Robert Sheehan, David Castañeda on playing superheroes in ‘Umbrella Academy’
SINGAPORE—We’d book interviews with Robert Sheehan and David Castañeda every chance we get.
This we decided after we came face to face with both actors at Netflix’s See What’s Next Asia slate event in November last year.
They’re two of the seven lead stars of the hugely entertaining superhero series “The Umbrella Academy,” which begins streaming its 10-episode first season next week (Feb. 15).
The show, adapted from the graphic novels created by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba for Dark Horse Comics, follows members of a dysfunctional family of superheroes who grudgingly come together when their powerful but emotionally distant adoptive father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, dies.
When they aren’t being addressed via the numbers assigned to them, the crime-busting sextet is composed of Luther aka Spaceboy (Tom Hopper), Diego aka The Kraken (David Castañeda), Allison aka The Rumor (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Klaus aka The Séance (Robert Sheehan), The Boy (Aidan Gallagher) and Ben aka The Horror (Ethan Hwang).
There’s a seventh sibling, Vanya aka The White Violin (Ellen Page), but she’s largely ignored and considered “insignificant,” even by her own brothers and sister—because she has yet to manifest any significant power.
This early, however, we urge viewers to patiently follow how Vanya’s character unravels in the show because it’s going to be, well, “bombastic,” to say the least.
Indeed, there’s a lot of fun to be had despite all the doom and gloom that characterize “Umbrella Academy’s” gritty themes and provocative issues.
Meeting Robert and David was nothing like the overly formal chats we’ve had with other Hollywood celebrities.
When we told them how much we enjoyed seeing the estranged siblings separately grooving to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” and suggested utilizing one of Debbie Gibson’s fluffy dance floor scorchers for Season 2, David grinned at us and asked, “Did you want to dance after seeing it?”
After we gamely answered, “Oh, definitely. I’ll go dancing right after this interview,” it was Robert’s turn to winkingly egged us on: “I think you should dance right now.”
“The Umbrella Academy” proficiently juggles its dark tone with the freaky frivolity of its compelling progression—and it’s that off-kilter combination, along with the series’ affable cast, that got us hooked till the last frame of Episode 10.
For his part, David says he wasn’t always as confident about how he was doing in the show. In the beginning, in fact, he thought he was going to get the boot when the show announced a three-week hiatus after the production wrapped up shooting its first episode.
Robert then looked at David and asked, “You thought you were going to get fired? Why?” “Well, I thought they were deciding who to fire. I thought that’s what the three weeks were for,” the latter disclosed, chuckling.
The duo’s unsolicited personal revelations were as fun as the information they were giving us about the series.
At one point during the interview, Robert disclosed that, as a kid, he was convinced that he would go blind upon reaching adulthood. “So, I would practice walking around the house with my eyes closed, just to make sure I knew my way around it,” he recalled.
David likewise had his own disclosure: As a kid, when he wasn’t binging on “Dragon Ball Z,” he would imagine himself as a chicken inside an egg!
“That’s even weirder,” Robert quipped. “No wonder you became an actor.”
In this chat, we’ll let Robert and David do the talking:
How much research was required to play Klaus, who’s perpetually high and drunk?
Robert (R): I needed the old liver to continue working, so I merely did internal research for the role, as opposed to taking a lot of drugs [for maximum believability].
I did a lot of improvising and eventually came up with something useful and meaningful for the character.
It happened in stages. I wanted Klaus to be “bodily” different from me, because it makes your job easier when you feel you’re transforming physically.
To some degree, I feel like a bad magician explaining all my tricks as an actor to you. [Suffice it to say that] the big transformations happened at home—while I was making myself sad and talking to myself a lot.
If you were to play another character from the show, who would it be?
David (D): Our adoptive father Reginald Hargreeves (played by Colm Feore) and Cha-Cha (the time-traveling assassin, played by Mary J. Blige).
R: Reginald … or Hazel (Cha-Cha’s more “compassionate” partner, played by Cameron Britton). That would be fun, because they’re so hilarious and unhinged.
Is the series faithful to the graphic novel?
D: It is faithful to the comic book, but it’ll also have pleasant surprises.
R: The strength of the graphic novel is in its tone. It’ll grab you from the first page, then declares itself like no other comic book you’ve ever read.
The curse of a 10-hour TV show is that there’s a vast amount of storylines [to string together]. But the series also deviates from the source material, because it has to be its own thing.
Was there a lot of improvs involved?
R: They were very good about that. I’ve done a few roles in the past where people got quite worried when I started drifting away from what was written on the script.
Often, they see improvisation as worrisome, because that’s adding time to their day. But, in “The Umbrella Academy,” they didn’t worry too much about that, because Netflix has loads of money (laughs)…
Seriously, they really wanted me to bring loads and loads of chaos to Klaus. An example is when I deliver my improvised line about my dad playing tennis with Hitler.
That said, those improvs were 100 percent within the context of the script. It wasn’t as if we were using them to merely fill in the gaps.
[Series creator] Steve Blackman quickly realized that he had actors who really put in a lot of time and effort to discover their characters.
They weren’t necessarily the characters the writers had originally envisioned, but the actors went “into the desert” and came back with viable characters.
We were encouraged to “go for it”—and I found that very refreshing.
Did they read comic books when they were kids?
D: No, I didn’t. But I watched a lot of animes, especially “Dragon Ball Z,” which was my bible from the time I was 7 till I was 15.
R: I didn’t read a lot of comic books. But I was into Dandy and The Beano, which were like a weekly pulp fiction that featured characters like Desperate Dan, Dennis the Menace and Billy Whizz—pretty simplistic stuff but very entertaining.
I used to pillage my dad’s collection. As a kid, I didn’t drift into the comic world too much because I preferred to read fantasies novels and science fiction.
If you could have one power, what would it be?
D: This may sound corny, but I’ll go with [the power to bring] world peace.
R: That’s boring. I’d like to have disco ball feet!
For Robert, isn’t Klaus too similar to Nathan Young, your loopy superhero character in the British series, “Misfits”?
R: I think there’s a mischievous energy that we all can access inside ourselves. Nathan and Klaus come from a similar energy. I was tasked with being utterly chaotic and messy, and it’s fun.
These portrayals required no drugs, really—it just looks that way when you’re in that state of mind.
There are a lot of similarities between the two, but as the shows continue to unravel, Nathan and Klaus take divergent paths, so their challenges become very different.
Klaus goes to these very dark, extreme places in terms of emotions and his drug addiction. He undergoes a profound transformation that presents a new challenge every day.
With Nathan, there’s safety in his chaos because no matter what the situation is, he’s always sure of himself, even though he’s a complete moron.
And I’m just realizing this difference while I’m speaking to you (laughs).
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