Paul Zbyszewski And June Carryl On Helstrom - Exclusive Interview

Helstrom showrunner Paul Zbyszewski was no stranger to Marvel Television when he came onboard the horror-centric Hulu series, based on characters whose origins trace back to Marvel's flirtation with occult leaning titles in the seventies. Initial reports said Helstrom would launch a mini-franchise within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a planned Ghost Rider series to follow. But following the folding of Marvel Television into Marvel Studios, those plans changed: Ghost Rider was scrapped and Helstrom was released as a standalone series instead. Zbyszewski is a behind-the-scenes veteran of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and Lost), so he knows all about creating mythology, mystique, and casting the right actors in key roles.

Helstrom stars Tom Austen (The Royals) and Syndey Lemmon (Fear the Walking Dead) as Daimon and Ana Helstrom, siblings with troubled pasts who work to protect people from demonic forces. In this exclusive interview with Looper, conducted alongside cast member June Carryl (who plays Dr. Louise Hastings), Zbyszewski listed the qualities he looked as he searched for the right actors to play the Helstrom siblings. He spoke about what he looked for in the directors he assembled to helm season one's ten episodes and explained why the separation of Helstrom from the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a blessing, not a curse.

What Helstrom's producers looked for in their two leads

Paul, what were the most important things you looked for in casting the two siblings for the show?

Paul Zbyszewski: A lot. Boy, it's so hard when you're casting a show. You want everyone to be a five-tool player. You want them to be a Swiss Army knife. You want someone who can bring the drama, someone who can do comedy, someone who can do action. You want gravitas. You want flexibility, physicality. There are so many boxes to check when you have your ideal scenario for your entire cast. I was delighted that Laray Mayfield [and] Lisa Fields, our casting directors, and our terrific friends at Marvel who have been through the casting mill so many times on previous shows, knew like, "Oh, there's hidden talent over here." Laray was like, "Have you seen June yet?" And I was like, "Wait, what?" And then Mindhunter comes along. 

I'm just so grateful that everyone we cast, top to bottom, was a five-tool player. They all came to play. They had all of the things. And on top of all that, they were great people, just fun to talk to and fun to hang out with, and you could be real and have conversations. And they all had that intangible, likable quality that made the chemistry on-screen easy. It was like, "Oh, look. They like each other in real life. They hang out together." And so when they come in and do scenes together, it's just more enjoyable. They like each other's company. I mean, June, you can speak better to that than I can.

June Carryl: Yeah. It was not work. It was just a joy every day. Every day I got to go on set, it was just, "I'm going to hang out with my family." And that alone takes care of it.

The various Helstrom directors came with horror cred

Helstrom has so many great directors, like Amanda Row and the Emmy-nominated Daina Reid, who directed your pilot. As the showrunner, what are some of the qualities you look for in your directors?

Paul Zbyszewski: There's so much. I mean, I don't even know where to begin. Visually, they have to be able to tell a story and bring a style to it. And really, Daina set the bar for that. I mean, with Daina, her work in [season 2 episode] "Holly" on The Handmaid's Tale, she was coming off that nomination, and she's so lovely to talk to and to be with, to then realize, "Oh, she's got a real vision. Oh, she has horror chops." She really knew her horror. She was a classic horror fan. And she did her homework as well. And she was an actor. And so she had a wonderful rapport with actors, and June can obviously speak to that more than I can. 

But all of our directors, we were looking for those qualities, the visual and also that team player spirit and enthusiasm and a little bit of genre cred. In spots, we gave people some breaks. [We were] so lucky to have Jovanka Vuckovic direct an episode, coming from indie horror. And episode five, if you've seen the first five, I think she really kind of knocked it out of the park and did a wonderful job for us. I feel so grateful that our directors all came to play and all brought something of themselves to the project. And I hope that answers some of that question.

How June Carryl's prior roles prepared her for Helstorm

June, you've played doctors, nurses, and judges. How did those roles help prepare you to play the head of a psych hospital in Helstrom? I would imagine that it's almost an amalgamation of those.

June Carryl: Well, I love getting to work. And yes, there's the stuff that I know I need to know. I need to know what my intellectual background, what my academic background is. I need to know what my specialties are. I need to know what my demeanor is, what my bedside manner is like. I need to know how I define my bedside manner. This was a little different. This was a new school altogether because this was getting to play the full range. And of course, it's different when you're there for five minutes. You're there to move the story along and then you disappear. And the next thing happens to the people that the show is about. I think that getting to play, in this particular instance, someone who is so fully human, so flawed, so earnest and intent on getting it right, doing the right thing, who blows it sometimes, who gets it right sometimes but doesn't sit on her laurels. This was new. This was really different.

There was a depth to, I think, the writing of this character that goes beyond sort of the, "Well, it's because it's a series." It's not that. She's doing this tightrope walk, where she's got faith on the one hand, intellect on the other, and these human beings who do these amazing things. She's seen it all. She's done it all and still has the capacity to be surprised by all of it. And she's got to adjust and twist and turn, and she's got to get ready to throw a left or a right. She's got to be able to do it all. And I just think that there was something in the writing of the character that allowed me to play so play, just to play. And that was a singular experience, singular.

Why Helstrom's separation from the MCU was a blessing, not a curse

The Marvel Netflix shows made mention of events from the movies, but the movies never really reciprocated. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter had better luck with that. The Disney+ shows will be a whole different animal. Where does Helstrom fit into the MCU landscape, if at all?

Paul Zbyszewski: It's not part of the MCU. We are our own thing. We knew we were going to be our own thing. There was a freeing sort of feeling about it because canon can be heavy. It is a weight on your shoulders, and to have just this little pocket of the universe because of what it is and the style and tone and darkness of it and thematic sort of darkness of it, it needed to be its own thing. I'm glad it's its own thing because we also then got to focus on our people, our characters, our story, and hopefully fans aren't sitting there going like, "So, when's Iron Man going to show up?" Oh, spoiler. He's not, because he's dead.

Helstrom is now streaming on Hulu.