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There's a scene in Outcast, the new horror show from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, in which Patrick Fugit is screaming bloody murder with pain as a demon-possessed child tries to bite his arm off. Fugit's a great actor, so it's no surprise his pain is completely believable, but it turns out that was no fake scream. "Anytime he was meant to attack me or jump on me, he just did it," Fugit tells me with a wearied laugh just before the SXSW pilot premiere. "They gave him a retainer so he wouldn’t break my skin. Then he was like, 'How hard should I bite you?' I was like, '50% or whatever. I’ll sell it. You don’t have to go crazy.' But the first take, when he went for it, he got my hand in his mouth, and he bit the fuck out of my hand. The kid's got a strong jaw. My reaction is completely genuine."
If you've got an aversion to demon possessions, creepy crawlies, and appendages getting bitten off, maybe stay away from Outcast, the new Cinemax series that premieres on June 3 for a 10-episode first season. Outcast asks for a commitment to darkness from its gutsy audience as it follows its troubled protagonist Kyle Barnes (Fugit), who's had weird things happen to him and the people around him ever since he was a child. In a flashback we find out that Kyle hasn't seen his ex-wife and child for a long time because of a possession-related incident that kept them apart. Now, living mostly in isolation in the West Virginia town he grew up in, he seeks answers with the help of an evangelist pastor, Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister), while investigating the case of a demon-possessed 8-year-old who might have something to do with Kyle's supernatural condition. There's also some end of the world stuff threatening his life along the way that has yet to be revealed.
Kyle is neither an obvious hero type, nor is he really an anti-hero. "Kyle is a very bright soul and has a bright heart but has been surrounded and contained by darkness throughout his young and adult life," Fugit says of his character. "It’s always interesting to me to see characters that have a duality, that are viewed as one thing but are something else." He's misunderstood in a lot of ways, and one of the few people who truly know and get him is his childhood friend Megan (Wrenn Schmidt). The pilot hints that he saved her life when they were children, but even knowing that, Megan's husband (played by The Office's David Denman) begs her to keep her distance. Darkness follows Kyle around; that part is obvious and true.
Patrick Fugit promises his character "gets into some scraps" along the way. With his child actor companion Gabriel Bateman already attacking him, he's already used to some of the bruises. "My neck is out still," he says, twisting his body and laughing. "No, I’m fine. Our stunt coordinator is incredible. He’s a martial artist, and I trained in martial arts. He’s knows what I’m comfortable doing, what I’m capable of doing, and then protects me."
Outcast is obviously geared for horror audiences, but there's an even cooler bonus for genre fans: Each episode is directed by a different horror director, with Adam Wingard taking on the pilot. "The way we approach the exorcisms is just different," Wingard says about his choice to work on this project and how it sets itself apart from other horror shows. "There’s surprises within that. For me, scariness is so subjective. There’s some really great creepy stuff, but it works because the characters are so strong, and everything is built up in such a way that you are able to feel scared and empathetic towards these people, which is the main key to making anything horror." Wingard is a modern master in horror, known for his directorial work on The Guest, You're Next, and segments of the V/H/S series. In terms of scariness, the pilot delivers, thanks to Wingard's affinity for both eye-covering jumpy scares and more subversive horror.
Creator Robert Kirkman is no newbie to the horror TV format, but he's still aware of all the challenges that come along with it—and feels confident he can rise above them. "I think a lot of people looking at this show could think, 'I don't want to watch an hour long version of the exorcist every week.' That's not really going to be fun," he says. "I'm very happy to say that this is very much not that. The whole concept of this was built in to be a continuing narrative. I think in the same way that The Walking Dead isn't just a random zombie movie every week, it's actually a story about people struggling to survive in this apocalyptic world. Outcast looks at the genre of exorcism and demonic possession and does a long-term kind of take on it." Exorcism films are one of the main inspirations for the show, but Kirkman goes further, as one needs to do when developing a series with an indefinite number of episodes. (After all, Outcast has already been picked up by Cinemax for season two.)
"How did the person get possessed? Why did the person get possessed? Is anyone else going to get possessed? Is there something happening that's making these people get possessed? What is it about this phenomenon that makes it this continuing thing? And why are these people seemingly ignoring this threat that they have discovered?" These are some of the questions Kirkman had to consider. Though, he and executive producer and showrunner Chris Black (Mad Men) emphasize this isn't just plain horror. "We feel there are times when the horror and the drama springs as much from the human characters as it does from any sort of extra-normal or super-natural force," he says. "Robert always stressed to us on the writing staff to not think of the show as a horror show, but to think of it as a character-driven drama with horrific elements to it."
Outcast also takes a page from TV's hot trend: the comic book adaptation. It comes from Kirkman's comic book of the same name, illustrated by artist Paul Azaceta. Of course, this is no Marvel show like Jessica Jones or Daredevil. "I think there's a misconception about comics as a whole where people kind of associate it with your superheroes," Kirkman says. "But comics can be turned into horror shows or Westerns or science fiction or superhero stuff. People don't even need to realize that this is adapted from a comic book." Adam Wingard adds, "It’s more quiet [than most comic book adaptations]. It’s kind of a slow drama. But whenever the shit is going down, we take that all away." By "quiet," I think Wingard means there's no superhero flying around in a cape. Aside from the supernatural atmosphere, everyone seems ordinary—just normal people living in a suburban town. But I can confirm the shit-goes-down parts really does go down. The show came about when Kirkman "accidentally pitched" his comic book idea to a Fox International rep, who, knowing Kirkman's skills as a TV storyteller, showed interest and told him they'd buy it. This was before he had even finished writing the comic book. "Eventually Cinemax became a part of it, and here we are," Kirkman says.
Robert Kirkman already has two hugely popular show under his belt (not just The Walking Dead but also its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, which had a better first season than the original show did), and he wants to gain that kind of following with Outcast also. "Anyone from 13 years old to dead" is the age demographic, he tells me. So if you're a fan of The Walking Dead, will you like Outcast? "Yeah, I think if you like The Walking Dead, you'll definitely like Outcast," Kirkamn says. "But having said that, I think that Outcast is almost completely different in every way, which is something that I think is very exciting. So there's definitely a feeling to it that will appeal to Walking Dead fans. I think one of the things that The Walking Dead does best is when you sit down to watch an episode, if you've been watching TV all your life, there are going to be things that you see in the average episode that you've never seen before. Things are going to happen that you're not going to expect, and it's just a very engaging, very fun experience, despite all the horror and drama, and the depressing nature of it. And I think that Outcast has that same feeling. We're definitely going to be pushing boundaries. We're definitely going to be going in directions that you'll never be able to foresee. There's a lot of scenes that I think are going to take you off-guard."
Get ready to be caught off-guard on June 3 at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.
To read more SXSW 2016 coverage, click here.