Sydney Lemmon could be enjoying her big break. But she has more important work to do
Sydney Lemmon really, really, really wants you to vote.
Trying to talk politics with strangers sounds intimidating at a time when Americans are as polarized as ever on nearly every issue, and Lemmon admits it’s hard not be discouraged by the harsh rejections, which can feel personal. But the positive interactions make it worthwhile.
“In our own little echo chambers and bubbles, we’re all so driven and obsessed with this [political] moment,” Lemmon, who passes quite a bit of time engrossed in the news cycle, says during a video call from Connecticut. “But there are people whose votes count just as much who don’t feel the urgency the same way. I just can’t say enough about how meaningful it’s been to feel as though I’m doing even the littlest thing to help make some change. But it does feel like an impossible moment in some ways.”
The stakes are a little bit different in “Helstrom,” a 10-episode Marvel horror series premiering Friday on Hulu that marks Lemmon’s first starring role. She plays Ana Helstrom, a woman who as a child was kidnapped by her father — an actual demon — and taken on a road trip as he killed people.
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As an adult, Ana oozes confidence and danger and is a bit detached. She has taken it upon herself to rid the world of people, like her dad, who hurt others.
“When you meet Ana in the pilot, she’s absolutely winning at life,” says Lemmon. “She’s strolling through her auction house that she built with [her childhood friend and confidant] Chris Yen. She’s auctioning off Napoleon’s sword, snaring this guy, nearly kissing him and throwing him off a building.
“And then she gets sort of yanked from the height of her amazing life and pulled into her messy history.”
This involves reuniting with her estranged brother, Daimon (played by Tom Austen), a moody ethics professor who conducts exorcisms on the side, and her mother, Victoria (Elizabeth Marvel), who is both institutionalized and possessed by a demon, and dealing with the traumas of her past.
In standard Marvel fashion, there was initially a lot of secrecy around the project and the role.
“I auditioned for the part knowing that she was powerful, she was intelligent, [and] she had a dry sense of humor” but nothing else, recalls Lemmon. “It was only after the ink was drying [on the contract] that I got to really know who Ana was.”
Though she’s left an impression with guest appearances on shows such as “Fear the Walking Dead” and “Succession,” “Helstrom” is the first TV project that gives Lemmon the chance to spend significant time on the same character, and one who is there from the start of the story.
A graduate of Boston University and Yale School of Drama, Lemmon’s formal education is most apparent in the moments that she thoughtfully discusses her approach to the role and other elements of the craft.
Lemmon didn’t seriously consider pursuing acting until after she got the opportunity to attend a magnet arts program during high school. But she showed early signs of potential.
Although Lemmon was “quite shy” as a kid, her mother has told her stories about how she would put on shows involving the ABCs on the stairs as a toddler. Her grandfather, Academy Award-winning actor Jack Lemmon, was among her fans.
Ana’s family history is much more complicated. Loosely based on the Marvel comic book character Satana Hellstrom, cocreated by Roy Thomas and John Romita Sr., Ana is an extravagant businesswoman who deals in high-end antiquities and a vigilante killer with no fond feelings for the rest of her family. Lemmon explains that she focused on what was in the scripts to build up “Helstrom’s” fresh incarnation of Ana.
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Figuring out Ana was a process, and not just because the scripts arrived weekly, just days before shooting each episode.
Ana’s superpowers — including the ability to sense the energy and history of objects that she touches — and tough exterior were among the many facets of the character Lemmon had to navigate before coming to understand her. Lemmon‘s moment of clarity came in a scene that involves Ana finally opening a box of trinkets that are relics from her past.
“These tokens were directly linked to her dad,” says Lemmon. “Her dad would give them to her and they have a huge connection to a lot of the trauma and the abuse that she sustained as a little kid. In this moment I felt the the deep pain and huge gaping hole that she has that is the reason for her sheen and her armor that you really see at first. That’s when I really understood the reason for her hard exterior and everything became a bit more three-dimensional for me.”
At first, Lemmon also had trouble relating to Ana’s relationship with Daimon.Whereas Ana is the younger sibling, Lemmon is the oldest, with two younger brothers. She beams with pride as she talks about Jon, who is also an actor, and Christopher, who works in sales.
“It was really, really hard, actually, to use my own life experience with Daimon because all I have for my own two brothers is pure love,” says Lemmon. With “Daimon, there is resentment and baggage. Like, [Ana] just doesn’t like that guy.”
Ana has a much closer relationship with Chris (Alain Uy), the surrogate brother she met while both were in foster care. More than just a business partner, Chris helps Ana clean up after messy one-night stands, not to mention killings.
“He is Ana’s chosen family,” says Lemmon. “There is real love and real trust and I think that they could never have hoped to be able to trust somebody before meeting each other.”
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Lemmon is aware that “Helstrom” is arriving at a very particular moment in time. Filming on the series fortunately wrapped just as many films and TV series were forced to shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Promotion for the show has involved a virtual panel at San Diego Comic-Con in July, as well as one during New York Comic Con earlier this month, and the participating cast and crew have not shied away from current events.
The SDCC panel — which was filmed just a few weeks after the killing of George Floyd — saw the cast and series creator Paul Zbyszewski directly address systemic racism and racist violence. At the NYCC panel, they all wore shirts that said “Vote.”
About the SDCC event, Lemmon says, “We came together as a company almost immediately and we said, ‘There are things that are more important right now than the promotion of our horror series because there are true horrors happening in the world. What are we willing to do?’”
Though it’s not political in a partisan sense, “Helstrom’s” central themes might resonate with those who see 2020 as a crucible for determining the future of the country.
“The show is about good and it’s about evil,” Lemmon says of “Helstrom.” “It’s very boldly expressed — the evil in our show is extremely evil and the good in our show is steadfast and opinionated. The forces of good have been through a lot of s—. They’ve been through the wringer and they’re trying their best. It’s messy. It’s complicated.”
She hopes people who watch the show can find some catharsis, perhaps as a place to focus and release some of the rage they feel because of what’s happening in the real world.
Still, for all the excitement of her first starring role, Lemmon’s focus remains on the Nov. 3 election.
“Please vote and please vote with your heart,” she says.
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for violence)
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