Amy Acker and Matt Nix on 'The Gifted': Mixing comics with the real world

Amy Acker in ‘The Gifted’ (Photo: Eliza Morse/FOX)

Marvel’s mutants have long been the most socially relevant of any comic book property and, after years of making their mark in cinema, they’re finally becoming a presence in primetime. With last season’s Legion on FX and, now, The Gifted on Fox, we’re seeing the genre at its best: telling deeply human stories in a fantasy context.

“Kate is an average mom of two teenage kids and living what she thinks is a pretty normal life. Then she finds out that both of her children are mutants, and that changes everything,” says The Gifted star Amy Acker. “Now she’s questioning who she is, who she was, and who she needs to be from this point forward.”

That questioning comes because, until this point, she never has asked questions. Her husband — played by True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer — is a lawyer whose job is to prosecute mutants. When the family finds themselves “on the other side of this power equation,” in the words of show creator Matt Nix, they go on the run and are forced to see things from an entirely new perspective.

“We’re touching on a lot of current issues,” Nix says. “And the goal, really, is to not touch on them in a simplistic way.” One of the teens, Andy Strucker (Percy Hynes White), discovers his powers when he nearly kills his entire high school class while being bullied. So, posits Nix, “You may legitimately understand that what Andy did, he did by accident. You may [say], ‘I’m supportive of mutant rights. People should be judged by their actions, not their genetics.’ And I come back to you: How do you feel if your kid is going to school with Andy Strucker?”

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That moral complexity stretches down into the casting as well. Coby Bell is Jace Turner, who works for the people pursuing the Strucker family. “He always plays good guys, right?” Nix says. “That was an intentional choice. Because he’s not a cartoon villain. He’s not coming after mutants because he hates them. He’s coming after mutants because he lost his daughter, and he doesn’t want that to happen to anybody else.”

For Acker, the dilemma Kate faces is one that a lot of people in the real world do as well: “With people being mistreated — if you’re not one of the people who it’s directly affecting, is it still your obligation to stand up for these people?”

Of course, because it’s Marvel, these dilemmas are played out in front of the backdrop of awesome powers and spectacular action sequences. Acker says there’s a “Sarah Connor transformation” that Kate will go through, and she’s enjoying watching that progression unfold. “Right now, I’m finding myself capable of doing more than what I thought I could do. I haven’t really taken the onus onto myself that I’m going to go out and kick ass,” she says, “but I’m finding myself in situations where I have to.”

Acker is no stranger to the Marvel machine. She’s not only appeared on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., she’s also good friends with Joss Whedon and the showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen. So she’s had a glimpse behind the curtain and that was part of the attraction to the role on The Gifted. She spoke with executive producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Bryan Singer — two of the biggest reasons the genre is as successful as it is today — and they impressed her as “people who really cared about the franchise and making something interesting with it.”

That also means she’s been on the receiving end of the company’s obsession with secrecy, which can reach near-comic levels. Character names are changed in the audition scripts so much that it’s hard for even the show’s creator to keep up. “I remember Matt was telling me, ‘Oh, try it again this way. And when you’re talking to Reed…’ and I was like, ‘Who’s Reed? I’m talking to Ryan!’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, the character’s real name is Reed. We’re just not allowed to say.'”

That secrecy will likely pay off, though. In the comics, the Strucker name has been around for more than 50 years, but it has rarely crossed over into the realm of mutants. How will that legacy of Hydra affect the show? Or, “Eclipse is a new character,” Nix teases. “But you can do a little math there and figure out we’re probably going someplace connected to the world of the comics.” In other words, the hints and speculation about where the stories will meet and diverge with already established continuity can often be as fun as the show itself.

The Gifted premieres Oct. 2 at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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