Tampa Bay native Arjun Gupta of 'The Magicians' talks learning practical magic and nostalgia for Tampa Bay

Published January 20 2016
Updated January 21 2016

It's hard not to compare SyFy's new show, The Magicians, to fantasy literature like Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. There are too many similarities to Hogwarts and Narnia, but the comparison is far from negative.

The show's producers and Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians trilogy (the books the show is based off of) welcome the comparison, but also want to stand out in the fantasy genre.

The show and the books follow Quentin Coldwater, a nerdy loner who'd rather fill his time with his favorite book series, "Fillory and Further," and magic tricks than parties and socializing.

During the last days before graduation (in the books, Quentin is in high school; in the show, he's in college) Quentin is summoned for a special exam at the prestigious Brakebills, which he later finds out is the premier school for magical learning.

Of course, he passes.

There's no burly figure telling him "You're a wizard, Quentin" or taking him shopping for wands, owls and spellbooks. The magicians of Brakebills are extremely intelligent and gifted. They are the outcasts in their non-magical circles. They were the dorks, geeks, freaks and loners.

Magic doesn't come from talent, Quentin's new friend, Eliot explains, it comes from pain.

In the first two episodes of The Magicians, Quentin discovers magic is very real, and can be very dangerous. During their first few weeks of lessons, he and a group of friends inadvertently summon a Beast from another dimension, who freezes time, plucks out a few eyeballs and leaves a trail of dead moths in its wake.

There is no fatherly, Dumbledore-esque figure around to guide and protect them. Quentin and his pals, Alice, Penny, Eliot and Margo are on the own in finding their place in the magical world.

Unlike the novels, the show crams multiple storylines into the first couple hours along with all the main characters' introductions. It could be a bit hard to understand for someone who hasn't read the books. The show benefits from airing its first two episodes back to back for its premiere.

Arjun Gupta, who plays mind-reader and Quentin's roommate, Penny, took time out of his hectic tour schedule with the rest of the cast to chat about his character, his nostalgia for his hometown of Tampa Bay and making magic as real as possible.

His character, Penny, is edgy and intimidating. Like Quentin and Alice, Penny is one of the more talented magicians in the newest class of Brakebills students.

"The way I look at Penny is that he's a lone wolf, and he's been alone for quite some time," Gupta said. "He sees himself as a hawk among pigeons and is unapologetic for the way he feels."

Gupta said he hadn't read Grossman's trilogy before auditioning, but once he landed the part of Penny, he fell in love with the books.

"I think they're beautiful pieces of literature (that) transcend fantasy books," he said. "Magical education is a huge genre and I'm honored to be a part of that."

He calls the plot of the books and show "darker" than fantasy that came before it with more complexity and ties to real life.

"It's what Harry Potter would be 10 years after Hogwarts," Gupta said. "The biggest difference is that we don't have a Dumbledore or a Gandalf."

He sees Brakebills and the magical world as a backdrop for Penny and the other characters to develop. He said it's been a rollercoaster ride to portray such a complex character who has extreme highs and lows throughout the first season.

As an actor, learning to portray a magician was a challenge. To help the cast, producers brought in actual magicians to teach them tricks and how it would feel to find out magic is real.

"We didn't have to deal with that much green screen," Gupta said. "The special effects team allowed us to do as much practical magic as possible. We were setting things on fire all the time."

Gupta said the card tricks he learned from the magicians aren't his strong suit, but his favorites are a coin trick and a "reading your mind" trick, which is appropriate for Penny.

Right now, he and the rest of the cast of The Magicians are on a nationwide tour to meet fans and show advanced screenings. Gupta called from the latest stop in Miami, but wishes he could make a stop in his hometown.

"I use to read the (then-St. Petersburg Times) every morning, going straight for the comics and sports section," Gupta, who grew up in Palm Harbor and attended Berkeley Prep, said. "Shout out to the Lightning and the Bucs, I was watching every game while shooting in Vancouver."

When asked what he missed about the Tampa Bay area, Gupta said "Publix, definitely Publix subs," living near the water and, surprisingly, the humidity.

The first two episodes of The Magicians premiere January 25 at 9 p.m. on SyFy.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.