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What is Paul going to do now?
[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Monday's episode of 9-1-1: Lone Star. Read at your own risk!]
After nearly freezing to death during the life-changing winter storm, Paul Strickland (Brian Michael Smith) was on course to make a full recovery… until he wasn't. In the months since the near-fatal gym collapse, Paul has been having recurring nightmares, waking up drenched in sweat and with an irregular heartbeat. At the behest of his best friend Marjan (Natacha Karam), who noticed that he has also had some dizzy spells and shortness of breath, Paul went to see a doctor, who diagnosed him with Brugada syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that can cause a life-threatening heart arrhythmia.
"I'll be blunt, Mr. Strickland," the doctor told the 38-year-old firefighter. "Without this procedure, I don't see you making it to 40."
Despite the doctor's recommendation to put a pacemaker in his chest, Paul told Marjan that he "would rather die a firefighter than live any other way," even going as far as to lift a heavy metal shelf during a rescue at a pet store. But while cooking dinner one night in his apartment, Paul collapsed on the ground. Marjan, sensing that something was amiss, kicked down Paul's front door and successfully resuscitated him—only for him to lash out at her when he discovered that doctors had implanted a pacemaker against his wishes.
TV Guide spoke with Smith about how filming the episode made him rethink his own mortality, how much of Paul's sense of self is tied to his profession, and the inevitable fallout from Paul and Marjan's contentious final scene in the hospital.
Did you know about Paul's impending health struggles when you filmed the winter storm, and how did you ultimately react when you discovered that Paul did not escape the collapse completely unscathed?
Brian Michael Smith: I didn't know anything. We get the scripts very soon before we start filming, so you have to roll with the punches. When we finished the snowstorm episodes, I didn't know what the future could hold for Paul, but I felt like that was kind of the end of that. Around the holidays is when we were starting to get the scripts for [Episode] 9, and then I was like, "OK, there's a lot of Paul dialogue. What's going on?" And when I read the nightmare about him getting backed over [by a firetruck], I was like, "Wait a minute!" [Laughs.] I feel like if they were going to kill my character, I would have gotten a courtesy call to prepare beforehand—at least I would hope so. I was like, "Where is this going?" And then, it's like, "OK, it's a nightmare," and then come to find out it's related to this Brugada syndrome.
Then, I got excited about how we're really shaking the foundation in a really different way to challenge and explore Paul's identity. We explored his identity as a trans man, but just to explore this other huge pillar of his identity as a firefighter when I feel like everything is lining up perfectly for him. That's what the snowstorm proved above all—the 126 really do operate as a family, and we all chose each other and we all love each other very much to the death. It's like, "I'm doing it with my family, these people I really care about, and I can really build my sense of self around my capabilities within this family and as a firefighter." So to have that threatened in this way was, as an actor, very exciting—but, for Paul, absolutely terrifying.
How did you prepare to get into Paul's headspace for this episode?
Smith: It was really difficult because I don't really think about my mortality. I know, on a larger scale, of course, we're all gonna die at some point. But on the day-to-day of thinking like, "I could die today"—I don't have that, but that is exactly what Paul was facing. So, as an actor, to prepare for that, I had to do the same thing. It almost felt like walking around with a grenade in my pocket, knowing that at any minute, [Paul's] heart could just give out and it could just come out of nowhere. I found myself having a little more anxiety as I was allowing myself to really explore, like, "What would happen if my life ended right now? How prepared am I for that? How is this gonna impact my family?" All of these thoughts that were the character's thoughts, I had to, as Brian, navigate them [too]. It was kind of a heavy load. I would have to do my meditations and whatnot to sort of disconnect me from that.
But one day I did my boxing session and my heart was beating really, really fast. I just remember getting very, very scared. I was like, "Oh man. Oh, this is too much. I hope I'm not—" The challenge was allowing myself to know what facing my mortality feels like within my body, and then how I could use those reactions as I was doing the work in the scenes. But I had to find a cut-off and it was timed out perfectly that we took the holiday hiatus as we were shooting it, so I did have time to sort of take a break and remember, "Hey, I'm Brian. I have my own separate life." It allowed me to go back in with the focus and the understanding that allowed myself to explore that. It was definitely challenging in ways that I hadn't really experienced before, but I feel like it helped with the performance.
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Last season, we got a chance to meet Paul's mother Cynthia (Cleo King) and sister Naomi (Regina Hoyles), but this was the first time we got some real backstory about his father, who died of a heart attack at the age of 36. What kind of relationship do you think Paul had with his father, and how does that ultimately influence his reaction to these orders from the doctor?
Smith: Paul, in some ways, idolizes his father. He had a desire to be like him in some ways, but he was aware of the ways in which his father wasn't healthy and ultimately caused his own demise. I think a lot of Paul's investment in his health and in his physical fitness is probably a reaction to his father, whether he's conscious of it or not. He's like, "I don't want to die young, I don't want to suffer needlessly, and I'm gonna do what I can to be responsible for my life."
I think perhaps they weren't as close as he wanted to be, but I think he had a deep admiration for him for sure. He talks about it in his conversation with Marjan, and I imagine that he and his father may have been close and then separated during a time, and then maybe that last thing that he said to him was something about being yourself and not being ashamed. Maybe it was a moment of later stage life reconciliation that Paul carries with him.
Why do you think Paul continues to put his job before his health, even if his best friend is urging him to take a breath and re-evaluate his options?
Smith: I think he knew when he became a firefighter that he could die on the job. That's par for the course. He could die in a fire, he could die in a building collapse, he could die of smoke inhalation—he knew that was part of it. And so his rationale right now is like, "If I drop dead because of a hard day [as a firefighter], I'd rather that than to be working in an office." His identity—and his sense of who he is as a man—is very much wrapped in his vocation, in his job. So to have that threatened in that way, I think he absolutely means it: "I don't want to lose this part of who I am, and I'll die for it." It's not logical in terms of living a long, fruitful life, but it makes complete sense to him and his identity. He made his peace dying on the job, and if it's his heart that takes him out on the job, then I guess that's how it's gonna be.
After waking up in the hospital, Paul showed Marjan the door, even if she was the one who found him and saved his life. How will this affect his relationship with Marjan and the rest of the 126 going forward?
Smith: It was a hard scene to do because I know how close they are. Natacha and I have a really great working relationship, and to have him lash out at her is supremely hurtful. I think there's a lot of pain that's definitely going to cause some damage and then a big rift [for them] to navigate through. He's mad about the entire situation, and he's taking it out on her directly because she's there. He's also hurt because he wanted to feel a deeper sense of protection or advocacy when he was incapacitated. So again, he's working from a place that isn't necessarily logical, but that's what his feelings are. He's like, "If anybody could speak for me, I wanted it to be you, and you didn't do that for me." I think he sends her away because he's so conflicted about that—he's so grateful for her, but he's also so mad and hurt, and he doesn't know what to do.
Afterwards, it's just a matter of "Can we find our way back to each other and be friends? Can we talk about this, or was there much damage caused?" In the episodes following [this one], we're all figuring it out together. Paul doesn't know, Marjan doesn't know, the audience doesn't know. And it's interesting because everybody in the firehouse, they feel it too. When they become aware, [they're like], "You guys don't seem to be talking very much. What's going on here?" They want to heal the relationship as well, so you see members of the 126, like, "What can we do to help heal this situation? We want to keep the family intact, and we know how much they mean to each other and how that friendship helps strengthen the house."
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I have to ask, because it has come up a couple of times on Twitter: Do you think the dynamic between Paul and Marjan is purely platonic, or could it develop into something romantic?
Smith: Oh yeah, we've been shipped, I've heard! They put us on a boat! [Laughs.] I don't know. I feel like I don't like containers; I feel like they have such a unique and powerful dynamic that is undefined. I'm OK with it being undefined as opposed to, like, "Oh, it's totally this or that." It's clear that there's love. I personally don't think it's romantic love. I think there's more of a fraternal [love], like a brother-sister kind of thing, and that's their dynamic within the family.
But I felt the same way about Benson and Stabler [from Law & Order] and Mulder and Scully [from The X-Files], and it seems like somewhere down the line, if they put them in a ship long enough, I guess… [Laughs.] But right now, I enjoy the dynamic as it is. They've only been working together for two and a half years, and they're still getting to know each other. So who knows what it's gonna be?
How is this setback going to affect Paul both physically and mentally?
Smith: It has a deep impact on him, and you'll see in the episodes following [Episode] 9 [that] it's a lot to come back from. Again, when you face your mortality, even for just a few weeks where I was kind of preparing, it's jarring and [you] can have a lot of anxiety. And when you are in a job where you have to, without thought, put your life on the line, that's gonna make it difficult to do.
So we're gonna see Paul struggle with that and with the physical limitations that he has or that he perceives that he has. Because once you push yourself and you have such a devastating consequence, what is it going to take for you to push yourself like that again? The audience is gonna find out as Paul finds out. He still wants to do it, he still has the calling, but it's like, "How does he get back to being able to acknowledge that fear and work with it?"
As he begins to rediscover his place in the world, what parts of Paul's life—both personally and professionally—would you like to explore going forward?
Smith: I want to know more about his sense of community. It's very well defined within the firehouse for sure, but he's been down in Austin now for a few years, so what is his connection to the community? What other parts of his identity is he exploring? Like, his relationship with the Black community down in Austin, and his relationship with Austin in general. Did he ever get involved with the queer community outside of hanging out with Carlos (Rafael Silva) and T.K. (Ronen Rubinstein) at the bar? I definitely want to see a little bit more of that.
I love that we're seeing a lot more of his physicality and athleticism, so I'd like to explore that some more. That baseball game [in Season 3, Episode 7] was so fun. His physicality is really important to him, and it would be great to explore that outside of the firehouse. He's gone on a couple of dates, so it would be nice to see what's in store for him romantically if that might help out with his connection to the community. I love that we got to see Paul's apartment. I don't know if you got a chance to see too many of the details, but it was a really cool apartment. I'm like, "Yo, I like how Paul's living!" [Laughs.]
9-1-1: Lone Star airs Mondays at 8/7c—and will move to 9/8c starting March 21—on FOX. Episodes are available to stream the next day on Hulu.