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Corey Stoll enjoys 'The Strain' of series stardom

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Wednesday, July 9, 2014 - 10:39 am

NEW YORK — This looks dire. An airliner has landed in New York with everyone onboard apparently dead.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's hard-charging troubleshooter, Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, is summoned to investigate.

A suspicious-looking crate the plane was carrying vanishes.

Welcome to "The Strain," a creepy new thriller about a viral outbreak threatening the human race that only Goodweather can stop.

Premiering Sunday on FX (10 p.m. EDT), "The Strain" can claim as co-creators Guillermo del Toro (the "Hellboy" films) and Chuck Hogan, who jointly wrote the novels that inspired the series. Carlton Cuse ("Lost") is the show runner.

The series stars Corey Stoll, who tangled with demonic Washington, D.C., in the first season of the Netflix political drama "House of Cards."

Now he's battling bloodsucking zombies who mean to take over the world.

If the premiere begins with what seems like a nod to the bygone Fox series "Fringe" (dead passengers on a plane) and ends with a fatherly homage to AMC's "The Walking Dead," Stoll vows that his show will blaze its own trail.

"I've NEVER seen a lot of the stuff we'll be doing," he says. "And there's a unique tone: a mix of goofiness and melancholy," often registered in the mix of horror, disgust and rapt fascination with which Goodweather greets the monstrous things he sees.

It's a muggy day as Stoll, 38, nurses an iced coffee in a Brooklyn diner not far from his home. He has had a few weeks to catch his breath (and thaw out) after the frigid winter shoot in Toronto, which subs for New York on "The Strain." But his schedule is about to really heat up.

Right away he'll head to South Africa for a guest role on the new season of Showtime's CIA drama "Homeland."

He has a small part in the upcoming Johnny Depp film, "Black Mass," and in August heads to Atlanta for several months of shooting the much-awaited sci-fi film "Ant-Man." After that, with luck, he'll be back at work on a second season of "The Strain."

Stoll's career has taken off in the past five years. He appeared in the Angelina Jolie film "Salt," starred for a season in "Law & Order: Los Angeles" and memorably depicted Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris."

He considers the timing of his career to have been a blessing, particularly in one respect that, in another era, might have stopped him cold: His premature baldness, which happened shortly after college.

"I'm fortunate," he says, "to have entered the business when a bald person could play something other than a biker or prisoner or cancer patient."

Even now, few pale-pated actors (Patrick Stewart, Bruce Willis) are granted leading-man status. But Stoll never looked to be a matinee idol. He envisioned a stage career of character roles, even back at New York's High School for the Performing Arts when he had a full head of hair.

And no wonder.

"I was a really fat kid," he explains. "In high school, I topped out at about 310."

What turned him around was a showcase where his teacher proposed two possible roles: the Hunchback of Notre Dame or the Elephant Man.

"I remember thinking, 'I don't want to only be playing Quasimodo for the rest of my life, so I better lose some weight.'"

He installed his parents' exercise bike in his bedroom and pumped away by the hour while The Smashing Pumpkins blasted. His improvised diet: white rice and V8 juice.

"I was doing it all wrong," Stoll laughs. But it worked. He says he shed 100 pounds. (Today, at 6-foot-2, he weighs a buff 210 pounds.)

"The irony is, I got down to a less character-y weight — and lost my hair."

Often in his roles, his signature baldness is on full display, as with Peter Russo, the womanizing, drugs-abusing congressman in "House of Cards."

But as Eph Goodweather on "The Strain," he exhibits a full coif, complete with distinguished-looking widow's peak.

"I enjoy having a mask," he says. "A wig helps put me in character."

It serves Stoll as just another character choice. For him, hair has never been a matter of vanity, nor was its loss traumatic, he insists.

"I never thought I had good looks to lose," he sums up with a shrug.