SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the second episode of “The Stand,” streaming now on CBS All Access.
Jovan Adepo has developed a niche portraying iconic characters on the small screen. He starred as the adult-age Antron McCray in Netflix’s fact-based “When They See Us” in 2019, and brought Lionel Jefferson back to life that same year for “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons.'” Earlier this year he earned his first Emmy nomination for depicting the harrowing backstory of Will Reeves (aka Hooded Justice) in HBO’s “Watchmen.” And now he has taken on the role of musician Larry Underwood in CBS All Access’ adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Stand.”
What draws you to adaptations in which your character is one that already has such a rich history and life outside of the project in which you are acting?
There is an intentional desire that I have as an actor to just find interesting characters to play. I have this weakness of becoming bored easily if I’m not challenged, so it’s one of those things where I want to feel a challenge in accepting any type of part. And I can definitely say within the last few jobs, specifically with Larry Underwood and with Will Reeves aka Hooded Justice that when I spoke to [executive producers] Josh Boone and Damon Lindelof, respectively, for those parts, I was intimated by [the roles]. I was afraid of having to actually do the job once I agreed to it because it was one of those things where it was like, “Cool, I’m going to be playing one of the first superheroes ever,” but what does that mean? How do you attack that and how do you do that and stay within the spine of the world that Damon created or what Josh was doing for “The Stand”? It’s really about wanting that challenge and being of that challenge as it presents itself, that’s always what I try to work for as my career has progressed.
What is the responsibility you feel you have to the versions that came before yours?
When you’re taking on material that does have such a large fanbase, there are certain things about those characters that people are really excited to see, so with that I like giving the fans a treat. I feel if you’re making an effort to let them know that you do see them and you’re acknowledging them, they’ll be more open to see the other things that you bring to the character. It’s a happy mixture, and if you can find that sweet spot, then you have an audience that’s open to your interpretation.
On the flip side, what elements from the source material did you feel you had to let go in order to put your twist on the character?
When Josh called me about this role I wasn’t too familiar with the story at all. He had mentioned it one time when I met him when I first moved to California. This was years ago and it was a general meeting and he had mentioned “The Stand” as a book that was near and dear to him, but years later when he brought up me playing Larry Underwood, I really didn’t know much about Larry. Once I agreed to do the role, then I read the book. But even after I finished I knew that there was going to be a responsibility to make this character my own because the biggest difference between myself and the character in the book is that he is white and I am not. It can be easy to just be like, “OK he’s just going to be a Black Larry Underwood,” but no, this was an opportunity that Josh gave me to really create my version of Larry and my version of a rock star — what he sounds like, his attitude, what he’s going to respond to and not respond to when he’s meeting new people. And that was the fun part. I wanted to give audiences something to where they were like, “OK that is the Larry I can recognize,” but also, this is a Jovan Adepo Larry.
Was Larry written as white in these scripts, too? How did that affect how much you could change from the page to performance?
As far as I know, he was written as white. Josh did bring that up when he was telling me about the part: “Larry is classically a white character, but I don’t care, I want you to play him.” So that meant I had a little leeway. Of course he’s still a rock star so there is still some sort of swagger that goes along with that that I feel you have to respect; he’s not going to be a rapper in this version. I have to stress how fun it was to show up in Vancouver and have the entire costume department open to me creating all of the little things about him — even when it came down to props everyone was super open to my ideas. It was down to me being able to pick the guitar that I wanted or the lighter that I wanted because Larry was a smoker. It was so specific, but those are the small things you really enjoy when you’re creating a character.
The survivors of Captain Trips, the pandemic in the show, have a chance to start over, but there are things in Larry’s past, like guilt he may feel over his relationship with his mother and being unable to save her, that seem impossible to shake.
That’s for a lot of things in life. I think, even if we’re going to step away from the show and talk about real life, when you have the opportunity to start over, it’s hard to wipe everything else clean — especially when you think about how long it takes to build a habit or shake a habit. If we’re going to talk about the guilt he has for not being able to save his mother or just the way he’s treated people in general in the past, I think it’s something that’s always going to be with him and all he can do is try to make conscious steps forward and try to change himself and try to be better. But it’s that thing where they say you take two steps forward and four back, that’s going to happen because we’re imperfect beings. For all of these characters in “The Stand” you have to make note of that we all have a past and we’ve been given this opportunity to, essentially, begin again, and with that, all you can do is do the best to try to remedy what you’ve done in the past. And I think it’s important highlight that in all characters.
In speaking more to breaking habits as you mentioned, how does his addiction play out in a world where resources are so limited?
It’s more about not having access to it. When he gets to Boulder and he meets Stu and the rest of the community, it’s just like, “OK, this is where I am, awesome. I have tons of chores to do and I’ll be a part of a committee. I’m just rolling along and figuring it out as I go.” I honestly think that if he had all of the access to all of the same kinds of obstacles he had in the past world, it would be different, but because the resources are scarce, he’s just like, “All right, I guess I’m one of the good guys now.”
What does his relationship to Stu look like going forward?
It’s funny because the day [James Marsden and I] met, the scene we shot was Stu and Larry’s first meeting in the truck, and so we didn’t have a whole lot of time to talk about it, but the way I saw it was they’re obviously two different people and Larry’s lifestyle is different from Stu’s, but there’s something about Stu that puts him at ease. It’s kind of like a big brother thing, and I think Larry finds comfort in “as long as this dude’s around, that’s less work for me.” Stu is clearly the leader here, and Larry’s like, “You can go ahead and have that. I’ll be the backup. I’ve got your back, make sure nobody’s messing with you, but Stu, you’re the guy.” He’s enjoying the vice president role or whatever. I think he really respects Stu.
What did you feel the way Larry treats Rita says about him?
At his core I think he’s a sweet person, I just don’t think he knows that. I think if you look at Larry, he’s that person that you meet in life that has all of the tools to be successful, and that’s not just career: that’s in love, friendships, anything. He has all of the tools, he just does not know how to configure them in the right order to make them work for him. I think he’s one of those people who sees things one-track minded: it’s his way, this is how it’s going to happen. Perhaps if he was able to step out of himself once in awhile there are a lot of things that could have went differently: his music career, maybe he would have been a famous singer if he wasn’t so singer, or maybe he would have had lasting relationships with women if he was more willing to be open and sincere and vulnerable. When he meets Rita, especially that first meeting, she’s able to take the air out of crazy circumstance, and it was just such a unique exchange between the two of them that it wasn’t something he was used to: he wasn’t used to people poking fun at him in that way. And I think it was an opportunity for him to connect with someone without the fear of being judged because there’s no one else there. Roaming the city for however long it was, in his private time he was like, “If I meet anybody who doesn’t seem like they’re a nutcase, then maybe I’m just going to try to connect with that one person.” And that’s ultimately what happens. And when he finds out that he can’t continue his journey with her, it’s hard for him because he found somebody that gets [him] and why is it that everybody he does care about leaves? This is why he doesn’t want to change because when he does open up, he can’t connect. I think inherently he wants to be a good person, he just doesn’t know how.
In the book he is constantly saying he’s not good. Is there a turning point in the show where he finally believes he is and understands why Mother Abagail wants him on her side?
Without spoiling it, I think there’s always an opportunity to make a choice that maybe the audience didn’t expect. I think all of these characters, in another story, could be the good guy or the bad guy. There are ways, of course, that you could be actually evil, but what I’ve learned as an actor is that when you’re trying to approach a character and track their growth, in your own story [you’re] the hero [and you] make the right decision, it’s just a matter of seeing if anybody else agrees with you. So I do think there is hope that Larry does figure it out, it’s just a matter of him trusting that perhaps people who are able to live outside of you see something that you don’t and maybe you should entertain that faith. I think he’s willing to do that eventually.
Before the “eventually,” how vulnerable is he to Randall Flagg?
Josh and Benjamin [Cavell, showrunner] made efforts to have these small moments with all of the characters to give the audience an opportunity to watch and think they could go either way. There’s always these little instances, and I know there’s a moment in the fourth episode somewhere — and I won’t say what happens — but it wasn’t originally in there and I brought it up to the writers because it was like what you and I were just talking about before, about once you start over the idea is to just have a clean slate but are you going to have moments where this [thing] from my past life still haunts me? As you know from the second episode he’s dealing with addiction — with drugs — and a lot of things, and how soon can you shake that? Addicts don’t just drop things just like that. So they definitely made an effort where Larry could still possibly end up on the wrong side of the tracks.
What do his relationships with Nadine (Amber Heard) and Joe (Gordon Cormier) look like in this version of the story?
What was so interesting to explore with these [Larry and Nadine] characters is that they see potential in each other that they don’t see in themselves. In the same way that Nadine is able to find this sense of security and sincerity and perhaps affection or whatever, Larry is definitely able to reciprocate. Even though he seems uncomfortable initially, he wants to make an attempt to be a decent individual, and he finds a safe place in Nadine. When [Joe] first meets Larry he doesn’t know this dude and he’s obviously attached to his motherly figure — Nadine — who’s taken care of him and is his sense of security. I don’t want to compare it to a puppy, but it is the person who feeds you, the person who takes care of you, and I think he’s going to be wary of this new variable in the scenario. But as with Nadine and Larry, it takes time, and with time you have opportunities to prove your intentions, and I think that Joe, as the gifted, young child, he has to figure it out his way. And he makes judgement calls.
The supernatural ability of Randall Flagg and Mother Abagail, and even Joe’s own ability to sense things in people, are elements that Larry and the other characters seem to accept pretty easily. Why do you think that is, and what made it easy for you to wrap your head around as an actor?
What helped me ground the whole idea was entertaining the aspects of faith, and this went into the conversations I had with the writers about Larry’s background and trying to build his background so it’s real to me. We talked about [his] mother and where he got his love of music. I think she had a heavy background in the church and that was something that perhaps [he] didn’t really accept as he got older and started to get into rock music. I think even when you’re falling into addiction and things like that it’s because you have a lack of direction in your life and a lack of guidance, and that’s something I really wanted to explore for Larry. And when you’re meeting these supernatural elements, how would you embrace the idea that people could haunt your dreams and put ideas into your head and then you wake up and you see the world is falling apart? How do you live with that? There’s no one answer for it, but I think it has the shape that if you are living on one side of the spectrum you’re going to want to change your life because it’s almost like that saying that’s something like, if you find out God existed, you have to assume the devil does too. Once you realize that it’s going to change the way you live your life. And maybe that’s why Larry also starts embracing interactions and tries his best not to be the selfish prick he’s always been. It’s so loaded, the things these people have to deal with all at once, that I always feel like I’m talking in circles, but that’s exactly how I felt when we were filming it because there is so much you have to keep in mind that is just different. It’s a lot!
Things you didn’t know about Jovan Adepo:
Hometown: Upper Heyford, U.K.
If he wasn’t acting he’d be: A novelist
Currently reading: “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn
Cause he cares the most about: Domestic abuse
Role he’s surprised to be recognized for: Danny in “Sorry for Your Loss”
Mood music: “I was shifting between the classics like Muddy Waters to ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer’ by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. I was playing that in my trailer before going on set because Larry was like, ‘Let’s party.'”