In Fox's "The Following," Wilmette native Nico Tortorella plays one-third of a serial killer love triangle that henceforth shall be called "Jemmaul."
"Jemmaul, I like that," the 24-year-old told me, laughing, when I suggested that nickname, PauJaMma (pronounced Paw-jam-ma) and Jacmaul. "That's definitely the best one."
"Jemmaul" is Jacob (Tortorella's character), Emma (Valorie Curry) and Paul (Adan Canto), three people who have fallen under the spell of serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) and are currently holed up in a remote farmhouse with Carroll's young son.
Spoiler alert: If you have yet to watch the Feb. 11 episode, "Mad Love," you might want to stop reading.
In the episode, "Jemmaul" jumped in the shower together after Emma and Paul recaptured a woman Paul had kidnapped and Jacob was unable to kill. The scene was less sexy than emotional, as Jacob revealed to his two serial-killer lovers that he has never killed a human being.
"He's ashamed," Tortorella said of his character. "He's been lying and once that lie is revealed, it's just shame. Now he wants to prove that he can actually be part of this bigger picture."
The only way he can stay in the picture, obviously, is to kill someone. Tortorella wouldn't reveal what happens exactly, but said, "A whole lot happens at that farm house."
His role in "The Following" is much heavier than his first acting gig, which he got when he was 8. Far from starring as an apprentice killer, he played as a munchkin in "The Wizard of Oz" at a children's theater in Wilmette. He went on to do theater at New Trier High School and after that, while living in Chicago, where he starred in "Over the Tavern" at the Mercury and other area theaters.
He was in high school when he started collecting the "10 or 11" tattoos that now adorn his body. His mom took him to get the first, while his grandmother's love of antiques turned him on to taxidermy. Read an edited version of our chat below.
What's the key to playing a guy who has these two convoluted relationships?
Right. I think that the key as of now is to just make my lies seem somewhat acceptable and explain why I have been doing what I've been doing. It's just, with these two people that I have these relationships with, it's just fully giving myself to them and just trying to find that acceptance.
He genuinely feels for both of them, right?
Yeah. Oh, completely. It's just all that he lives for--and Joe Carroll, you know?
How do you approach playing a serial killer?
That's the fun part, you know? It's every actor's dream to be the bad guy. I have that opportunity here. And also it's with all the amazing actors and characters and filmmakers that I'm able to work. I think it just bringing as much of my darkness in my own life into the role. Clearly that's just a tiny, tiny little piece of what Jacob is.
Do you see him as a bad guy or is it hard to approach a character thinking that about him?
No. I don't go to work thinking, "I'm going to be a bad guy today." I'm put in scenarios and situations where I come off as such. But I totally empathize with Jacob and I think that he really believes that what he's doing is for a greater purpose. On paper, yeah, he's 100 percent a bad guy. And it just gets worse.
In the episode before "Mad Love," Jacob begs Paul not to tell Emma his secret. I love that it had nothing to do with him having real sexual feelings toward Paul, but the fact he hasn't killed anyone yet. And I felt for your character.
Yeah. That I think is the most interesting part of our show, that the audience is totally going to empathize with the bad guys. There's going to be some episodes where they're going to want the bad guys to win and the good guys to lose. And other times where it's going to be the opposite. But I think that's what makes our show so interesting.
And why do you think that is?
Kevin's not portraying us, like you said, as these mustache-twirling evil people. He's really showing our family relationship and how we interact with each other. It's based in love, really. It's just kind of one big, fucked up love story with blood everywhere.
The 'shippers are probably going to have a field day. "I like Jacob/Emma." "I like Jacob/Paul." "I like all three together." Where do you see that dynamic going?
It's constantly changing.
How do you think Jacob identifies himself and his sexuality?
I'm sure that he's had issues his whole life with it and I think that he would be the first one to say that he's not gay. But he's been in a relationship with Emma and he's been in a pseudo-ridiculous relationship with Paul for the past three years. That's a long time to be living under one roof with one person. And I think that he's just opened up to the world. He's well-rounded.
What do you hope people get from your character?
I want people to want Jacob to win in whatever sense that that means. I want people to genuinely feel for Jacob. And sympathize with his struggles that he's gone through and that he's continuing to go through. And his place in the cult and what it all means. I want people to be team Jacob.
What did you think about the shower scene? Your reaction when you read the script?
On paper it screamed sex. I was like, "OK, this is going to be a hot threesome in a shower!" But then when we shot it, it was not sexual. Clearly there's a little bit, but it wasn't, you know, just bleeding in sex. It was beautiful and emotional.
It didn't seem like they were thinking, "We're gonna jump each others bones after we get cleaned up."
Right. I mean, we probably do, but ... [Laughs.]
What's next for them after that shower scene?
You mean after they jump each other's bones? [Laughs.] It definitely gets very interesting. Like I said, Jacob's had separate relationships with both of them and now it's kind of becoming this family unit. He freaks out about it. He's just trying to figure out how it's going to go from there.
Jacob played football in high school. What was your big thing in high school?
I grew up playing hockey and lacrosse. But I was a theater kid; I was a thespian. I went to New Trier [Township High School] and they put on like nine shows a year. And they still have an amazing acting program. And I was in four different choir and three different acting classes and it was just like that was my full schedule.
So you can sing, too?
Yeah, I grew up doing musicals. I definitely plan on doing one at some point.
You've said you bring as much of yourself to the character as you can, which makes me want to ask, what in Chicago prepared you to do this role?
I'm into taxidermy, so that maybe? [Laughs.] I'm into antique taxidermy thanks to my grandma. I don't really find it to be that dark but I'm sure in my mother would say much differently.
No, I think it's just my experience working in theater in Chicago. I grew up with it. I did a show, "Over the Tavern," for three years at the Mercury Theatre on Southport and other theaters all around the city. I studied at Goodman and Steppenwolf and I was going to commercial auditions and movie auditions. I was with Stewart Talent in Chicago. Chicago's a great medium [sized] place in between New York and L.A. to start thinking about this type of career. It's not the most amazing place to be; as a kid growing up in it, it wasn't like pushed in my face as hard as it would've been in L.A. And it wasn't like, as crazy as it is here in New York. It totally set me up to go experience what was in the other cities in the most amazingly possible.
When you were doing the professional theater here, where you still in high school or was that after high school?
I started in middle school, in eighth grade or seventh grade. And then I did it through high school. I did it for three years.
And then you went to Columbia for a little bit here?
I did; I went to Columbia. I lived at 2 East 8th, the dorm rooms at Columbia. I was just going to art school really. I didn't have any plans specifically. I took a bunch of art classes--no acting classes--some architectural classes, fashion design classes. Just kind of playing around living in the city, meeting amazing people and getting inspired.
I moved straight to L.A. a year after I lived in the city. I originally transferred from Columbia to Loyola Marymount and went to business school for like six months. It was a horrible idea.
That doesn't seem like your bag.
I had this whole master plan, but that crumbled very quickly. And I had a sister agency in L.A. that was with my agency in Chicago. But I kind of stopped acting for like a year and a half. It just wasn't what I was focusing on. I realized business school wasn't for me, but I just knew I needed to get to L.A. I knew that [acting] was what I was going to do for the rest of my life, it was just a means of getting here. One thing led to the next and it's been really lucky since.
That was when you stumbled on to the modeling for a little bit?
A lot of stories say you're a model turned actor. But it's kind of the opposite.
I was an actor who modeled for a year. But it's also because I was on "The Beautiful Life" playing a model. That's when all that stuff came out.
That show went away quickly. Is that hard to deal with, or do you find all experiences are good experiences somehow?
Yeah. Totally. I'm the first person to have an optimistic outlook on anything. It was a great just educator in terms of the industry; how it works, how anything can change at any moment. And even when it's good, this moment too shall pass. And there are other doors that open up pretty quickly. I got to live in New York for six months and met amazing people. I wouldn't change it for anything.
And I'm also kind of happy that I'm not, you know, a series regular on The CW for the next eight years.
Let's talk about those tattoos of yours. How many is it now?
It's like 10 or 11; I've kind of lost track.
Why are you so into tattoos?
Both of my older cousins, who were kind of like my brothers as well, were really into tattoos growing up. I had looked up to both of them and once they started I was definitely going to start. And it's kind of like the worst drug problem that you could have. Once you start it's just like there's always more skin. It's just like kind of a diary of my life that I can see all the time.
You don't lightly choose what's going to be on your skin?
[Laughs.] I have some stupid tattoos, but they totally represent a period in my life where I'm all cool with it.
You told me your mom helped you get your first.
Yeah, my mom took me to Jade Dragon [in Chicago] to get my first tattoo. I was 15. That's like the place that everybody goes to get their first tattoo.
Which one was that?
The Chinese symbols on my back--real original. [Laughs.] And then the next tattoo I got was from this guy in Chicago. This guy Patrick Cornelia. He was with Cherry Bomb Tattoo for a long time; I don't know exactly where he is now. He's in River Park somewhere, but he's fucking amazing. And he did the earth and the sun and the flowers on my back.
Tell me about the antlers on your feet.
Clearly it's a connection to the taxidermy. Nobody's a hunter in my family at all but I've always just like related to a buck in one sense or another. I don't know, it's like my spirit animal. ... Deers shed their antlers every couple years. So it's about my shedding or regrowth. It's just a reminder that I am going to grow constantly.
And you have one of your grandfather in his Navy uniform?
Yeah. World War II. (See Nico's tattoos at Inked.)
Your grandparents seem like they were a big influence on you.
Yeah, totally. My grandma lived in the house with me my entire childhood. And still is one of my best friends.
Does the family still live in Wilmette?
Everybody except for my mom, dad and brother live in Glenview. My mom, dad and brother moved to L.A. a few years ago.
What do you miss about Chicago?
Definitely deep-dish pizza. There's nobody else that does pizza [like that]. What else do I miss about Chicago? The beach. [Chicago is] the smaller, cleaner version of New York. That's what I miss. And just like people saying "hi" when you walk on the sidewalk instead of like everybody rushing to get somewhere. I don't know, this city is a lot to handle.
Back to the taxidermy thing. I'm fascinated by this. And it's not that you're in to doing taxidermy ...
[Laughs.] Not yet.
... but you're into the antique taxidermy, right?
Yeah. I mean, I've definitely, definitely thought about taking classes at some point to do it, which is crazy but it's true. I don't know. There's something just about the animals and just the way they were done so long ago is so much different than the way taxidermy's done now. I have some pieces that are literally like stuffed with newspaper. Victorian taxidermy is just like layers of paper inside. It's crazy. I don't know; I just like weird shit.
Are you into all kinds of antiques?
Yeah, it's definitely more on the odd side, like I have this chandelier made of antique dental equipment that I made like, I don't know, six months ago. Just like a bunch of needles and syringes hanging down. I have an old barber's chair. Yeah, I just collect a lot of weird old stuff.
How are your three dogs with the taxidermied animals?
The dogs aren't cool with the squirrel. It's so funny, 'cause it's the least threatening one that I have.
"The Following" airs at 8 p.m. CT Mondays on Fox.
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