Why Stephen King's Shawshank Prison Is So Disturbing on 'Castle Rock'

Star Noel Fisher tells Playboy why the creepy Hulu series makes him never want to work in a prison

“Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank.”

Shawshank State Penitentiary is arguably our most famous fictional prison, the Maine big house that has detained Stephen King’s make-believe bad guys in It, Dolores Claiborne, Under the Dome, 11/22/63 and, of course, The Shawshank Redemption. Now, Shawshank provides a key location in Castle Rock, the new Hulu series that takes a compelling kitchen-sink approach to King’s multiverse. Premiering July 25, Castle Rock borrows King’s locations, atmosphere and very occasionally his characters to craft some brand new fright fare for fans of the iconic and prolific author.

Working on the law-abiding side of Shawshank’s bars is Noel Fisher’s Dennis Zalewski, a wholesome, young family man who finds himself mixed up in an unwholesome scandal. Fisher plays Dennis as the perfect King everyman, all blue-collar and lily-white heart, but Shawshank’s got secrets that could darken the brightest of intentions.
“He’s fundamentally just a good guy,” Fisher says of his character. “He finds himself in a really morally compromised position, where his higher-ups are making decisions that he doesn’t necessarily agree with. Being a prison guard, he is in that situation where he wants to provide for his family, wants to be the kind of person that is a good father—he’s about to become a father. He’s got a baby on the way. He’s got a lot of responsibilities that he is trying his best to shoulder in whatever way he can. He ends up becoming embroiled and kind of entangled in this bizarre circumstance that just spins further and further out of control.”

Until now, our most famous depiction of a Shawshank prison guard has been Clancy Brown’s Capt. Hadley in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, a character whose arc looks markedly different from Zalewski’s fight to maintain his integrity in the institution's shadowy corridors. Fisher explains that he needed to do quite a bit of research into the emotionally taxing work of a corrections officer. “I picked up a book called Sing Sing,” he says of Denis Brian’s 2005 history on the notorious prison.

“This book is a really incredible read about a journalist who illegally went undercover and went through prison guard training school," the actor continues. "What the book helped me understand is that, first off, I would never want to be a prison guard in real life. [Laughs.] It’s just an incredibly difficult, tense job that seems really, really, really incredibly unpleasant. The book describes that every prison guard has to be trained, in terms of what happens if you’re taken hostage, and the author describes the relationship between the prisoners and the prison guards. It’s a scary, eye-opening read." 
Fisher, known for the recurring role of Mickey Milkovich on Shameless and voicing Michelangelo in the recent live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films, realized it was important to the otherworldly show for his performance to come from a true-to-life place. "I found [the research] really helpful in terms of informing how I wanted to ground myself in somewhat of a reality, because obviously it’s a Stephen King, darkly fantastical sort of story," he says. "So I wanted to make sure that as much of it as possible was grounded in something real, and that book was actually really informative, helping me a lot in that regard.”
“Grounded” is exactly the word I’d use to describe Fisher’s work on the show that is set in the titular fictional town. Indeed, Castle Rock—featuring an impressive ensemble cast that also includes André Holland, Melanie Lynskey, Bill Skarsgård, Jane Levy and Sissy Spacek—introduces viewers to a psychic, a Phantom of the Opera-type mystery, multiple murders, a harrowing court of children in unearthly masks. Dennis Zalewski is, in some ways, the straightforward moral center of the series, honest and plain, hoping for more for himself and his family. We’re rooting for him because his wants are so pure, in contrast to the twisty machinations of everyone around him.
What does it mean, and who do you become, when you allow yourself to give your own inner darkness the wheel?
One of the most common themes in Stephen King’s work—a theme that makes its way straight into the heart of Castle Rock—is a very simple one not entirely irrelevant to our current social and political moment: How do good people face bad circumstances? “His arc is one of what happens when you find yourself in a circumstance that truly contradicts who you are in some ways, and how you go about responding to that, whether or not you allow darkness to swallow you up in making the kind of decisions that you need to make,” Fisher says of Zalewski.

“What I got from the theme [of the show] is, 'Who do you become if you allow yourself to let the darkest parts of you run wild?’" he adds. "However that comes up, and whatever that means to you, can differ. The specifics of that are going to vary wildly. But I think that’s a good, general kind of theme: What does it mean, and who do you become, when you allow yourself to give your own inner darkness the wheel?”

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