Los Angeles, 1967. Welcome to the summer of love. Aquarius stars David Duchovny as Sam Hodiak, a seasoned homicide detective whose investigations dovetail with the activities of real-life cult leader Charles Manson in the years before he masterminded the most notorious killings of a generation, the Tate-LaBianca murders. A small-time but charismatic leader with big plans, Manson has begun to build up his family, recruiting vulnerable young men and women to join his cause. Teaming up with a young cop who will help him infiltrate Manson’s circle, Hodiak is forced to see things through the questioning eyes of someone who came of age amongst the current anti-establishment counterculture. Edgy, addictive and visually stunning, the age of aquarius is here.
Emma Dumont plays the fictional Emma Karn whose naivete makes her the perfect target for Manson who, when the series begins in 1967, is beginning to pull together the band of followers he calls his family. Two years later, those family members will perpetrate some of the most heinous murders in American history. Aquarius follows two cops (played by The X-Files‘ David Duchovny and Friday Night Lights‘ Gray Damon) whose investigation into Emma’s disappearance draws them deeper and deeper into Manson’s twisted world. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Emma Dumont to discuss her time on one of this summer’s most memorable series and its impact on her and her blossoming career.
I wanted to start by giving our readers a bit of background on you. How did you get involved with acting and are there parallels between the world of modeling and what you do as an actress?
I grew up doing theater in Seattle, which is my hometown. I sort of fell into it. I did a few indie films up in Seattle just for fun. I emailed my acting manager when I was in Tokyo about doing more and it has been a whirlwind since then. I think there are a lot of parallels. The industries are very, very different but, at the end of the day, they both revolve around making art. For my role in both industries, there are a lot of similarities. With acting, obviously, you are portraying a character. With modeling you are portraying a character as well but you are doing it silently.
Who impacted you as an actor early on?
I haven’t had a lot of mentors when it comes to acting, however, one of my very first projects was an NBC pilot called “Metro.” Stephen Gaghan directed it and Noah Emmerich was our number one and he played my father. I spent a lot of time with him and had a lot of conversations with him over tea or lunch. He said a lot of things to me back then that I still call upon today when it comes to my craft.
Your latest project, “Aquarius,” is one of television’s best shows of the summer. How did you get involved with the project and what was it about the way it was written that intrigued you about the character and the series?
I got involved with “Aquarius” when my agent sent me the script. Once I read the script, I fell in love with the role. I went through the casting process with the network and it went quite quickly. I remember reading and thinking, “Emma is so naive.” What is interesting about playing her now, is that she is experiencing everything for the very first time. She is much younger than I am, so it is very cool to be able to see the world through her eyes. The script for the pilot itself was amazing. It rang so true to the ‘60s. It is so accurate to the time period. There are so many things that go into a show that you don’t get in a script from the music to the clothes to the lighting and everything else. Even so, the writing really drew me into the story. Specifically with Emma, the show takes place in a time period where the world is changing a lot. The term teenager wasn’t even a thing until the ‘50s and this show is set in the ‘60s. I think it is really cool that she is the first of her kind in terms of being a young person with a voice. That is what I loved about her, being this age in this time period.
What went into researching the character and the the time period? How did you flesh it all out?
All of us went through a process of bringing our characters and the time period to life. To help us prepare for our roles, our creator, John McNamara, sent us a list of over 100 books, movies and documentaries to read or watch as homework. He said it was optional but we all knew it wasn’t! [laughs] Specifically, I watched a lot of old films, Hayley Mills films and Audrey Hepburn films. I also read a lot of books on the time period. As a character, Emma is very naive, so a lot of the research I did personally, wasn’t even stuff she would know. To portray her, it was more about learning about women in the ‘60s, what her role in society would be and what the social guidelines would be for a girl her age.
Do you see parts of yourself in Emma’s character?
I can honestly say there is not one similarity between Emma and I! [laughs] I would just go crazy! I think on a human level, she is searching for love and as humans we all want to be in a place where we are loved and surrounded by people who love us. I think that is the only similarity between the two of us. Aside from that one thing, we are pretty different.
“Aquarius” has a tremendous cast. What has the experience of working alongside these seasoned professionals been like for you?
It has been a phenomenal experience working with our cast. Everyone is so smart and very, very talented. Gethin Anthony, who plays Charles Manson, and I have spent quite a bit of time together because we share so many scenes. Watching his process has been pretty amazing. We are historical fiction but he portrays Manson very accurate to how we think he would have been during the time period. He did a lot of research for the role from listening to audio of Manson to learning Manson’s songs to play on the show. That is amazing! I know he took guitar lessons and practiced a lot to be able to play these songs, which is a phenomenal skill. I don’t know how he did it! It is really inspiring to watch him work. Grey Damon, who plays Brian Shafe, likes to do a lot of work on set. He likes to ask a lot of questions and figure things out as he goes, along with the prep work he does at home. The same goes for Claire Holt, who plays Charmain Tully. David Duchovny is such a gem. He is so sweet and so talented. He really makes us all bring our A-game. There is absolutely no way you can’t bring your top game with someone like David around. I have learned a lot from watching all of them work.
What has been the biggest challenge you faced with this role?
Yeah, there has been one consistent struggle, I could say, with Emma Karn. Basically, it is that it is so hard for me to understand the choices she makes as a person. It is a real challenge as an actor to try to get inside of her head. A lot of the things that play into that is my research into the real Manson girls and why they did what they did. As me, Emma Dumont, I think, “Emma Karn! What are you doing?! Go back home! Go back home sweet girl to your mansion!” [laughs] That has been a struggle for me because I don’t understand the choices she is making but have to come up with the motivation in my head in order to make it believable. I did struggle with that at first but now I think I have figured her out for the most part.
We talk to many actors who are just dying to do a period piece like “Aquarius.” What are some of the pros and cons of working on a period piece?
There are so many pros to working on a period piece! This is the first one I have worked on and it is phenomenal. I wasn’t around in the ‘60s, obviously, and I think I am the youngest cast member, so I am the furthest removed from it. It is so much fun! You walk around on set and the attention to detail is so great that it feels like you are actually there. If I didn’t know it was a set, I would think I had time traveled! One of the biggest things I have discovered is the dialog. They spoke different in the ‘60s and they used different vernacular, terms and slang. It is really fun to incorporate that into the performances. I don’t know if there are any cons. We do have to make sure we do not bring any contemporary speak onto the set or into the characters because it would definitely be noticeable.
How has working on a show the caliber of “Aquarius” impacted you as an actor?
Working on “Aquarius” has really changed my view of the industry as a whole. We are making a TV show that really does look and feel like a film. It is made so well. We have an amazing director of photography, editors and crew. It has changed my mind about what is possible and made me realize how special a project it is. After working on “Aquarius,” I really try to look to do projects that are very special to me and will be amazing pieces.
Obviously, you can’t say too much about season two at this point. However, if you had your way, where would you like to see Emma Karn go in the future?
If I had my way? If I had my way, I would love to see Emma do more on the cop side. So far, we have seen her mostly on the ranch with the hippies but I think it might be interesting to see her done up in her rich girl clothes working with Duchovny’s character. Maybe undercover? I don’t know! We will have to see! [laughs]
Where do you hope to see yourself focus your attention as an actor in the near future? Any bucket list items?
I would love to do an action film. I play roller derby and I dance ballet, so I think I have a sense of physical acting. I think it would be a tremendous amount of fun to do an action film at some point!
You have a few years working at your craft under your belt at this point. What jumps out at you as far as creative milestones?
I think the experience of “Aquarius” as a whole has been a milestone. It is very different than the work I have done in the past. My last show was a show for teens, a sort of drama-dy on ABC Family. So, this series has been worlds away and I love dipping my toes in different ponds to try different styles of acting.
Thank you for your time today, Emma! We have loved your work on the series so far and we can’t wait to see what you do next!
Thank you, Jason! I appreciate it!
‘Aquarius: The Complete First Season,’ a four-disc Blu-ray box set, will be available for purchase on September 15th from Anchor Bay Home Entertainment.