Benedict Wong clears his throat and gathers a stern voice deep from within. “HAVE A SEAT,” he commands, gesturing me toward a leather bound chair opposite the desk of Master Lin, the headmaster of King’s Dominion, the training academy for assassins in Deadly Class. He sits, leans back in his chair, and immediately slips out of character. I can tell because I begin our interview by tinkering with every prop on the desk, and Master Lin would have cracked me across the face with his cane for showing that kind of blatant disrespect. Lucky for me, Wong doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, and he’s encouraging a closer look at the props while he descends into the curt origins of accepting top billing on the new Syfy series.
One day Wong received a phone call out of the blue from Joe Russo, who along with his brother Anthony co-directed Wong in Avengers: Infinity War. The directors are executive producers on Deadly Class and played a large part in adapting Rick Remender’s best-selling graphic novel to the small screen. “[Joe] said, ‘I want you to be in this thing. It’s called Deadly Class. It’s going to be amazing. Can we do it?,’” Wong recalls. After Russo said he’d get his team to talk to Wong’s team, the British actor, who didn’t have an agent at the time slyly replied: “Joe, this is the only time that there is an ‘I’ in ‘team.’”
Team Wong, which he affectionately calls “Wong and Only Management,” never hesitated. “I barely read it, I just said ‘yes.’ The pedigree of Joe and Anthony is to be trusted.”
With the credibility of the Russo Brothers (never higher after billion-dollar box office wins for their two most recent projects, Captain America: Civil War and Infinity War), a rising star in Wong on board, and the creator of the graphic novel series, Rick Remender, serving as co-showrunner, Deadly Class ticks every box for both the core and casual viewers to notice the project. Syfy also has a good track record with recent quality adaptations after the cancelled and then revived space epic, The Expanse, the ongoing series The Magicians (a school for the magically inclined!), and Grant Morrison’s Happy!
Talent is only a headstart in television, however, and not a cheat sheet. A gorgeous pilot episode directed by Tim Ives, who served as the director of photography for two seasons of Stranger Things, establishes a visual tone that honors the blood-splattered and unforgiving world of the comics. But King’s Dominion is a school, and vain constructs like reputations and style often prove material.
Deadly Class follows Marcus, played by Benjamin Wadsworth, who escapes the streets of San Francisco to enroll in King’s Dominion, seeking revenge for the death of his parents. Marcus is an idealist who represents the disenfranchised. King’s Dominion was once intended to give power back to people like Marcus, but the school now mostly caters to legacy students, which include the youth of organized crime operations. The show’s premise doesn’t stray far from the comics–in fact, it’s rather faithful–but it also expands on Remender’s world by delving into the lives’ of Marcus’ classmates: the outgoing yet dangerous Maria (Maria Gabriela de Faria), the mysterious Saya (Lana Condor, the breakout star of the Netflix film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), skater punk and fellow outcast Billy (Liam James), and the complicated gangster Willie (Luke Tennie). Can they survive a semester in the world’s most dangerous school is one question, but the series’ lifespan will ultimately depend on its young cast–most of which has landed their first major TV roles–to show that these future killers stand for something deeper than gratuitous violence.
“I’m most interested in exploring the unvarnished truth of being a teenager and how messy it is and how difficult it is to evolve into an adult person,” co-showrunner Miles Feldsott says. “All the self-exploration that you do with yourself, our characters are doing in a very heightened world.”
That worldview comes into focus just seconds into the pilot when Master Lin punishes a student for talking out of turn with a cane to the nose. Nun with a quick wrist and a ruler, he is not. Originally, Master Lin’s great grandfather set up the school with a noble (well, as noble as it gets for assassins) cause, to give power back to the oppressed. The school’s mission statement gradually became corrupted and now powerful organizations are sending their kids for training at the academy.
“We often talk about the school being a metaphor for these kind of big institutions or systems that kind of suck in good people and turn them into something else,” Feldsott says.
Master Lin soon finds himself in opposition to the greater powers at hand. It’s no wonder “Wong and Only” felt like the right man for the job. Over the course of the first season, Wong says the audience will find out “who is he and why he’s organizing King’s Dominion.”
“Master Lin is trying to figure out exactly what he stands for,” Feldsott says. “So he is having a crisis of conscience over the first season.”
Master Lin sees something special in Marcus, a loner who clings to the other “rats” or non-legacy outcasts in the school. It sets up just one of many internal struggles the character will deal with over season one. Marcus’ status in the school is what first drew in the 19-year-old Wadsworth in his first leading TV role.
“I was interested in playing someone who is a teen and has felt like an outcast and underdog, someone who felt alone and didn’t fit in,” Wadsworth says. “I’m excited to show that on screen because a lot of people, especially teens, are going to relate to this when it comes to mental health and feeling alone. We can show them that they’re not.”
On set, the cast spoke openly about the importance of having teenagers see a diverse group of students reflective of not only 1980s San Francisco, but also in schools today. As an awkwardly big African American kid who grew up among a diverse community in South Florida, Luke Tennie says his character, Willie, is forced to deal with similar obstacles to what Tennie remembers.
“I grew up large, so no one really wanted to bully me physically or anything, but I do remember people calling me an ‘Oreo,’ or white on the inside and black on the outside, and I was so confused,” Tennie says. “I was somebody who experienced a little bit of that verbal abuse but now I get to go and play the character who did the abusing, or you would suspect to have done the abusing.”
Tennie believes people, whether they are the bullies or ones being bullied, will connect with his character: “Everybody who looks like a young African American man, everybody who looks like me, can look at this character and see something either similar or different–that is a connection.”
Maria Gabriela de Faria, a Venezuelan actress making her U.S. TV debut, jumped at the opportunity to play her charming yet heartbreaking character. “Maria is a complex character that I haven’t seen on TV. I can related to her a lot,” she says, “She’s raw, honest, passionate and real…. and badass!”
The students have plenty of badass scenes. In King’s Dominion, rigorous academic courses test the students physically (one lesson sees them fighting together to solve a riddle while the room fills with poisonous gas) and mentally (coping with such graphic losses of life is vital for an assassin). The creative methods of training and almost slapstick violence serve as a background to the internal demons of each character, which provide the series’ most effective and grounded material. A key narrative element to convey that is Marcus’ narration (or journal entries) which makes it over to the TV series from the graphic novel.
“It’s really cool that we get to be inside of Marcus’ head and hear what he’s thinking or his journal entries,” Wadsworth says. “It’s a great way to give exposition. It’s a teenage kid who’s been through some horrible shit, and he’s talking about philosophical ideas about depression and life, and his inner demons. I remember reading this one about him speaking about depression and that one just really hit home. It was really nice to hear that other people have similar ideas about that and how they struggle with it.”
Liam James, who plays Billy, echoed that sentiment. It’s a point that the cast, not far removed from their teenage years, takes pride in portraying.
“On a personal level, I think about how it takes courage to talk about these things,” James says. “When you face these topics yourself, you give other people license to face it for themselves. I’m 22, so I’m just getting to that age where I’m trying to figure out who I am.”
Back in Master Lin’s office, Feldsott tries to sum up the series before he is pulled away to shoot another scene. He says the series is full of grand philosophical ideas juxtaposed against a time in people’s lives when they do some really “dumb shit.” The cast is more interested in talking about the former. When I speak with Tennie, this time I post up in Master Lin’s chair. The “student” is talking around all the troublemaking, and the source material, and the big names–he is just simply trying to articulate what this young cast wants people to see in Deadly Class.
“I’ve heard it said that the more specific you get with a story, the more of an audience you will reach,” Tennie says. “If you try to reach everyone, it will only reach a few, and if you just tell the truth, you can reach everyone. That’s Rick Remender. He wants a story that is true and honest, so if it’s going to be true and honest, if there’s a loss of life, there will be discussions of mental stability. We will unintentionally check a lot of the boxes that most young people in society would like for us to check. However, we’re not trying to check them. It’s just our story and that’s one of my favorite parts about Deadly Class.”
Deadly Class premieres January 16th at 10/9c on Syfy.