Probably best known for his work with Zach Braff on films like Garden State and The Last Kiss as well as US dramas like Six Feet Under, Michael Weston looks set to change that with his starring role in Houdini & Doyle.
A reimagining of the real-life friendship between Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and escapologist Harry Houdini, the new ITV Encore drama series sees the pair investigating supernatural mysteries.
As in real life, Weston’s Houdini is the sceptic foil to the credulous Doyle’s paranormal believer. The show is a cross between Ripper Street and The X Files, with the ever-excellent Stephen Mangan sporting a (genuine) outlandish tache as Doyle.
Filmed primarily in Manchester, the show gave Weston the chance to experience some Northern culture for the very first time, which he describes as “fun” adding “They have some tough broads up there.”
An avid football fan who took in a couple of Manchester United games at Old Trafford’s “incredible” atmosphere. Temporarily living in the UK was something of a whirlwind for Weston, who also played Cuddy’s detective boyfriend Lucas in House opposite Hugh Laurie.
Loaded: How did you find out about Houdini & Doyle?
I was out in LA doing a play and running lines with my mum when I got the call saying they wanted to meet with me in London. I got on a flight that night and auditioned. A week later we were shooting.
Loaded: How do you prepare to play someone as famous as Houdini?
They are such famous, almost mythical characters, so to me it was really important just to find Houdini’s humanity – the weird ticking person that exists underneath all those foibles.
“Me and Stephen Mangan gave each other a lot of shit”
That’s the thing with celebrity: you don’t really know who the person is until you encounter them yourself. I didn’t really know what I was getting into until this project. I felt a sense of fun and mischief from him and tried to let that be my guide.
Houdini’s story is still relevant today. He was an immigrant and faced a lot of prejudice. His story is freeing himself from what he represented. It’s the story of someone who created his own American dream. I always felt that was a major motivation behind his character.
Loaded: How was Stephen Mangan to work with?
Michael: It was great. We felt each other out for the first couple of weeks. Working so closely alongside another actor, it can sometimes almost feel like an arranged marriage. You’re thrown together with this stranger, and you just have to hope it works.
But Stephen was a real pal. He speaks so impeccably and is so well trained, but is also a really funny guy so we gave each other a lot of shit and had a really great time. We became fast friends and really enjoyed pushing each other’s buttons. He also introduced me to a lot of English culture.
I had my first steak and ale pie with him. It was great – I went back for another! Stephen and the crew couldn’t believe it. I even went back for a few more pints and another pie on my own the next day…
Loaded: Houdini was a sceptic. Where do you stand on the supernatural?
Michael: I’m such a realist and so pragmatic about so many things in my life, but there is a part of me that just doesn’t know. That’s part of the reason the show appealed to me.
I don’t spend my days thinking about ghosts and alternate universes. I’m not religious, and I have so many questions about this stuff. But the truth is, you never really have the answer. You can have an opinion but nobody really knows.
“I’m probably one of the worst magicians ever”
The idea of the afterlife also fascinates me. We seem so obsessed with desire to know what comes next.
Loaded: Have you ever had your own supernatural encounter?
Michael: I did, though I am reluctant to talk about it because I question myself about it all the time.
My grandmother lived in this old, old house in Paris that the Gestapo had taken over for a time while my family fled to Los Angeles. Just after my grandmother passed away, I went back there with a friend, a big 6ft 4in guy.
He got freaked out, because he thought he saw something in the hallway of the house and it seriously spooked him. I remember laughing about it at the time, but then about a month later, while I was staying there with a girlfriend, I freaked out walking down the same hallway because I swear I saw some strange shape.
It’s usually hard to convince me with that supernatural shit but that really poked a hole in my theories.
Loaded: Can you show us any magic tricks?
Michael: I tried. I was like an amateur magician on the fly. I’d read about a trick in the script and be ‘I’ve got to do that? I don’t know how to do that!’
I wish that I could boast that I actually knew some magic, but I was probably one of the worst magicians ever. But I did work with a guy called Danny Hunt, an actual escapologist. He helped me work on some card tricks.
I wanted to do everything in real time, not just close-ups of some other guy doing the tricks. But you realise quite quickly how much time it takes to do them convincingly. I continue to work on them in the hope of a second series.
The guys that do it right do it for 14 hours a day. It’s like any kind of mastery: you really have to get into it.
Loaded: Your character is put in a few precarious positions – how involved were you with the stunts?
Michael: I did a lot of the stunts. I wanted to do as much as I could, so I was very gung-ho. I was buried alive, did all sorts of jumps and even a few stunts in water.
In the first episode, I was dipped upside down into a tank – this three tonne monolith of water.
You’re hanging upside down, shackled together. I was pretty cocky about it at first – I’m not afraid of water, I can hold my breath and even stand on my head – but there was something about that loss of control, being handcuffed and upside down. It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done.
I’d have to catch my breath in there, but I was really struggling because I had butterflies in my stomach. It was an intense experience but, once it was over, I wanted to do it again.
Loaded: How does Houdini & Doyle differ to your average period piece detective show?
Michael: A lot of the themes explored in Houdini and Doyle are relevant to society today. Houdini challenged what we thought we could do and how far we could go with something. The show asks the question “Could we possibly free ourselves from the shackles of whatever is oppressing us?”
Doyle too, with his writing, represents something deep within us. His own obsession with spiritualism and the spiritual life is still debated today.
There are big themes that play out in the show – racism, feminism and all these other issues that were burgeoning at the time and remain so, to some extent, today.
I loved the scripts, they were wonderful and each character got deeper and more rounded as individuals as the series progressed.
Loaded: You’ve already guested in Elementary and now Houdini And Doyle – what is it about the mythology of Sherlock Holmes that keeps audiences coming back?
Michael: Sherlock Holmes has been such a huge inspiration to so many things we watch and read today. Arthur Conan Doyle’s books laid the foundation for so much in terms of crime fiction on television – you can even trace stuff like CSI back to it.
At the heart of it, though, are those great mysteries. I also feel like his books are such a brilliant source of whimsy and imagination and, for me, there is no end to the inspiration that can be drawn from them.
Loaded: What else are you working on?
Michael: I wrote a movie and a TV series that I hope to direct and we are starting to get that going.
Loaded: Are you still in touch with Zach Braff?
Michael: Zach and I are old friends. I still see him around and he’s great. We first worked together on a film called Getting To Know You back in 1999, and were roommates for about four years after that.
It’s always been fun to see him doing his thing and we still live close to each other. I’ll never forget the day he got Scrubs – he screamed into the canyon that day!
Houdini & Doyle is on ITV Encore on Sunday at 9pm.
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.