On the set of ‘Umbrella Academy,’ Netflix’s next play in TV’s superhero wars
It was going on 3 a.m. on a warm night in July, when Ellen Page slid into a seat at a craft services station off an alley in downtown Toronto’s financial district.
Costumed in a black frock coat, white shirt and black tie, her pale gaze fortified by eyeliner, Page started to talk about her character, Vanya, in the new Netflix comic-book series “The Umbrella Academy.” “She really struggles with depression and anxiety,” Page said.
The production was on location to shoot the last of “The Umbrella Academy’s” first 10 episodes. A show publicist hovered at a discreet distance, lest the star veer into spoilers. “Later,” Page said, “when I’m shooting, I’ll have contacts that look really, really spooky.”
Based on the multi-volume Dark Horse Comic created by Gerard Way (of the band My Chemical Romance) and illustrated by Gabriel Bá, “The Umbrella Academy,” which begins streaming Friday, is an apocalyptically themed superhero saga, naturally. But that’s not what drew Page or Steve Blackman, the show’s creator and executive producer, to the material.
“There’s ‘Royal Tennenbaums’ in this,” Blackman said, referring to filmmaker Wes Anderson’s wry black comedy about three New York siblings lost to eccentricity as adults. “I could see the Wes Anderson flair not only in just the storytelling but in the way he does family and dysfunction.”
Characters who are superheroes on the outside but broken on the inside may not seem like a new wrinkle, but for Netflix, “The Umbrella Academy” comes at an auspicious time. Though the streaming giant still has upcoming seasons of Marvel Comics’ “Jessica Jones” and “The Punisher” in 2019, its relationship with the Marvel universe is effectively ending. The Walt Disney Company, which owns Marvel, is set to launch a rival streaming service, Disney +, later this year, and has indicated no intention of licensing a blockbuster brand to its biggest streaming rival.
The family saga of “The Umbrella Academy” begins once upon a time — 1989 — when 43 women around the world give birth, even though they aren’t pregnant. Seven of these miracle infants are snapped up by a monocled billionaire mad genius named Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore). He shops well: The babies have superpowers, and Hargreeves, an otherwise cruel and withholding father (he refers to his children by number), whips his brood into a crime-fighting vigilante force.
There’re not a lot of roles for 14-year-olds playing assassins.
The kids, called The Umbrella Academy, achieve global fame. But we all know what happens to child stars. As the show opens, the estranged sibling-mercenaries are all uniquely messed up adults, reuniting on the occasion of the old man’s death. Those supernatural abilities mock their misery and poor social skills. Number 4/Klaus (Robert Sheehan) can talk to the dead, which has left him a reprobate and drug addict. Number 1/Luther (Tom Hopper) has Herculean strength but is also marooned on the moon, where he can hide the fact that his head pokes comically out of a body the size of a simian on PEDs.
And then there’s Number 5/Five. He’s a time traveler who has seen the future, and it’s not good: apocalyptic end times. To make matters worse, Five, a wayward assassin, is being hunted by a pair of hit men named Cha-Cha (Mary J. Blige) and Hazel (Cameron Britton), whose job is to bypass the space-time continuum and make sure historical events, good or catastrophic, happen on schedule.
The role of Five — he is biologically 58 years old but stuck in a 13-year-old’s body — went to Aidan Gallagher, who previously spent four seasons on the Nickelodeon sitcom “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn.”
“There’re not a lot of roles for 14-year-olds playing assassins,” he said.
As an underage actor on an all-night shoot, Gallagher was going to “pumpkin” at midnight. This wasn’t an issue for Britton, Emmy-nominated for his chilling turn as serial killer Ed Kemper on the Netflix series “Mindhunter,” or Blige, the singer, rapper, songwriter and, now, actress, last seen in the very different Netflix offering “Mudbound,” which earned her two Oscar nominations last year.
I always wanted to learn how to shoot a gun. I know how to shoot all types of guns now. And I know martial arts.
Mary J. Blige
As one-half of a hit squad, Blige is the straight man to Britton’s grousing, doughnut-eating, carpel-tunnel-plagued co-worker. “I love the stunts,” Blige said, of playing the no-nonsense killer Cha-Cha. “I always wanted to learn how to shoot a gun. I know how to shoot all types of guns now. And I know martial arts.”
Like so many Marvel comics, “The Umbrella Academy” was once going to be a feature but failed to get out of development at Universal Pictures. Netflix ordered the series in 2017, from a pilot script written by Jeremy Slater.
Blackman, the show runner, comes to the material from three seasons as a writer on the FX hit “Fargo” and one season as executive producer of the Netflix sci-fi series “Altered Carbon.” For “The Umbrella Academy,” he teased a curatorial aesthetic in the soundtrack and, moreover, in the filmmaking. The show is shot on a large format digital camera called the Alexa 65, which Blackman said is used on only one other TV series, “Altered Carbon.”
“It’s a film camera, but it’s beautiful and cinematic, so it really gives you sort of the almost anamorphic look,” Blackman said. “We’re not quite letterbox, but we have that style.”
For Page, who began acting at age 10, Vanya is the sort of sub-ingénue role she’s played since her Oscar nomination as the pregnant teenager “Juno.” She costarred with Leonardo DiCaprio in the sci-fi suspense film “Inception,” was the mutant Kitty Pryde in two “X-Men” movies, has been in smaller films such as “Tallulah” and will star with Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis later this year in another Netflix series, “Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.”
Her “Umbrella Academy” character, Vanya, a wallflower, is also a proxy for the audience. In the family pecking order, she brings up the rear at Number 7, the ostracized runt of the litter with no ostensible powers — unless you count mastery of the violin — told by her father, over and over, that she’s not special (in one episode, she refers to herself as the fifth Beatle of the Umbrellas).
A forceful voice
Off-screen, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and #MeToo movement, Page, who announced her marriage to partner Emma Portner last year, has been one of the most forceful voices speaking in Hollywood. In a long Facebook post in late 2017, she described homophobic taunts on the set of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” directed by Brett Ratner, and, in the same post, called doing the 2012 Woody Allen film “To Rome with Love” “the biggest regret of my career.” More recently, she called out Chris Pratt’s church on Twitter for being anti-LGBTQ, a claim he forcefully denied.
Then there was her Jan. 31 appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” which was unusually substantive for a late-night pass-through. On Colbert to promote “The Umbrella Academy,” Page spoke forcefully about “environmental racism,” meaning the disproportionate effects of environmental degradation on communities of color, and condemned the anti-LGBTQ views of Vice President Mike Pence, “who wishes I couldn’t be married.” Her voice cracking with emotion, she urged people to “connect the dots” to the alleged Jan. 29 hate crime attack on “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett in Chicago.
“This [expletive] needs to stop,” Page said at the end of the segment, to which Colbert, who mostly stayed quiet during the interview, deadpanned: “I do want to add that the new Netflix series ‘The Umbrella Academy’ is about a family of superheroes.” The segment has surpassed 1.3 million views so far on YouTube.
Back in July, on the Toronto set, it seemed worth asking Page about Scarlett Johansson, who had just pulled out of the movie “Rub & Tug” amid backlash over the cisgender Johansson’s casting as the real-life transgender proprietor of a massage parlor.
“I think it was a shock for people that that was even happening in the first place,” Page said of Johansson playing a trans character. “But she heard what people were sharing, and she listened to it and acknowledged learning and growing from it and really made the right decision.”
The fight is always there. On “The Umbrella Academy,” Vanya’s alter-ego — spoiler alert — is The White Violin, a force of chaos and destruction. In the comic, she’s drawn as a Stradivarius in Spandex. But Page pushed to de-objectify the character, and so her White Violin costume is more Elton John in concert.
“It shouldn’t even be a thing to talk about,” Page said of the fact that she got no pushback from the production or Netflix. Hardly a wallflower, she’d spoken up, “and everyone agreed.”
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