“What kind of bird is that?” I ask Umbrella Academy star Robert Sheehan.
“This is a sulphur-crested cockatoo,” he replies. “She’s been with me for years now.”
“Oh, cool,” I offer. “She seems very well behaved.”
“She eats sulphur-encrusted mealworms,” he adds.
“It sounds like you want to eat her like it’s a herb-crusted salmon, or something like that,” laughs his co-star, Tom Hopper.
Playful banter around a tropical bird usually doesn’t provide useful content during a junket. That’s not the case here.
Spoiling the Fun
The Zoom event carried a stern solemnity for a show that, refreshingly, doesn’t take itself too seriously. An American publicist loomed over the proceedings like a dystopian panopticon, monitoring attendees and punctuating waiting room malaise with reminders of “no spoilers!” This is, of course, after Netflix sent a sizable list of plot points and characters that journalists couldn’t broach. While the “no spoilers” schtick has hit its zenith amid COVID coverage, the Umbrella Academy blitz was unlike anything I’d seen. Even upon sending us the footage from the junket, the brass reminded us again to avoid spoiling things for fans, which, admittedly, left me feeling like a jerk for attending.
However, the idea that wet-blanket critics get off by spoiling the fun for fans is as silly as it is insulting. Any effort to reveal twists in Umbrella Academy’s playfully convoluted plot requires Tolstoy-like literary dexterity and a word count comparable to Anna Karenina. Critics have zero interest in ruining the fun for fans because we’re fans too. (And we’re professional enough to talk about something knowing we have to write about it diligently.) Everyone was uneasy knowing that Captain No-Spoilers in Mission Control was ready to hit the red button and send heat-seeking missiles in our direction if we gave any indication that we’d even watched the show. One can only thank the sulphur-crested cockatoo for flipping the bird to spoilers and giving us something to discuss.
The whole spoiler thing ironically spoiled the proceedings since even the actors were jumpy about what they could and couldn’t discuss. For example, I asked Aiden Gallagher, who plays Number Five, about something not particularly revelatory about his character. He totally freaked out, asking when the story would be published and why I was inquiring. I replied that the plot point wasn’t on the rap sheet supplied by Netflix, but the exchange became a flustered mess. I said we could just try a different question and pivoted to his co-star Rintu Thomas, but then Gallagher seemed to be on a roll and riffed some random answers. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo from Netflix that listed “no games” among les règles du jeu. The whole thing left me feeling like Dakota Johnson in a sit-down with Ellen, but thankfully, it was only five minutes.
No-show Elliot Page, meanwhile, blew a huge hole in everybody’s stories. His absence left attendees in the awkward position of expecting his cisgender co-stars to speak about Viktor’s transition on the show or avoiding the topic. I opted for the latter, since asking actors about their character in relation to Viktor coming out was the fourth bullet point in Netflix’s no-fly list. That’s unfortunate because it should be a point of praise in any article about the season.
Fortunately, they did wrangle showrunner Steve Blackman to address the matter. He explained that the season was written before Page came out to the team and said they could do what was best for the show with his transition. Blackman adds that there was no question about revising the show and reached out to GLAAD where Nick Adams offered guidance on how to incorporate the transition properly. “He put me in touch with a trans writer named Thomas Page McBee, and Thomas and I worked with Elliot to tell an authentic story, a sensitive story and a pro-trans story in a world where there’s a lot of anti-trans stories,” observes Blackman. “The other thing we tried to do from a story point of view was to not make it the story of the season. It was a bit of a delicate dance, but it was very collaborative.”
Fun with Ben, Allison, and Diego
Viktor isn’t the only character who appears in a different light this season. Ben, played by Justin H. Min, enjoys a beefed up part as a member of the Umbrella Academy’s rivals, the Sparrow Academy. It’s a notable boost from the actor who turned heads in this year’s indie darling After Yang, but the actor says that playing a human with Ben’s superhuman powers is very different from investing human emotions in a cyborg, as he did for Yang. “I would say this version of Ben in season three has been the most difficult because it’s the most removed from who I consider myself to be,” says Min, “I don’t consider myself a robot, but I think I shared some similar qualities to Yang. It was emotionally and physically taxing to be in the headspace of this character for eight months. He was just a mean person.”
“He was so method!” interjects co-star David Castañeda, who plays Diego.
Min, Castañeda, and their Zoom partner Emmy Raver-Lampman, who plays Allison, have an easygoing rapport like Sheehan and Hopper that reflects the dynamic on the show. Despite playing a family on screen and becoming a surrogate family during shoots, the actors insist that there’s no sibling rivalry behind the scenes.
“That kind of dynamic doesn’t exist on this show, and I think that’s something that we are all really proud of,” observes Raver-Lampman. “We know that this is an ensemble show and we are all in the mud together and in the sun together. No one’s ever fighting for more lines or a better storyline.”
“Even from a character standpoint, you never want to overstay your welcome,” adds Castañeda. “We have enough to keep the audience wanting more of your storyline and then someone else comes in with their storyline and it keeps a refreshing pace,” says Castañeda.
While the dramatic turn of the season premiere’s introduction, upon which we can’t elaborate, might signal a decidedly darker tone, the actors say that making season three of Umbrella Academy was as fun as ever. “I had a hell of a time getting to play this version of Allison,” notes Raver-Lampman. “In seasons past, she’s so well put together and she’s really good at putting up a façade and keeping people at a distance. It was so fun to play this really angry and emotionally distraught version of her due to the trauma of being thrown into the ’60s as a woman of colour.”
This season’s intimate scope, which brings the drama inside the hotel in part due to practical considerations of COVID production, gives the actors more room to explore their characters amid focused storylines. As the relationships develop, Umbrella Academy juggles gloom and gaiety as new interactions shift the dynamic.
“When you said dark, I was like, ‘That’s where Allison was,’” admits Castañeda. “I was changing diapers. [We can’t say why.] That’s what I was doing.”
Another family dynamic injects the stories of the Hargreeves siblings as undisclosed members explore family trees. One branch that Klaus follows leads to an encounter with his mother, who is played by Tom Hopper’s wife, Laura. Hopper says it was fun to keep the drama all in the family.
“Laura obviously had to read for the part and when she sent her tape in for the role, Rob very kindly came over and read with her,” explains Hopper. “So the dynamic was already there. It was beautiful to see this weird sort of mother-son relationship, even though they’re the same age.” Hopper says that he wasn’t on location the day they shot the scene, and missed a hidden gem of the Toronto shoots as a result.
The scene takes place on the shores of the Scarborough Bluffs where the white cliffs and blue waters contrast sharply with the gothic interiors of the show’s iconic hotel. “I’d never been there before, shamefully,” laughs Sheehan. “I’ve been in Toronto for two seasons before that and the bits in between, but I’d never gone over the Scarborough Bluffs. I must say it’s partly Torontonian’s fault. People talk it down, but it’s beautiful—stunning.” Sheehan adds that the Bluffs shoot provided a reprieve from the claustrophobia of shooting during the peak of COVID. “The crew was buzzing that they all got outside.”
Blackman, who grew up in Canada and went to school in Toronto, adds that the city’s character provides a natural dynamic to The Umbrella Academy. “The hard part is they’re starting to take down those old buildings that we all loved when we grew up,” observes Blackman. “So we’re going to Hamilton more and Pickering more, but they’re great to shoot in. Hamilton’s become a really busy place to shoot because you get some of the buildings that have a beautiful style and architecture that is being replaced by glass and steel in Toronto. But the crews are great. They’re hardworking crews.”
Some things, it seems, just can’t be spoiled. Although I never did ask the cockatoo what she likes best about Toronto.
Season three of The Umbrella Academy is now on Netflix.