In the first season of The Legend of Vox Machina, the ragtag group of adventurers had their hands full saving Exandria from with the most terrifying power couple in the realm. But Delilah and Sylas Briarwood pale in comparison to what Vox Machina is dealing with in the show’s second season: four huge, terrifying dragons known as the Chroma Conclave, who are set on destroying — and controlling — the world as we know it.
And these aren’t your average fire-breathing dragons, either. They bellow orders, they scheme with their own personalities, they even spit acid instead of fire. Add that to the group’s growing interpersonal relationships and conflicted pasts, and “there’s a lot more beyond just dragons are a threat. Like there’s so much more depth between the characters,” cast member Matt Mercer tells TV Insider. “This is the catalyst that leads to the true rise in their heroic journey … it gets real messy.”
Ahead of Season 2’s premiere on January 20, Mercer and Travis Willingham, who plays lovable barbarian Grog Strongjaw, talk to TV Insider about working with epic new guest stars, translating a complicated arc of tabletop storytelling into 12 half-hour episodes of television, and what fans can expect to see from their favorite characters.
You’ve got some epic guest stars for Season 2. And obviously. some of them are playing the characters they originally played at the table, like Will Friedle (Karsh) and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (Zahara). But for everyone else, like Lance Reddick and Henry Winkler, did you think “this person would be perfect to play this character” or “if we ever did this, this person should voice this character”? Or was the search more organic?
Travis Willingham: It’s slightly organic. But I think the fun part about the show and especially with all of us being executive producers is that we get together and have little brainstorming sessions about who are the craziest people that we think could play these characters that we made up or that Matt made up in his head that could bring it to life. And that list is usually very long on a whiteboard somewhere and then gets erased or scratched through for various reasons. But you know, in the cases of like Lance Reddick and Henry Winkler and a variety of our other cast, like Billy Boyd…those were some of the names that were like, “we’ll never get them but let’s try anyway.” And when they came back and said yes, you probably could have heard us scream from well, probably where you are now…
Matt Mercer: Season 1 was already kind of a “what the heck is going on experience.” So we started, like, just throw out some names — you know, me and Marisha [Ray, creative director of Critical Role] were through like, our fourth viewing of The Wire over the pandemic. And we’ve been large fans of Lance [Reddick, who played Lt. Cedric Daniels on the HBO drama], both in that and Corporate and many of the projects in Destiny. And we were just like, “we’ll try, I don’t know if it’ll work out.” And he’s one of the many people that said yes, and then knocked it out of the park. So it’s just been an ever-present wild journey.
Is it surreal for you to think that they probably looked at your proposal and went, “Oh, cool, this big popular Amazon show that everyone is talking about! I want to be a part of that!”
Mercer: I hope that’s the response! But everyone’s been very excited and it’s pretty wild.
Willingham: Yeah, I mean, it’s an absolute blast. I mean, you know, we have an idea of who [gnome] Wilhand Trickfoot is, and then Henry [Winkler] signs on and of course, that’s Henry. That’s the Fonz. There are so many of so many characters that he’s played, that he loved, and then he just puts on the persona of the most lovable great, great grandfather of all time and we just melt in our chairs, you know, there’s not much you can do, but just sit back and enjoy the performance. And it’s really a treat for us, I think, in watching someone like Lance who has such an incredible resume, who we have such incredible respect for, come in and get excited at the thought of being a giant red dragon. Like, you know, he goes through the whole thing: his form shifts, his facial features shift, and he just falls into the role. He’s never happy with his first or second or third take, he wants to do it over and over and over and just milk the line for all that it’s worth. So when they’re excited, we’re excited, and it makes the job just that much easier. But all of them have such incredible vocal qualities. It just enriches the scenes that much more.
Since the first season premiered, you guys have gained a ton of new fans. Some of them have gone back and they’ve started the original tabletop campaign and now some of them are really into [the currently airing] campaign three — do you feel more pressure for Season 2 in terms of, now you have even more people who are invested?
Mercer: Well, no, not until now! [Laughs] No, I mean, it’s absurd that we get to do this. So we’re not so much focused on trying to please the audience more than we’re just trying to make this as good as we can for ourselves. And then in trusting that that will translate onto the final products, you know, Season 1 was kind of the first step in that sort of direction. And it seemed to go over well. So we’re just leaning more into what excites us, what makes us happy, what makes us feel like this is, you know, as honest an adaptation as we possibly can make in this medium. And then now is when it starts coming out in trailers and people start getting buzz for the new season it’s like “oh, right! Other people are expecting…oh no, OK, I think we’re good.”
Willingham: I mean, we’re childhood fans of animation of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. That’s where our inspiration was, it’s where our dreams were, it’s the fights with our action figures that we had on our bedroom floor. And that turned into a love for anime and video games. And we’re just such a fan of the storytelling and the visual medium itself. So when you work with Titmouse, and they love anime, and all those root components as much as we do, we knew the recipe was going to be good. But as Matt said, we’re just trying to geek out over the thing that we made. And being at the helm of that is such a unique experience.
And I’ll say this: in seeing some of the reactions to the Season 2 trailer, it is incredible and almost unthinkable to see people say, “I haven’t watched any of Critical Role, not one episode, but I love The Legend of Vox Machina and I can’t wait for Season 2.” That doesn’t make any sense in our brains! That was really the impetus behind the thing — if you don’t have hours to watch the show, you can enjoy these characters and stories. And to know that that is, at some level, working is an absolute dream come true for us. But that’s what we want to do: just take people on a crazy ride — a semblance of the ride that we went on years and years ago.
It’s funny that you said that because I had a friend message me the other day when the trailer dropped, saying, “I know nothing. I don’t watch Critical Role. But I watched a little bit of Legend of Vox Machina and I’m excited for you and I’m excited about the show. I want to get into it and I want to cosplay.” She had that same reaction: I haven’t sat down and watched hours of this, but I know the show and I’m excited about it.
Willingham: That’s what we try and shape. And I know so many of our diehard fans that have watched the campaign are like, “are they gonna get this small moment? Are they gonna hit this?” You know, we try and hit everything that we can and we obviously had to be very discerning in what that was, but we’re also keeping at the forefront of our mind that we’re cultivating the story for the first time for a whole new audience. So hopefully they have their buy-ins and if we’re doing it right, we’re intriguing them enough and sending them to the Internet so they can find out what really happened or what was different between the two. And then heaven forbid they pick up a pair of dice and start crafting their own adventures.
Let them sit there and listen to millions of hours of storytelling! Now that you can kind of officially talk about the Chroma Conclave arc and also Season 3 a little bit, how hard was it to narrow down the big beats and storylines of the campaign into something that was not necessarily more condensed but probably more nuanced than a five-hour session?
Mercer: It certainly shaved some years off the old lifespan squeezing this in! It’s very much just kind of a discussion between the group and Sam [Riegel] and Travis, who are the heroic ones kind of helming the major push of this series from front to back. And we all care about everything, but we also have to decide what serves the narrative in this adaptation. And so yeah, there are little moments here and there that are important to us in the campaign as we played it that just wouldn’t fit within the way the story’s paced. But the cool thing is they will always still exist in the main campaign. So we have those discussions — we all put our favorite moments on the board, we all have input on the things that we feel are absolutely necessary for the main characters and for the main storyline to continue to grow and unfold between them… It’s certainly not easy!
Willingham: Yeah, there are definitely sections on a few whiteboards that had the cut list or even the reshaped list because some things, you know, it’s not that they get omitted entirely. They get adapted or changed or tweaked. And part of the reason for that is there are some things that we have to get right … As nerds, we know how important that is. And in media, we’ve been on the other side when we’re in the chair and we’re like, “you’re just missing it by that much.” And we feel like we know what that that core is, but we also have a responsibility as storytellers to keep it new, even for the people that have seen it before. Because if they’re just going to their screens saying “Oh, I remember when that happened, I remember where that happened, that’s fun,” we’re missing an opportunity to keep them on their toes. We’re missing an opportunity to make them wonder, “what has changed? What are they tweaking? What other elements of the story can we highlight that maybe didn’t get as much of a spotlight before?” And so that’s also exciting to us as storytellers: bringing in not just a new audience that loves the animated series but making the old fans question what they know what they remember canonically and where we might be going with some of these new things that we’ll see in Season 2.
For the fans familiar with the narrative of Vox Machina, who generally know where things are going in terms of characters and storylines, what’s something about Season 2 that they’ll love or should look forward to?
Willingham: Everyone knows that at the end of Season 1, dragons were flying toward Emon so that obviously means the Chroma Conclave is coming. But what was so beautiful and genius about Matt’s original delivery of that campaign was, it was an onslaught of terror and size that we really couldn’t comprehend at the time. We were woefully out of our depth. And it was only the backdrop to a myriad of other stories that were then going to unfold. So it’s not necessarily watching Vox Machina just focus on these dragons and are they going to win or lose? It’s figuring out how do they evolve as a group — how do they relate to each other as characters? Where are their friendships and relationships growing into? What other facets of the world are we going to see? Where are we gonna go outside of Tal’Dorei in terms of looking for resources to address this threat and how big is this world? How large and how grand is the actual scope of Exandria and what kind of storytelling can we bring in past just the city of Whitestone in season one?
So really getting to jump across the oceans and really sort of stretch everything that first campaign had to offer? That’s what really excites me the most about campaign two and we’ll certainly get back to those. I mean, we’re certainly gonna have our hands full with those pesky dragons, but boy, there’s so much more than that in Season 2.
Mercer: I think what’s really exciting is when we first played through, it’s partially structured week to week, and then it’s largely improvised and off the cuff and it makes these incredible moments that are organic and real and honest. And now that we get to go back and adapt it, we also have the opportunities to plus some things. We have the opportunity to tweak some things to show perspectives we couldn’t in the game and kind of find ways to surprise people that may know the story front and back — to find ways that still honor what we did and not radically change the narrative but little things that we get to kind of mess with we get to make a little cooler, we get to change up just to make sure that even the oldest of Critical Role fans can feel a little knocked off their comfort zone and like “wait, what? OK, hold on — I don’t know what’s really going to happen next!” And that’s really exciting, too.
OK, last question: how awesome is it to see everyone react to “OH MY GOD, DRAGONS!”
Mercer: It’s great! I mean, you know, let’s be real — there’s a lot of dragon stuff that’s been in media over the past 10 years and it’s always that thing of being like, “yeah but what makes this special? What makes this different from other dragons in media?” One, there’s a lot of them [Laughs], and two, there’s a lot more beyond just [that] dragons are a threat. Like there’s so much more depth between the characters. This is the catalyst that leads to the true rise in their heroic journey and they’re more than just beasts that breathe fire and are dangerous. They themselves are intricate personalities with their own machinations with their own unique dynamics. It really makes for what we feel is a unique fantasy story revolving around a bunch of dragons compared to other forms of media that have been out there and touched on this subject and yeah…it gets real messy.
Willingham: Yeah, Brimsycthe with was fun in season one, but hearing the different personalities and of course, the amazing vocal performances of the Chroma Conclave and Season 2 I think is going to rock everybody. The first time you hear Thordak The Cinder King bellow out to the poor citizens of Emon, it’s pretty incredible.
The Legend of Vox Machina, Season 2 Premiere, Friday, January 20, Prime Video