Back in early January, when the rest of the country was focused on President Trump’s impeachment drama playing out in Washington D.C., the cast and crew of the CBS All Access event series The Stand were having daily conversations about a strange new disease that was generating headlines in Asia. “We started to hear little stories,” Greg Kinnear tells Yahoo Entertainment now of the then-distant coronavirus pandemic. “If we were to have done a morning talk show in the trailer every day, I think the top couple of minutes of the show were always, ‘Hey have you guys been following this pandemic thing?’” (Watch our video interview with the cast above.)
It stands to reason that news of an emerging pandemic would resonate on The Stand set. After all, the show depicts the greatest fictional pandemic of all time: Captain Trips, the lethal virus that turns America into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in Stephen King’s classic 1978 novel. Previously brought to the small screen as a 1994 miniseries directed by Mick Garris, the new nine-episode version started shooting in September 2019, months before the first COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in China.
By the time production wrapped in March 2020, the actors essentially went straight from the Vancouver set into lockdown as the virus reached North American shores. “I came back from Vancouver, and two days later I was at school picking up my children,” marvels Kinnear, who plays Glen Bateman in the series. “It closed down the same day the NBA shut down.”
Like many of his Stand co-stars, James Marsden uses the word “surreal” to describe the experience of making and releasing a series about a fictional pandemic in the middle of a real pandemic. “It’s difficult to not draw comparisons,” notes the Sonic the Hedgehog star, who plays King’s stalwart hero Stu Redman. “We started filming in September and wrapped up in March when everything started to get real.”
In fact, towards the end of the shoot, Nat Wolff remembers acting out a scene that some people were living in real life. “I was shooting a scene where I was burning toilet paper and threw it through the jail cell,” says the actor, who plays Lloyd Henreid, the right-hand man of the show’s devilish bad guy, Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgard). “That night, I read online that prisoners in Italy were doing the exact same thing.”
Brad William Henke, who plays fan favorite Tom Cullen, remembers flying to Canada for the last few days of production and already getting a taste of the new normal to come. “I landed in Vancouver, and it was completely empty at customs,” the Orange Is the New Black star says. “Then I went to this huge hotel, and there were only five of us staying there! By the time we finished the show around March 12, they told us we had three days to get out of Canada.”
In the ensuing months, Henke has noticed another parallel between the world of The Stand and our own world. In the book and the series, the survivors fall into two warring camps: one led by the villainous Flagg and the other by Whoopi Goldberg’s virtuous Mother Abigail. In the real world, there’s been a similar split between those who have adhered to pandemic guidelines, and those who deliberately challenge or flout them. “I think the lesson to be learned is that when something like this happens, you split into two factions and fight each other because of a virus,” Henke says. “That’s what I’ve been kind of floored by sitting here doing this after the fact. I’ve been going, ‘Wow, we’re doing now what we did in the show!’”
At the same time, the entire cast is quick to note that there are some significant differences between Captain Trips and COVID-19, starting with the effects of the viruses themselves. Aquaman star Amber Heard, who plays the pivotal role of Nadine Cross, remembers her visceral reaction to seeing early make-up tests for Captain Trips victims. “Frankly I was horrified,” she says, laughing. “I was like, ‘What did I sign up for?’ The diseases are very different, and the manifestations of Captain Trips in particular are especially gross.”
Odessa Young got up close and personal with the fictional disease, which essentially suffocates its sufferers with mucus-clogged noses and bulging throats. “There’s a scene in the first episode where I have to bury my father,” explains the actress, who plays expectant single mother Frannie Goldsmith. “I remember relooking at the make-up, and there was no line between the tube neck and his body! It was so incredibly realistic that I had a little double-take moment. I’m thankful that with coronavirus we don’t have to contend with that kind of body horror.”
Even as viewers inevitably draw comparisons between the two viruses, the cast of The Stand agrees that the show’s ultimate message is about what happens after a pandemic. “It’s about what those who survive do with that survival — what they do with that life that they have fought hard to have,” Heard says. “I think it’s a good message.” And Wolff takes heart in the fact that the series is arriving on CBS All Access just as Joe Biden is preparing to enter the White House as president-elect. “I’m so happy we got Trump out of office, and now we’re going to have a new leader who cares about people. We do see [in the show] that certain people in times of crisis do fall and certain people do rise. Hopefully in America we now have new leaders who can rise to the occasion.”
The Stand premieres Thursday, Dec. 17 on CBS All Access.
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