Continuing our series of Written Radio, here is a transcript of our recent interview with Emmett J. Scanlan, who is currently seen as Saul (soon to be the Apostle Paul) on NBC’s “A.D. The Bible Continues.” New episodes air Sunday nights at 9/8 Central.
Ryan Gatenby: Our next guest stars as Saul – of course, soon to be known as the Apostle Paul on NBC’s “A.D. The Bible Continues.” Catch new episodes Sunday nights at 8 Central on NBC-5 Chicago. It’s Emmett J. Scanlan. Welcome to the show.
Emmett Scanlan: Thank you very much, Ryan. Hello, Chicago!
Ryan Gatenby: For people who may know you mainly from playing a sociopath on “Hollyoaks,” do you think they’ll be startled to see you playing a significant figure in the history of Christianity?
Emmett Scanlan: I hope it just adds to my resume, to be honest.
Ryan Gatenby: There you go!
Emmett Scanlan: But yeah, I know I have that kind of face where sociopath or psychopath seems to be a regular role for me. But Saul is a character that’s utterly intriguing. He’s motivated by faith – an extreme faith in God, the temple, the old laws and traditions – in the Torah. He’s fanatical, he’s zealous – when you first meet him, he’s a Pharisee, which is the equivalent to a militant right-winger.
Ryan Gatenby: Right.
Emmett Scanlan: He’s reared on fierce debate and persecutes those who go against God – and go against him, such is the arrogance of the man, even if that means killing – he did kill for what he believed in, or more importantly, what others failed to believe in. This was the type of person he was before his conversion on the road to Damascus.
Ryan Gatenby: Is it intimidating at all to portray such a historical figure, or do you approach it as it is – this is the series, this is the character to play. Does the gravity of the character or the story affect your performance at all?
Emmett Scanlan: That’s an awesome question. I love the pressure that comes with it. How iconic Paul is as a character in history and the responsibility that comes with that – I just love it. I’ll either fall flat on my face, or I won’t. I love that risk and the magnitude of it. The only thing as an actor that we ever have control over is what we do on set, and even then, the real magic is only found when you lose control, so I don’t even own that.
And once you step off set, you give your performance over to a director, the editor, the production, the audience – you let go of that power, and that’s hard to do, but that’s part of the process. I don’t know what famous actor said this – maybe one of your audience members can help me – but he said that acting is standing up naked and turning around very, very slowly (Editor’s note: attributed to Rosalind Russell). It’s just a vulnerable art, so either it works or it doesn’t, but as an experience, no matter what the pressure, it’s a privilege to be a part of.
Ryan Gatenby: How did you get involved with this series? I’m always curious about the audition process. I think a lot people have it in their heads that it’s like a “Ten Commandments”-type audition, and a lot of people are standing around in full Biblical costumes and shouting out their lines.
Emmett Scanlan: Yeah, you tend not to get cast if you turn up in costume.
Ryan Gatenby: Right. (Laughs)
Emmett Scanlan: The process was pretty much like anything else, really, the only difference being my girlfriend – now fiancée – auditioned for this show just before me – she pays Herodias, who comes in for episode 3. We were in Ireland at the time – that’s where I come from; I come from Dublin – and she got the great news and we celebrated as only the Irish could for about three or four days. Then she flew off to Ouarzazate, Morocco to start filming this series.
I had already put myself on tape previously for the role of Peter, but I never heard back about it. I was doing another job at the time in Atlanta, and I didn’t think anything of it. Then Roma (Editor’s note: Roma Downey, executive producer) got in touch for me to audition for Saul, and I was addicted to the scripts. I thought they were incredible – just beautifully written scripts. I went down for the audition, and five days later I was cast in it. I flew over to Ouarzazate – which is a trek-and-a-half, three planes. I arrived in the same hotel as my fiancée and said “hey, baby, this is kind of fairy tale stuff,” to be honest.
Ryan Gatenby: As you mentioned, Saul turns from a vehement – even a violent critic of the early Christians to perhaps the biggest champions of Christ. So as an actor, this character is going through not just a mental and spiritual transformation, but there’s also a physical transformation to Saul. How do you prepare yourself to approach the series of changes he goes through?
Emmett Scanlan: It’s not without it’s difficulties, of course. Saul’s faith is unquestionable, whether he’s enforcing the old or is reborn and preaching the new, he does so with fearless faith, and I can’t help but be charmed by that type of character.
On the road to Damascus, Jesus appears to him and he’s blinded for three days. I don’t know how one gets into that, but I can tell you a process that I used to a certain extent. When I was blinded on the road to Damascus, I kept the blindfolds – the bandages on my head all day. I fasted, and I was carried to and fro from set in order to better get into the character. I’m not saying that it helped me in the portrayal, but it certainly helped me as an actor to find some level of truth.
But the physical transformation was quite frightening. I was behind the bandages for so long and seeing only darkness, I felt like a child again, and I wept behind those bandages as well. It’s draining, but it is what it is. You need to give 100 percent, because the trick to acting is to not get caught doing it, and you hope that when its gets on screen, that’s exactly what happens. You give 110 percent and hopefully people will buy into it.
Ryan Gatenby: And going through that physical transformation and the work you did – do you feel closer at all, either to your character or to the situation. Does that make it more real for you, and then, as you said, as an actor that becomes second nature, you’re finally in the moment and you can find the truth?
Emmett Scanlan: Of course, you become more connected to that character – so much so that you don’t want the series to end when you’re filming it. You learn things that I wouldn’t have previously known. As well as that, you have to remember that we’re shooting in Morocco. The backdrop is wonderful. They’ve built sets there that would dwarf some of the biggest sets I’ve been on in my career. I was in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and it would give that competition.
It was one of those things where it’s like your homework is done for you. There’s flies getting into your face, the smells, the streets, the people – everything about it is very visceral and real, so that helps, and it’s hard work, but that’s a first world problem. How blessed are we to say that we can get up and play make-believe for a living?
Ryan Gatenby: Finally, Emmett, as you mentioned, your girlfriend – and now fiancée – is starring with you on this series. You proposed and became engaged while working on it. Did you propose in full Paul mode, like “A Letter from St. Paul to My Future Fiancée?”
Emmett Scanlan: (Laughs) I think she would have said no if I was in full Paul mode, to be honest. We were in the middle of negotiations for A.D. at the time, and I didn’t know whether or not I wanted the job or was going to get it, because I was doing another job, as I said, for NBC in Atlanta.
I was trying to pitch what I should do to my friends and my agents, and I wasn’t getting the right advice, so I rang up my daughter, and she told me – you know, because kids don’t carry the shackles that we do. They have no fear and they have no ego. And she told me that every time I talk about A.D., I sounded happy. So she made up my mind as to why I was going to take the job.
When I put down the phone, I looked up to God and said, “If I get this job, I will propose to my girlfriend” – and anybody who knows me knows that commitment is a massive fear of mine. “If I get this job, I will propose to my girlfriend,” and no sooner had I sad that than my phone goes off, I check my email, and I got the job. I looked back up to God and said, “any chance you didn’t read that?”
Ryan Gatenby: Nice! (Laughs)
Emmett Scanlan: Long story short, I proposed to her on Christmas Eve, and now we’re getting married in New York City on New Year’s Eve.
Ryan Gatenby: Well, congratulations, Emmett, and of course congratulations on the series. It’s “A.D. The Bible Continues,” Sunday nights at 8:00 central on NBC-5 Chicago.
Thank you so much for joining us today. It was great to talk to you.
Emmett Scanlan: Much love and respect to you all. Thank you.
Thank you to our production assistant P.J. for transcribing this interview!