The CW's latest series, "Cult," has drawn its fair share of comparisons to Fox's "The Following," as both shows center around a charismatic leader who compels his followers to commit heinous crimes in his name. While "The Following" explores obsession from the perspective of an FBI agent, "Cult" sees an investigative journalist named Jeff Sefton (Matt Davis) drawn into a web of intrigue after his brother Nate disappears under mysterious circumstances. Jeff learns that the fans of Nate's favorite TV series (a show-within-a-show also called "Cult") may be taking their obsession a little too far.
The concept is unabashedly meta, exploring the ways in which fans engage with their favorite shows -- sometimes in extreme ways. The series will follow Jeff's "real-world" search for his brother, along with Skye (Jessica Lucas), a research assistant for "Cult" who also believes that there may be more to the show and its fans than meets the eye. Concurrently, the show-within-a-show's storyline unfolds, which focuses on the fictional detective Kelly Collins (Alona Tal) and the charismatic cult leader Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper), who may have something to do with the disappearance of Kelly's sister in the fictional narrative. Confused yet? All will become (marginally) clearer when you watch the first episode.
At the recent Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, The Huffington Post sat down with Matt Davis to discuss the differences between "Cult" and "The Following," how it felt to leave "The Vampire Diaries," and how the rise of Twitter may have contributed to pop culture's recent fascination with "the cult of personality."
What attracted you to the role of Jeff in "Cult"?
It was sort of synchronicity. They had just announced to me that they were going to write Alaric off "Vampire Diaries," so I called my agent and I gave him the news and I said, “Listen, I’m going to be a free agent after this season. What’s out there?” They sent me a couple of scripts. One of them was "Cult," which I thought was the smartest, most out-of-the-box sort of innovative pilot that I’ve read in some time. It made sense. I said, “I really like this.” They said, “That’s great, because they want to make you an offer.”
It’s just been a blessing ever since. It got picked up, went to Comic-Con, shot the first season and here we are now. It’s been a wild, wild ride on all kinds of dimensions. So I’ve been very, very blessed.
What was the reaction at Comic-Con? Obviously you have some experience with the fans there through "The Vampire Diaries," but did you get any specifically "Cult" feedback?
I haven’t had a lot of interaction in terms of getting the temperature, apart from the general sort of "wow, that’s really scary, intense, dark, twisted; I don’t quite get it; I love it." It’s sort of been a kind of gestalt of experience right now. But all of it’s great. It’s not tepid, which is great. Whatever it is, it compels people into some sort of opinion one way or the other.
I'd imagine it was pretty liberating to have filmed the whole season in a bubble before it started airing, without having any outside distractions or wondering what people might be saying online?
It’s been a blessing. I’m a big believer in manifest destiny and you kind of create your reality as you go. For me, this has just been a wonderful, wonderful experience ... to segue out of "Vampire Diaries," which I didn’t think could be a better experience personally and professionally, and do this, which was in its own right an amazing experience.
I always felt like 22 episodes was too much. I really like the cable model of doing shorter seasons. The fact that the CW wanted intentionally to do just 13 episodes on this, I thought was great. So we had the arc structure for 13. I think it just streamlined it and made it a little more coherent. And to be done by the holidays was great. I was laughing to myself because my dear friends who I love and adore on "Vampire Diaries," they still have until April to be finished. So, it’s been a beautiful schedule. It’s a blessing to be able to film while you’re not airing. That pressure is not as great.
In the pilot your character Jeff is searching for his brother, who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances that may or may not relate to "Cult." Is that search going to be the main drive of your story this season?
Yeah, he’s the carrot that leads me down the rabbit hole, so to speak. While he’s not in every episode, his presence is there. He’s the driving force for my character. Jessica’s character, her father has gone missing and seems to have a vague connection, potentially, to the show, so that’s what her drive is. Together we team up to help each other find our missing family.
You have a very brief encounter with Robert Knepper's character in the pilot, but since he's an actor on the show-within-a-show, do you have much interaction outside of that?
I wish we had done more because I love Robert and I love his work. That was my one frustration, that the show within the show is like a dueling show, so we never had too many scenes together. [It's more during] those weird, awkward moments kind of blurring the line between reality and fiction. That was my one regret. If I had one regret it would be that I [didn't have] more scenes with Robert.
How do you feel about the meta aspect of the show and that blurred line between reality and fiction, since that seems to be one of the show's most unique qualities?
I haven’t seen them so I don’t really know how they look and how it’ll cut together. There’s three stages: There’s the writing, the producing of it and then there’s the post production of it all. Being in the second stage leaves you at a disadvantage because you don’t really know. But I do love the meta idea and I hope that they explore it ... I hope it comes together in a cool way because I do think that that is something that sets the show apart.
Did you do any research into cults and notable cult leaders in preparation for the role?
I have read about cults. I’ve read about Charles Manson. I didn’t necessarily feel like I needed to do much research into cults -- I probably could have and it would have helped.
I guess your character is supposed to be the everyman who serves as the eyes and ears of the audience when the show starts, so that lack of knowledge probably works in your favor?
Yeah, exactly. He wasn’t like an expert on them, so he was discovering it as he went. But Twitter has been an interesting phenomenon in that when you have a platform, you create a dynamic between readers, and having a message and the readers. When you have a specific message that’s based on esoteric ideas, a lot of the stuff that I write about, you begin to flirt with what that is -- you begin to flirt with disseminating hidden information to people in such a way that keeps them coming back to read more.
So in that respect, I had a flavor of what it meant to be sort of a charismatic leader in terms of getting certain ideas out to certain people and how you maintain that interest and that intrigue, just as a writer. For me, Twitter’s been a creative writing project. It's been a writing exercise in "how do you engage the audience? How do you engage their imagination? How do you also infuse yourself into it in a way that sustains a passion?" I think in that sense, it gives you a flavor of how people on a pulpit operate with people who come to listen.
"Vampire Diaries" fans are a very passionate and engaged group anyway -- and "Cult" is very much preoccupied with the idea of an engaged -- or perhaps over-engaged -- fanbase. Did your previous experience with "Vampire Diaries" fandom give you any insight as you were preparing for this show?
Yeah, I definitely feel like "Vampire Diaries" was my undergraduate degree and "Cult" was my master’s degree in television. I learned so much from "Vampire Diaries" to hit the ground running on "Cult." Having the interaction with the fans first with "Vampire Diaries" and then segueing into the "Cult" side of it, it’s all been helpful. It’s all been a lesson learning. I’m kind of learning on the job as I go, but it’s all been very beneficial.
What's the most memorable fan encounter you've ever had?
I’ve been invited to do a few of these fan conventions with the rest of the cast of "Vampire Diaries," which is a remarkable experience on many levels. So, I think when you go to travel abroad to meet fans of a show, just that whole experience is outrageous. It’s just a really wild experience, one that I’m definitely grateful for, where you get to actually connect with fans on a personal level. To me, those conventions in and of themselves are the most outrageous sort of fan interactions. All of the fans that "Vampire Diaries" has and that I may have are super cool and super gracious. I haven’t seemed to activated any crazy, crazy people just yet.
The show is already drawing comparisons with "The Following," just due to the idea of a charismatic cult leader inspiring his followers to do twisted things. Have you been aware of it?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I read the pilot. I haven’t seen "The Following." I'm aware of the similarities, but they’re two also very different approaches. It’s the same concept in that you have an enigmatic leader of sorts, who’s using media to remotely control people who believe in what they’re saying. In that respect, it’s a similar platform; but the way that we go about telling these stories is completely different. Kevin Bacon is like an expert and has been following this guy and is a cop. Where I am sort of a neo-spy, a journalist who stumbles upon this. The protagonists are very different, the antagonists are very different. But the idea of remotely controlling your following through media is the same.
TV tends to be cyclical in terms of the kinds of shows that end up on air at the same time, so it's not surprising that both "The Following" and "Cult" exist right now, but what do you think it is about cult leaders and obsessive followings that makes them so culturally relevant today, enough that different writers are latching on to these similar ideas?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure, apart from that I think that social media has elevated the cult of personality. I think on that sort of zeitgeist level, it’s beginning to explore the themes and the archetypes a little more in-depth than before. I mean, if you could imagine Charles Manson having Twitter ... I think social media is changing that. It’s elevating it. It’s not like Kevin [Williamson] and I ever had a conversation about his idea to write "The Following," so whatever it is, we’re drinking from the same stream. Where it comes from and what it means, I don’t exactly know, but it’s somehow relevant.
Watch the series premiere of "Cult" below:
"Cult" premieres on Tuesday, February 19 at 9 p.m. EST on The CW.