Samantha Mathis Talks ‘The Strain’, Her Advice to Actors and More!
“As an actor you just want as much as you can have to draw from to inform and help you build the character” – Samantha Mathis
Samantha Mathis joined season 2 of FX’s The Strain as Councilwoman Justine Faraldo, a woman who is using unorthodoxed tactics to make Staten Island into the only plague-free zone in New York City.
Mathis (who I’ll always remember from Pump Up The Volume) recently starred in CBS’ Under the Dome and on Broadway in Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations and has had a really nice long and varied career in film, TV and theatre.
In this interview, she chats about her character and working on the show, her advice to actors and how TV is the place to be for rich, interesting female characters.
The Strain airs on Sundays at 10pm on FX
Justine is a very interesting character so far. We don’t know much about her. How much of what goes on within her is driven by her lust for power or need for power, and how much is just keeping her people safe?
Samantha Mathis: Well, I think that that’s a really excellent question. I mean, this is a woman who certainly has a past, as exemplified from the episode just this last Sunday night. She lost a brother and a husband in 9/11.
Certainly, Staten Island has received sometimes less than stellar treatment from New York City. So, I think that she is very protective of her people, and she’s very dedicated to her people, but there’s always a potential, when you’re in a position of power, to be corrupted by it. I think that her intentions are really true to protect her people, but that was one of the aspects that intrigued me about playing this character.
It’s never black-and-white. I love that in a character, that it’s not black-and-white because human beings aren’t black-and-white. Certainly, when it comes to being given a certain amount of power, the question is what do you do with that power? With power comes great responsibility and we’re getting to see that Justine’s getting a little more power, and what will she do with it?
Did you take any inspiration from any real-life politicians?
Samantha Mathis: I had a very brief conversation when I was brought on to play Justine. I mean I watched some footage of Geraldine Ferraro. I really tried to draw from what Staten Island is like today and looked at footage from some council people from Staten Island. I live in New York City, so there’s no shortage of access to that. In fact, our NY1 news station on Time Warner is incredible in terms of covering Staten Island news.
I was striving to really create someone who felt authentically Staten Island and what that entails. As I was saying earlier, I think that there, in my experience, is an element for Staten Island natives, that they haven’t always been done right by New York City. There’s a healthy level of skepticism in terms of how the mayor deals with Staten Island. I think that was really the most important thing to me.
So how do you feel about Guillermo del Toro’s and Carlton Cuse’s take on vampires? Do you like the way that they handled it?
Samantha Mathis: They’re really horrifying. I think they took it to the next level, and it’s almost zombie meets vampire. I’m a little bit of a wuss. I’m not going to lie to you. On the opening episode, when that scene happened and the one elder vomited all those forms into the other one, I was just like oh God, oh Jesus, oh wow, that’s… oh my gosh. It grosses me out, but in a really fun way.
The reason we’re attracted to something like The Strain is the same reason we want to get on a roller coaster. It’s that adrenaline rush, and we love being afraid and being freaked out. There’s a great sort of practical use for it as a human being. I think we love it.
How did you get involved in the project? Were you already a fan of the show?
Samantha Mathis: I had seen the posters for the show. Living in New York City, I had seen them all over the city last summer. I was thoroughly freaked out and disgusted by them – as I think most people were.
The worm in the eyeball was an incredible ad campaign. I have to say just a mad shout out to the FX, not a plug but I just have to say it anyway, I think that the people who were doing the advertising campaigns for the show are phenomenal. I love the art that they’re coming up with.
They really captured my attention in that regard. Then, obviously, I’ve known Guillermo’s work for a long time. I hadn’t seen the show, but I was a huge fan of his work as an [indiscernible]. He’s such an artist. He’s such a visionary.
And, then Carlton obviously has a tremendous track record in television and creating really compelling television. Then, on top of that, I am a huge fan of Corey Stoll’s work. So all of those things combined immediately drew me in, and then I got the role the same way that anyone else gets a roll. You audition. So, I just went in, and I went on tape, and they responded to what I did.
When you first got a taste of the makeup effects in the last episode with the unveiling of the dead vampires. I was wondering, what was it like on set seeing that for the first time?
Samantha Mathis: Really disgusting and disturbing. Disturbing. There’s nothing subtle about what the character Justine was showing to the world in that scene. They were strung up.
It was pretty gross and pretty graphic, and I think really speaks to who she is. She’s got a message, and she’s shouting it from the rafters. She’s got a zero tolerance, and she means business.
As a person, and as an actor, as a human being, it’s pretty disgusting, and I think that they do graphic makeup effects and visual effects on the show tremendously well. As a person, it’s sort of disgusting. As an artist, I have tremendous respect and awe for what they accomplish.
That moment where Justine reveals the hanging vampires, I just found it to be an incredibly striking signal to put out there in public. There is so much growing for the character left to be done. Do you feel this is kind of a defining moment for audiences to really have an understanding of where she’s coming from and what she’s willing to do. Can you maybe tell us how that scene came about? What it’s like filming it with the disgusting effects?
Samantha Mathis: I am working with people who are tremendous visionaries and had conceived of, certainly, that part of the show far before I came along. What I really appreciate is a visual that is so strong and shows the depths of her seriousness of the situation and I think also her anger. And that she will do anything to protect her people.
As I spoke about earlier, I think you’re all hearing everything so as I was speaking about earlier, having a history of feeling that Staten Island hasn’t been protected, and that she’s very dedicated. Her constituents, who are predominantly first responders, make up a huge part of the citizens of Staten Island. She is not messing around.
I just got on board. I’m along for their creative ride, but I thought that it spoke wonders as to how strong she is and brash, one could say, perhaps a little brazen, not the most subtle of politicians. But when you’re playing with the big boys in New York City, you can’t be timid. Justine’s a lot of things. She ain’t timid.
You were both with The Strain and Under the Dome, which I really enjoyed your performance in that series as well. You’ve had some great source material with the books, both Stephen King’s and now del Toro’s and Chuck Hogan’s. What’s that experience been like to be immersed in these projects where you have that source material to go back to? Have you been able to dig into the books at all, or just go back to that when you want to?
Samantha Mathis: Well, ironically, in both situations, yes, I did start to dig into the books and then quickly realize that both characters were not in the books. Neither Justine nor the character that I played in Under the Dome were in fact original creations of the authors. That said, it’s always invaluable to have source material.
You get a sense of the texture and tone in the semantics of what these writers are creating. That’s invaluable. In getting involved in a Guillermo del Toro project, you know that aesthetically and thematically what you’re getting into. Even without the books, I felt pretty clear what I was joining, the show I was joining.
But absolutely it’s lovely to have source material. I’ve worked on Stephen King’s material on several occasions now, and he’s just such a master of character. It’s always, as an actor you just want as much as you can have to draw from to inform and help you build the character. In both circumstances, even though the characters weren’t there, the worlds were there, and that just gives you so much to play with.
You seem to have built up a bit of a reputation for playing rather strong women. Is there any traits with Justine in The Strain, that you’d really like to have in real life that you find very useful?
Samantha Mathis: That’s an interesting observation. I would actually say that what’s been so refreshing for me on The Strain is that my experience, at least in the last ten years of my work, has been that, I wouldn’t say that I played pushovers, but a lot of the characters that I’ve played have been defined by being someone’s wife, or someone’s mother, or someone’s partner in some way.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but as a woman, I have to say that what’s been really exciting for me in playing Justine Faraldo is that I am, in fact, there as a woman who’s standing on her own two feet, who has a history and a past and is very strong.
So that’s really actually been really refreshing for me. In fact, when I first started, I thought what feels different? Oh wait, I’m not playing someone’s wife or mother. I’m a politician, and I’m there to be a strong woman and to be unapologetically strong and calling bullshit on all the bureaucracy and hypocrisy that she sees.
I have to say that that has actually been incredibly new and refreshing for me. I would say with every character that I try to find my commonalities with them, as well as my differences to see where I can pull immediately from my own experience. It’s a universal theme, but I think that we all have loved ones that we would do anything for. I don’t know that I would go to the extremes that Justine does, but I have family and friends that I love very much, and I would want to protect them if something happened.
In that very sort of universal human theme, I can relate to that. Then, as a woman, or generally speaking as a human being, in this political climate, there are myriad, there are no shortage of injustices in the world to be outraged and indignant by. So, certainly in that first scene… it was a lot of fun for me to come in and think about various politicians I might like to have words with and channel some of that energy.
You’ve been doing a quite a lot of science fiction and horror work. Would you say that you’re quite attracted to do that kind of work, or is it just something that sort of happened by accident?
Samantha Mathis: It just completely happened by accident, but I have to say is that what I’m finding in the sci-fi sort of genre world, because it isn’t actually a world that I was drawn to when I was younger, and it is something that sort of developed. I mean, obviously, there is great interest in those spaces these days. I think they’re sort of a renewed fervor for sci-fi and genre and horror.
I think what I’m learning about the genre is how rich they are with metaphor about society, and that it’s talking about things greater than just what you see on the surface. Not only in circumstances but in human beings. The templates that are being created are really rich.
I’m seeing really rich, interesting characterization. As an actor, that’s all you could hope for. So, it’s interesting, it’s not by design at all, but I seem to be becoming someone who works in genre a lot, and I’m really enjoying it a lot, and the special effects are fun too.
Was there any one figure that you based your character on, or any other films or shows that you watched in order to prepare to portray her?
Samantha Mathis: As I said earlier, I looked at footage that I could find of Staten Island politicians really just to see what kind of issues that they were dealing with, and what they were talking about. Also, I could hear their accents and sort of feel out the speech patterns. They gave me, look, I had one audition scene, and they gave me a very strong monologue and it told me so much of what I needed to know about who this woman was, where she came from and what was her modus operandi.
I didn’t have to go too far when you work with someone who gives you really strong material. I mean, yes, I did look at some, because it wasn’t lost on me, the name similar to Geraldine Ferraro, I looked at some footage of her. I thought about other politicians and the way that they’ve behaved publicly versus what they may be like privately, but I just got a real strong feel from the material that they gave me.
Is there something that you found particularly challenging about this role?
Samantha Mathis: That’s a good question. As I was saying a little bit earlier, just a few minutes ago, it’s actually been the first time in a long time that I have played an individual woman who isn’t defined by being by whom she’s related to. I would say that it was interesting in the beginning that I felt some level of discomfort, and I didn’t know why.
Then it dawned on me that was the first time in a long time that I played this individual person. In addition to that, she has a lot of hutzpah, as it were. I haven’t had characters where I exemplify a lot of anger. I haven’t had that opportunity, and I certainly enjoyed it a lot.
It isn’t something that I’ve been asked to call upon on a regular basis. I found that challenging, digging into those wells, and just getting comfortable with being a woman in the boy’s boardroom, and really taking that space. It’s been a lot of fun, and it’s also totally foreign for me. It’s been a great part of the challenge of Justine for me.
Can you say which scene you auditioned with, or have we seen it yet?
Samantha Mathis: You haven’t seen it. It didn’t end up in the script.
Can you talk about what it was, or is it, does it come up in another way that you would be spoiling it if you talked about it?
Samantha Mathis: No it doesn’t come up. It was a scene with the mayor and it was, not dissimilar in tenor to the first scene when you met Justine where she’s telling him off. It went into great detail about the ways in which she’s been disappointed by the way that he’s handled things and why she doesn’t believe anything he says. And it was a really meaty little monologue.
You mentioned going into genre shows like Under the Dome and now this show. Have you noticed being in New York that people are more aware of you on the street because of these roles?
Samantha Mathis: I’ve been to some horror, sci-fi conventions, so I would say that in that arena, I obviously noticed fans that are dedicated and at shows. New Yorkers are pretty cool customers. People recognize Al Pacino on the street [indiscernible]. No one’s bothering me.
I feel like I have a perfectly lovely balance of occasionally being recognized, but most often people are like, “Do I know you?” “Did you go to my college?” “Are you friends with my sister?” “Why do I know your face?” “Why do I know your face?” And that’s great. I feel very blessed.
Does it change at all how you approach the role when it’s within the concept of a genre, or do you really just approach the character?
Samantha Mathis: I asked those questions early on when I first started in terms of if there was like a different sort of tone, but I feel like even in the ways in which the show is genre, the characters are still grounded in their reality. Their personal realities are all very different, but they’re all very human. I think they gave me a lot to play with just what her truth is.
It seems in television, particularly that there are a lot of really strong roles for females and stuff like House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black and that type of thing. Do you find that to be your experience as well as you’d like to pursue other roles that there are more opportunities for women who are not the wife for the mother?
Samantha Mathis: Oh, absolutely. I think to a certain extent I feel that that’s always been true. I mean, television has more opportunity for women in that regard, than film. It’s never been more so the truth than today. I think that there are incredible female characters on television and it excites me to no end. I think television in general has never been more exciting and it’s so interesting. I’ve been in this business now long enough to say that I remember a time when it was absolutely taboo to do a TV show; you’d never have a film career.
The world has just changed so much, and I think it’s very exciting and the women characters that are out there are fully-realized human beings, flawed, imperfect, strong and weak, and it really excites me. There’s human being women on television now.
If you had to take a look at the landscape of what TV looks like today, and even in just the past few years, with stuff like Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, things like that, is there any role that has already passed or is currently out there that you would love to see yourself playing?
Samantha Mathis: You mentioned Breaking Bad, and the part of the wife on Breaking Bad was a phenomenal character. That was just an incredible character. To be Walter White’s wife and suspect. What she did with that character was amazing. You mentioned House of Cards, I mean Robin Wright’s character on House of Cards, I mean that’s Shakespearean. That’s Lady Macbeth. There is some really plum phenomenal—Transparent is one of my favorite TV shows. The [indiscernible] of that family, such a great character. All of those characters. I think it’s such a phenomenal show. There’s a lot out there.
As an actress, what kind of advice do you have to offer?
Samantha Mathis: I would say that it’s an incredibly challenging career path. It’s sort of cliché to say if you can imagine yourself doing anything else, then don’t do it. I think that’s a cliché, but it’s true.
I think that the world and the landscape of the entertainment business is wildly different than—and I realize I’m not saying anything sexy right now, but it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s a hard road, and there’s so much rejection. You have to want it with every fiber of your being.
What’s interesting is today the landscape of the business is so different than when I started. When I started back in 1986, when I was 16, you could just be an actress. Now, I feel like you have to do everything.
I think that you’re naïve to not try to do everything and I think it’s also very exciting that you can do everything. There are so many revenue streams that you can put something on YouTube and create a whole career for yourself. In that regard, it’s phenomenal.
I would say to someone, go to college. Learn to do other things. And prepare yourself to be a writer, a director, a producer, an editor. You should sing. You should dance. Because there’s so many more revenue streams, it’s amazing that there’s that much more opportunity, it means there’s that much more competition. Then, I would say, good luck.
What has been your most memorable experience as an actress so far?
Samantha Mathis: My most memorable experience? Oh my God, there’s too many to say one in particular. I would certainly say that it was a childhood dream to do a play on Broadway, and I got to do that, and that was just an incredible dream come to fruition.
I grew up going to the theater with my mother, and my grandmother who were both actresses. We would go to see Broadway shows together and go to Sardi’s afterwards and talk about the play and being in the theater district where my mother and my grandmother had worked. The fact that I’ve been on stage in New York doing a Broadway play is I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.