The very first shot of NBC’s ’60s drama Aquarius, which premieres Thursday (9/8c), is of Emma Dumont‘s innocent face. When you see it, memorize it — because when her character comes into serial killer Charles Manson’s orbit a few scenes later, that innocence is gone forever.
“Everything that happens to her is so new and shocking and intense,” Dumont says of her alter ego, who also happens to be named Emma. The similarities end there. “She is very different from any role I’ve played before, in that she’s a lot younger than I am, and she’s a lot less experienced at life than I am.”
The fictional Emma’s naivete makes her the perfect target for Manson who, when the series begins in 1967, is just beginning to pull together the band of followers he calls his “family.”
Two years later, those family members would go on to perpetrate some of the most heinous murders in American history; Aquarius follows two cops (played by The X-Files‘ David Duchovny and Friday Night Lights‘ Gray Damon) whose investigation into Emma’s disappearance draws them deeper and deeper into Manson’s twisted world.
Lest you worry, TVLine’s chat with Dumont wasn’t all serial killers and wasted youth. We also talked with the Paradise Dance Academy alum about where her Bunheads character, Melanie, might be today. (Hint: CleoSMACKtra? Alive and well.) Read on for more.
TVLINE | Emma seems in over her head for Aquarius‘ first few episodes. Does she get to a point where she’s comfortable around Manson and his family?
Emma definitely gets to a place where she’s very comfortable with Manson and the family. I mean, she’s kinda part of the family. She’s in way over her head when she goes in, but I don’t even think she knows she’s in over her head.
TVLINE | Unlike some of the characters in the series, Emma is a fictional person. Did that help you? Hinder you?
It definitely has helped me to have not so much a black-and-white guideline of who she is. It leaves things open for me to interpret her how I want, to find my own reasons for her to do these crazy things.
TVLINE | Did you do research on the murders? On the times?
I did a ton of research. I think all of us did. I wasn’t around in the ’60s, so [it wasn’t] just researching the characters and what they go through, but also researching the times was a big part of it. Women’s role in society, the music, the clothes…
TVLINE | We find out early on in the series that her home life is not so great.
Emma is someone who looks picture-perfect from the outside. The way they did my hair and makeup, wardrobe, everything — she looks like a doll with a perfect dollhouse and a perfect mommy and daddy. But there’s a lot of fire underneath the surface. There’s a lot of turmoil.
TVLINE | If you had to break it down, what percentage is Emma intrigued by Charles Manson? What percentage freaked out? Attracted?
I’d say 75 percent intrigued and attracted and maybe 20 percent scared out of her mind and five percent she doesn’t even know. [Laughs] Nobody knows. This is kind of like Manson’s origin story, before the Manson everybody knows in pop culture and whatnot. She’s very attracted to him — he’s a rebel, he goes against the grain, he is super charismatic and she’s fallen for him — but the other 20 percent is like, “Who is this? What is this?” This girl goes from being scared to hang out with her boyfriend and go to a party, and the next day she’s doing drugs and she’s in this world of sex and music.
TVLINE | Let’s talk about Bunheads. Do you ever think about where Melanie would be now?
Hopefully, she’d be with Dez. Hopefully, she and her brother would get along better. I don’t know! It’s crazy because they all took different paths as far as their dancing went. Melanie really didn’t want to be a dancer; she just did it because it was fun. Maybe she’s taking musical theater classes and doing her roller derby, probably.
TVLINE | Are you still doing roller derby in real life?
I am taking a break from derby right now, but I hope to go back as soon as possible. I still recreationally skate at the roller rink with all the children. [Laughs] I miss it a lot.
TVLINE | I can imagine that roller derby and being a lead on a series don’t really mix.
Yeah, like all of a sudden [Aquarius‘] Emma has a broken arm. Like, “What happened?!”