What happens when gifted children — superhero children, in fact — grow up?
That’s the question asked by The Umbrella Academy, a new Netflix original show based on a series of comic books written by punk frontman Gerard Way, formerly of the band My Chemical Romance. It follows a group of special orphans who were adopted and turned into crime-fighters by an eccentric and cold old man. Their superpowers range from time-travel to superstrength and even the power of persuasion.
The show is different from the average superhero endeavor because it concentrates on siblings, their relationships and how children change as they get older. It’s darkly absurd, fast and engrossing — definitely a new candidate for your next Netflix binge.
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We talked with Robert Sheehan, who plays sibling Klaus, a drug-addled jokester who can talk to the dead.
What made you want to take this role?
Robert Sheehan: [Showrunner] Steve Blackman said that he would give me a soapy massage twice a day for six months. I thought, you know what I have been feeling quite tense lately.... No, I was a little bit cagey and pressured at first, because it’s this absurd thing when you’re an actor and they come to you with a TV show. They come to you with one episode of a script, one. On the basis of that, you then have to make a decision that could affect the next five years of your life. It’s completely bonkers.
I’ll let you know that the first episode was being rewritten, as well, when I read it. So, I was kind of like, “I don’t know, really.” … But then I had a chat with the charming and the devilishly handsome Steve Blackman on Skype about where the show goes and what happens to Klaus and the sort of very transformative journey that he goes on, and it all sounded completely bonkers and interesting and original, and I said, “What the @#$%, let’s do it.”
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You’re well-known in the U.K. for playing Nathan in the TV show Misfits. Why do you like playing such a dark comic-relief sort of character?
I had a little bit of reservation over Klaus being on the paper maybe slightly too like Nathan from Misfits. I didn't wanna go too close to that territory again.
But I think in a lot of multitheistic religions, you get these gods that are tricksters, and all gods to some degree, as you see in polytheistic religions, are extensions of ourselves. Not all gods are completely altruistic.
I like that it is an extension of ourselves, and once you tap into that idiot energy, it can be a very, very, very deep well of resource in terms of creativity. Nathan comes from that well, and Klaus comes from that well, but Klaus is all very well messed up. He's weaker than Nathan, I think.
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Of all of the abilities on the show, which one would you most like to have in real life?
Probably the one that [my character has], because if it was me, I wouldn’t have had the terrible traumatic childhood that turned it into a disability and psychological disorder. It would be nice to talk to the dead and get a sense of what comes next.
I don't know about you, but I go through sort of an emotional rollercoaster, definitely on a weekly basis. From joy to utter despair about where we are in the universe; how we're completely, utterly alone as far as we know in infinite space and we don't know what happens to us, if anything. I think that it would be very helpful to find out from the dear departed.
The setting of the show is vague; no specific city is ever mentioned. Where did you film the series?
We shot at multiple studios and lots of locations in Toronto. Toronto looks a lot like New York. They wanted to have that element of these kids being raised affluent in New York City. … One of the things they did with the design, when you see the city skyline on the show, it’s taken buildings from all over the world and digitally cobbled them together. The show exists in a parallel dimension, I suppose, aesthetically in order to be timeless.
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The show is completely crazy! Is there a moment that sticks out in filming where you were like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe we just did that”?
One day we’re out in the countryside, in this farmland about an hour’s drive south of Toronto, and at this very eerie, strange crossroads is this charming little bakery that has been there for a long time but is in the middle of nowhere, not near to anything. It’s like a beautiful little log cabin, and we were shooting on the road, just vast stretches of flatness all around.
We were doing a stunt with a car, and we all stood there watching the stunt because we were going to crash something into something — “Let’s all go watch.” And the car managed to not stop at the ditch where it was supposed to, and it managed to hop up the other side and crash into the side of the bakery where there were three ladies in there baking cakes.
All their baking stuff and utensils came down off the wall, shook the whole cabin, and they came running out like the place was on fire. It was really, really, really hard to hold our laughter, and when I say we tried, I really did try my hardest, to be honest.
Plus, Isaiah Mustafa (Luke) and Alisha Wainwright (Maia) get in on the fun!
The Umbrella Academy, Series Premiere, Friday, February 15, Netflix