The Umbrella Academy Cast Discusses Creating a New Kind of Superhero Show
We talked with the cast and crew of Netflix’s Umbrella Academy about adapting a beloved comic and saving the world.
The Umbrella Academy creator Gerard Way had all but given up on ever seeing a live action adaptation of his beloved, off-the-wall superhero comic.
Way had been through the Hollywood ringer with the property, listening to pitches for a movie there, or a TV show here. He was even present at three meetings with Jeremy Slater, The Exorcist showrunner who wrote a live-action Umbrella Academy pilot and was working to sell the show. Still by 2017, ten years after the first issue of the comic debuted, Way decided that he would rather just focus on new issues of the comic, and leave a potential show be. Naturally, Netflix then immediately picked up Slater’s pilot to series with Steve Blackman (Fargo) as showrunner.
further reading: The Umbrella Academy Continues Its Surreal Trip Through Hotel Oblivion
“Sometimes you try to will something into existence so much, but the minute you actually stop caring about whether or not it happens, it ends up happening, you know?” Way says.
Way (who was also the lead singer of My Chemical Romance before becoming a decorated comic writer…but you knew that) may have been alone in giving up on ever seeing The Umbrella Academy brought to a TV or movie screen. The property has long been one of Hollywood’s most sought after franchises. Beloved by fans and the comic industry, the story has always carried massive potential as the next evolution in the superhero myth.
The story of The Umbrella Academy, as best as the massively charmingly strange series can be summed up, follows the Hargreeves family of superheroes. There are six living Hargreeves, who were among 43 children all born in the same day back in 1989 to women all across the world who had previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Back then, billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves took it upon himself to find and “acquire” all the children that he could with the intention of raising them to one day save the world.
When the series begins, Reginald has died under mysterious circumstances and all the now-adult children have reunited for the first time in years for his funeral where they must process their trauma together…and yes, probably save the world for real this time.
The Umbrella Academy has traditionally been billed as X-Men meets The Royal Tenenbaums, Doom Patrol meets The Big Chill, or any other number of superhero team meets indie movie comparison. It’s a fascinating distillation of two very different, but very beloved forms of niche pop culture. Now those niches are about to be opened up to a much wider audience with Way and Blackman’s series debuting on Netflix on February 15.
In advance of The Umbrella Academy’s arrival, we spoke with Way, Blackman, and all major members of the cast to discuss what it’s like to bring a new kind of superhero story to life.
First, however, a brief primer on the characters because no matter how many times you come across articles about The Umbrella Academy, it’s always helpful to have the roster available.
Number One – Luther Hargreeves a.k.a. “Spaceboy” (played by Tom Hopper)
Designated “Number One” by Reginald, Luther is the de facto leader of the Umbrella Academy. In his youth he possessed super strength as his power but now in adulthood, he is even physically more massive than usual. There is a reason for that as we’ll come to find out.
Number Two – Diego Hargreeves a.k.a. “The Kraken” (played by David Castañeda)
Diego is gruff, Batman-esque vigilante crime fighter. He never gave up the life of crime fighting; even long after his siblings grew sick of it. Diego has a propensity and skill for knife throwing. Technically, in the comic Diego’s superpower is an ability to hold his breathe indefinitely but that’s kind of overshadowed by his knife skills.
Number Three – Allison Hargreeves a.k.a. “The Rumor” (played by Emmy Raver-Lampman)
Allison is likely the most powerful of all the siblings since her ability is a Preacher-like power to manipulate reality by lying. She is also a famous actress.
Number Four – Klaus Hargreeves a.k.a. “The Séance” (played by Robert Sheehan)
Klaus is a drug addict who has the ability to communicate with the dead. He’s probably the former because of the latter.
Number Five NO NAME GIVEN a.k.a. “The Boy” (played by Aiden Gallagher)
Number Five never got around to giving himself a name (Sir Reginald didn’t think them necessary) because he ran off as a young boy into the future. After many decades spent in a post-apocalyptic future, Number Five has returned to the present with a grim warning for his siblings.
Number Six – Ben Hargreeves a.k.a. “The Horror” (played by Ethan Hwang)
Ben is dead. Sorry.
Number Seven – Vanya Hargreeves a.k.a CODE NAME OMITTED AS IT’S A SPOILER (played by Ellen Page)
Reginald particularly mistreated Vanya in childhood, as she appears to have no powers whatsoever. Now she is a violinist with a difficult relationship with her siblings.
Hazel and Cha-Cha (played by Cameron Britton and Mary J. Blige)
Just your run-of-the-mill time-traveling assassins.
The Umbrella Academy cast and crew on the show’s characters…
Steve Blackman: It took a lot of work to find the right people. We lucked out because they love each other in real life, they get along in real life, and they’re wonderful actors. But, you know, we both wanted Ellen Page for Vanya early on. I really wanted Robert Sheehan who was in Misfits and a few other shows. Tom Hopper had that sort of boyish innocence from Game of Thrones. So right away I really went after those people. Cameron Britton I had seen in Mindhunter and really wanted him. The fact that I got Mary J. Blige was just like winning a lottery. Aidan Gallagher was the tricky one because I had seen 300 boys by that point and I thought no one can play a 58 year old man in this kid’s body until Aidan came around and he just said like, “I’ll kill for this part.”
Gerard Way: I think the most important improvement over the source of the material is how much more inclusive and diverse the cast is. I think that is a huge win.
Tom Hopper: What I love about Luther so much is that he’s always trying to do the right thing but then it backfires on him. He’s got this weight on his shoulders of being the leader and trying to steer these guys in the right direction and that’s no easy feat with these characters around him, these siblings that are quite tough to handle most of the time.
David Castañeda: Even though he tries to hide it, (Diego) is very much connected to all of his siblings and he really cares for them. Even though he might look down at them from the exterior surface.
further reading: Gerard Way on Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion and the TV Series
Emmy Raver-Lampman: I think Allison is really nurturing and motherly. And I think maybe gets a kick out of watching her brothers spin out of control. I really got a kick out of playing that. But I also think I tend to be nurturing and like to problem solve with people and listen and talk through stuff and the one on one relationship with Allison.
Robert Sheehan: With Klaus, if ever I felt like a slight reservation, a slight reluctance, or a slight hesitation doing something or whatever, then I would give myself permission to turn that hesitation into something unpredictable. Essentially just surfing the wave of whatever was going on and wherever that takes me, great. They were very embracing to that type of thing. If I didn’t want to say a line, I just wouldn’t say it. Then I’d say it 16 different ways if I wanted or I’d sing it. There was a limitlessness to Klaus’ behavior which I really loved and embraced.
Aiden Gallagher: I liked the unique trauma that the apocalypse has taken on Five and everything that comes with that.
Ellen Page: I’m playing a character that’s ultimately this really abused kid that’s profoundly repressed and on some level it’s as if she has a manic break and just letting it out just enormous rage. That felt like, “Yeah man, I’m gonna go for a ride, and I think I’m gonna tap into my fuckin’ rage.” I thought that was interesting to explore. I don’t think I’ve played a character that rageful since Hard Candy or something.
Cameron Britton:Y eah, there’s elements of the characters in the comics, as far as Hazel and Cha-Cha go, but those characters took the actually copy and paste them on the television would be impossible. They’re too wacky. They needed to be a little more grounded. We took elements of it and then after that, you make it your own. What makes that comic pretty nice to put on TV, is all of the characters are pretty bare bones. Without upsetting any fans you can just sort of expand on them, not have to take anything away.
Mary J. Blige: All (Cameron and I) had was each other, so we had to make it fun. We had to tell jokes. We had to have conversations, but everything happened organically, nothing was ever forced – there was always something to talk about; always something to laugh about.
The Umbrella Academy cast and crew on adapting the comics…
Gerard Way: (Jeremy Slater) wrote a pilot and he helped sell the show, and I was there to back him up, but I was writing my comic the whole time. When I sat down with UCP they were like, “What is your goal? What do you really want?” And I was like, “I want to write a really great comic because I’ve already been through the system.” I had already been in meetings where people tried to change things and I’m just not interested anymore, you know?
Steve Blackman: When I first talked to Netflix, the idea was to, we wanted to bring our graphic novel fans with us for this ride but also to broaden it out to much more people who either haven’t heard of this comic or you know, weren’t necessarily superhero fans. But what’s great about it is what Gerard and Gabriel created is it’s this dysfunctional family show. My log line is “dysfunctional family show with a body count” so that’s how I sort of fell in love with it.
Tom Hopper: I hadn’t come across them before and then as soon as I saw the comics and even when I first Googled the images, I was like, man, this is really interesting. And totally different to any other super hero comic I’ve come across. I was so into it from the off and then I read and apply that and then seeing this world come to life in real life environment, I was so into it. Steve was wanting me to say, “Okay, well tell me this about the show. Tell me what’s gonna happen with Luther and this. I was like, dude, I’m in. You don’t have to tell me anything more, I’m in.” Yeah. I was so into it.
David Castañeda: I read the comics after I got the gig I was like, “Yep, this is really cool.” It wasn’t until I got to Toronto where we actually did the rehearsals that I actually got to speak to Steve about where Diego was going. It was almost like I was walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Seeing the sets and all these things and it blew my mind to realize how much money they were investing into this.
further reading: Raising Dion: Everything You Need to Know
Emmy Raver-Lampman: I sent in the self tape and then didn’t hear anything. And then five and a half months later got a call out of the blue. It was like, “Hey, remember that thing you auditioned for months ago? They wanna test you tomorrow.” So I went in and I did my camera test and two days later found out that I got the show I had read the first one months and months before and then when I found out I got the role I then went back and read the first one again and then read the second one. That was kind of my first launch into The Umbrella Academy.
Robert Sheehan: Steve was quite transparent about what he plans to do with the series and kind of jump off point the source material. I had long conversations on Skype with him and he communicated to me that the madness of the journey that Klaus goes on. That was the thing that hooked me. As well as then retrospect, we went and read the source material. It’s all one big delightful cake, really.
Adien Gallagher: For me, it was a dream come true. It was a dream role, and I think we got an incredible cast. We all have interesting takes on the characters and we really bring to life and do justice, but also take liberties to make sure that this 10-hour Netflix representation of The Umbrella Academy is done right. The cast has a lot to do with that, the writers have a lot to do with that. Steve Blackman has a lot to do with that.
The Umbrella Academy cast and crew on a potential Season 2…
Gerard Way: Well there’s, you know, when all said and done there’s eight graphic novels planned total. So we’re on series three right now, so we’re two series ahead of the show and I think right now there’s only been a couple things used from Dallas so I think there’s a potential season two you would see, I would think you would see some things potentially from Dallas.
Tom Hopper: With this show that’s a huge question cause we could go in so many different directions. And yeah, the time travel element is gonna be a huge one. Where we are and then what we do in that time period remains to be seen.
further reading: Locke and Key: Everything You Need to Know
Robert Sheehan: One of the things I emailed Steve about near the end of the series was the transformative nature of Klaus. That’s the core thread of what makes him so interesting. He’s constantly emerging into this new self. He’s a butterfly that refuses to leave the cocoon, or he keeps going back into it. I’d love to see Klaus reformed as something else, different completely. Hopefully, if the murmurings are to be believed, that’s kind of where we’re headed. I think he’s in a constant state of change and that would bring much excitement for me.
Ellen Page: I don’t potentially know what happens next. I guess for me it’s gonna be so interesting to explore Vanya. It’s like Vanya 2.0, whether what direction I’m playing in, for Vanya if this is what is happening. Obviously less repressed and what does that mean in the good ways and bad kinda thing.
Cameron Britton: I’m most excited to see how the family deals with everything that just happened. They can no longer to pretend to just ignore each other. I’m excited to see where, well I don’t really wanna ruin ten for you. I think the show ends on an incredible hanger. There are so many questions of what happens next that Steve Blackman’s being horrible and won’t tell me about.
The Umbrella Academy premieres on Netflix on February 15.
Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad