NBC’s new drama series AQUARIUS takes viewers back to the 1960’s, just as Charles Manson () was starting to make his mark as an upcoming musician and years before his infamous crimes that landed him in prison for life. Simultaneously, AQUARIUS tells the tale of two police detectives who lives became entangled in the same world as Manson and how they maneuvered in and out of Manson’s life and through their own trials and tribulations in a time when beliefs were being challenged politically, and feminism and racism was heating up across the nation. It became a perfect boiling point of tension and transition and when it blew up, no one was safe.
In a recent press interview, startalked about the challenges of portraying Charles Manson as well as the secret to who Manson was and how he was able to so successfully manipulate people around him.
What was it about the premise of the show in general and about your character that made you want to be part of it?
GETHIN: I think my first and strongest reaction was to reading the script on a Saturday morning back in London last year. I got really strong reactions to the authenticity of the dialogue that had been written for the Manson character and the characters around him in that world. I was aware somewhat of that era of history in U.S. history, but the dialogue was really authentic for me. So it made me want to dig deeper into understanding the late 60s. And I think that excitement and courage to make a show about sort of such sensitive subject matter with authenticity excites me.
How much research and preparation you did into Manson before you took on the role?
GETHIN: When I first got the script I was aware that the process of being cast would probably be about a month or maybe a bit longer, so I started to read the biographies that are available. One of the useful things about playing such a notorious man is that there’s a wealth of information out there, and I could have almost got sort of snowed under with reading and watching. But it really became about listening to his voice, that was a very helpful thing that I did. There’s an interview that he did with a studio engineer in 1967, before he was a part of the crimes and imprisoned that I found very useful to take me back to the point in the history that our stories take place. So it was listening to his voice. And, also once I was into the role, we got a college reading list from our show manager John McNamara. It was a big old list of books and films and music to listen to which is probably the most fun bit. Actually all of it was fascinating, but the music of the era is just fantastic.
After playing him, do you have an explanation why people gravitated to him so much?
GETHIN: I think that having done the research that I did, increasingly I understood why that might have been the case. I don’t claim to know if there was the silver-bullet of understanding why these young women were drawn to him, but I think there are a few key factors. One of the few books mentioned he has read is: “How To Make friends and Influence People.” That is something he read in prison. He also claims to have listened to pimps in prison as a way of understanding how they got their way, with presumably mostly women, but to basically control people from their end. He describes living in Berkeley is his kind of schooling, in a way. And so he obviously was actively sort of engaging in how to influence other people. It’s way before any of the crimes took place. And he was a man who was out of prison at a time when there were a lot liberation in the air with around young people and a lot of young impressionable minds out and about meeting new people with this feeling of liberation. So I think it was kind of a perfect cocktail of circumstance really.
What do you say to the critics who feel that AQUARIUS is glorifying the Manson family murder?
GETHIN: Well, the first thing I would say about that is certainly not in this season. We’re not depicting that. That is not the story. It should be clear that AQUARIUS is really about policemen in the late 60s. It’s not about Charles Manson. The story is about David’s character and everything else that was going on in Los Angeles and the United States in the late 60s. There’s huge storylines about civil rights and the feminism that was coming at that time. Young people. There’s a theme with this young person’s curfew right going on in L.A. So there’s a lot going on. And as in history, Manson sort of pulled himself to the attention of people by his actions and similarly in our story that is necessarily the case. The extremity of his actions, in that way, the character pulls himself into the spotlight. And I think we’ve been very careful about not glamorizing him.
Beyond the intrigue of the Mason Family, like you said AQUARIUS is really about a look at the lifestyles and the struggles of the 1960s. Now obviously as an 80s child, how was it to sort of immerse yourself in that decade? And do you think that you would have liked to have lived through that time having played the character of it?
GETHIN: That’s a great question. I do wonder that. I can tell you very easily that I’m not a big fan of flared trousers. Music is such a useful thing. I mean like using music to get into certain kind of mood when you write. So I started listening and I actually brought a vinyl set into my trailer — vinyl from a beauty shop. So I was listening to the Beatles in vinyl. And actually I’m a big fan of music anyway. So doing things like that. And also it’s like with any period drama, you got fantastic costumes in the set, which we absolutely did, and it really helps you do that. This is beyond even just reading off topic books like studio and sort of that studio system back then which is just fascinating to those looking for L.A. at the time and watching a couple of movies. It’s also like building enough material around it. It was a challenge to reset some or trying to get into some of the attitudes and perspectives and that was a learning experience. It’s something I hope to continue to do to try deepen that understanding. And would I have liked to live through it? Yes, probably I would have actually.
How do you get into place mentally to portray the character? And in what aspects of what you learned about Charles Manson have you pulled it in to influence your performance?
GETHIN: That’s a really good question. I think the main thing I did was to learn about how he was brought up and how he grew up. Actually, what I mean, how he grew up in institutions around the country, at a prison-like institutions throughout his life and educating myself about how human being who born as a human being can get to a position in their life where they are viewed so publicly as some kind of almost a mythological villain really. So, for me, it was really important to go about and try and understand as much as possible and learn more facts factually or anecdotally what his life was like, and there are some surprises in there. I mean, anyone can read. I mean, there’s lots of information out there, but the biography is about his his life up until the age of 21, I found fascinating and no doubt helped me be able to justify the actions as any actors are obliged to do. Then within our story, we are telling a fictionalized version of the late 60s and, indeed the story which is based in true events, but we fictionalized it for more specific reasons, which the showwriters can explain, but then it was just about connecting to the stories that we were telling and the specificity of that.
Pondering the notion that all actors I think it’s their job to sort of convince others to convince viewers to come along for the ride and immerse themselves in this character and believe this character. And there’s kind of a connection in a way to Charles Manson’s ability to sort of influence people and get them to come along for the ride. Do you think there is like sort of an actor kind of an actor buried somewhere in Charles Manson?
GETHIN: So to what extent people manipulate their performances in life to what ends, I think actually that the further along in this game you go in — I still go to class and I’m still trying to learn something, I’ve been doing this for a lot longer than I have — there is an honesty and there’s a truth to be pursued by an honesty, which however you want to put that. But that said, as an actor especially coming from a theatrical background and playing around and I think I got this game because I used to show-off when I was a kid like I think there’s an element of a playfulness and I think actually quite useful from its connector because, again, we’re telling the story of him when he was at liberty. He was out, he was in his element. So to connect with the playful nature of performance was very useful for me at some point in the series. And also, it’s to understand about him. He, again, in one of the biographies it talks about his adoption of a performance, basically playing crazy in certain prison situations in order to get himself out of violent situations because he wasn’t the biggest fellow in the world and so that was a part of his sort of toolbox of tricks, was to play crazy and talks about it. So, yes, I suppose there is definitely performance element to it.
What was the most surprising thing to you that you really didn’t anticipate going into this project that happened?
GETHIN: I can tell you about the very first Monday I walked in the set and one of the producers had organized for a shaman — I guess the word would be bless, but I’m not sure — but to sort of clear my aura and it’s not an experience I’ve had at all since, but the woman had performed this blessing and it was very lovely and essentially just a very nice work-thing, so I appreciate that. I mean, it’s really sweet that someone thought to do this and apparently they’ve done it for the whole set and all the cast and crew and everyone to just sort of remove any bad energy from our production, which was a nice thing to do. There were some scenes later on in the series, which I don’t really want to spoil, but there’s some interesting family relationship stuff — and I don’t mean Mason family, but I mean real family for all the characters. There’s sort of true family drama for every character like kicks in at the end of the show and I think that was pretty challenging for all the actors to get involved in.
How much interaction can we expect to see from your character and David Duchovny’s character, Sam, in the first season, and what’s your experience like working with David?
GETHIN: Great question. Obviously, I don’t want to spoil it too much, and I don’t think it spoils too much to say yes we have some interaction. But he’s got a whole of other stuff to be dealing with in his character, so there is some interaction in the first season. Having met David sort of, not just working way of filming but also around the set and around — I hugely look up to him growing up and still do as an actor — but he’s just a generous and lovely, very professional presence and a heck of a leader on the set. So it’s very nice to be around. I think I’ve been very lucky in my work to sort of see the work with some fantastic professionals and I definitely count him in the top sort of that league.
When you were first offered to audition for the role, was there ever any hesitation or concern with stepping in to portray such a well-known and notorious individual such as Charles Manson?
GETHIN: You know what, I guess 8-9 months — maybe a year now — I guess I’d be lying if I say there wasn’t at some point at all like, “Oh, is this a weird place to be getting into.” But when I first got the role, what I did do was actually want to learn a little about the project and how it’s going to be executed from John, the showrunner, and he is such a fantastic writer and leader of the show. I guess that side of it never really came into my sort of presence at all. It was more about getting excited about how they were going to shoot it. So it looks like authentic from the 60s and things like that. I haven’t in my mind haven’t sort of addressed it towards that, his life pops up in the news because he really is present in a lot of people’s mind. Also I’m more concerned about the people who were affected by the crimes rather than the people who are committing them, if you see what I mean.
Since you’re playing Manson as he’s trying to be a rock star, will we get to hear you sing and will he be hanging around the Beach Boys at this point?
GETHIN: Very good question. Yes, you will hear Charles sing because in our story that’s basically what he’s done. He’s just trying to get record deals. Just a guy who spent some time in prison and is looking for a record deal and he goes about that particular quest with some very unconventional methods. But, yes, you will hear the character sing and I had to learn to play guitar to play the role as well, which is probably unfair on the neighbors. But I can sort of throw a few chords together now, so I’m getting a bit better. But you’ll absolutely hear him sing. So in history, we’re sort of not quite near where he was interacting with any famous pop stars yet. So not in this series. But he’s absolutely doing the things that was recorded in old biographies that he was communicating and we’ve record executives and meeting them to sort of, but not yet.
In the fight scene between you and David, can you talk about that at all?
GETHIN: Yes. That was extraordinary. And I think it’s a nice shoot. You know, the good thing is everyone was so fantastic and gives you confidence that it was kind of just fun. I kind of really enjoy anything physical that you get to do on camera because it’s kind of cathartic. A lot of time you’re in close up and your body doesn’t get to express it very much. In that case, David was an absolute partner and great to work with. So it was allowing myself to be a rag doll and just kind of going with the writer. I guess I was that kid like in high school like we did like any kind of fight and you’ll be the one making all the noises. . . .That was a fun evening, but it was a long night. And I think I showered five times to get all the gunk and dust out of my hair.
AQUARIUS sort of takes place a couple of years before the crime Manson is best known for. If the series does so well and they bring it back, do you think that they’ll eventually take on the Tate-LaBianca murders or do you think they’ll be more continuing to stay in Los Angeles of the 60s type of thing?
GETHIN: I think if we continue to make the show over say a few years — let’s say, that we have that kind of response from our audience which we really hope it will — then I think it would be impossible to get through to the end of the 60s and like through to the 70s, or at least considered within the storyline. Whether that’s detailed how that would be if that would be depicted is not necessarily a necessary thing. Because my having come here from London, I’m struck by how vivid that atmosphere is in the memories of people who live throughout the city and the story is about L.A. It doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be on that evening necessarily visually, but the response to everything around it could very well be a part of our story later on.
Going into the mind of such a character, was it hard kind of moving away from that darkness after you’re done filming the scenes, and was there something you did to kind of step back from that?
GETHIN: Watch Disney movies. No, funny enough that was actually the real challenge with this, was figuring out how to let go of it a little bit. Mainly because it was a performance that I had to sustain over an extended period of time where I was sort of working six days a week. So I had to figure out a way of sort of balancing it, I guess. But I mean, I didn’t do that very well. I think I was probably the only person in LA who is on their own on Halloween this year. Like I just wasn’t that interested in going out being spooked or spooking because I get enough of that at work. But, I just sort of kept playing guitar and trying to find less intense elements and immersing myself in that world and listening to the kind of my style of the music and getting stuff like that. But apart from that, I did enjoy watching Finding Nemo and went to a play.
To see Gethin’s enigmatic portrayal of Charles Manson in the years leading up to his more notorious crimes, be sure to check out AQUARIUS, which debuts Thursday, May 28th at 9 p.m. on NBC.