David Bradley may be the most beloved “hated” actor on television. Thanks to his performance as Walder Frey on Game of Thrones, he became a sort of overnight sensation, the kind of villain whose behavior seems entirely unredeemable, and even loathsome, and yet viewers seemed to love every minute he’s on screen. But through small roles in Hot Fuzz, the Harry Potter film series, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Doctor Who, he’s built a fan base that thrills at his exploits no matter which side of the hero-villain spectrum he’s on. All of which is why he should reach even greater heights with his role as Setrakian on The Strain, where he plays a Holocaust survivor who holds vital knowledge — and harbors a considerable grudge — about the vampire epidemic that sweeps the world within the show.
Despite his penchant for playing gruff, even evil characters, Bradley was remarkably pleasant and thoughtful on the Toronto set of The Strain, where he spoke with journalists about Setrakian and the challenges he faces as a star of the new sci-fi show. In addition to talking about his work with Guillermo del Toro, he differentiated this character from some of his past roles, reflected on the great and interesting challenges of creating human characters whose motivations are full of shades of grey in a world where villainy and heroism are often rendered in black and white.
Tell us about how the character was initially defined or maybe what initially appealed to you about him?
David Bradley: Well, I didn’t have much time to think about it because of the circumstances, but the magic words ‘Guillermo del Toro’ and when I knew it was him I didn’t really didn’t need to see a script, I just wanted to work with him, as most actors would. I mean Pan’s Labyrinth, one of my favorite movies. And Pacific Rim — I mean, in this particular genre I remember seeing a lot of vampire movies when I was a kid with Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee and all those people, but in a way compared to this they’re quite camp. There’s a kind of twinkle that they’ve got in the kind of knowing we know this is ludicrous but with this it’s another world but it’s got a kind of truth to it and it’s all in the quality of the writing. And I think what Chuck [Hogan] and Guillermo have done is amazing because they’ve taken something which clearly works so well in literary form and kind of reinvented it for the screen. Sometimes sacrificing whole scenes and whole situations and some new characters they put in like Eichorst, it’s not in the books. And obviously they haven’t thought ‘well we’ll just stick to what we know works in book form and just transplant that onto the screen.’ They’ve rethought and reimagined the whole thing and made it a great kind of dramatic piece of work.
Because of the characters are so human in a kind of inhuman situation, the attraction is, I think for all of us, certainly for me, is playing someone who clearly has such an amazing life and quite a tragic one, but the fact that he’s still got this drive and this will to carry through his agenda. Even though he’s an old man it gives him the energy to go that extra mile to do what he needs to do. I think it’s wonderful that you can have someone who’s kind of, I like to think of him as an action hero in a way, although he wouldn’t describe himself as that. Sometimes when you get to my age and you get certain parts it’s quite often they’re in a bed on their last legs or they’ve got some kind of illness that — I’ve done quite a few where I seem to be in pajamas. So it’s nice to play someone who’s so proactive and leading the pack. And I kind of admire his drive, even though he seems to be doing quite a lot of ruthless things. Maybe at first audiences think, is he crazy or is he right? And you don’t really know but he’s the only one who knows what the real situation is here and it’s a job for him not only avoiding potential lethal situations from not only for the Master but from people quite high up in places in governments and in finance. So he’s battling these on two fronts. So the idea of persuading other people to come along with him that’s what he has to do. And there’s something attractive about that, someone who’s ruthless for ultimate good reasons. So he seems to be quite cold and dry about dispatching these poor unfortunate people but he knows it’s — I mean a lot of times I don’t know about over here but in England there’s a lot of controversy about assisted deaths; it’s called mercy killings. I suppose for him these people are — they need and want to be dispatched and helped.
Your character’s history is slowly and deliberately revealed like a story in a story. What was it like discovering that about your character and how did you turn him into a real person?
Well, you can only take what’s on the page, but the advantage of reading the books is you do get a lot of background stuff that’s on in the script, even though a lot of the stuff in the books isn’t used in the [series] and there’s some scenes created for the [series] that aren’t in the book. But there’s a lot of descriptive stuff. It’s like when you’re acting Charles Dickens with a lot of the script you don’t have any background. You got to kind of either make it up or reinvent or invent a background for your own character to make it work and live for you. But as with Dickens you get these wonderful descriptive passages that fill you in on what they’re about and what they’re — you always have to ask yourself what does this person want? What do they want in everything you do, what’s the driving force behind this? And with Setrakian it’s quite simple and quite a straightforward agenda. But the fact that his past is only really revealed scene-by-scene and you don’t — it’s much more interesting to me rather than have a character revealed in the very first episode so I think, ‘oh, I know what they’re about. I know exactly what they’re doing or what their life is about.’ But with Setrakian you slowly discover, with the benefits of the flashbacks, and you realize what has made him what he is. And it’s fun and it’s a challenge and you can only take what’s there on the page and do it as truthfully as you can and not think too much about what’s happening way down the line and discover it along with everybody else.
What is it about his personality that he doesn’t give up?
Because he’s being been through so much as a Holocaust survivor and he’s seen so much.
What is it in him as a human being that makes him keep on going?
Just plain revenge for what’s happened to his wife at the hands of the Master. And when he sees that TV screen and that darkened airplane he’s the only one, he’s the only person in the world possibly who knows what this means. And his mission is not only to see it through this time because he’s aware that he’s failed before and he’s allowed the situation to happen where his wife has been a victim of it and the idea that he keeps her heart in a jar, there’s something kind of — it seems a bit of a sick thing to do but for him it’s his only way of keeping contact with his late wife and finding the fuel to avenge her death. He kind of hopes it won’t happen again that he’ll never hear from the Master again, but then as soon as he realizes he knows he’s got to do it again then he’s got this fear of failure. So it’s not like he’s superhuman and knows exactly what to do and — he’s never in control of the situation. He tries to be. He tries to but even he has his doubts. And I love the doubts that make him human when he’s talking to the heart and saying I don’t know if I can do it again. I can’t fail again. That’s something — failure is not an option. So as ruthless as he is in his pursuit he’s got this doubtful voice in the back of his head saying he’s not going to do it, that he’s not going to see it through or he might die or might — he’s bringing these people on with him knowing full well that he’s putting them in danger but it’s his only way. He needs help. He can’t do it all on his own and he realizes that. So he’s a very complicated man. And the fact that he still has this will to see this thing through and to finish it is a testament to his energy and that’s what helped him to live so long. He wants to stay alive to do this.
And Ephraim loses his wife to it too.
Yes. Absolutely. And if he can avenge her death that will be his life’s work completed and I think he would be just happy to die in the pursuit of that. And I believe he does at some point but I haven’t got that far in the books.
Maybe or maybe not on TV.<.b>
Yes. We don’t know whether they’ll make changes to whether he’ll live beyond what it says he will in the book. Who knows because all sorts of things are going on that differ from that. Wait and see. We’re all excited every time a new episode lands on our mailbox. And it’s always just very exciting to anticipate, see what’s going to happen in the next episode. And his band of five brothers and sisters now who are leading the way he’s managing to get people. And I love the conflict between him and Ephraim that seems to be carrying on even into this episode which you’ve seen now where there’s a kind of unspoken struggle for power and the fact that Nora has her doubts and doesn’t want to go along with it and he’s doing his best to persuade them and get them on [the same] side. And I think hopefully, eventually once they sort out their little power struggles, and of course now Fet is part of the equation and he’s like ‘hey, who’s in charge here.’ Who’s running this show? One might wonder because Setrakian thinks he’s manipulating them and they probably think they’re manipulating him and they’re doing it their way as well. He has these pockets of resistance all over and it’s a conflict, the outer conflict and the inner conflict, which makes any character interesting when it’s Shakespeare or del Toro or whoever.
Having done Game of Thrones, which sounds similar and they take liberties with the material and they’re also faithful to it, how does this compare to those other experiences?
Yeah. Well, with Game of Thrones I’m afraid by time I was — when I was first offered it I hadn’t read any of the books so I had nothing much to go on, but I just knew that this character was so appalling, but in a way, dare I say quite funny. He’s so bad that the fact that he relishes in his own villainy like — and there’s a kind of, a little bit of me that kind of hopes he’ll get away with it, but I feel when I come back I’m sure there’ll be some divine retribution waiting for me, but I don’t know yet because I haven’t read the books. But I am told he does come back, and I hope he does. And the fact that he, no matter how appalling he is and what he does that’s the world he lives in and I can’t approach it as an actor from a 21st Century perspective, but I think if that happened in — if it was something like that in my hometown he wouldn’t be allowed to flourish; he’d be outed. He’d be out of office or he’d be in jail or whatever.
But for Frey it’s a question of almost like a Sicilian vendetta what he has to do. If he doesn’t do what he does in Episode 3 he will lose face as far as he’s concerned and people will think he’s a soft touch and he’ll be overthrown in no time. So it’s a ruthless world that these people exist in. Even the staff weren’t all goody goody but they were regarded as the kind of most morally upright family in the mix. But as far as Frey’s concerned they didn’t honor the contract that they had and he knows that if he doesn’t do anything as a massive gesture he’ll be a sitting target for the next person to come along and challenge his authority, even within his own castle from his own sons. So he’s watching his back the whole time. He may seem invulnerable and all-powerful, but like Setrakian he’s not just an action hero but he’s very handy at releasing these people and very powerful, but he knows exactly how vulnerable he is as well and that’s what makes him human and that’s what makes Frey human. The fact that there’s a fear of being like any powerful person in the world, they’re always watching their backs. There’s always someone who’s going to be — got their eye on the main chance and Walder Frey’s no different. But the more complex these people are the more interesting it is to play and the more different colors you look for in the script and in the character finding their weaknesses and their strengths and the things that they fear and the things that they are totally unafraid of. Just like any — the make up of any human being but on a slightly different scale.
What’s it like sharing stage with an inanimate prop that you have so much love for?
I think of it as I suppose like anyone who had lost someone very dear would have a cherished photograph of them that they would look at quite a lot. You know, I’ve got them, but the fact that it’s a human heart is — because it’s linked to the vampire strain and what happened to her and the fact that he feeds it with his own blood it’s also a constant reminder of what he has to do next time round. And whether he shares the view of the heart with anyone I think maybe he does in a later part of the story, but for the moment up till now I don’t believe anybody else in the world has ever seen it in Setrakian’s world because he’s such a loner and he’s kind of reinvented himself. He’s kind of dropped below the radar by just working in a humble little pawnbroker shop building up his weaponry for the day if and when it happens. And that’s all he can do and he’s so single-minded about it. I mean to create all those wonderful nail guns. I’m thinking about taking one home with me at the end, I doubt whether they’ll let me. And the silver sword and the fact that he’s spent his life reading authoritative books on vampirism or this particular strain where this strigoi that when he was a child thought they were just fairy stories and then he realizes that they were for real. So he’s read everything and he’s a complete authority on them. But persuading other people that this is the way to deal with the situation is an uphill struggle for him. So it’s not easy but it’s just this wonderful single-mindedness and desire for vengeance just gives him his strength to have more energy than he would have at his age if he didn’t.
Just to touch on that then, what does he do to convince this group and what is he willing due to stop his virus?
He’s willing — well, he realizes he takes them along with him, persuades them the power of silver. He still has resistance from people like Nora and Eph even when they’re confronted with it they’re not convinced it’s the way to deal with it. They think we should go to the authorities or go to the police and Setrakian knows they’d be just locked up and the video evidence would never be seen, it would be destroyed quietly because there are people up there who’ve got powerful invested interest in these. So he knows he’s got to do it undercover. So he has to persuade them. And then when it’s clear that it’s gathering pace, this virus, and so many people are becoming turned that he knows that he’s fighting against the tide and they will never do it. And so he has a change of plan and he adapts to the situation and realizes that if they go directly for the Master then that will destroy automatically — if they kill the Master that will destroy all the people that are out there, all those thirsty people out on the streets after dark will just die as well. And of course, Ephraim resists this. He’s quite cynical about the fact that that will happen. And the frustrating thing for Setrakian [is] he knows that that’s what will do it. So he’s constantly having to persuade people, even when they’re faced with these terrible creatures that his is the right way to do it. And that’s why he comes into contact with Ephraim and even [Vasily] Fet dismisses Setrakian at first. He’s the old guy, you know, what’s he doing out after hours? He should be in bed. He’s always saying ‘what about grandpa? Are you a part of this?’ And then he realizes he’s dealing with a major authority on the situation and they develop a mutual respect for each other quicker than it does with Ephraim and Nora so I have a feeling that’s going to be the start of a beautiful friendship somehow.
It’s hard to let go of a purely rationalistic worldview. You’re presented with something that doesn’t fit into the parameters.
Yes. And, of course, they’re seeing things from a different perspective. It’s the law should deal with this. So I think it’s not easy for Setrakian being the only person who knows everything and caring people along with him and having to do it outside of the law without being caught, not only by the strigoi but also by the authorities who are manipulating events. So he’s got a battle on his hands or two.
Can you describe what it’s like working on a Guillermo del Toro set, the atmosphere compared with other sets?
Well, as I said it is my first time working over here, my first time in Canada. And I was just from day one — I mean as well as the other directors we’ve had on the show. I’ve never experienced that before having a different director for every episode — but Guillermo he’s just such a, he’s like a force of nature. He’s just — he’s quite a charismatic guy and very funny and he enjoys karaoke and he enjoys his food and he wants everybody to have a good time. That’s the first thing he says every time he comes in. “Are you having a good time?” “Yeah, well yeah I am, actually. I’m having the time of my life.” It’s just a great world and something as big as this I’m really pleased to be a part of it. And in a way the director sets, and the producers Miles [Dale] and Carlton [Cuse], they’re around now and again and they help to create a kind of playground for you to feel relaxed enough to work and experiment and even suggest things. I’ve worked with some directors, as we all have where you think, “Can I suggest something?” “Well no. We’re doing it like this, but thanks for the ideas anyway.” It may be something small like saying if I come in be here rather than on the far side of the room, whatever, everybody feels — all of us I think we all feel relaxed enough and in such good hands that you feel you have a voice and you can contribute and it becomes a collaborative a thing. And Guillermo is up for that as well. He’s got his vision but if you’ve got an idea to either add to it or whatever he’ll listen. I mean he may use it, he may not. And he’s such a dynamic and exciting director, and you know he’s going to make it look good visually. I’ve only seen the pilot episode, [but] I thought just the way he shot it I mean it’s like shooting a big movie but for TV. He’s got that — he thinks big, but he’s very good not only at making it look — he probably makes it look more expensive than it is, I don’t know. But on a big scale you know you’re in big good hands, he’ll make it work, but also on the detail and on just little quirks of character. He’ll give you a little note about just say this, just say an extra line. He’ll go improvise something just say what you think is right, or just the simplest gesture. Because he lives with this story for years with the books and being clever enough, him and Chuck, to say ‘okay, that was the book,’ it worked so well in literary form and the book’s obviously very popular.
He could’ve gone down the road of just filming the books as they are and say ‘well the books work so we’ll just film what’s in the book,’ but they’ve both kind of reimagined the books and being quite ruthless about cutting out some scenes, having new characters that aren’t in the books and whole scenes. I just remember my first scene in the pawnbroker shop where he deals with the hoody guy. I don’t think that’s in the book actually so the characters are so truthful and real and believable and well-written and very human. They’re not just vehicles for a vampire movie where they’re always like in a terrifying situation all reacting all the time. They’re all kind of quite proactive and they have little arguments and love scenes and kind of the little conflicts. He just makes them terribly human and Guillermo and all the following directors have all been eager to maintain the humanity of the characters throughout, which I think that’s what engages an audience when they see people who they can empathize with or that they recognize, rather than being something from another world. Like a lot of action films are, you’re excited but you can’t relate to them as people sometimes.
The Strain premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.
‘The Strain’ Gives David Bradley a Rare Chance to Battle Evil