'The Stand' Explores Morality in a Pandemic, and Star Owen Teague Has Advice About It

Triggering: It's the first word that comes to mind when watching CBS All Access' new apocalyptic miniseries, The Stand.

There are scenes of people coughing and hospitals overflowing with sick patients all suffering from the same virus—a deadly, highly contagious strain of influenza dubbed "Captain Trips." The ambulance and police sirens ring loud in the streets. The dead bodies pile up. And then comes the silence.

It's an aspect of the show that's all too reminiscent, as people all around the globe continue to live amid a pandemic that has killed millions worldwide and sickened millions more. For all those similarities, though, that's about as far as the resemblance to our reality goes.

The real premise of The Stand, which is based on Stephen King's 1978 novel of the same name, is more about what happens after most of the human population is wiped out—what those who are left behind will do, what choices will they make. Will they rebuild and establish a more harmonic and peaceful society, or will they give in to the dark impulses and carnal desires that pure freedom can bring?

It's a choice many of the series' characters grapple with. There are the few remaining souls who find their way to Boulder, Colorado, where the angelic and prophetic Mother Abigail (Whoopi Goldberg) is establishing a wholesome and welcoming community. There are also those who accept the temptations presented to them by the dashing and good-looking Mr. Randall Flagg (Alexander Skarsgård), and end up in the hedonistic devil's den of New Vegas. And then there is Harold Lauder, a man who's stuck somewhere in between, played by Owen Teague.

In an interview with Newsweek, Teague, who delivers a chilling performance throughout the series, talked about his character's plight and how Harold is driven to make the choices that he does. Even in a new world, it's hard to shake the demons of the past, the 22-year-old actor suggests, but we always have the choice to let them linger or do the work to keep them out.

Read Newsweek's full interview with Teague below. The Stand premieres on CBS All Access on Thursday.

Owen Teague on 'The Stand'
Owen Teague appears as Harold Lauder in the new CBS All Access original series, "The Stand," premiering on November 17, 2020. James Minchin/CBS

When did you guys start filming this series?

We started in either August or September of 2019. I was prepping for it a few months before, around July maybe, and we shot right up until the pandemic. I wrapped on March 9. So it's been really quite bizarre. We started hearing about coronavirus while we were still up there [filming in Vancouver], and at that point, we all were like, "Oh, it's not going to come here. We're fine."

We thought it was a strange coincidence that we happened to be making a show about a pandemic at a time when there happened to be some attention on pandemics, but we didn't really think that much of it. I remember talking to other cast members and saying how it was weird, but not really thinking about it past that point. By the end of February, it had become a bigger thing. I remember the last day I was on set and we were doing some crowd scenes, which takes place right at the beginning of the show, when there are still people alive, and there were people [on set] wearing masks. I hadn't seen normal people wearing masks, but some people started bringing them.

It was very weird because it felt like the world had started blending into the show world we filmed for the past six months. Then everything shut down and we were all so baffled that what we had done in a fictional universe was showing up on the TV in the news, just like, hearing about the body trucks in New York and then recalling scenes from the New York episode [of The Stand] where there's packed hospital hallways and people coughing. The thing is, COVID-19 isn't that similar to Captain Trips, other than the coughing bit. But now I watch episode one and I see people sneezing and coughing from it, and then I see people coughing in public, I have a visceral reaction.

The show is based on a Stephen King book that came out in 1978, so it's clearly fictional, but it's one of those things that makes you wonder if it's art imitating life or if it's life imitating art.

Yeah, it's weird. Stephen King has a strange ability to tap into what's going on even before it happens.

Had you read the book before signing on for the show?

I read it when I was 13. It was one of the earliest Stephen King books that I had read. I started at Dark Tower and then read The Stand straight out of elementary school. I was a massive Stephen King fan, which, the first couple of years, my parents were a little bit scared about. But I read it and I loved it. I always wanted to do an adaptation of it. I wasn't sure what that would entail, or what part I would play, or what side of the camera I would be on, but I always wanted to be involved whenever this story was made.

So when I heard they were doing this, I was so excited. I heard that Josh Boone [a director, writer and executive producer on the series] was figuring it out even before I became a part of it. I'd seen news articles about it and hoped I'd get an audition for it when it finally got off the ground, and then I did. So I was very familiar with the book, and I think that was helpful because I had such a strong connection to the material.

Was developing Harold more collaborative, or did you guys try to stick to the book?

I spoke to Josh on the phone, and it was clear that he had a really personal connection to the book as well. The process that [Josh and I] went through together, in terms of making Harold, was really fun because Josh was so into the source material, but he also really gets the whole actor's side of things, in terms of how you prepare for stuff and the different things I wanted to do. He was so enthusiastic and so receptive of the ideas I had—even with the offscreen stuff that we don't end up seeing in the show, like Harold's background. He helped me understand who I was playing. He was there for all of it. He made the process really fun and really creative.

How was your experience working with the cast?

Everyone was fantastic. I love everyone of those people. Unfortunately, I didn't really get the chance to really work with Alexander [Skarsgård] or Whoopi [Goldberg] just because we never show up on screen together, but Odessa [Young] and James [Marsden] and Amber [Heard], they are all such wonderful people. A lot of Harold's scenes happen with Odessa's character, Frannie, and Amber's character, Nadine, and they were both really interested in making their characters fully realized and making those two relationships really clear.

Harold and Frannie's relationship—since the show opens with that—is central to the show. We spent a lot of time together to get those scenes exactly where they needed to be. I had never done that before—workshopped so hard with another actor—but it was such a good experience and I really learned a lot from her. The same goes for Amber. But everybody that I worked with on that show is fantastic. We had a really nice little family, and I miss them a lot.

Do you think people will empathize with your character?

My hope was that people would be able to empathize with him, but also see him as he is and exactly where he's going wrong. I wanted them to understand and see the way he thinks and acts is what's getting him in the places he ends up. His past is a self-inflicted one, ultimately. It begins outside. He does have a very difficult existence up until the events of the show and even through the events of the show, but he has a choice. I wanted people to feel for him and understand where he's coming from, but also realize the choices that he makes and realize how they affect him.

If you were to find yourself in the post-apocalyptic world, having to choose between Boulder, Colorado, where Mother Abigail and her followers are rebuilding, or in New Vegas with Mr. Flagg, which would you choose?

I'd choose Boulder, definitely. I haven't seen any of the New Vegas episodes just yet. I've only seen the first three or four in tidbits, so I don't exactly know what the New Vegas scenes are like, but there's a kind of idea in the book that Vegas has an autocratic thing going on. There is that hedonistic Vegas-ness, but there is that law-and-order side, too. It read to me as a kind of Trumpdom, as a really over-the-top alt-right society. Boulder is very free and loving and inclusive, and New Vegas is like, "You will do this." That's very scary to me. I'd avoid that at all costs, so I'd go to Boulder.

You essentially play someone who chooses to follow a divisive path, even after most of the human race is wiped out from a deadly virus, while we're also actually living in perhaps the most divisive time in society during a pandemic. Is there something you've learned from all of this?

I learned a lot from Harold and the pandemic, too. But overall, I got a taste of how the mindset of an incel works—these angry young men who really shut the world out and other people out. It all comes out of insecurity and shame and loneliness, but the way that those things come out, instead of being a healthy desire for help, comes out as hatred.

Part of the research process for Harold was trying to understand how that works and how that thinking happens. At first, it was very, very alien and bizarre to be online and read these things and look at these images that these guys make on Reddit. Then the more you embed yourself in it, the more you look at that stuff, it starts to sink in. It started making sense, which was terrifying, and I had to break that after we were done shooting. I had to get offline.

That was jarring for me, and not just the incel thing, but the whole white-supremacy aspect, too. All those things, in one way or another, is where Harold comes from. So I learned about that—more than what I wanted to, but I think it's a good thing to understand and to know about how people can think like that, so you'll know how to handle them when you do encounter them.

What do you hope viewers take away from the show?

Especially after playing Harold, I hope that people realize that they do have a choice [about the kind of person to be]. Yeah, it's not always the easy choice or the comfortable choice, but I hope they see what happens to Harold and maybe relate that to themselves somehow, if they're in a Harold-ish position. And I hope that if they're not, this show helps them to understand people like Harold better. While Harold does make the wrong choice and does act weakly, it begins with how he's been treated.

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