Samantha Mathis talks about her role on the FX show The Strain, touching on everything from the first time she stepped on set (disgusting) to the strong character she is having a blast portraying. She also touches on some of her memories so far of her career and things she looks forward to doing in the future.
Q&A with Samantha Mathis
How much of what goes on within the character is driven by her lust for power or need for power, and how much is just keeping her people safe?
This is a woman who certainly has a past, as exemplified from the episode just this last Sunday night. She lost a brother and a husband in 9/11.
Certainly, Staten Island has received sometimes less than stellar treatment from New York City. So, I think that she is very protective of her people, and she’s very dedicated to her people, but there’s always a potential, when you’re in a position of power, to be corrupted by it. I think that her intentions are really true to protect her people, but that was one of the aspects that intrigued me about playing this character.
It’s never black-and-white. I love that in a character, that it’s not black-and-white because human beings aren’t black-and-white. Certainly, when it comes to being given a certain amount of power, the question is what do you do with that power? With power comes great responsibility and we’re getting to see that Justine’s getting a little more power, and what will she do with it?
Did you take any inspiration from any real-life politicians?
I had a very brief conversation when I was brought on to play Justine. I mean I watched some footage of Geraldine Ferraro. I really tried to draw from what Staten Island is like today and looked at footage from some council people from Staten Island. I live in New York City, so there’s no shortage of access to that. In fact, our NY1 news station on Time Warner is incredible in terms of covering Staten Island news.
I was striving to really create someone who felt authentically Staten Island and what that entails. As I was saying earlier, I think that there, in my experience, is an element for Staten Island natives, that they haven’t always been done right by New York City. There’s a healthy level of skepticism in terms of how the mayor deals with Staten Island. I think that was really the most important thing to me.
With her 9/11 background, is this, in her mind, kind of another terrorist threat, or does she really have any kind of handle on exactly what she’s dealing with?
I don’t think she really has a handle on what she’s dealing with, but once again, she’s seen the mayor’s office bungling the situation, not coming at it and taking care of its citizens in the way certainly that she sees fit. I love that first scene as her introduction; sort of coming in guns-a-blazing, but not without good reason.
After the hurricane that wiped out large regions of Staten Island, the mayor continued with the New York City Marathon just a few days later. That was in an original monologue when I was approached about the part, and I thought that was so exemplary of who she is that the mayor doesn’t have everyone’s back, and certainly not Staten Island’s. I think I just got a little off track from your question, but I think that she is very motivated by having not been taken care of by the city of New York.
And, she’s very dedicated to the people. You know, my own personal experience is my boyfriend is a firefighter, and there’s a tribe. When you’re in a tribe of people that are civil servants, that work in the fire department and the police department, there’s a great deal of pride and a great deal of family.
You have each other’s back. Justine lost two firefighters, and her nephew is a policeman, so she’s got a great deal of pride, and Staten Island is home to a tremendous amount of first responders that work in New York City and that died during 9/11. So she’s protecting her people. She’s being a good politician.
Is there a favorite moment or episode you can share?
Well, there will be a point where a gun ends up in Justine’s hands, and while I’m very much a, let me put it this way, it’ll be a lot of fun to be that character and getting a gun into her hands and getting into protecting herself. That was a lot of fun.
What was that film or television show that affected how you went about your daily life growing up?
Oh, wow. I remember going back to being five or six years old and sitting in my father’s living room in the summertime, in Brooklyn at night, sort of cuddled between him and my stepmother watching Dracula movies. To see those movies, maybe I wasn’t five or six, maybe I was seven or eight, but those, just the really old Bella Lugosi movies, they terrified me. I think that that sort of continued thematically through several horror movies. Things that go bump in the night. That sort of evil lurking outside your window has always been something that terrified me.
How do you feel about Guillermo del Toro’s and Carlton Cuse’s take on vampires? Do you like the way that they handled it?
They’re really horrifying. I think they took it to the next level, and it’s almost zombie meets vampire. I’m a little bit of a wuss. I’m not going to lie to you. On the opening episode, when that scene happened and the one elder vomited all those forms into the other one, I was just like oh God, oh Jesus, oh wow, that’s… oh my gosh. It grosses me out, but in a really fun way.
The reason we’re attracted to something like The Strain is the same reason we want to get on a roller coaster. It’s that adrenaline rush, and we love being afraid and being freaked out. There’s a great sort of practical use for it as a human being. I think we love it.
How did you get involved with The Strain? Were you already a fan of the show?
I had seen the posters for the show. Living in New York City, I had seen them all over the city last summer. I was thoroughly freaked out and disgusted by them – as I think most people were.
The worm in the eyeball was an incredible ad campaign. I have to say just a mad shout out to the FX, not a plug but I just have to say it anyway, I think that the people who were doing the advertising campaigns for the show are phenomenal. I love the art that they’re coming up with.
They really captured my attention in that regard. Then, obviously, I’ve known Guillermo’s work for a long time. I hadn’t seen the show, but I was a huge fan of his work as an [indiscernible]. He’s such an artist. He’s such a visionary.
And, then Carlton obviously has a tremendous track record in television and creating really compelling television. Then, on top of that, I am a huge fan of Corey Stoll’s work. So all of those things combined immediately drew me in, and then I got the role the same way that anyone else gets a roll. You audition. So, I just went in, and I went on tape, and they responded to what I did.
What was it like on set seeing everything for the first time?
Really disgusting and disturbing. Disturbing. There’s nothing subtle about what the character Justine was showing to the world in that scene. They were strung up.
It was pretty gross and pretty graphic, and I think really speaks to who she is. She’s got a message, and she’s shouting it from the rafters. She’s got a zero tolerance, and she means business.
As a person, and as an actor, as a human being, it’s pretty disgusting, and I think that they do graphic makeup effects and visual effects on the show tremendously well. As a person, it’s sort of disgusting. As an artist, I have tremendous respect and awe for what they accomplish.
What’s that experience been like to be immersed in these projects where you have source material to go back to? Have you been able to dig into the books at all, or just go back to that when you want to?
Well, ironically, in both situations, yes, I did start to dig into the books and then quickly realize that both characters were not in the books. Neither Justine nor the character that I played in Under the Dome were in fact original creations of the authors. That said, it’s always invaluable to have source material.
You get a sense of the texture and tone in the semantics of what these writers are creating. That’s invaluable. In getting involved in a Guillermo del Toro project, you know that aesthetically and thematically what you’re getting into. Even without the books, I felt pretty clear what I was joining, the show I was joining.
But absolutely it’s lovely to have source material. I’ve worked on Stephen King’s material on several occasions now, and he’s just such a master of character. It’s always, as an actor you just want as much as you can have to draw from to inform and help you build the character. In both circumstances, even though the characters weren’t there, the worlds were there, and that just gives you so much to play with.
Are there any traits with Justine in The Strain, that you’d really like to have in real life that you find very useful?
That’s an interesting observation, Ian. I would actually say that what’s been so refreshing for me on The Strain is that my experience, at least in the last ten years of my work, has been that, I wouldn’t say that I played pushovers, but a lot of the characters that I’ve played have been defined by being someone’s wife, or someone’s mother, or someone’s partner in some way.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but as a woman, I have to say that what’s been really exciting for me in playing Justine Faraldo is that I am, in fact, there as a woman who’s standing on her own two feet, who has a history and a past and is very strong.
So that’s really actually been really refreshing for me. In fact, when I first started, I thought what feels different? Oh wait, I’m not playing someone’s wife or mother. I’m a politician, and I’m there to be a strong woman and to be unapologetically strong and calling bullshit on all the bureaucracy and hypocrisy that she sees.
I have to say that that has actually been incredibly new and refreshing for me. I would say with every character that I try to find my commonalities with them, as well as my differences to see where I can pull immediately from my own experience. It’s a universal theme, but I think that we all have loved ones that we would do anything for. I don’t know that I would go to the extremes that Justine does, but I have family and friends that I love very much, and I would want to protect them if something happened.
In that very sort of universal human theme, I can relate to that. Then, as a woman, or generally speaking as a human being, in this political climate, there are myriad, there are no shortage of injustices in the world to be outraged and indignant by. So, certainly in that first scene… it was a lot of fun for me to come in and think about various politicians I might like to have words with and channel some of that energy.
Would you say that you’re quite attracted to that kind of work, or did it happen by accident?
It just completely happened by accident, but I have to say is that what I’m finding in the sci-fi sort of genre world, because it isn’t actually a world that I was drawn to when I was younger, and it is something that sort of developed. I mean, obviously, there is great interest in those spaces these days. I think they’re sort of a renewed fervor for sci-fi and genre and horror.
I think what I’m learning about the genre is how rich they are with metaphor about society, and that it’s talking about things greater than just what you see on the surface. Not only in circumstances but in human beings. The templates that are being created are really rich.
I’m seeing really rich, interesting characterization. As an actor, that’s all you could hope for. So, it’s interesting, it’s not by design at all, but I seem to be becoming someone who works in genre a lot, and I’m really enjoying it a lot, and the special effects are fun too.
What has been your most memorable experience as an actress so far?
My most memorable experience? Oh my God, there’s too many to say one in particular. I would certainly say that it was a childhood dream to do a play on Broadway, and I got to do that, and that was just an incredible dream come to fruition.
I grew up going to the theater with my mother, and my grandmother who were both actresses. We would go to see Broadway shows together and go to Sardi’s afterwards and talk about the play and being in the theater district where my mother and my grandmother had worked. The fact that I’ve been on stage in New York doing a Broadway play is I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.
The Strain airs on FX Sunday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific.