'Lovecraft Country': Tony Goldwyn Breaks Down That "Ancient" Twist

HBO's Lovecraft Country
Eli Joshua Ade/HBO

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with the erstwhile 'Scandal' star about his role in the HBO thriller's second episode.

[This story contains spoilers for the second episode of HBO's Lovecraft Country, "Whitey's on the Moon."]

"You're darker than I expected." Those are the words Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn) greets Tic (Jonathan Majors) with upon their first meeting in "Whitey's on the Moon," the second episode of HBO's Lovecraft Country — and it's a line that immediately informed Goldwyn's interpretation of the Order of the Ancient Dawn cult leader.

"There's this sort of New England, aristocratic way of speaking that I thought was right for Samuel," Goldwyn tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I thought about William F. Buckley."

In "Whitey's on the Moon," viewers learn of The Order of the Ancient Dawn, a secret brotherhood of the occult, led by Goldwyn's Samuel — a deadly, albeit short-lived antagonist. With the help of his daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee), Samuel has lured Tic to his home, finally giving him the means to complete a ritual that would see him return to Earth's beginning, and establish a hierarchy of his own design as the world's first man. And this time, no Eve will force him from Eden. "I'm Adam," says Samuel, "and I've worked a very long time to return to paradise."

Like the other antagonists that have been introduced in the show thus far, Samuel's villainy stems from racism. But unlike Sheriff Hunt (Jamie Harris) in the premiere, Samuel's racism is of a calmer, more patient nature, which makes him all the more dangerous. While Samuel's time among the living in Lovecraft Country is brief, he certainly makes an impact, killing not one but two of the central heroes: Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and George (Courtney B. Vance). Leti is fortunately resurrected by Christina, who has her own aims, ones that don't involve her father. But sadly, Samuel's gunshot claims George's life. Both George and Samuel succumb to their injuries around the same time, creating a symmetrical fall of the established patriarchal order.

Samuel's talk of the hierarchy of beings and the power of naming, and his view of Blacks as lesser beings, closer to animals than men, directly recalls H.P. Lovecraft's own sentiments towards race. In some ways, Samuel serves as a legacy character for Lovecraft himself. It's fitting that when we meet Samuel he's having part of his liver removed as part of a ritual. Lovecraft died of a result of cancer of the small intestine. There's a connective tissue of abdominal trauma, and theme of misguided gut feelings that connect the two men.

Samuel's lesson to Tic, and an unwilling Christina, one part Bible study, and one part eugenics, recalls Lovecraft's poem "On the Creation of Niggers," which is a horror story in and of itself:

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove's fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest of Man,
Th'Olympian host conceiv'd a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

While Samuel's lesson on the natural hierarchy of man relies on Christianity, as opposed to Lovecraft's Roman mythology, the idea imparted is strikingly similar. But in Samuel's eyes, he sees that the world has moved past this initial hierarchy, with Blacks rejecting their supposed stations in segregated America, predicting the Civil Rights movement that will define the '60s in a few short years. Samuel's racism is one that seems to be guided by fear — fear of what white men will become in the 20th century when stripped over their power by the other. His aim to return to paradise is Promethean, and his quest for the power of higher beings and the punishment that ensues (Samuel and his order being turned to stone) is a common theme in Lovecraft's works.

For more on the character and the ways in which his presence resonates within the greater Lovecraft Country themes, THR spoke with Goldwyn about bringing Samuel Braithwhite to life (and death), H.P. Lovecraft, and looking at racism in America beyond the South.

How did you come to be involved with Lovecraft Country?

Luck. Misha [Green] thought of me for the part. I read this insane script, and saw the incredible cast attached and that was an easy yes. [Misha] was just an outrageous character and her writing was just so superb. The way that she, and quite frankly the material that Jordan Peele is drawn to as a producer, takes a genre that's incredibly entertaining and fun, and engineer it to be a pretty in your face social commentary was always really attractive to be a part of.

Samuel is an interesting figure because he's so calm and calculating. The other examples of racism we've seen on the show have been louder. But there's something so frightening and patient about Samuel. What was your process of finding the character?

What I thought was so skillful about [Matt Ruff's] book and Misha's script was the fact that this takes place not in the South but in the North, and Samuel is this New England aristocrat. We've sort of whitewashed American history in order to pretend that Southern whites were the singular villains in the post-Reconstruction era, and that the North were the good guys when there could be nothing further from the truth. Where we didn't have Jim Crow laws we had much subtler and equally insidious redlining and other forms of social suppression.

Samuel Braithwhite is someone who feels totally entitled due to his birthright, and his lineage, wealth, and power to feel intellectually superior to all other ethnicities and social strata. He views himself as a member of the master race, and he's really committed to cultivating that in this whole fantastical mission which he takes to the extreme in terms of immortality. You can line that up so nicely with the Aryan notion of the Final Solution. I thought that was so interesting because you take this sort of extreme, operatic situation, and you put it on a human level. And it's not remotely uncommon in terms of how people view themselves in relation to other human beings.

There are some interesting similarities between Samuel and H.P. Lovecraft himself. He held many of this similar views of racial and class superiority. Were you familiar with the author?

Yeah, I had read some Lovecraft. But Misha's script was so good, and I really enjoyed Matt Ruff's book as well, so there was enough material for me to get who the character was. I didn't go back and re-read any Lovecraft. I honestly didn't have the appetite for it. It's quite contemptible to read now. I also wanted to embrace Samuel's view of the world as something that is unexceptional, completely rational, and convincing. He sees himself as someone doing what needs to be done and completely entitled to do it. Jonathan Majors' character is just collateral damage to him. His race is almost irrelevant to him.

In Matt Ruff's book, Samuel has a son, Caleb. But in the show, it's a daughter, Christina (Abbey Lee). What's your perspective on that father-daughter relationship?

Abbey's amazing. With those characters, there's this power wrestling match that I feel like Samuel both admires and feels a need to control. You'll see as you watch the rest of the season that becomes more complicated in terms of Christina. That resistance and independent spirit of hers is something he both enamored of and irritated by.

Another interesting aspect about Samuel is his perspective on religion and literalism, which seems to be a point of contention between he and Christina.

That's the other interesting thing about the character and the world that Misha and Matt Ruff created, it's kind of this post-enlightenment view of the nexus between science and spirituality. For Samuel, everything is reduced down to a transactional benefit. I think he views spirituality in scientific terms. So if there's magic that he is tapping into, it is an organic, real phenomenon that he is trying to access. If people want to clothe that in spiritual garb, or simplistic terms, that can be quite useful. He feels he is above that and understands that is a simpleton's way of explaining the unexplainable.

But it helps frame it in a useful way, and helps control the opiate of the masses. He's putting spirituality to his own uses, but not deferring to it in any way. He's not humbling himself. He is harnessing the power in its most transactional form, instead of being in awe of the fearsome power of god. For Samuel, man becomes god. God becomes the ultimate destiny of men who choose to seek that moment, which is why I think [the Order of the Ancient Dawn] has been created, and why Samuel is at the head of it. That is an authoritarian view, and a socially Darwinist view, that the strongest will prevail and that's how it's supposed to be.

There's something mythic about that. We could look at Samuel as the Prometheus figure attempting to steal fire from the gods.

Exactly. Samuel is reaching for fire, and he gets it. He doesn't realize until the very last second that it is in fact overpowering him.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.