A: I was in House which was created by David Shore and David Hoselton. I remember going to my first script read through of House and not only were the actors so great and so professional but the scripts were deep, layered and well manicured.
There are so many moving parts in TV so you never know what you’re going to get in those first scripts. And they were gems. Smart, clever, funny and well thought out. That’s when I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m dealing with someone really talented.’ It was a privilege to work on that show. So David Shore could tell me to leap off a bridge and I’d do it. I’m a huge admirer of his. And David Hoselton too. He brought this idea together. It’s such a unique idea, set in this period time of these two epic figures. And he does it with such wit, humour and humanity. Yet it’s this great adventure and procedural at the same time. He somehow manages to weave all of that together in the course of an hour. That, to me, is a magic trick unto itself.
Q: Did you know much about Harry before this?
A: Not a great deal. I had read the novel Ragtime so I knew Harry Houdini from that perspective. I had a peripheral idea of who he was, just as a magician. But I didn’t really understand the place he occupied in history and in people’s hearts.
My wife said to me when I got this role, ‘I love Harry Houdini.’ I had no idea. He holds a place in people’s imaginations and in their sense of wonder and their own fantasies of what magic is. To push the possibilities and boundaries of your own imagination and your own capability.
When I started reading about him as preliminary research for the part, he was this person who represented freedom and liberation and hope and carved out the American Dream for himself. And held this energy in his acts and somehow managed to translate that from these escape acts to huge throngs of people crowded on blocks.
To each one of them it meant something else. I think it was very personal in some way. He pushed boundaries and had the sense of hope that you could escape them and be anything you want. And that’s magic. We need magic.
He pulled himself up from the dregs of poverty, having nothing, and became an international celebrity at a time when there was no YouTube, Twitter or television. You didn’t get around that easily. And so to become an international anything took some real work ethic. I think he had a real work ethic about everything he did.
Q: How would you describe Houdini and Doyle’s (Stephen Mangan) relationship?
A: What’s great about this series is these guys were real life friends and also philosophically combative. They ridiculed each other but at the same time had deep admiration for each other. Houdini probably read every one of Doyle’s books. He read and studied a lot and wanted to bring himself to a different class.
I feel like he looked up to Doyle a lot but at the same time was really frustrated with him. He couldn’t believe this incredibly intelligent man could be such a fool and believe in all this supernatural rubbish. And he spent a lot of his time trying to debunk all that spiritualism that Doyle needed to believe in for his own emotional arc.
In this series these guys have such a clever, David Shore and David Hoselton patented, repartee. It’s really fun to act. Stephen Mangan is a pal on and off stage and we really enjoy pushing each other’s buttons. So it’s been great fun.
Q: Did Houdini go out of his way to expose frauds and charlatans?
A: He made it a personal crusade to debunk spiritualism and expose charlatans. And did it in such a public way. At a certain point he had been that himself. He had learned the mechanics of what it takes to be a medium.
Mediums came up out of the Civil War and in people’s need to communicate with the people they had lost. When Harry Houdini was on the scene it was around the time of World War One and there was that same need to communicate with the people you have lost. He realised he was taking advantage of these people, they would hang on these hopes and it would derail them from their own trajectory. They would buy into it and get lost in it. Not only was he taking their money, he was lying to them. He hated that, hated the lie. He loved the trickery of a good trick but he didn’t want to take advantage of the very people he grew up with and was a real leader for. So he stopped.
He wanted everyone to know there was a science involved in it and that it was real. That’s another point where Doyle and Houdini really met eye to eye. They believed in science. Doyle tried to prove the supernatural from a scientific standpoint. Houdini made his tricks work and you couldn’t figure it out. And so there is a science involved in that too.
Q: How would you describe Harry’s relationship with Constable Adelaide Stratton, played by Rebecca Liddiard?
A: She really throws him. Adelaide is a total cutie, yet is a strong woman and he can’t use his celebrity to buckle her knees. It frustrates him. She challenges him because she can stand on her own two feet and is to the fore of the feminist and suffragette movement. She’s a new woman. I think she really enlightens him and makes him a deeper, better man as he sees the potential in her.
Q: In terms of the supernatural, have you ever had an experience you could not explain?
A: I think of myself as a very rational human being. A pragmatist, a realist. And yet I have a moment I remember in my grandmother’s old house where myself and an old buddy of mine from New York thought there was a ghost.
It was a big old house in Paris. My grandfather Arthur Rubinstein was a pianist who lived there. Then the Gestapo took the house over and my grandparents fled to Los Angeles, where my father was born. The Gestapo used it as a headquarters and took everything away.
After the war my grandfather returned to the house. My grandmother was in her nineties when I got to know her at the end of her life. I spent a year there working in Paris bars and hanging out.
One night I’d got up and went to the bathroom. I was going back to my bedroom along an old hallway when I saw this amorphous thing and my body just had a reaction. I’d never thought of ghosts in my entire life. I went in and my girlfriend was sat up in bed and totally awake when she had been asleep. She said, ‘Did you just see a ghost?’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God. You saw it? I saw it.’
Then two months later I’d gone back to the house with my giant six foot four inch buddy from New York, who doesn’t think of anything except burgers. And he had a moment in the same hallway where he freaked out and thought something had touched his head. It’s impossible to scare this guy. But he freaked out and was sweating, asking, ‘What just happened?’
So those two things happened. I don’t know what the hell that was. Just inexplicable things. I feel science has so many answers but not all the answers. I believe in a connected spiritual world and yet I’m not a religious man. I feel there’s a deep connective tissue in us but it’s not tangible. There’s a lot of stuff I can’t explain, some stuff is inexplicable to me. I don’t go around thinking about it in my daily life. But there are so many unanswered questions.
Q: The opening scene in the series sees Houdini and Doyle trapped up to their necks in a cellar as water rises all around them. How was that to film?
A: It was really intense, but fun. We have incredible wardrobe and set departments that build these extravagant things. They built this set for us and we were in water for hours and hours.
They were raising the level gradually and let us go right to the point of real danger. We always want to make it look real and feel real. So we will do it as close as we can. We really were gasping for air and happy when it was all over. But it was awesome fun. You get a little adrenaline rush.
Q: You filmed the infamous Chinese Water Torture stage routine, tell us about that.
A: They presented it to me as, ‘Hey, do you want to try this? Is that something you would do?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I definitely want to do that.’ Then I did it and it was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done in my life.
You’re literally being hung upside down in shackles so you can’t move your arms and you have the sense of being completely out of control. Then you’re dipped into this tiny claustrophobic tank full of water. If they drop you, if something malfunctions, you’re screwed. You know that but you know there are guys on set looking out for you. Yet as they dip you down you have to take this breath and your adrenaline is going and you’ve got butterflies. I didn’t have the control so I’d take a breath and I’d immediately run out of air. Then they’d say, ‘Action,’ and I’d be trying to get my breath as I went in and then hold it and remain calm upside down with water shooting up your nose. It was so intense.
It made me have deep respect for Houdini who could actually pull that off and go fully into it. I think I went in to just above my waist and stayed in for about 15 or 20 seconds. I came out gasping so I can’t even imagine being in there for three minutes or whatever he did, eight times a week. You have to have steel veins.
Q: Where did you film those stage scenes?
A: We did it at the Palace Theatre in Manchester where Houdini had performed. You look out from the stage and it’s a beautiful, ornate old theatre. Breathtaking. So being on stage there where he had performed -- literally 100 years ago to the day we filmed that -- was so special and pretty crazy.
For a second you just allow yourself to believe in it. It’s that rare moment as an actor where you walk through your own dream for a second. It was both surreal and beautiful. I savour that.
Q: What were some of the other memorable scenes?
A: There’s a scene where Houdini dives into the Port of London docks. They wouldn’t let me dive into the dock so we filled up a tank with water and then we spent a day in there, jumping in - with people making waves in the water. It felt so real.
I loved doing it and got such a rush out of it. It’s a first for me doing all those stunts. It’s fun but also scary.
Q: What were some of the other challenges?
A: Houdini’s back is covered in boils at one point. My least favourite thing to do as an actor is prosthetics. And then they told me it was boils....you know that’s going to be four hours in the make-up chair. But we had genius make-up artists and so they got it done as quick as they could and it looked incredible.
Q: Presumably you had to learn the secrets of the magic tricks?
A: We had a magician, a guy who is an escapologist in the vein of Harry Houdini. He came and helped me out and taught me a lot of tricks. It’s stuff I wish I was better at. You really need to spend a lot of time with a deck of cards in your hand. But I did do some tricks. I was really, actually doing them. It made me more nervous than anything -- more nervous than any stunt.
One card trick involves Houdini pulling out a hankie from someone’s breast pocket and it then dissolving into flames. That flame was real. I burned all the hair off my hand.
For details on all 10 episodes of Houdini & Doyle, visit my Episode Guide. I will review each episode as they air in the U.S.
Source: ITV Press Pack.