Interview: Tahmoh Penikett on Netflix’s ‘Devil in Ohio’

Stepping into the shoes of a villanous role in any production is always a challenge. And Tahmoh Penikett knows that extremely well. The actor plays the treacherous Malachi in Netflix’s recent hit, Devil in Ohio.The miniseries tells the story Mae (Madeleine Arthur), a teen who manages to escape a satanic cult, but the influence of said community on her mind and life will not be so easy to leave behind.

Awards Radar had the opportunity of speaking with Penikett, and he discussed what it was like working on this new show, the inspirations behind his character and what has made cults so popular in mainstream entertainment. You can find the complete interview below, and don’t forget to let us know what you think in the comments:

Awards Radar: Did you get a chance to read the book before working on the show?

Tahmoh Penikett: As soon as I found out that the story was based on a book, which was inspired by true events, I got it right away. I’m a big reader, Diego. I got the book and I read it in one day. The book was very telling for me. Daria (Polatin) is such an excellent writer. It gave me the context of what material we were specifically tackling.

She fleshes out the characters very well in the book. It’s from Jules’ perspective, so when we see the adaptation, it is not so much focused on Jules, it’s everyone’s perspective. So it’s a much different ride. But it was an excellent book, and I really enjoyed it.

AR: What were your inspirations for playing Malachi?

TP: I think most of us are fascinated, whether you’re religious or not, with charismatic individuals who engage with their followers, as a clever politician who has a wonderful cadence and people just love to listen to. Your Barack Obamas, for example. Or, on other end of the spectrum, a religious leader who is incredibly well spoken.

There is one thing which is clear and consistent with characters like that. Not only they are clever, intelligent, charismatic, but you could argue that with doing this all the time, they get better and better at speaking to the followers.

AR: What did you think of the character when you first read the book?

TP: I just wanted to know more. I was fascinated by him because I’ve never played a religious leader or character anywhere near this guy. He’s very unique. He comes from a ministry leaders in this community. He is a third generation leader. It’s been passed down to him, but he’s out there for his people. He’s also very good at his job.

Because of the misfortunes that have happened with their crops, the business is starting to go south. There is this dissenting community and there’s people questioning whether he can lead them anymore and what the country actually looks like. So there was a there was a lot of struggles and conflicts and challenges to play with this guy.

AR: What was it like working with Emily Deschanel and Madeleine Arthur?

TP: Emily was fantastic. Emily and I met many years ago, I think we did a Fox photoshoot together. She was doing Bones and I was doing Dollhouse. This was a lifetime ago, and I got to meet her briefly. I’ve always been a fan. Anytime that an episode of Bones was on that I ended up seeing, she’s just a vet. She’s a vet. She’s a career bachelor.

She knows exactly what she’s doing. And I think it was a really interesting role, and a challenging role for her. It was a real departure after doing twelve years as a specific character on television. So it’s very hard for audiences to see anything different, but I think she d a really clever and compelling job while she was playing Suzanne, this psychiatrist and mother, who’s got a very interesting story. A story which is similar to that of Mae’s.

And Madeleline did an incredible job playing the character of Mae, she really knocked it out of the park with her performance. Her work was really captivating.

AR: Why do you think cults in media make a lot of people interested in watching?

TP: I think cults are very fascinating. All of us are very curious about cults. We’re only a few steps away. I’m older than you.I think back to how much attention was brought to the Branch Davidians, and that disaster in Texas. It’s really unfortunate, what happened there. But that was a charismatic leader and a group of people, a group of idealists who believe very much in this person and they were trying to do their own thing.

It’s an interesting question because they weren’t doing anybody any harm, but they were outside of society’s rules, and they were trying to do something that everybody else thinks it’s not okay. Specifically, the FBI. And they had a disastrous raid on the place which ended up killing a lot of people, including FBI agents. And that really fascinated people. It’s interesting, where’s the law overstepping? And you know, not to sound too compassionate or sympathetic to cults. But on the other side of it, cults can be incredibly successful and powerful.

You look at Scientology, which is huge and very powerful and famous actors are involved. I think we’re all fascinated by the idea of it. It is a group of people who choose to live separate things, by their own rules and the fact that many of these cults still successfully run today and are financially successful. They have huge memberships. But if one thing is clear about all cults, is that they are not open, and not okay with anybody leaving, and we explore that in the story. The are dire consequences for anyone who goes against the cult.

AR: Can you tell us a little bit about what’s next for you?

TP: I’m looking at a couple of different projects. I’m going to be doing an independent indigenous romantic comedy. It’s going to be a miniseries, with indigenous performers, writers, and creators. And then, there’s a couple of other projects I really want to do. I’m writing, I’ve got a couple of features which I’m trying to wrap up and hopefully get into the developmental stage.

Devil in Ohio is now available to stream on Netflix.

[This interview was edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Diego Peralta

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