Elizabeth Marvel is no stranger to powerful characters. She led the United States as President Elizabeth Keane on Homeland and ran for the same office as Heather Dunbar on House of Cards. But she wields a whole new type of power in the upcoming Marvel series Helstrom. As Victoria Helstrom, the mother of the two lead characters, she is institutionalized and possessed by a malicious, scathing demon, who hurls her daughter across a room and scales her padded cell walls. The show debuts on Hulu on October 16.
Marvel has lived with her husband, actor Bill Camp, and their 14 year-old son in a converted candy factory on the border of Red Hook and Carroll Gardens for 13 years. “We straddle both neighborhoods, are devoted to both neighborhoods, and probably spend an equal amount of time in both neighborhoods,” she said.
This new role is a departure in a stage and screen career with most of Marvel’s roles grounded in realism. She has performed Shakespeare since her earliest acting days and has appeared on TV in The District, Lights Out, Fargo, Person of Interest, and Unbelievable. But Marvel always welcomes new challenges, like Jean, the repressed sister in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, playing Marc Antony in Julius Caesar, and acting opposite Glenda Jackson when she took on the title role in King Lear.
We spoke by phone about Brooklyn, the pandemic, and acting.
What drew you to the role of Victoria Helstrom and working on a Marvel project?
The cool thing about Helstrom is that it’s a whole new wing of the Marvel Universe because it’s horror. A lot of the directors we have were straight-up horror directors, so it’s deeply embedded in that genre.
My character is extremely complicated: she’s a mother and the villain, the demon. I get to play all of the keys on the piano and it is amazingly fun. It’s just actor candy really.
How did you approach this dichotomy? Did you draw on any influences when preparing for the role?
That’s something you explore in every character at a different volume. Everyone has many facets and no one is good or bad. The volume may be up more on the darker qualities of this person than in others (laughs).
I assumed Marvel would be incredibly strict: “You’re going to look like this and this is how your character is going to move.” But they gave me complete license to come up with whatever I wanted. Fortunately, I’m a big fan of horror, and I was heavily influenced by Isabelle Adjani in Possession, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, and an amazing Japanese actor [Jun Kunimura] in this Korean film called The Wailing. That performance probably influenced me the most because there are qualities that are similar to my character’s journey. I just stole as much as I could from all of those smart actors (laughs).
Victoria Helstrom conducts her magic with subtle hand movements or through thought. Was it challenging conveying her power without props?
Because I was a demon, it’s sort of like being the king. You don’t do anything to be the king, it’s how others respond to you. So actually it was very simple. I used a lot of stillness: the less effort made, the more intense the power feels.
The interesting thing about what viewers receive is that 90% of what you see in this show, we actually did. There’s almost no green screen. We were harnessed and climbing on walls, running around rooms. If we were in a room of fire, we shot in a room of fire. We did a ton of stunts, which I was not expecting. I haven’t done a lot [of stunt work], but I’m a very physical actor so it was great to learn this whole new world.
You’re well known for roles where you play a commanding authority figure. Do you seek out other roles that let you show off your versatility?
I don’t really have a game plan, I just go toward whatever is in front of me, and I’ve been incredibly lucky that what’s been put in front of me thus far is usually really interesting with really smart people. But when I get a job like The Meyerowitz Stories it’s such a pleasure because I get to explore something that’s new to me. In general, I love anytime I get an opportunity to be funny. I’m a pretty silly person!
Is it hard to find opportunities for comedic roles?
When you get known for a certain commodity, and people know they can bank on you delivering what they’ve seen you deliver, it’s more likely that they will ask you to do that thing. But sometimes you’ll meet a creative person like Noah Baumbach who will see something else in you, and it’s a thrill when they do.
Could I just say: “Only comedy, I’m going to wait till I get offered that”? Sure, but I’m a worker so I just like to keep working. The jobs are just always interesting, whether it’s a president or a demon (laughs).
With Julius Caesar and King Lear, what made you return to Shakespeare after years of acting in newer plays?
I will always do Shakespeare when it’s presented to me. It’s the great pleasure of my life. I always grow exponentially when I work on Shakespeare. I was taught by some of the greatest Shakespearian directors, scholars, teachers, so I carry this information in me. A fair amount of them are no longer with us, so I feel a need to share that.
What was rewarding about playing Marc Antony and about acting opposite Glenda Jackson when she played King Lear?
Everything was satisfying about both of those experiences. As far as gender and theater, I feel very strongly about that because the theater is a magic space. So, for example, I want to play Hickey in Iceman Cometh, I want to play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t. If I say I’m Willy Loman, I am, because that’s the nature of theater. We shy away from it so much for reasons that make no sense to me. You can make yourself anything you say you are on stage. Why not take advantage of that?
Are there any other classic male roles that you’d like to tackle?
I’d very much like to do The Scottish Play [Macbeth] and play the Scottish king, I’d like to play Richard III, and I’d like to play Uncle Vanya.
What do you like about living in Brooklyn, and your area specifically?
I love the light: we’re near the water and there’s a very specific kind of light where we are. I also find the history of the docks and the unions over in Red Hook fascinating. I love the history of Carroll Gardens too: the Star of the Sea Church is up the street from us and Al Capone got married there and used to walk his two pet tigers on chains up and down Court Street! I love that you can still feel the residue of that.
It’s a neighborhood where kids are playing stickball in the street and there’s somebody’s grandmother in a folding chair along the pavement watching them. It’s very much a neighborhood.
What have you been doing during the pandemic?
We came to stay in Vermont with my husband’s family on a farm on Lake Champlain. It’s been amazing because the greatest luxury in our lives is time, it’s the thing that we never have. We have been able to have dinner together every night, which we’ve never done in our lives. One of us is always away working and to have that kind of consistency together has been a radical experience. We wear wetsuits and swim along the coast of the lake every day together. When we return to Brooklyn, I don’t know what we’ll do. I don’t think we want to swim in the Gowanus (laughs). We’ll have to figure it out.
What path do you see for actors in the near future as the US continues to struggle with the pandemic?
We know it’s going to change, but what that looks like, I’m not sure. The other thing we know is that creative catharsis has been necessary since the dawn of man, so I know performance will survive, theater will survive, of course, film and television will because we’re all addicted to content now. I do feel like when we are able to gather again, there will be such a new appreciation and celebration around it that it will be incredible. I can’t wait to be there.