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Cult is taking over your television screen.
The CW premieres its extremely ambitious and extremely meta thriller on Tuesday night and the premise, from executive producer Rockne S. O’Bannon, is not a simple one to sum up. Ask cast members to round up the one-hour “show within a show” concept in a few words and you’ll find that to be nearly impossible.
Cult, in a nutshell, follows a journalist and a production assistant on a popular crime show (also named Cult) who investigate crimes linked to the TV series. But that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. For star Matt Davis, Cult is ultimately about control. “The show is really about controlling people remotely and what happens when that controller has an agenda,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter during a recent sit-down in Beverly Hills.
“The season proposes a couple of questions that are answered by the end. I really feel like the first season just scratches the tip of the iceberg as opposed to the second season,” he says. If you were hoping Cult would wrap up in a neat bow at the end of its 13-episode run, you may not find the answer you’ll be looking for. Davis says that the season ends on a cliffhanger, which opens the door to a “whole new world.”
Davis chats with THR about the complicated premise of Cult, how being on Vampire Diaries prepared him and just how deep down the rabbit hole his alter-ego, Jeff, goes in his frantic search for his missing brother.
The Hollywood Reporter: The pilot of Cult sets up a very complicated world.
Matt Davis: It sets up a complex world, and it spends the next couple of episodes crystallizing for sure. At the time, I didn’t know what the arc of the story was going to be, I just went by the script of the pilot, so as actors, we were constantly kept in a state of suspended animation from episode to episode not knowing what was going to happen. I’ve seen one, two and three, but I don’t know what it looks after that stuff, but I like to believe that it all sets up the world in the pilot, crystallizes that world, brings the audience in and takes them down this twisted, dark rabbit hole of suspense and terror.
THR: It’s very meta — especially with the “TV show within a TV show” layer — but you also have the fandom aspect to Cult. As filming went on, was there a trick you used to keep the different worlds straight because there are so many components?
Davis: There are. The great thing about that, for my character anyway, is his objective is pretty clear-cut and simple, which is to find his missing brother. For me, I kept focusing on that to get through the twisting and turning of it all. He definitely has some cynicism going into it, so the beginning of the season is him confronting his cynicism and accepting the fact that there is something going on that is rather sinister behind this television show. Once he accepts it, they go down fast.
THR: How would you sum up Cult in a few short sentences?
Davis: The show is really about controlling people remotely, what happens when that controller has an agenda — how he writes messages into a show that begins to manipulate people, influencing them in different ways than they are aware of. It’s really about control through media, and who’s controlling it.
THR: You were on a show that has a very vocal fan base, The Vampire Diaries. Has that experience opened your eyes to fandom since you wrapped Cult?
Davis: Yeah, I suppose so. This show takes it a step further. It’s actually interesting if you think about it: Ian [Somerhalder] put together his ISF (Ian Somerhalder Foundation),. Literally he has millions of young girls who will just raise money for him. So that’s an example of using it for good. Then you have somebody like me [laughs], who’s using it for morally questionable reasons. I’m kidding. I actually like to think I’ve been using my Twitter for good, as well. But it is an interesting thing, like if you were to really take it on a subterranean level to influence people to do bad things, that’s where Cult comes in.
THR: But there must be some aspects to the show that do hold some truth.
Davis: Oh, of course. That’s why I liked it, that’s what drew me to the project to begin with. I firmly believe we actually live in a society that is being manipulated and influenced through the control of media to shape public opinion, to use that shaping to the political agenda of whatever political party is in power at the time. I do think it’s relevant and it happens. It’s just a question of how aware you are of it happening.
THR: Let’s get into your character. How would you describe where we find Jeff at the start of the season to where he ends up?
Davis: Jeff is in a transition in his life. He’s just broken up with his girlfriend, he’s just lost his job at the Washington Post, he lost his parents years ago and it’s just him and his brother, who’s always been a troubled misfit in and out of trouble. When the pilot opens, his brother’s back in trouble again and Jeff is kind of over it. I’ve gotta do me right now, I can’t worry about you. You’re talking to me about a crazy TV show. It’s only when his brother goes missing that he realizes that there’s some truth to [what his brother was telling him] and that’s what pulls him into the mystery. Jeff is a crusader, which can get him in trouble. When you’re a crusader, sometimes you’re blinded by what you think is right; the end justify the means, the means justify the end. Sometimes you’ll do morally questionable things that you think will serve the end. He finds himself playing with that through the season.
THR: Since Jeff is a journalist, what surprised you most about how they operate?
Davis: What’s interesting about this particular experience, for Jeff, is that he quickly learns he can’t trust anybody. He can only share things with Skye (Jessica Lucas), so his discovery becomes very intimate and personal. It keeps pulling him in and in and in, so he doesn’t have time to reflect too much to the outside world. He’s uncovering this very bizarre mystery that no one would believe if he tried to say anything about it, and when he tried to say anything about it, either they would get killed or his life or his brother’s life would be threatened.
THR: How different is Jeff compared to your Vampire Diaries character, Alaric?
Davis: They’re pretty similar, in the sense that Alaric was compelled out of his life as a teacher to find his missing wife due to outrageous and supernatural reasons. Jeff is the same thing. He’s compelled to find his missing brother due to crazy, far-out reasons that no one else would believe either. They’re very similar in that they’re searching for missing loved ones in a realm that no one would believe if you told them. The obvious difference is Alaric was a lot more flawed internally, and that was reflected in his drinking and his self-doubt. That’s not true of Jeff at all.
THR: When they shot the behind the scenes of the TV show, were they shooting your actual sets?
Davis: Yeah. We would just use our sets. All that behind the scenes stuff is our behind the scenes stuff. It definitely breaks down a few walls.
THR: How would you describe Jeff and Skye’s dynamic?
Davis: They meet when Jeff goes to the show to ask questions about the content, and Skye overhears my questions, which seem to mirror her own. We compare notes and instantly become partners in crime, and there’s a story that develops. My suspicions, my paranoia begin to project on her, and he’s not sure if he can trust her; if she’s guiding him away or if she’s actually on his side. When he learns is that she’s on his side, and that she’s looking for somebody in her life. It fuses their bond. They become close friends.
THR: A romance brewing?
Davis: Yes, you’ll see that. Primarily, Jeff and Skye’s relationship serves to help each other, and along that line, they grow closer and closer, and their love for each other comes through their friendship. The first season explores that friendship.
THR: Do you interact much with the Billy Grimm/Roger Reeves (Robert Knepper) character?
Davis: Rarely. There’s a moment in the pilot where they bump shoulders, and there’s another moment where I think Jeff sees the actor later on in the series. Jeff is pretty isolated from the Billy Grimm character throughout the season; they don’t have a lot of interaction apart from him trying to understand what his whole agenda is.
THR: Upcoming moments that we should look out for?
Davis: Episode six is my favorite. In terms of scripts, my favorite was episode six, which centers around Skye and her journey. In terms of what happens, I enjoyed the last few episodes — the last three are my favorites.
Cult premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on The CW.
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