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Guillermo del Toro and Natalie Brown talk FX vampire series 'The Strain'

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TORONTO - Guillermo del Toro's vampires are not gothic, romantic creatures; they don't brood, sparkle or swoon.

His vampires are parasitic monsters that infect their prey like a virus. And in "The Strain," premiering Sunday on FX Canada, they descend upon New York like a plague.

"It comes from the conviction and the horror of knowing that for a body to work, you have parasites," del Toro said in a recent interview. "You have bacteria in your stomach. If you're unlucky, you have bigger parasites — and yet you live.

"So the series sort of tells the tale of one rogue vampire that is the master, that tries to upset the balance and disturb and destroy the quiet symbiosis between vampires and humans. They are revealed to be these savage, almost leech-like entities that feed on the blood and the soul of people."

The director of the Academy Award-winning "Pan's Labyrinth" and genre-bending "Blade II" said he originally conceived of "The Strain" as a television series about five years ago. But when networks rejected his pitches, he collaborated with author Chuck Hogan to create a book trilogy instead.

Readers were apparently hungry for a bold new take on the genre, with the first novel — also called "The Strain" — quickly climbing the New York Times' bestseller list in 2009. Once the trilogy was complete, del Toro partnered with FX and "Lost" showrunner Carlton Cuse to bring the tale to the small screen.

"It was a great long road," said del Toro. "I think that every step of the way helped. We were able to put the books out. We were able to put the comic books out. We interacted with an audience, or a readership and informed things that worked and didn't work."

The show stars Corey Stoll (Peter Russo in "House of Cards") as Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, an epidemiologist who is called in to investigate when a plane lands at John F. Kennedy International Airport with its lights off and doors sealed. He discovers four survivors and 200 corpses — that is, until bodies begin disappearing from the morgue.

Toronto doubles for New York in "The Strain." Del Toro, who co-wrote the series and directed the pilot, said the Ontario capital is among his favourite filming locations.

"The level of passion for cinema in this city, I think, is unrivalled," he said. "From TIFF to the streets to the bookstores to the sets, everybody really loves film, in a way that is really knowledgeable, almost encyclopedic ... You can get into an argument about an obscure filmmaker at the drop of a pin."

Canadian actress Natalie Brown also appears in the gory thriller as Dr. Goodweather's estranged wife Kelly, whose husband tries to warn her about the vampiric outbreak.

Brown describes her character as "sensible," recalling how del Toro asked her to cut her long, curly hair into a straight bob for the role.

"I love to say that when Guillermo del Toro says cut your hair, you say, 'How short?'" she laughed. "He really saw for the character... a really practical woman who wants simplicity and stability. No frills."

The Timmins, Ont.-born actress said she avoided watching "House of Cards" until after "The Strain" finished filming, because she didn't want it to affect the way she saw her co-star Stoll.

"He's one of the most talented, generous actors I've ever been in the presence of, so lucky me. And tricky for Kelly to keep focused on separating (from) such a charming, intelligent, good-looking man."

Despite their separation, Kelly and Ephraim continue to be connected by their son Zach, played by Ben Hyland (also Stoll's son in "House of Cards"). The pair's difficult custody battle is intensified by the contagion.

Brown said the series is much more than a "genre" show — it explores how human beings deal with crisis.

"It's not really a show only about vampires. It's actually about humanity and how we as a human race deal with a viral outbreak and the decisions that we make in a crisis, for better or for worse," she said. "This is definitely a very unique opportunity, the character that I get to play and the way the story unfolds."

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