By MARIAM BASTANI with MADDI MCGILLVRAY
If you haven’t binge-watched the first season of Joe Hill’s mind-bending series LOCKE & KEY on Netflix by now, it’s time to get horizontal on your couch and start. Ten years in the making, the series is a fresh adaptation of the fantastic comic series LOCKE & KEY written by Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodríguez. Capturing the spirit of the comic is no easy feat, but thankfully there is a strong cast to harness the magic, including Connor Jessup.
Probably best known for his role in the dramatic procedural American Crime, Connor’s acting career started when he was eleven and he has been working ever since (Falling Skies, Closet Monster). Beyond his roles in front of the camera, Connor is also a writer and director (Boy, A.W. A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul). In this series, Connor plays eldest son Tyler Locke navigating a new life his family is trying to build after the tragic loss of their father Rendell Locke by moving to Rendell’s childhood home, the Locke House, where secrets are revealed, magic is real and horrors await. We talked with Connor about his experience on LOCKE & KEY, what it was like to work with Joe Hill and why he is attracted to the supernatural.
What attracted you to Tyler’s character? Did you prepare for the role by reading the LOCKE & KEY comic books or did you want to jump into it without any preconceived notions?
My introduction to this character and this world was through our first few scripts. I had heard of the comics, but I hadn’t read them before. After reading those first few scripts, I read all the comics very quickly just because I liked them. I wasn’t necessarily thinking it through in terms of how much influence they would have on what I thought of the character. I just I started reading and I couldn’t stop because I just really love them. Part of the nice thing about the show is that it was made very clear to all of us from the beginning, by our showrunners, by Joe Hill, by everyone involved, that although the show is obviously trying to be loyal to the themes and spirit of comics that it is its own thing. In a lot of ways, narratively and character wise, it’s remixing ideas from the comics, so it was never it was made clear to me that there was an expectation that my Tyler or that any of these characters were carbon copies of how they were presented in the comics, so that really did free me up to just enjoy reading them.
How did you approach acting in a project that covers such a range of genres?
The truth is that you kind of just approach everything the same way. What genre it is and what category it falls in doesn’t really have that much effect on your day-to-day experience of making something. Making something that’s a horror or a comedy are comparable experiences. It presents the same questions, the same relationships, the same dynamics, the same struggles, so all of that kind of fades. Those are conversations you have, at least for me, that you should have afterwards, but when you’re actually doing it, all of that thankfully fades away and you’re just focused on, “Who is this person? What does he care about? What are his relationships like? What are these things happening to him? How does he feel about it?” It’s all pretty basic which makes it more manageable.
So, more focus on the character…
Yeah. The truth is that you always start thinking about things in a very grand, sweeping, overarching way and then once you get there you’re like, “how do I say this next word right? How can I walk from this counter to that door?” It becomes so minute that I find I don’t have space in my head for anything else.
“There’s something ghostly about movies. It literally is the past being re animated by light, that’s all that this is, so there’s something ghost-like about the whole thing to begin with.”
How did you find acting alongside the special effects and non-human characters?
I was on a sci-fi show years ago called Falling Skies where there were a lot of SFX, explosions, aliens… Even though LOCKE & KEY is fantasy and there are a lot of FX, a lot of intrigue, it didn’t feel that weightless. We were always in real rooms with real people. With exception of one or three sequences, most of the effects are pretty grounded in practical and we were always interacting with real things, so it didn’t feel that much of an FX heavy show when we were actually shooting. A lot of the more elevated stuff, like Bodie as a ghost, were sequences that I wasn’t a part of, so for me it was kind of like making a drama.
Did your experience as a director help with the role at all?
Yes and no. The relationship between me as a director and as an actor is always curious to me. It’s something I think about a lot because it changes. Before I started directing anything, I was that obnoxious little 15-year-old who every camera assistant wants to kill. I thought I knew so much more than everyone, you can imagine exactly what I was like, but one of the nice and unexpected things since I’ve actually started making my stuff in the last five or six years, is that it has actually freed me up when I’m acting to focus more just on the acting. It’s nice because when you’re making your own things you worry about everything. You have to worry about the money, the time and you have to worry about every idea from the beginning to the end. You have so many different stages and people that your job intersects with, so many different responsibilities. When you’re acting you get to come in after a lot of the hard stuff is figured out and you get to leave before the really hard stuff starts. Your job is so much more focused and that is a really nice release from trying to write and direct. I’ve come to see it as a nice complementary dynamic.
I believe the show began as a pilot on Fox, was pitched as a movie, shopped on Hulu and then, now of course, hitting Netflix. Why do you think it’s had such a long journey to get to the screen?
It’s always hard to say why some things get stuck and other things get made right away. I don’t think there’s anything inherent to the project that would make it doomed. I think it’s just one of those things. For whatever reason, it didn’t work and part of that is when it started on Fox…it’s a fairly high concept show, there are a lot of moving pieces and it’s hard to do that on a broadcast network budget especially some of the more visually heightened stuff. I haven’t seen any of the previous pilots, so I can’t speak to whether they’re good or not, but for whatever reason it didn’t fit at that time on those platforms. I’m grateful that Joe and Gabe that created it, and Carlton and all the people who have been tracking this project so long have persevered and that I get to be a part of final one.
That commitment to the project says something.
Also, I can imagine that if I was in Joe’s place, I had made this comic I cared about it, it had done well and I had tried to get it made for 10 years, I might be feeling a little cautious, a little suspicious, but he was so unbelievably enthusiastic and excited. It felt like he had just written the comic yesterday. I don’t know how he maintains that level of enthusiasm and energy, but it’s very infectious and it really takes a weight off our shoulders to know that he is so excited for what we’re all doing.
As you mentioned, Joe Hill is the original writer of the graphic novel, he is also the creator of the show and the executive producer. In addition to his energy, what was it like working with him? What was he like on set?
Joe had so many qualities, but the thing that impressed me, in a way, the most was that he was so un-precious. He was the one, more than anyone, saying that we needed to take his story and these characters in unexpected directions—that we needed to surprise people who thought they knew what was coming. He was the one who said, you know, we did the comics, we did what we wanted to do with them and that we’re happy with how they turned out—now let’s have fun, let’s do something new. That spirit of play, of adventure and total lack of preciousness is very rare. I think it liberated all of us and gave us all a feeling of reassurance. Again, it’s like having a show’s biggest fan on set. On set, he was so excited about every detail, about how this costume and that prop was coming together… He would send notes to all of us after every cut telling us how much he loved this and that. It really was above and beyond what anyone and it made us all really happy.
Both in your acting and directing career you don’t shy away from supernatural elements, is there something about the supernatural that interests you?
It’s something I’m trying to figure out because I don’t believe in any of it. I think that maybe the fact that I don’t believe in any of it makes me more intrigued by it or more interested in it. I always think that ghost stories are weirdly suited for movies. There’s something ghostly about movies. It literally is the past being re animated by light, that’s all that this is, so there’s something ghost-like about the whole thing to begin with. If I was in theater or writing books maybe I wouldn’t be as interested, but there is just something that seems so right about putting ghosts and spirits in movies. That’s in my own work, so I feel very excited, even as an actor, that I get to play with magic ghosts.
In addition to your interest in ghosts, would you consider yourself a horror fan?
No, and not because I don’t like it, I’m just so easily frightened. As a kid I never watched horror because the one or two times that my parents made the mistake of showing me anything, I was traumatized for so long. I’m very skittish. No, I’m not a connoisseur at all. When you see a great horror movie, though, it’s like seeing any great movie or great sci-fi movie. It’s such an effective way to tell stories and, again, it’s weirdly well suited for movies and for TV. I know that there are obviously horror novels, horror comics, horror paintings—there is horror in everything, but there is something about the ability in movies to control time, sound and perspective that is just so well suited to scaring people. There is something fundamental about horror. LOCKE & KEY has a bit of horror, but it’s more of a fantasy. I’ve never really gotten to do a pure horror, so I would be really excited to try that.
The last couple of years have been kind of the Stephen King, Joe Hill renaissance in terms of their work getting adapted onto the screen or on TV…
Well, Stephen King never really went away. His work is adapted five times a year, every year for last 30 years. It’s so crazy how prolific he is.
Is there something specific about Joe Hill’s work that we are starting to see more of him?
Joe is just a really good writer. He’s been writing for a long time. Obviously compared to his dad he still young and still relatively early in what I hope will be a long career. There are not a lot of people who write the sorts of stories, books and comics that he writes as effectively as he does. Because he, like his dad in a way but he is his own voice, he has this very popular, clear voice and sensibility with a really lyrical vision and really powerful image making in his writing. Beyond making it good, this makes it really well suited for adaptation. I think it will probably be the rare Joe Hill book that doesn’t get adapted.