Arjun Gupta has set hearts a racing among fans of Syfy’s “The Magicians,” all while playing a character who doesn’t hide his disdain for nearly all his classmates at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.
Gupta’s Penny has the magic of a Traveller—he can teleport to any place he imagines. He also wields one helluva mean streak.
The 29-year-old Gupta, who starred as Sam in Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” before becoming Brakebills’ resident bad boy, smiles and jokes more readily than his character.
Gupta, now a brand ambassador for Uplift Humanity India, showed that positive attitude at January’s meeting of the TV Critics Association in Pasadena, Calif. The 6-foot-1 actor hijacked our interview before it even got started to tell two basketball-related stories—because why not? We then talked about sex while levitating, Penny’s troubles and making magic believable.
“The Magicians,” Syfy’s adaptation of Lev Grossman’s book series, airs at 9/8c Mondays.
Related: Arjun Gupta, ‘The Magicians’ conjure Season 2
How’s it going?
I don’t meet a lot of people taller than me, so I appreciate this.
Your costar Hale [Appleman].
Yeah, but he’s one of the few. I also didn’t work with him as much as I would love to. What are you, 6-foot-6?
Jordan was 6-foot-6.
I got that a lot back in the day. Yes, I’m 6-foot-6, just like Michael Jordan.
I want to be like Mike. You are like Mike. There you go.
I can’t play basketball. The vertical jump isn’t there.
Nor is mine. I used to play basketball in high school. It’s an embarrassing story so I don’t want to tell you this but it’s really funny to me. So we all went to private school. We didn’t have personnel cut-offs, right? There were no cuts. So freshman year there was a varsity, a JV and a freshman team. So we were the freshman team and had so much fun. Never won a game.
There were a lot of incoming freshmen when I was going to sophomore year who were really, really good. Because we were now sophomores we had to elevate to the JV team, but we were terrible. So they restructured it so it was varsity, JV-A and JV-B. They put a bunch of the freshmen in the JV-A team and they put all of us in the JV-B team.
We were a glorified freshmen team and it was so much fun. We still never won a game.
Nobody expected it.
When I play a basketball person—I don’t know when that would happen—but when I do you have the story about it.
Maybe I’ll put that out there: Arjun wants to be cast as a basketball player.
Hey, I watched “Coach Carter.” Actually, here’s another basketball story; I don’t know why basketball is coming up. “Eddie,” the Whoopi Goldberg movie—it’s not that good but it’s very nostalgic for me.
I grew up in Tampa, Fla., Palm Harbor to be specific. There was a Blockbuster down the street. My mom would ask use what movie we wanted to get and we’d all be like, “Eddie!” She’d said, “No.” It was like 12 weekends in a row that I wanted to watch this fucking movie. It was the funniest; I love “Eddie.”
All right. Now, you have more important questions.
Yes, like this one: What’s it like having sex while levitating?
It’s very awkward and uncomfortable. No honestly, when I first read the script and it was like, “Oh, we’re levitating, and you hit the ceiling.” I was like, “Oh weird. I wonder how we’re going to shoot that? Are we going to do green screens? Are we going to do a visual effects?”
I got to New Orleans and I was talking to Mike Cahill, our brilliant director of the pilot and he was like, “No, we’re doing this practically.” And I was like, “What?”
David Copperfield was one set to levitate you?
So basically they sent us to a special effects place, SpectrumFX in New Orleans, and they body plastered me from my head down to my waist. From that plaster they built a lever that two big guys used to lift me and Jade [Tailor] up to the ceiling. So the two of us flying was a practical effect; we choreographed it because it was so technical. It very specific and with Mike’s help it became what I wanted and what Jade wanted. It became a dance. It was really incredible.
So the cast thing that held you looked like the bottom side of you?
Yes. It was my back and a little bit of my ass. And it was attached to a lever like a seesaw and two guys just lifted us up.
They built a model for us to use to choreograph it. We kept choreographing specifics because he told us that the shot was going to cut when our hand reached the ceiling. So we used his framework. Then on the day like we practiced a little bit and it was what you guys watched.
Levitating sex might become a thing because it also happened in “The Expanse” premiere.
We did it first. … I actually don’t know if that’s true.
All right, so let’s get back to your character. He seems to not like anyone.
Yeah, that’s true.
Is it because he doesn’t like himself?
Ha. I think Penny is someone who comes from a place of extreme darkness, having got kicked out of the home very young and living on his own. I think much of the resentment has to do with a group of people that have seemingly been given everything that Penny has never gotten.
That’s a form of not liking yourself, but it’s more directly coming from—for Quentin specifically—he represents every privilege that Penny was denied. … I think Penny’s struggling with who he is. But Penny does not loathe himself. Penny just doesn’t know how to be himself. That’s what I would say.
At some point are all these characters going to have to come together and get along, or will they just come together and not get along?
Well, that’s the thrilling part of the journey. Mike Cahill described it and we all feel like we’re as people like six different planets. And we’re put in this solar system—getting accepted at Brakebills. The six of us are very intertwined in what the beast is doing and what that is. We’re forced together.
It’s a phenomenally interesting thing watching Penny, specifically, be in a situation having to work with them. Penny’s a lone wolf, he’s someone who sees himself as a hawk amongst pigeons.
Now you’re forced to be amongst the pigeons. Now you’re forced to be amongst other worlds. How do you handle that? Do you grow into it? Do you implode? That’s the fun thing to watch.
Is it odd to play those scenes where, for example, you’re using magic and nothing really probably happens right in front of you? Take for example the battle magic scene?
No, but I watched them pull him back so I knew what it was like. We have an amazing stunt department. Dan Shea and a wonderful group of stunt coordinators in Canada.
That moment is just about that Quentin’s doing battle magic and you have to feel as an actor, “You tried to murder me!” … I don’t know if Sera [Gamble] or John [McNamara] or Lev [Grossman] would even agree with this, but in my head Penny fought a lot as a kid and there’s a code amongst fighters out on the streets and you don’t fuck with that code.
Is it awkward shooting those scenes? Yeah, there’s a certain amount of imagination we have to have. But that’s fun.
Is Penny going to have to face all of his demons by season’s end? Is this stuff that’s happening around him going to force that?
For sure. I think that that’s the beautiful thing about this season and the books in general is a continual confrontation with demons. I think you’re continually confronting the things that are hindering you from being the best version of yourself. For Penny those are a multitude of things and a lot is happening to Penny. A lot happens to Penny during this season. He’s forced to confront not everything, because then we wouldn’t have a Season 2 hopefully, but a lot. A lot of stuff.
Despite being a “Nurse Jackie” watcher, I didn’t recognize you when I first watched “The Magicians.”
As an artist I appreciate that. I love hearing that. I do.
You look totally different in this.
It’s a wildly different guy.
Is it more fun to play somebody who is this messed up?
You give me an opportunity to just speak about “Nurse Jackie” for a second. I’m not where I am without that experience. That was my grad school. The people I worked with there—Edie [Falco], Merritt [Weaver], Eve [Best], Stephen Wallem, Anna Deavere Smith, who is a mentor and a friend and a profound inspiration to me. It was hugely impactful in becoming the kind of artist I am today. Sam was incredible. I learned so much.
This is such a different stretch. First of all, now I’m one of the leads. And secondly, Sarah and John have asked a lot of me. They’ve asked a lot of all of our characters.
Penny has a particularly crazy roller coaster to go on and it was a challenge that terrified me and excited me. And it was one that I had a fun time trying to meet and hopefully I have. I will find out in a few months.
Has the huge popularity of the book series given you pause? Or even as you’re thinking about how you played your character?
It’s interesting. Lev [Grossman] and I have had this conversation. We’ve been very fortunate because Lev has been up in Vancouver a couple of times. He was out in New Orleans when we did the pilot. … He’s always been like, “Well, you’re Penny is very different than my Penny.” I disagree with him. I think there are differences, but there’s an essential rebelliousness and distrust of authority that Lev captures in the books that I try to honor.
Also, the books came out at a time when mohawks and studded jackets were edgy. In 2015 they’re not anymore. The fauxhawk exists; there are studs everywhere. So with Sarah and with Magali Guidasci, our incredible costume designer, we found a different look for him that was edgy.
I think there’s always going to be an intimidation about adapting something that’s so beloved because everyone feels a sense of ownership. I took comfort in the fact that I love these books so much that I wanted to hold true to them as much as possible. And knowing Sarah’s love for the books, knowing John’s love for the books, knowing the rest of this cast’s love for the books. I was like OK we’re going to do something that people will see the essence of and go for the ride and enjoy it as much as we have.