season 1. And we have planned it’s out for six years, six seasons.
How much do we know Charles Manson, and how much is he sort of a mysterious figure in the story?
John McNamara: Well, I think as Gethin said eloquently, he’s one of the best, most documented figures of the 20th century. I would say there is virtually no mystery about Charles Manson, but there are things that we reveal about him in the series that I don’t imagine the audience will see coming. For instance, we meet Manson’s mom. She’s interesting, as you can imagine. So we actually delve very deeply into every character’s psyche as much as you can in 13 hours. Manson is one of the characters that you want to really understand. I think it’s a mistake when you’re making drama to just say that character’s a monster and just make him a monster. I want to know why he did monstrous things. I want to know what the pieces of his psyche were. I think along with Gethin, it’s been a real collaboration of building a real historical fiction, human being character out of the pieces of Manson, but also our imaginations, also the intersecting stories with the fictional characters played by these guys. It’s sort of like sculpture. You just kind of put together the pieces and try and make something that feels ‑‑ and feels real.
Gethin Anthony: Yeah. I think something else that’s important to really establish about our show is you meet him through Emma, who’s a young ‑‑
John McNamara: Yes.
Gethin Anthony: ‑‑ woman. You get to know as much as about him as she does initially. In that sense, the audience will perhaps feel like what it would have been like to meet him and then go on. Then you learn as much about him as comes into David’s character’s storyline. There’s so many other crimes going on that interweave with the community around the civil rights movement. There’s so much else going on. So in one sense there’s a little bit of mystery there.
How are you all enjoying working in the 1960s era?
John McNamara: The clothes are cool.
Emma Dumont: The clothes are cool. I don’t know for you, Claire. You wear a lot of cop uniforms. For me I get to wear a lot of fun, like young teenager type of clothes that would have been really popular back then.
John McNamara: Tie‑dye.
Emma Dumont: Lots of tie‑dyes.
John McNamara: And bell‑bottoms and that great hat in episode 2.
Emma Dumont: Great hats, lot of hats.
Gethin Anthony: The music’s fun to listen to as well. I don’t know if you’ve mentioned it already, but changing your play list on your MP3 player to that era is kind of really fun.
Aside from the Charles Manson storyline, are you going to have subplots that the two detectives can solve within a season?
David Duchovny: 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, which to answer your question about what’s cool about playing in the ’60s, is 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. So 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.
John McNamara: Yeah. I don’t know if you guys saw episode 2, but that has an example of kind of what we want to occasionally do, which is show how incredibly competent Hodiak and Shafe are as cops. Yet, at the time, show that at that time in 1967, it was completely in the realm of fair play to lie to a suspect to get him to confess. That was just de rigueur. That’s kind of interesting, and you’ll see a lot more of that as the season progresses, lying and beatings.