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Samantha Mathis Talks Justine’s Bold Approach and Learning to Love Horror on The Strain

Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/FX

Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/FX

If you were a child of the 80s and a twentysomething in the 90s (guilty!), you grew up alongside Samantha Mathis in films like Pump Up the Volume, Little Women, and more. In recent years, we’ve seen her on shows as varied as Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife, and Law & Order: SVU, plus the first season of Under the Dome. She was a pleasant surprise when she arrived in the second season premiere of The Strain as take-no-bullsh-t City Councilwoman Justine Faraldo. We had the chance to speak to Mathis on a press call this week, and she talked about joining the show, creating an honest character, and getting past her own squeamishness about horror.

Faraldo’s character has the backstory of being widowed in 9/11, and losing a brother, so we know immediately that she’s a survivor. Mathis says her brass tacks approach to the “The Plague” comes from that. “Certainly, Staten Island has received sometimes less-than-stellar treatment from New York City. So, I think that she is very protective of her people, and she’s very dedicated to her people,” she says. “[My] own personal experience is my boyfriend is a firefighter, and there’s a tribe. When you’re in a tribe of people that are civil servants, that work in the fire department and the police department, there’s a great deal of pride [and] family. You have each other’s back.”

“Justine lost two firefighters, and her nephew is a policeman, so she’s got a great deal of pride, and Staten Island is home to a tremendous amount of first responders that work in New York City and that died during 9/11. So she’s protecting her people. She’s being a good politician. With power comes great responsibility and we’re getting to see that Justine’s getting a little more power, and what will she do with it?”

Mathis drew on old footage of the late Geraldine Ferraro as she shaped the role. “I really tried to draw from what Staten Island is like today and looked at footage from some council people from Staten Island. I live in New York City, so there’s no shortage of access to that. In fact, our NY1 news station on Time Warner is incredible in terms of covering Staten Island news,” she explains. “I was striving to really create someone who felt authentically Staten Island and what that entails. There’s a healthy level of skepticism in terms of how the mayor deals with Staten Island.”

“I think that was really the most important thing to me. After the hurricane [Sandy in the Fall of 2012] that wiped out large regions of Staten Island, the mayor continued with the New York City Marathon just a few days later. That was in an original monologue when I was approached about the part, and I thought that was so exemplary of who she is that the mayor doesn’t have everyone’s back, and certainly not Staten Island’s.”

So far, Faraldo hasn’t met the rest of the show’s characters. That’s coming. “I can only say that my character, at this point, is rather isolated, but I will be crossing paths with more characters,” she teased.

Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/FX

Photo Credit: Michael Gibson/FX

The Strain doesn’t shy away from the gore, and Mathis said she was initially horrified, but she’s having a ball. “I think they took it to the next level, and it’s almost zombie meets vampire. I’m a little bit of a wuss. I’m not going to lie to you,” she admits. “On the opening episode, when that scene happened and the one elder vomited all those forms into the other one, I was just like, ‘oh God, oh Jesus, oh wow.’ It grosses me out, but in a really fun way.”

“The reason we’re attracted to something like The Strain is the same reason we want to get on a roller coaster. It’s that adrenaline rush, and we love being afraid and being freaked out. There’s a great sort of practical use for it as a human being. I think we love it.”

Mathis had been aware of the show from the worm in the eye ad campaign last summer, and was drawn to the show’s pedigree in Guillermo Del Toro and Carlton Cuse. “Living in New York City, I had seen the [posters] all over the city,” she recalls. “I was thoroughly freaked out and disgusted by them–as I think most people were. I have to say just a mad shout out to the FX, not a plug but I just have to say it anyway, I think that the people who were doing the advertising campaigns for the show are phenomenal.”

“I love the art that they’re coming up with. They really captured my attention in that regard. [They also] do graphic makeup effects and visual effects on the show tremendously well. As a person, it’s sort of disgusting. As an artist, I have tremendous respect and awe for what they accomplish.”

“I’ve known Guillermo’s work for a long time. I hadn’t seen the show, but I was a huge fan of his work. He’s such an artist [and] visionary. And, then Carlton obviously has a tremendous track record in television and creating really compelling television. [On] top of that, I am a huge fan of Corey Stoll’s work. So all of those things combined immediately drew me in. [I] just went in, and I went on tape, and they responded to what I did.”

Another thing that drew Mathis to the role was that Justine stands on her own. “[In] the last ten years of my work…a lot of the characters that I’ve played have been defined by being someone’s wife, or someone’s mother, or someone’s partner in some way,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but as a woman, I have to say that what’s been really exciting for me in playing Justine Faraldo is that I am, in fact, there as a woman who’s standing on her own two feet, who has a history and a past and is very strong…unapologetically strong and calling bullsh-t on all the bureaucracy and hypocrisy that she sees. I have to say that that has actually been incredibly new and refreshing for me. “

She’s also enjoying exploring the sci-fi and horror genre, with this role following an arc on the first season of Under the Dome. “I think what I’m learning about the genre is how rich they are with metaphor about society, and that it’s talking about things greater than just what you see on the surface,” she explains. “Not only in circumstances but in human beings. The characters are still grounded in their reality.”

“Their personal realities are all very different, but they’re all very human. I think they gave me a lot to play with just what her truth is. The templates that are being created are really rich. I’m seeing really rich, interesting characterization. As an actor, that’s all you could hope for…I’m really enjoying it a lot, and the special effects are fun too.”

The Strain airs Sundays at 10/9c on FX. Check out our preview for tonight’s episode here.

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