As The Magicians fans know full well, no one can quite deliver a zinger like Summer Bishil’s Margo. But while Bishil got the opportunity to steal some scenes in the first season of the darkly comic and grounded Syfy fantasy series, the actress really got to shine in Season 2, where the f-bomb-laden Margo came away the MVP of the year. We saw far more shades of her character as Margo and Eliot (Hale Appleman) found themselves rulers of Fillory, dealing with a multitude of real af issues ranging from famine to god murder, and Bishil stepped up to the plate and hit a home run, balancing pitch-perfect comedy and deeply emotional drama with ease.
As we head into The Magicians Season 3, which premieres tonight, January 10th, at 9pm ET, Margo faces even greater challenges than before, and I recently got the opportunity to speak with Bishil about her work on the show and what lies ahead for Margo in the third season. With magic gone, Margo’s not only trying to rule Fillory, but is also having to do the bidding of the Fairy Queen and her companions, which pushes Margo to her limit.
During the course of our conversation Bishil reflected on how she first came to be a part of the show, and how working with executive producer/co-showrunner Sera Gamble helped her nail the character of Margo. She also talked about Margo’s arc in Season 2, and getting to play both high comedy and heavy drama throughout the season. And of course we discussed what challenges await Margo in Season 3, her scenes with Candis Cayne’s Fairy Queen, and a specific standout scene she has with Eliot in the premiere. Bishil also talked about how her working relationship with Appleman has evolved over the course of the series, and how hard it was to do so many scenes without him this year.
It was a delight of a conversation from an actress who’s doing some truly terrific work on one of the most exciting shows on TV right now, so if you’re a Magicians fan, I think you’ll find it insightful. Read the full interview below and click here to read my review of Season 3.
Going back a bit, and I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a lot, but I’m curious what headspace you were at when you first signed on to this show. What was your reaction to that pilot script and had you read the books before?
SUMMER BISHIL: I was not aware that it was a book series when I was auditioning. The audition came through like any other audition, and I’ll be honest I needed a job. So I think anything was exciting at that point (laughs), but I loved the material. It was particularly exciting to me, it wasn’t this procedural material that I had been used to reading for some time. It was more interesting. It was younger, it felt unique. And so when I went in I had this really great, specific material that Sera Gamble had written for Margo, and I read for Sera actually, she was there the first time I read for Margo. It was hard to read the room—I felt like I had nailed it, and I obviously did since I booked it, but it was really hard to read the room at that point. I loved this material so much because I had this great monologue that was very book-esque—now that I’ve read the books—about a quest in the desert and everything that I had gone through, and all this great juicy stuff so I really wanted it.
When I found out I got the callback I went in to test and [director] Mike Cahill was on Skype and I did my thing and then everyone was in the room. I guess I may have been going in the wrong direction and Sera very quickly gave me some insight into who she is and some of the things that happen in the series that sort of got me right back on the track that I needed to be on, and I’d like to think probably saved me booking the job.
Margo was a really interesting character in Season 1 and your performance really popped, but the jump to Season 2 was pretty huge. You were the MVP of last season, balancing the one-liners and zingers with some really emotionally intense scenes. I was curious how you felt about that balance and Margo’s arc last year?
BISHIL: Well thank you for saying that. Last year I had so much fun, mainly because like you said my character expanded and there were so many more opportunities to reach and layers that I could sort of lay the groundwork with for her, because we didn’t really know a lot about her, and it isn’t a book, so there are some liberties that I can take. And as far as the comedy and drama, for me what always helped me ground Margo within this material, because it would be very easy to fly off the handle—and you could do that for a scene every once in a while, but nobody’s gonna want to invest in your character if that’s what you’re doing all the time. So for me it’s always to play the stakes, and the stakes are always high especially in Fillory, specifically being a Queen and having a kingdom at stake and other peoples’ well-being. So that sort of grounds me. That’s what I like to do on the day, I take the material as whimsical and kooky as it is, find the emotional truths in it, find the long-term objective, and really arc it out. For me, if I believe it then hopefully the audience will.
That’s one of the high points of the show is that you can have these very 2017 or 2018 one-liners fit right into this fantasy world because you buy the interactions between these characters.
BISHIL: And a lot of times too I’ll infer meaning. For instance if Margo says something particularly kooky and crazy—I mean you know how kooky some of her lines can get—I’ll think about what she’s actually saying, I’ll literally say it in my head. It sounds like I’m saying ‘I think about the subtext’ (laughs), but I do it in a much more obvious and conscious way where I’m basically saying something else while I’m saying the dialogue.
That kind of explains how these one-liners land so well. Season 2 ends with Margo making an incredibly ballsy deal with the devil, so to speak. Heading into Season 3, what were some of your hopes or expectations for where Margo would go, and how did the scripts stack up once you learned what your storyline would be this season?
BISHIL: Well after such a great season, and it’s a large ensemble and it’s a quickly moving show, I tried not to have expectations because I felt like I had been gifted such a really great season and I was just happy we got picked up. But when I started reading scripts, I was immediately blown away. The wealth of material that I had to work with, the situations that Margo gets herself into and is placed into this year are insanely funny but also have so much emotional heart. It was really a great season for me and for Margo, and there was a lot to do, and there’s a huge arc for her. We end in Season 2 with her almost fantasizing about being a dictator, which is completely at odds philosophically with her friends, and you’re kind of wondering if she’s just this whole time kinda kooky and a little crazy. But you really see her evolve over the course of this season from where we see her last, and into somebody more mindful and patient and a really well-rounded, thoughtful ruler.
This year we do get to see more of Margo the Ruler, but she’s also forced to do the bidding of the Fairy Queen. What was it like to explore that dynamic with Candis Cayne?
BISHIL: Oh man it was incredible. Candis has such a presence when she walks into a room naturally, just as herself, but when you put her in the fairy makeup and you put her into the wardrobe that we have and she’s there, it’s very much a force that enters the room, so your behavior naturally shifts to pay attention to this woman in the room that’s talking to you and laying out demands. And the way she delivers her character is very quiet, and she takes her time with what she says, so there’s a lot of slowing down and a lot of listening, which drives my character insane. For me what I thought about, specifically in the beginning episodes, was how crazy it was driving me. Taking away my little bit of power that I have, even as far back as Brakebills Margo desperately needs to feel OK, this is like her worst nightmare. Another woman running the show, Margo almost cannot tolerate it. I wanted the audience to see and find Margo in a place of just crazed frenzy and anger and the rage simmering underneath, because she puts people in their place and for once she can’t. She’s got all these witty little comebacks that she can’t even say and it’s driving her crazy, it’s like torture (laughs). I think physical pain would’ve been better for Margo because she would’ve been able to speak her mind. Silencing her is the worst thing you could do to her.
I have to ask about a specific scene in the premiere episode between Eliot and Margo, and it involves speaking in code using pop culture references. It’s one of my favorite things the show has ever done. What was your reaction when you read that in the script, and what was it like to film?