‘Houdini & Doyle’: Michael Weston on Playing Houdini, Ghosts and Fluffy Sheep

Michael Weston Houdini and Doyle
Michael Weston as Harry Houdini in ‘Houdini & Doyle’ (Photo by Joseph Scanlon © 2016 FOX Broadcasting Co)

Fox is set to premiere the new dramatic series Houdini & Doyle starring Michael Weston as Harry Houdini and Stephen Mangan as Arthur Conan Doyle on May 2, 2016. The series follows the legendary magician as he and his reluctant partner, Sherlock Holmes author Doyle, help New Scotland Yard solve crimes that may involve the supernatural. Houdini’s the skeptic while Doyle is a believer in the otherworldly. Together, they attempt to determine if the crime was committed by a human or some sort of supernatural being.

Series star Michael Weston appeared at the 2016 WonderCon in Los Angeles in support of the show’s upcoming premiere and I had the opportunity to speak with Weston before Fox presented the Houdini & Doyle panel to find out the behind-the-scenes scoop on how he prepared for the role of Harry Houdini. He also shared his own ghost story, even though he still insists he’s a skeptic just like his character.

Michael Weston Interview:

How much torture did they put you through filming Houdini & Doyle?

Michael Weston: [Laughing] “There was a lot of torture. First, we were living in Manchester, which is not torture, but it is definitely north of London. It was cold and I was often wet and in weird situations, like off the docks and in weird rivers, and hanging upside in tanks and buried alive. But I signed the fine print, so I knew what I was getting into. If you’re going to play this guy, you have to be willing to do that.”

How much research did you do into Harry Houdini? Did you want to learn as much as possible about him?

Michael Weston: “I had a sort of very light working knowledge of Houdini, so I didn’t really understand who he was in terms of the place he held in our history and in our culture. I knew people say, ‘Hey, he pulled a Houdini,’ but he held this place in people’s hearts. My wife told me, she said, ‘Oh my god, I love Houdini!’ I’ve been with her for 10 years and I had no idea. He holds a place in people’s sense of wonder and their imagination. And then probably even deeper in that thing of being able to free yourself from whatever oppresses you, whatever shackles are in your life – your religion to your family to whatever it is pulling you down – I feel like this guy, at his time especially, was a tangible symbol of freedom and that sort of American dream. He sort of actualized it before anyone else did. So, I did, I learned a lot going into it, but I literally got this part a week before we started shooting.”

Why did you get it a week before it started shooting? How did that come about?

Michael Weston: “You know, I think it’s just this process of being an actor where sometimes you just never know. I was doing a play [in Los Angeles] with my buddy Scott Caan, and I was running lines with my mom in my living room when I got a call, ‘They need you to audition in London.’ I was like, ‘When?’ ‘Today.’ So I got on a plane that night and I flew to London, and then the next morning I auditioned. I had done an audition months before…something like that. So, it’s this weird process and then suddenly everything comes to a head and then you’re shooting and here you go.

The thing about this series is that we steer history a little bit for our own purposes. Houdini is a great character and a great backdrop for this, and so is [his] friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle. And then Adelaide Stratton, the first female Constable, wasn’t a real person necessarily, but there was a first female Constable somewhere and it was pulled from something that these guys read. They compressed it all into this turn-of-the-century period piece. Finally, it’s sort of Houdini but then it’s me and Stephen [Mangan] too, whoever we are in this time. I feel like the series plays on our nostalgia and some of who we are today. I feel like it’s very present day.”

Were you able to quickly get on the same page with Stephen Mangan?

Michael Weston: “That’s the magic of this stuff. I definitely think as the series goes on our rapport and our comfort level gets deeper and better as friends, on and off set. When you work with old friends, you have this sort of immediate thing. But these guys in the series are searching each other out. They find each other in the first episode. And even though it’s an embattled friendship and they don’t really agree on anything, they gradually over the course of time, I think they find a really deep friendship and need each other. I feel like that’s the deepest and most fun elements of the series, besides all of the adventure and supernatural. There’s a really fun, deep friendship between these guys that are also sort of bitter enemies.”

Houdini was a skeptic. Are you a skeptic?

Michael Weston: “Yeah, I’m pretty pragmatic. I think of myself as a realist and then I have weird doubts about it. No one can really just put that period on it, except maybe David Shore thinks he can. There’s always a question mark. Anyone who says they have it all figured out, there is no proof of it. I think there’s enough out there in the world that breeds uncertainty. And then I’ve had a couple weird experiences in my life that I’ve never really talked about except now with this series. [Laughing] I didn’t want to admit it, but I’ve had a couple of those things where I’m like, ‘I have no idea how you’d explain that.’ Even though I’m a cynic about that stuff, it breaks you down a little bit.”

Can you say what the experiences were? You can’t leave us hanging!

Michael Weston: “My grandma lived in this old house in Paris. It was there for hundreds of years, and it was occupied by the Gestapo. They fled to America at the time but then when they came back, the house was stripped of everything. It has this very sinister other side of it, as well as being a great old house. She passed away there and my grandfather passed away there, and right after they did I went there with a friend of mine, just to say goodbye to it. We were standing in this hallway and we were looking at these old pictures that hadn’t been taken down yet which were of our family from youth…my grandfather, my father, and ancestors. I was with my big friend Jess from New York and you couldn’t convince him to do anything, especially that there’s a ghost. He’d laugh you out of the room. So, he’s standing there and he turned his head [waving at something by it] and I was like, ‘What?! I didn’t feel anything.’ He was like, ‘Something just brushed my head,’ and he was freaking out.

And then I went there about a month later with a girlfriend of mine and I was going to the bathroom. And as I went to the bathroom just down the same hallway I came back and at the very end of the hallway there was just this weird, amorphous, globe. I was half asleep, but I was like [scared] and I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever, I’m going to go in.’ I go into the bedroom and my girlfriend at the time is sitting up. She’s pale and she’s hyperventilating. I went in there and was like, ‘Did you just see…?’ and she was like, ‘I just saw a ghost. There was a ghost. I swear to god, there was a ghost.’ Even after that we were like, ‘All right, we’ll go to sleep now,’ and we just sat there staring at the ceiling for a while. I haven’t been able to explain that or get over it. Even though your life goes on and I sort of buried that deep in the recesses of my imagination, yet it’s still there. So when I’m asked about it I guess I have to admit that, even though I’m still not sure.”

How can you not be sure?

Michael Weston: “I don’t know! I never got to grab the glob and be like, ‘Who are you?!’ And that’s what the series is about. These guys want to get their hands on it and prove it. Until they can really prove it with science and they have the evidence in their hands, there are so many question marks and there continues to be. Even though they solve the crimes sometimes, there’s still a sense of, ‘I don’t know. I’m not sure,’ even with the biggest skeptic Houdini, which I love because he’s a magician and yet he’s the one who doesn’t believe in any of this stuff.”

Michael Weston from Houdini & Doyle at WonderCon
Michael Weston during our interview at WonderCon (Photo by Frank Micelotta © 2016 FOX BROADCASTING)

Is it fun to get to do the big performances or is that all so technical you can’t have fun?

Michael Weston: “I did the Chinese water torture one and they literally hang you upside down and there’s these two I wish they were stronger looking, relatively strong looking guys holding a rope on an old pulley, and you trust them with your life. I was sort of cocky about it. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this,’ and as they do it, they’re lowering you into this water and you’re completely out of control. It was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. The sense of joy sort of came when you’re doing this and we were actually shooting in the old theater where Houdini did his performance a hundred years ago, almost to the day. I was looking at this gorgeous old theater that had been there called The Palace Theatre in Manchester, and you see all of the extras dressed up. You have this moment as an actor that you rarely get where it’s so beautifully done and you’re in it enough and scared out of your mind enough that you’re just sort of there and so present in it that you believe it for a second. There’s a little bit of magic in that.”

Is one of the benefits of doing the show that it is a short season and you don’t have to commit to it for so long?

Michael Weston: “The terrain of TV has changed so much and maybe people’s appetites with it. I know that I binge-watch a show and I’ll watch 10 episodes in a weekend or something like that. I think it changes the way that people write and it changes our lifestyle as actors. I love that that you get to do 10 episodes of something and you get to concentrate. 25 episodes is a lot to ask of anyone. My friends who have been on those shows for years it’s like athletes. They’re exhausted and they’re just wired for that. It’s a luxury actually to be able to do that for six months and then have six months off. I just had a baby, so I’ve just been staring at my kid for the last four months.”

Were there any cases featured in the episodes that you found particularly fun to delve into?

Michael Weston: “The scripts are so dynamic for me because the friendship really grows each time, and the triangle between these three deepens and the repartee is more fun. To me, we were shooting in these amazing places. We got to go to Derbyshire. We were shooting entrenched in the cities most of the time, but we went out to the country to these gorgeous green meadows, extending hills [going on] forever and spotted with fluffy sheep. You’re like, ‘This is what I imagine England to be!’ So, I had those moments when you sit in a pub and you’re like, ‘I’m into this! This is lovely!'”

Watch the full interview with Michael Weston: