At Monday's press junket in Toronto for Netflix's latest original series, Hemlock Grove, there were so many international, bright young things hiving around the hotel that I felt I was attending a Model UN for gorgeous people.
The series, produced by horror-meister Eli Roth and based on the novel by Brian McGreevy, is an American Horror Story-meets-Twin Peaks mutant, a mash-up of luxe production values and skilled actors with some truly disturbing subject matter. It delves into the dark corners of the titular burg, a small Pennsylvania rust-belt town, and unearths nasty questions, beginning with who or what eviscerated a cheerleader under the full moon. A werewolf, a vampire and a towering Frankenstein's-monster-girl (named Shelley – get it?) attend the local high school, but this is no Twilight – in fact, a character disses Stephenie Meyers's novels in the first episode. Netflix unleashed all 13 hours at once yesterday, following the model of its first series, House of Cards, which is still enjoying critical and popular success.
Hemlock Grove is produced by a French studio, and was shot in Toronto over six months beginning last spring. Its cast quips that working on it was like being on Noah's Ark – there were two people from every place. Famke Janssen (X-Men, Nip/Tuck), who's from the Netherlands, plays Olivia Godfrey, Hemlock Grove's divinely decadent matriarch, who dresses only in white and gets all the killer lines. Dougray Scott (he was Arthur Miller in My Week with Marilyn, and the villain in Mission: Impossible II), who's from Scotland, plays Norman Godfrey, Olivia's brother-in-law and (of course) lover. He represents the audience, a sane(ish) man trying to process the bizarre goings-on around him. The two high-school heroines, Penelope Mitchell and Freya Tingley, are from Australia. In their early 20s and late teens, respectively, they're at the beginnings of careers they've already been working on for a while – in Tingley's case, via modelling, and in Mitchell's, ballet and university.
But the two cast members who seem most destined for fast-track fame, for slavish fan sites and squealing groupies, are the dreamy-looking young men who play the werewolf, Peter Rumancek, and the vampire, Roman Godfrey. The former, Landon Liboiron, is Canadian; more on him in a minute. And the latter, Bill Skarsgard, 23, is from Sweden, one of the ubiquitous Skarsgard clan, whose supernatural good looks factor in the characters they play.
"My dad Stellan played a ghost [in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise], I play a vampire, my brother Gustaf plays a Viking [in the cable series Vikings], and my brother Alexander plays a Viking vampire [on HBO's True Blood ]," Bill says in Swedish-accented English, with a moue that makes his startling cheekbones even more startling. His big eyes are the colour of barely-blue denim, and his perfect skin is the white-blue of 1-per cent milk. "Everyone I meet tells me I look like a vampire," he continues. "I was just in New York and this girl came right up to me and said, 'You look like a vampire!' Then I joked to my friend about it, and he said, 'Dude, you really do.'"
"Dude, you really do," echoes Mitchell, who's sitting beside him.
Skarsgard has worked steadily since age nine, when he appeared (with some of his family) on the popular Swedish miniseries Arn. He's never even considered another career: "We're forced to do this. We Skarsgards grow up in an acting boot camp from day one," he jokes. "Honestly, I feel so fortunate that I figured out at an early age what I want to do. My only fear is, because there are three or four of us Skarsgards already, the public will think I should do something else." I think he can rest easy.
Liboiron's background could hardly differ more from Skarsgard's: He grew up in the minuscule farming hamlet of Jenner, Alta., – "where there was no acting anywhere," he says – and went to a school where a typical grade consisted of four or five kids. When he was about 10, his mother found a "Star Search-type flyer" in the local newspaper, and took him to meet what turned out to be a modelling agent. He didn't want to model. "But we would get regular invitations from them in the mail, asking why not," Liboiron says, grinning. He has the kind of delicate features that are only enhanced by scruffy facial hair, and his eyebrows are magisterial. Today he's wearing a hip hat and scratching away intently with a ballpoint pen, doodling something that looks very much like a wolf.
When he was 12, he heard about a conference in Edmonton where he could meet L.A. acting agents. He got himself an acting coach and prepped a monologue. Every summer thereafter, his mother would drive him 13 hours to Vancouver, where they'd live for two months so he could audition and take acting classes. He landed roles the way other kids sink baskets, in the film Passchendaele, on the series Terra Nova, and on Degrassi: The Next Generation, where he played Declan Coyne for a season and a half. "They won't like my saying this," he says, "but Degrassi is like our Coronation Street. It just keeps going."
Even while doodling, Laboiron is articulate about the eternal appeal of werewolf sagas. "There's something romantic about it, but something very human about it as well," he says. "The longing, the loneliness, the ostracization. Brian put these Gothic characters into a solid dramatic story. He shows you how animal humans can be, and how vulnerable monsters can be. In the book Peter says, 'I wish I could shed my human face more than once a month.' Werewolves have always been about adolescence." Here Laboiron leans in, lets out a roar – "I'm becoming a man!" – then cracks up.
His first man-to-wolf transformation, which occurs in episode two, has already gone viral on the Internet. (Spoiler alert: His human eyeballs pop out of his head, then his wolf-self eats them. Gross.) Shooting it "was definitely a challenge," Laboiron says. "I didn't know if I was going to make an absolute corny fool of myself. I just had to get on all fours and hope my inner five-year-old would help me make it believable." It was a group effort, he says – someone put fake blood in his mouth, someone else added mashed-up banana, "so with the light behind me when I spit, it looks like I'm spitting flesh. I love collaborating like that."
Though they star in a show where characters are routinely chased to their dooms, the actors don't want to think about what may be coming for them, fame-wise. "I don't expect or hope for anything," Skarsgard says. "I want to believe nothing's going to change, so I choose not to think about it."
Laboiron says his hometown friends keep him humble, and he tries to "stay out of the mindset of, 'This is a big break,' because you don't want to over-hype anything." He holds up the drawing he's been labouring over. "This is a cat, by the way," he says. "I bet you're surprised." He may have tamed that wolf into a kitty. But the full moon is coming, and I can already hear the howls.
(I'm on Twitter now. Follow me @JoSchneller.)