Walking into the creature shop for The Strain, FX’s exceedingly creepy (and exceedingly popular) vampire series, you instantly get a sense of why the show — about an epidemic of bloodsuckers taking over New York City — is such a fun sandlot to play in for the Strain cast and crew. The place is littered with vampire parts, there’s tables piled high with headless bodies, and stacks of boxes featuring labels like “Silicone boils,” “Bullet holes & nail wounds,” and “Burns” (available in small, medium or large).
It’s the place where The Strain‘s nightmares are made, and according to showrunner Carlton Cuse and series co-creator Guillermo Del Toro, the shop was working overtime this year, because the carnage only ramps up in season two, now that the vampire plague is really starting to take hold of the city. Which leaves the human resistance, led by Corey Stoll‘s Ephraim Goodweather and David Bradley‘s Abraham Setrakian, scrambling to figure out some way to fight back.
Rotten Tomatoes visited The Strain set in Toronto last spring, where we spoke to Cuse, Del Toro, and members of the cast and crew to find out what new nightmares the team had in store. Here’s what fans can expect will be keeping them up at night, starting with Sunday’s season two premiere.
When season one left off, our heroes were on the run, forced out of their pawnshop hideout by the vampire onslaught. So, like most New Yorkers who decide Manhattan’s getting too crowded, they moved to Brooklyn, shacking up in a massive loft space owned by rat-catcher-turned-vampire-killer-extraordinaire Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand). “It’s sort of like that first season on The Real World, Stoll said of the new living situation. “Everybody’s on top of each other and there isn’t much privacy.” When told of the comparison, Cuse laughed, saying Stoll wasn’t far off. “You have this unlikely group of people that have found themselves all bonded up as a result of this apocalyptic event that hit New York City,” he explained. “They end up becoming inadvertent roommates, and yeah, there definitely are consequences on a personal level due to the fact that they’re all sharing this space.”
So what happens when six former strangers stop being polite and start getting real (in the vampire apocalypse)? “We definitely get into each other’s space, and definitely conflict arises,” teased Durand.
“This season, it’s less about disbelief. I think most people accept now that the vampires exist. The question is, is it possible to stop them?” Cuse explained. And after Setrakian’s grand plan to kill The Master failed in last season’s finale, it sends everyone back to the drawing board in season two, with epidemiologists Eph and Nora (Mia Maestro) taking a more scientific approach, while Setrakian embarks on a quest to find an ancient tome that may hold the key to how to stop The Master — a sort of vampire user manual. “It was such a defeat at the end of the first season,” explained Stoll. “There’s definitely more of a sense of there are things we can do.”
“I think it’s much more of a fair fight this season in terms of, ‘Are we a match for these creatures?'” agreed Cuse. “Certainly our characters are becoming much more adroit at vampire killing.”
This season, The Strain will be introducing a few new characters on both sides of the fight, including some scary new vampires that Maestro described as “one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.” (We won’t spoil it, but we’re inclined to agree.)
Cuse and the writers also added more girl power to the Strain cast this year. “There’s a new woman who becomes influential in Eldritch Palmer’s life,” Cuse teased, played by American Horror Story‘s Lizzie Brocheré. “There’s also Samantha Mathis, who plays a councilwoman from Long Island, and she emerges as a really significant character this season,” he continued, calling Mathis’ Justine Feraldo a “wild card” in the war to take back New York. “Neither of those characters exist in the books and they’re both a huge part of this season of the show,” Cuse said. “And I think they’ll really inform the story in compelling, surprising ways.”
While the first season stuck relatively closely to the source material — the trilogy of books written by the show’s co-creators Del Toro and Chuck Hogan — Cuse estimated that approximately 80 percent of season two was invented in the show’s writers’ room. “We’ve just sort of taken the books as a point of departure and come up with our own version of the story,” said Cuse. “There’s just vast sections of season two that don’t exist in the books at all.”
“We have lots of different storylines, different characters, lots of stuff that we’ve added, rearranged, invented,” he explained, saying it helped that neither Del Toro nor Hogan are overly precious about the books. “We agreed from the beginning that we would try to hit the big notes,” said Del Toro. “But if you do a change that you think is good that ripples through, then you ripple it through.” The result? “They’ve kept some of the great aspects of the books, and gone off in new directions that are equally gripping,” promised Natalie Brown, who plays Eph’s ex-wife Kelly on the show.
Even if they’re going off-book more in season two, Del Toro’s still an important part of the production, as much as his busy schedule allows. “He’s always been involved and remains involved in creature creation and visual effects,” said Cuse. “He and I talk regularly, and I love our collaboration,” he added. “I always value Guillermo’s input and when he comes up with an idea, a good idea, he and I talk it out.” Although sometimes that involves trying to convince Cuse not to kill someone off, Del Toro told RT. “Every year, Carlton kills a character and I bring that character back,” he laughed. “I go and argue, ‘Let’s not kill this character.'”
In addition to saving lives, Del Toro also got behind the camera when he could. “You’ll get to see little short films that Guillermo shot within the show,” promised Maestro, including the fairy tale-like prologue that opens the first episode. “It’s sort of a classic Guillermo piece, in terms of the texture and the lighting and the monsters and the every shot being a visual effect — don’t get me started — but it’s a beautiful piece,” said executive producer J. Miles Dale. “It was fun to have Guillermo back in the saddle for a couple days.”
“We’ve turned the amplifier knob up several large notches this season,” said Cuse. “There are a lot of vampires, and our characters are facing not just individual vampires, but massive vampire attacks,” he promised. “It’s become kind of a volume business,” agreed Dale. In season one, their “big days” would typically involve scenes with 30-35 vampires, according to Steve Newburn, one of the co-heads of the show’s creature shop. But in season two? That number balloons into the thousands. “Guillermo’s new word this year was ‘hordes,'” explained Dale. “Fear the horde…”
And while viewers may lose sleep over the various monsters that Newburn and his team cooked up, it’s the writers’ room that terrified the crew. “The writers will send a script,” explained Dale. “It’s like one line, “Thousands of vamps appear.'” It’s like, it’s so easy to write he laughed…” So, of course, we have to rise to the challenge.” Still, he added, “I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do next season. It’s more vamps than people.”
Just going off Twitter buzz, the most important returning castmember this season isn’t human or vampire — it’s Corey Stoll’s wig. “Hair-Gate was a complete surprise to me,” laughed Cuse, saying he never expected the hair would turn into such a big sticking point for fans. Still, he maintains there was a good reason for giving the follicly-challenged Stoll a full head of hair. “It was a way to define him as a distinct character,” he explained. “We didn’t want the audience to just jump in and say, ‘Oh, there’s Peter Russo in a vampire epidemic.'” He also confirmed that the hair will factor into this season somehow. “You’ll see this season, it pays off,” Cuse promised, laughing. “Yes, the hair figures into the story this season, and I think in a way that it’ll all make sense after you’ve watched season two.”
As The Master’s slimy second-in-command, Richard Sammel stole a fair amount of scenes in season one, but if it were up to The Strain‘s resident bad guy, he’d be sharing those scenes instead. “I feel so lonely,” he joked. And in season two, Eichorst finally finds a worthy ally in Natalie Brown’s Kelly, who was turned at the end of the first season. According to Brown, her character isn’t just part of the vampire horde, she’s been singled out by The Master for something special. “The Master has plans for her, so there are certain skills that are bestowed upon her,” explained Brown. “:Her mission is simple: to find her son. That’s what The Master is looking to exploit.” Because if Kelly can find Zack, she’ll also find where Eph, Setrakian, and the rest of the resistance is hiding. In the meantime though, it’s up to Eichorst to show the newbie the ropes. “The Master’s chosen her, so I protect her and take her under my wing,” said Sammel. And while Brown called him her “partner-in-crime,” Sammel has his own description for The Strain‘s newest dynamic duo: “It’s vampire Bonnie and Clyde.”
“We didn’t want this to be a one-sided battle, so the idea… is that this is not a story where vampires simply overrun the world and win,” said Cuse. “This is a story where human ingenuity rises to meet the challenge.”
“When you’re doing a story like this, you have to lean into those things that you fear the most, and root around there,” he explained. But no matter how dark things get, Cuse wanted to make it clear this season isn’t a total downer. “There’s a real layer of humor and I think a sense of hopefulness that underlies all this,” he said. “I think it would be miserable for us to write it if it was relentlessly dark. So there is humor, there is hope, there is romance,” he added. “It’s a great popcorn television series,” Cuse said. “And I think that the show works best when it is able to infuse a very dark story with all these other elements of humanity.”
Season two of The Strain premieres this Sunday, Jul. 12, on FX at 10 p.m.