Arjun Gupta Talks The Magicians’ Penny, Fanfiction, and Comic Books

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Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is getting a new fanbase thanks to Syfy’s adaptation. But what does that entail exactly? I spoke with Arjun Gupta about the emerging fandom and more.

Earlier in the week I shared with you Gupta’s thoughts on diversity in Hollywood and how the recent episode of The Magicians portrayed his character Penny. But now it’s time for the really important stuff – has he seen any Penny fanfic? And if not, is he prepared for it?

“Can you be prepared for that? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that one,” he playfully told me.  And although he’s yet to see any he says he’s “excited for it.” He went on to say:

Fanfiction is interesting. I had never heard the term ‘shipping’ before I worked on this show. Sera Gamble was talking about it, she was like ‘Oh just wait until they start shipping people,’ and I was like ‘what does that mean — oh! Relationships, putting people in relationships together.’ So I’m just really curious to see how this lives in peoples’ minds because at the end of the day… we’re telling stories for people to enjoy and interpret in their own way and that’s always fascinating. I listened to one of the after shows that they did and it’s just so fascinating to hear people for one, how invested they get which is so beautiful and really flattering. And two what they pick up on, how sometimes it’s so accurate and sometimes so wildly different than the way that I thought and the way that we did it. It’s just so interesting to me to be like, ‘Wow, oh wow, I never saw that at all!’ It’s a fascinating relationship between the audience and the show and I’m excited to see that develop.

But the bottom line Gupta says, “I don’t care if people love or hate Penny, I just want people to have a reaction to him and a response because then they’re responding to something true. So if that manifests in the way of like cosplay, that would be really fascinating and I’d be really excited to see that and I would love to say hello.”

Gupta hadn’t read Grossman’s novels before reading for the role but says he has since and loved them. He says he sees TV Penny as a “lone wolf” who’s “really had to figure out how to live without the parental guidance and sort of mentorship that most of us have…He doesn’t trust a lot of people, he’s incredibly unapologetic for the way he feels and the way that he makes other people feel.”

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And what about the differences between the book version and Syfy’s version? “Lev [Grossman] and I have had many conversations where he thinks that the Penny in the show is very different from the Penny in the book but I think that there’s such an essential rejecting of authority that is true to the Penny in the book that I think is still true to the Penny in the show. There’s this distrust of authority,” he told me. “I think in the show we just get to really understand where that all comes from. Because in the book he kind of was in and out of the story and you don’t really get to really understand that much about Penny.”

Fans of Grossman’s novel have probably noticed some other changes including the quick introduction to the magical world and folding some of the second novel, The Magician King, into the first season.

“They’re definitely putting some of the second book in with the first book because of Julia’s storyline happening concurrently with Quentin’s,” Gupta told me. “The beautiful thing with TV in the way that John [McNamara] and [Sera Gamble] are doing this, they’re kind of using the books as there are landmarks to get to but sometime instead of going straight from A to B, they’ll sometimes kind of curve around and then end up back at B. So they are kind of shifting the timeline a little but we’re staying very true to the book.”

Gupta also told me he was a bit nervous about the CGI aspect of the show because his “job is the emotional truth and bringing the emotional truth of a character and a situation.” But as it turns out, they’re able to do a lot practically.

“We’re so blessed. We have a special effects team up there with Darren [Marcoux] his team is amazing and, Dan Shea who’s our stunt coordinator up there, ” he said. “We got to see a lot of the stuff that we would have to react to which made my job a lot easier and I can’t thank them enough for that. I mean we would set things on fire like, at least three times a week. At least.”

And even times you think are filled with CGI magic are 100% real. Remember the scene in the premiere episode where Penny smashes a mirror with a chair?

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“That was real,” the actor told me. “We had one take to do that, it was 11 o’clock at night and I remember the director was like ‘Nope you use it, man, you have to get this in one because of the 20 minute reset and we don’t have 20 minutes. So you better get it.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, no pressure.’ ” Gupta managed it and said it was actually pretty fun.

While this may be his first sci-fi or fantasy role as an actor, Gupta told me he’s “a huge fan of fantasy, I was a massive fan of Harry Potter when they came out and I read Chronicles of Narnia late in life.” But he did read a lot of comics and graphic novels growing up.

“In Hindu mythology there are two main epics…the Mahabharata and the Ramanaya, that are foundational parts of the culture and I read those in the form of comic books. I read a lot of comic books, a lot of graphic novels,” he explained. “I would be gifted Tintin and Asterix. The best was Calvin and Hobbes, obviously.”

He doesn’t keep up with them these days but like so many of us, is a fan of superhero movies. “Everyone loves a good superhero movie because life is so simple, it’s good versus evil. It’s a beautiful way of escaping into a world where the heroes come out and that’s great and it’s fun,” he said, adding that he sees the Watchmen as a good metaphor in a lot of ways for The Magicians. “I didn’t read the Watchmen until I was in college but did read it and I remember I was really like, ‘What’s happening? Oh my god, this is so complex. I’m feeling so many things right now, why am I feeling so many things?’ I wasn’t expecting to with the Watchmen. I think that’s what’s partly really exciting about The Magicians.”

The actor said what’s beautiful about the show, and the books from which it’s adapted, “Is that the sci-fi and the fantasy tropes are a background to what is really stories about people. And that’s where I, as an actor and as an artist, get to bring what I love to do which is telling the stories to people and honoring those stories.”

Gupta told me overall he’s really excited for this project to be out there in the world. “I’m absolutely grateful to have been a part of it and I’m excited for you guys. [The fourth episode] really, I feel like, is where the training wheels come off of the show,” he told me. “It turns a corner, things start to get a little more crazy.”

And to the fans specifically Gupta says, “I love you all.”

The Magicians airs Monday nights at 9/8c on Syfy and was recently renewed for a second season. Don’t forget to check out my previous article, “The Magicians’ Arjun Gupta on Hollywood Diversity and Penny’s Portrayal in the 4th Episode.”

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