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You should know Corey Stoll had concerns about his awful wig on The Strain, too. It’s not the first time the actor has worn a piece (he played a very memorable, very hairy Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris), but on FX’s super icky eye-worms-and-vampires drama, he’s been made over to look like Billy Zane minus the eyeliner. What sort of epidemiologist needs to look like Billy Zane? Does anyone ever need to look like Billy Zane? Stoll assured us the reasons would soon become apparent. He chatted with Vulture about hair and what’s silly and serious about his new role, which he bravely calls Walter White–esque.
So far, The Strain is the best kind of gory, campy, B-movie cheese. Was that part of its appeal?
Well, I grew up really into comic books, and I actually thought I was going to be a comic-book artist. That was my ambition before I realized I couldn’t keep characters looking the same from panel to panel. I mean, I was good! I just wasn’t very consistent and disciplined, so I fell back on acting. Was I into horror? Only when it was done incredibly well. I was not into B-movies. A lot of it is sloppy. What excited me about this is Guillermo [del Toro] and Carlton [Cuse], who are anything but sloppy. It seemed like I was in good hands. Also, I had never done anything like this.
You play the guy trying to stop the strain from spreading. Is that any fun? The other actors are playing vampires or people becoming vampires. Or they’re getting sucked dry by vampires. Ephraim Goodweather chugs milk.
I’ll say this: I read the books. It was a lot of good source material to help figure out what the next few years of my life might look like, and they were great. They were really the selling point of the journey. Where my character goes, it’s an incredible arc. Walter White is an incredible arc. Maybe — I don’t know, I don’t want to get competitive, but this is actually — it’s certainly in that Walter White vein.
And you did get to bash in the head of one vampire so far.
That was intense. We were shooting in an abandoned hospital, or maybe just a defunct part of a hospital. It was cold and drafty and dark, and ugh, we did not go to any glamorous locations on this shoot. We were in sewers and tunnels. And it smelled! You just knew. You knew a lot of people had died there. You could feel it. Very creepy. We shot the hell out of that scene, me bashing in his head with the fire extinguisher. It was definitely cathartic.
I’m picturing the vampire with his mouth open —
Yeah, that was the first time I’ve ever dodged nothing [laughs]. The stinger is obviously CGI. You just have to keep saying to yourself, “I’m in good hands. They are not going to make me look like an idiot.” It is a little scary too when you’re doing ADR, or they go, “Hey, we got the dailies back,” and it has temp special effects. You really have to not get spooked by that. It actually still looks pretty scary in person. When someone’s got their whole head made up, the contacts and the teeth, a couple of little neon dots on the face don’t look that silly.
Guillermo said Ephraim had to have all this awful hair because his look will be changing.
Right, and I knew that from the beginning.
The wig has gotten a lot of attention.
I get it, too. For somebody who is follicle-ly challenged, I spent a lot of time talking about hair. At first, when I heard he wanted me to have a wig, I was resistant. I didn’t want the reason to be so I could look like a standard TV guy or a hero. Then that points to a bigger problem. I’m not interested in playing that character. I made a choice in my career to not get hair plugs and not hide the fact that I was balding, and I’ve managed to play all sorts of characters who have shaved heads. But Guillermo’s reasoning was so well thought-out. It isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t, I want you to look better.
It couldn’t have been that. It makes you look like Billy Zane.
It’s definitely something else. [Laughs.] But now it’s part of the character for me. It’s the mask. I’m able to access something different wearing that wig than without it. And as Guillermo told you, Eph’s going to change. His look is going to change. It’s an ongoing thing.
You just filmed an arc for the next season of Homeland. Were you a fan?
Yes. I had only seen the first season when I got the role, but I quickly binge-watched the last two.
What did you think about Carrie and Brody’s love story and how it ended?
[Laughs.] I don’t want to talk about that. Certainly not on the record.
Who are you playing?
I’m the CIA station chief in Islamabad. I’m working with Carrie.
She’s a handful, right?
Yes, and I don’t think I can talk about it. I would love to talk about it, but I think there’s an embargo. I can say I was in South Africa for three weeks. I got some vacation, I got to hang out with the fantastic cast and crew, I got to see South Africa and do a fun, kickass little spot. It was the perfect crime.
You’re also in This Is Where I Leave You, which comes out next month and appears to star only the funniest people. Who made you laugh hardest?
They all did. It was a ridiculous set to be on. So much fun. The set was this house on Long Island that was kind of far from the base camp and their trailers, so people didn’t have time to go back to their trailers. Everyone was stuck in this little room in the attic, where we had to be really quiet because they were shooting downstairs. But when you’re trapped with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman and Kathryn Hahn and Jane Fonda and Connie Britton and Timmy Olyphant, it’s just really cool.
Who are you pals with now?
Well, spending time with Jane Fonda was unreal. She played my mom — how fucking cool is that? I remember she said recently, “It’s better to be interested than interesting,” and she really does live by that. She’s constantly asking questions, even though she’s the one with Oscars and who’s been part of Hollywood royalty from birth. All she did was ask me questions. That was a real honor.