Five years after interviewing Sam Janus on the set of Breeders, we met again on the set of Strange, the short-lived BBC supernatural series. This interview was conducted in Sam’s dressing room at Ealing Studios in October 2002 and part of it appeared in Shivers. It was a joint interview with David Richardson from Starburst.
What attracted you to doing Strange?
"I took a year off and had a baby, and was quite careful about what I was going to do when I came back, because of this kind of hiatus: what should I come back with? There were many suggested things the like of which I’d done before. Strange was the first thing I came to which was unlike anything else I’d read. It wasn’t a cop show, it wasn’t based in a hospital - not that there’s anything wrong with those kind of shows. But it was just new.
“There’s a strange path between the darkness of it and the comedy. There are some light moments. The two characters - Jude and Strange - have this wonderful way of dealing with the situation through humour at times, but there is this incredible darkness running through it. I would promote it as a drama, a sci-fi drama, as opposed to anything else. It’s not light entertainment, although there are lighter moments in the horror I suppose. So it was that, the originality."
The series had a good start in the pilot episode with your character’s boyfriend turning out to be the bad guy.
"It was a good set-up, a good way to start a pilot. But it alienates Jude straight away. At the beginning of the series we now find her alone, a single mother. And that’s a good starting point, but you’ve got the background of why she’s there, and what introduced her into the world of demons. She’s not on a par with John Strange. They become two isolated individuals from two separate worlds, and yet are very good at working well together. Him with his background knowledge and his demonic history, but Jude’s analytical mind, because she studied as a scientist - they’re a great combination. They work out impossible situations where, if they were apart from each other, they wouldn’t. So it was a good starting point, that pilot, because they’re both alienated. And of course they’re thrown together because they’re the only people who know what’s going on."
In the pilot, there was the boyfriend, and it looked like Canon Black (Ian Richardson) was the bad guy, but that has now changed for the series. Is it almost like starting again?
"We wanted to replicate the things that worked in the pilot, obviously. The strange thing, obviously if people haven’t seen the pilot, is to establish the story, but without repeating what you’ve done in the pilot for the people who remember what they’ve seen. It was a strange one, so we’ve brought elements of their relationship through that remind them of what happened before - which are important reminders but nevertheless you can quite easily tune in and pretty much get a grip on the story, if you just caught this episode and not the pilot."
When this goes out, a lot of papers are going to compare the Jude-Strange relationship to Scully and Mulder.
"There are always going to be comparisons. I think what’s interesting about this programme is it’s very difficult. What people tend to do is say, ‘It’s a mixture of this/this/this...’ - and the reason they do that is because there hasn’t been anything like this before. Yes, you could say there are elements of The X-Files, you could say there are elements of Buffy, you could say there are elements of paranormal drama, there are moments of comedy. But what is unusual about it is that it fluctuates between all these different things pretty effortlessly. That’s down to Andrew Marshall’s writing. He’s been very clever in not taking it too seriously, because of course you want to take that away from the audience straight away. You don’t want to overindulge yourself in the drama of it because it would be boring for the audience.
“So there are lighter moments that relieve you, and it’s very difficult to play. Richard and I have been struggling with just hitting the right note in each particular moment with each scene. Because one minute you’re confronted with your boyfriend disappearing and being a demon, your son possibly being involved more than you know, everybody that you’ve known or loved being taken away from you - yet then there’s suddenly a lighter moment when the scene needs to be lifted. Obviously that’s very difficult to do, so it’s really about colour and shade and just highlighting those moments very, very carefully, and sticking true to Andrew’s writing. If we do that, then it’s okay."
Does the story unfold over the six episodes?
"I would imagine that their relationship story unfolds, and that’s not to say that they have a relationship which is more than just friends. What’s interesting and what I like about this piece is that they have a partnership with no emotional ties, so far. And that works well, that you’ve haven’t got that carrot dangling - will they? won’t they? - all the time. Whether that’s introduced later on, I don’t know. But what’s interesting is that throughout each story you get a little but more information on where John Strange has been and where he’s come from, his traumas of the past, and what Jude’s been through. So you’re getting more and more information about the characters, and then that information that you get fuels your desire to watch them fight the demon. I would say there’s probably a demon with each episode; it’s about targeting all these demons that cover the face of the Earth, in all their different guises. So that’s predominantly the set-up with the characters and what makes it work."
Are the effects sequences spread throughout all the episodes?
"I don’t know about throughout all of them. Certainly the ones that we’re doing at the moment are incredible. It is important. What’s important about is that, unlike The X-Files and Buffy, we’re actually getting to see some incredible technicians at work. This promise of something that’s lurking in the shadows absolutely comes to fruition. Some of the effects that I’ve seen certainly, I’ve thought: that’s not ever been seen on British TV before. Certainly the BBC haven’t done that. So that’s quite daring, but it means a lot of time and attention has been paid to them."
Does it help that you made the pilot some time ago so you’ve had time to think about and evaluate the characters?
"Yes, we got a chance to see what worked in the relationship, to find the truth in this relationship. And I think, watching the pilot and realising how well the lighter moments work gives us the confidence to follow them through. We’ve stuck quite close to what we did in the pilot."
Have you worked with Ian Richardson much?
"So far I haven’t. In the pilot, I did. He’s amazing - terrified the life out of me in one scene, honest to God. An incredible actor, and an amazing character; none of us are really sure where Canon Black stands. And I don’t know whether Andrew knows, whether he’s not telling us. It’s being left up to the audience, there’s lots of stuff where you haven’t got there yet, you’re not sure. It’s ambiguous. "
Are you trying to put your work on Breeders behind you?
"Funnily enough, the guy who’s done the tree demon on this episode, Neill Gorton, did the alien in Breeders. I was not really happy with the outcome of Breeders. I thought it had the potential to be fantastic. But you put it down to experience. Actually the people that were making it were fun to work with and I made some great friends on it. We had very little money, we were up against it - and it showed. But I believe that the people who made it have gone on to do bigger and better things. It was a learning curve for all of us really."
What do you find different about this show from other series that you’ve worked on?
"Normally when you do a piece of work, you are reminded of something else that you’ve done, it doesn’t have to be the same kind of energy and buzz. There’s a feeling around this that it’s quite special because it’s so new. Everyone’s much more curious, people are wandering around set far more than they do normally, coming and having a look and really enjoying it. It’s something very different and I’m enjoying that aspect of it. It’s also working very well, all those elements of light and shade - so far, touch wood - in the things that we’ve filmed have been quite magical. I hope that comes through on screen. We’re shooting out of context at the moment, and there’s the location work still to come - but I can just about manage to follow what’s happening.
“Next year, at the end of the year, because it’s gruelling - we’re filming a block of three, then a week off, then the second three - they’re all completely out of context as well. I think we might spend more time on the finales because it’s where all the special effects happen, so we’ve got all of our finales in the space of about four weeks. The finales are energetic, you’re hyped up, and we’re going to be doing those every day for four weeks."
"Yes, and I love that."
There is already a Strange fansite on the web.
"Yes, I’ve got a little doll made of Lego and everybody else has got a proper one. Whoever made those should remodel me in plastic!"
If it takes off and overshadows everything else that you’ve done, are you prepared for the conventions and the fanzines?
"Science fiction fans are very loyal and I do like that. There’s real dedication involved. When you’re creating something that is that important to people, it’s a real responsibility. However, it is so important, the other half of the year, to make sure you’re not doing that but stretching yourself by doing something that’s the complete opposite. It comes down to the individual really."
Do you think that making a show like this is risky for the BBC?
"Yes, I do feel that this is a big risk for the BBC. It’s a real mix of entertainment and drama, and there’s a really strange feel behind it of: what’s this going to be? What’s this going to become? So the pressure is on and I am very, very aware and very conscious to make it as good as it possibly can be, because it’s important to me."
Had you seen director Joe Ahearne’s series Ultraviolet?
"No, but I've seen some of his work. Joe has an incredible sense of imagery when it comes to suspense and horror and the darker elements, just in terms of where he’s putting the camera and the lighting. His precision is incredible. It affects what we’re doing on set because he has twisted the camera up in some strange way so suddenly we’re dwarfed, or whatever. He’s very clever."
Where were the locations filmed for the pilot?
"A lot of it was in London. Jude’s hospital was really close to me originally, was in Crouch End, has moved to Greenwich! So I’m having to travel for that, but everybody else’s locations are at the end of my road. So every time I see location scenes I think, ‘Fantastic! Two minutes to work!’ Everybody else is at the end of my road, but I’m in Greenwich. But the gothic, shadowy stuff is predominantly North London, Highgate and that sort of area. I love being on location.
“One of the things with being here is that it’s dramatic on the first day when you arrive and see everyone and everything, but within about an hour it saps all your energy. We were doing a three-and-a-half page scene yesterday - by natural light. It was really congested, about 20 of us crammed into a small room lit by candle-light. And just pictures of demons everywhere. After a while it begins to permeate through your skin. You begin to feel quite low and quite depressed and your energy levels are going lower and lower. We had to snap ourselves out of it. Here in my room I have scatter cushions, candles, potpourri and Joni Mitchell, which helps!"
How long does production go on for?
"Our last day is 23rd December. It’s a long stint - three months. Sometimes finish at 8.30, get back home at nine. It all depends on having the right people around you, becoming excited about the scene that you’re going to do. It’s a difficult piece. After this, I’ve got a play that I want to do in January and February. There’s one episode where I age to about 85 and my son has been promised that he can come down and see me when I’m 85 - he’s really excited at the prospect of that!
“I’ve been fitted for my facial pieces. I had a face cast done for the first time which is a bizarre experience. Your face is literally covered all over with a kind of silicate which then dies and is pulled off. It’s like being born again! For a while all your senses have disappeared completely - sight, sound, smell - all you’re left with are two tiny nostril holes for you to breathe. And it gets tighter and tighter as it dries, so after a while you feel: let me out! Then they quickly peel it off and they’ve got this wonderful face cast from which they can build a mask. I’m going to invite my grandmother down because she’s not going to see me that age, ever. It’s the only time she’ll get to see me as an old lady!”
interview originally posted 18th October 2005