“The Magicians” is never boring, and not just because it plays in the realm of fantasy. In fact, Syfy’s adaptation of the popular Lev Grossman novels never rests on its magical laurels — such as using strange mythical creatures or bizarre spells — as shortcuts to telling an intriguing story.
Instead, it constantly pushes itself to conjure up new ways to present its narrative, and the result is often as bewitching as it is bold. Take for example two episodes from earlier in the season. “Be the Penny” explores what it’s like for characters to mourn the loss of one of their own, but it’s told from the perspective of the deceased. The episode directly after, the poignant “A Life in a Day,” plays with the concept of time as two of the main characters literally spend a lifetime on what seems to be a hopeless task.
Six Short Stories
Wednesday’s upcoming episode “Six Short Stories About Magic,” written by co-creator Sera Gamble and David Reed, is split up into six sections, each told from the point of view of a different character. It begins with Penny (Arjun Gupta), who seeks out Benedict (Harvey Guile) in the Underworld and bluffs his way through fake “Game of Thrones” spoilers to achieve his goal. Take a look:
Penny’s task is related to the season’s big quest, finding the Seven Keys, which will somehow restore magic to both Earth and the Narnia-like world of Fillory. It’s this quest that prompted the series to push itself to new storytelling heights for this episode.
“We have this thing that was exacerbated by the structure of Season 3, which is a very classic fairy-tale quest structure in pursuit of something very well-defined: seven keys,” Gamble said in an interview with IndieWire. “You have an automatic cheat sheet as a viewer: either they’re going to succeed or they’re going to fail per episode and then also in the arc of the season. It became apparent to us that we had to really be extra creative with the structure of individual episodes because the last thing we want to do is bore you or become predictable.”
Therefore, David Reed came up with the idea to tell the story from six different characters’ perspectives. This is not quite “Rashomon,” though. The different perspectives are not contradictory nor ambiguously reliable. Rather, with each subsequent story that dovetails slightly with the one before, new layers of insights are added. What makes the episode truly groundbreaking, however, is the final storyline, which belongs to Harriet, played by Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin.
The Sound of Silence
Harriet first appeared in Season 2 as the owner of Fuzzbeat, a website that specializes in cat videos and silly articles that turned out to be coded news for magicians. Since then, it’s been revealed that she’s an activist who wants the magical books and information from the Neitherworld Library to be free and accessible to all. Therefore, she’s called in when the gang dreams up a convoluted scheme to obtain one of the Seven Keys that involves knowledge of the library.
In this exclusive sneak peek from Wednesday’s episode, Harriet is trying to convince Alice (Olivia Taylor Dudley) to go along with the plan:
The scene above actually takes place during Alice’s story, which plays out fairly typically when it comes to production and sound. With Harriet’s story, however, viewers will be able to experience the action as if they are that character, both visually and auditorily. “The Magicians” created a full sequence that approximates for the audience what it’s like to move through the world if you’re deaf.
“David and I did a little research into hearing impairment,” said Gamble. “Not everybody who would identify themselves as deaf has 100 percent hearing loss. We tried to replicate the level of hearing impairment that we were being told and educated about, which does include being able to hear certain sounds in a very low register.”
Gamble will delve into the production of that scene further with IndieWire after the episode has aired on Wednesday.
Your Harriets Await
Beyond those production concerns, digging into Harriet’s story also required casting two other deaf actresses who would play younger versions of Harriet in her backstory. Casting directors Carrie Audino and Helen Geier broke down the process of finding the young actresses. Usually the casting department gets about a week’s notice per episode, but in this case, they were notified about a month earlier to give them more time for the search.
“We put out our breakdown first, which is what we do every episode to find actors, and we let the community know that we’re looking for actors that are deaf that need to match Marlee Matlin,” said Audino. “Then we see what you get back. Usually, if they have people if they’re represented by agents, they are usually people that we’re definitely going to take a look at because it usually means they’ve worked before. We start there, see what we get and then we expand the search.”
The search took place in both the United States and in Canada, where the series is shot, and through the usual talent agencies as well as those who specialize in actors who are hard of hearing. The deaf community, including deaf schools and theaters, were also contacted. Both actresses — one who would play Harriet as a child and one who would portray her as a teenager — were sought at the same time.
The role of the youngest version of Harriet went to newcomer Winter Sluyter-Obidos. “She had a brightness to her,” said Geier. “It really came across when she was doing the scene. You could see what she was doing, could see what she was thinking, but she wasn’t just kind of going through the motions.”
Landing the role of the teenager or young adult Harriet was Stephanie Nogueras, an experienced actress who had a recurring role as Natalie Pierce on “Switched at Birth,” the Freeform show that featured many deaf characters and actors.
Casting deaf actors in roles written as such isn’t just good for representation and authenticity, but that also meant that they were already fluent in American Sign Language. That was a skill that two other cast members, Jade Tailor who plays Kady, and Mageina Tovah who plays the Librarian, had to acquire quickly for this episode.
Given Harriet’s strong feelings about the Neitherworld Library, it will come as no surprise that she has some sort of past history with it and knows the Librarian in some way. Hence, Tovah, who plays the bespectacled book curator, had to learn massive amounts of ASL and then perform it as fluently as possible.
“She didn’t come knowing she would have 14 pages of dialogue,” said Gamble. “We gave her the script early to practice.”
Tailor, whose character Kady often translates Harriet’s signing for the rest of the gang, had been learning ASL over the course of two seasons. And this is on top of having to use the particular brand of finger-tutting that the magicians use on the show to cast spells.
“Jade had the most scenes with [Marlee Matlin] and Jade had to be fluent,” co-creator John McNamara said. “One of the things that can set in on a show is ennui and predictability. When you suddenly cast a really highly regarded Oscar-winning actress and then say to the actors, ‘You have to learn this whole new skill and make it look like you’ve been doing it your whole life,’ it’s very good for the lifeblood of the show.”
Casting Outside the Box
Although “The Magicians” specifically cast actresses who are deaf to play a deaf character, the show attempts to cast marginalized actors regardless if the role is written that way or not.
Grier said, “Whenever there’s something that isn’t what your typical everyday professional actors necessarily has experience doing, that’s always a challenge and then more fun also because you get to kind of learn about the different worlds and be exposed to it and also think of them for future, not just things that they specifically are needed for.”
“I think as casting directors we always try to do that,” said Audino. “We always try and look for an idea that’s out of the box and try and put someone in the role that you wouldn’t necessarily think of them for, whether it’s because they have a disability or they’re a different ethnicity than was originally intended. That’s the fun part of our job.”
Gamble added, “I think it’s really good that this has been a conversation that has been in the media for the last couple of years because we all really needed to hear it. We really needed to hear that we’re the gatekeepers of opportunities and that we should be mindful about that. So we were all excited to just see a whole new group of actors who had never met before. When you have the opportunity to give a job to a great actor who might not get called in for quite as many auditions, that’s exciting.”
The show has already followed through with such casting. Candis Cayne, who was the first transgender actress to play a recurring transgender character in primetime on “Dirty Sexy Money,” doesn’t play a transgender character on “The Magicians,” but the role of Fillory’s Fairy Queen. And of course, Matlin came on to the show to play Harriet, whose character was not originally written to be deaf.
In each case, it was the actress’ skills as a performer (and that Matlin was a fan of the show) that informed the casting decision. And that, in turn, can affect the way the character is written.
“Something that Marlee brought to the role that we then started to write more and more towards is this hilarious, very dry sense of humor,” said Gamble. “The character was always very smart and plays her cards very close to the vest. You can tell that she’s a really formidable friend or adversary to anyone who comes and takes her out. But Marlee is just so fucking funny and so just watching her performance encouraged us to write more jokes for her.
“Some of that I think also come through in Episode 8, where David wrote a joke that was sort of at Kady’s expense, that Kady’s grammar as an interpreter is worse than Marlee’s grammar when she’s speaking.” The joke written by Reed, for whom we are eternally grateful, can be seen in the aforementioned exclusive clip above.
“The Magicians” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on Syfy. Check back for IndieWire’s postmortem of “Six Short Stories About Magic” with the series creators.