It's safe to say that you've never seen anything like Netflix's The Umbrella Academy before. It has everything: dysfunctional superheroes, time-traveling assassins, a Stepford Wife-like robot mother, a 58-year-old psychopath trapped in his teenage body, a talking chimpanzee, an impending apocalypse, and even delightful dance numbers.
Based on My Chemical Romance lead singer Gerard Way's graphic novels, the new Netflix series is like one of his former band's songs come to life — part gothic rock opera, part quirky comedy. And according to the show's stars, the series is essentially throwing out the superhero-show rulebook completely.
"That's Umbrella Academy: bad guys and good guys who just don't follow the structure that we're used to," series star Cameron Britton tells Bustle. He points out that many characters aren't quite what they seem. For example, he says, "the comedic characters suddenly take a complete 180 [and turn out to be] the most serious."
"You'll see the bad guy become a good guy and be sympathetic," he adds. "The good guys have a dirty streak. You'll see an unpredictable story come to life and it's not just one story. You're getting like eight that all loosely intertwine together. It's hard to even describe the show in a few words because there is so much uniqueness to it. It's quirky and edgy at the same time."
Sitting in a dark room at the Palihouse Hotel in Los Angeles with all the shades closed, series stars Tom Hopper and Emmy Raver-Lampman get excited while explaining that the show's unpredictability is half the fun.
"We had that same experience with each script," Hopper says. "We'd get asked something new every day, like, 'Can you sing? Can you dance?'"
"'Have you done karate? Do you drive?' All the most random requests," Raver-Lampman adds with a laugh.
That unpredictability isn't just for fun stunts, though. Raver-Lampman points out that centering the show on a family with deep-seated issues makes for rich storytelling that can go in unexpected directions.
"This family is so dysfunctional, and yet there is so much history there, so you never know how they'll deal with each other and who is going to splinter, who is going to hate who, who is going to mend their relationship with who," Raver-Lampman says. "And the action sequences are unreal, the music is unreal. It definitely lends itself to a whole weekend on the couch binge-watching the whole thing."
The Umbrella Academy is admittedly pretty hard to describe, but the general gist is that seven of 43 infants inexplicably born to random, unconnected women who showed no signs of pregnancy the day before are adopted by eccentric billionaire Sir Reginald Hargreeves. He creates The Umbrella Academy, and trains his "children" with special abilities to save the world. But in their teenage years, the family fractured and the team disbanded. Now, the six surviving 30-something members reunite after Hargreeve’s passing, and they're forced to work together to solve the mystery surrounding their father's death.
According to Hopper, the result is a superhero show for people who might not normally be into that sort of thing. "Superhero shows are so often catered to the comic book world, whereas this is a superhero show which ties in family drama, it ties in comedy," he says. "The superhero element is almost like an afterthought of what it's really about."
Mary J. Blige, who plays a corporate time-traveling sociopath hunting the Umbrella Academy, kicks her feet up on the couch next to Britton, who plays her beleaguered partner Hazel. "With a comic book show, people are going to be expecting something [specific], but these are people with real lives in spite of all the crazy stuff," she says. "You can relate to everyone and their real problems. It's pretty heavy as much as it is light."
"Talk about wacky, we have a talking chimp and a mannequin as a love interest."
And then there's also Pogo, a human-sized sentient chimpanzee who acts as the Umbrella Academy's butler/psuedo-father figure in place of the abusive and cold Hargreeves. "He's a huge part of the show," Hopper says with a laugh. The CGI chimpanzee was brought to life by Ken Hall via motion capture. "Ken did all the scenes, he knew all the lines," Hopper adds. "And he's actually in the show, he makes a cameo later in the season. But for the whole season, Ken was Pogo."
"When they showed us the pilot for the first time, I audibly gasped because I was so used to looking at Ken and acting with Ken, and to see Pogo, I got teary eyed," Raver-Lampman says. "It was so crazy. Ken was with us all the way, standing in the rain, in the snow, in like negative 20-degree weather in these thin tights covered in dots! Poor guy couldn't even wear a jacket. He was such a trooper."
When it comes to his favorite part of the show, Robert Sheehan, who plays the black sheep brother Klaus, doesn't hesitate before shouting, "Kate Walsh plays a callous psycho!" He adds, "The way she dresses, the way she speaks, the way she acts is so cold and fabulous."
Because there's also a lot of time travel, David Castañeda, who plays the aggressive and supernaturally gifted knife thrower Diego, loves how the show can "go to any era and play in alternate timelines." A lot of the time travel comes via Blige's hitwoman Cha-Cha, who she describes as "a woman without a conscience."
"I wish I didn't have a conscience at times like her," she says with a laugh. "She just goes around killing and murdering and saying what she wants to say. She's unapologetic and strategic and empty. I enjoyed playing such an empty person, because I'm so full. I got to kick a lot of ass. People have never seen me in a role like this."
But a lot of the time travel also comes in scenes featuring breakout star Aidan Gallagher, who plays Number Five, one of the Umbrella Academy members who never got a real name and has a rather complicated backstory: "I play a 58-year-old time-traveling assassin who gets stuck in his teenage body and travels back from the future to save the world from an apocalyptic outcome and there are only a few days before it starts and he has no idea how to stop it," Gallagher explains succinctly.
But that's not all: the petulantly egotistic Number Five also has a rather unique love interest named Dolores. "There's a whole romantic relationship between a 14-year-old boy and a mannequin!" Raver-Lampman says.
Yes, in case you thought the show couldn't more weird, Dolores is a mannequin. An actual, plastic mannequin who Hopper claims really "becomes a character."
"It is so brilliantly written, just his side of the conversation, that I feel the love and the heartbreak," Raver-Lampman says. "Talk about wacky, we have a talking chimp and a mannequin as a love interest. It's so bizarre."
"I think Dolores is going to be the favorite," Hopper adds. "People are going to be talking about her."
"I think people are going to go as her for Halloween!" Raver-Lampman says.
Five's love for Dolores is just one of his many "oddball moments," according to Gallagher, who perfectly brings to life his character's sardonic wit and narcissistic exasperation with being the smartest man on Earth trapped in a teenaged body. But what made him this way?
"Five spent 45 years in the apocalypse," Gallagher explains. "He has a genius-level intellect, that ability to time travel, and has now become a little bit insane. He has such a unique kind of trauma. You'll see hints of that as the show goes on."
But Five isn't the only one of the Umbrella Academy whose life is pretty messed up. The series does a great job of telling stories not of how superpowers corrupt but rather how childhood emotional abuse can have many different kinds of consequences in adults.
"All these people suffered through a really traumatic childhood and now they're adults trying to unpack their deep psychological damage," says Ellen Page, who plays Hargreeves' least-favorite "child," the "ordinary" Vanya. "You get this deeply painful moving story. It has comedy and fun, but there is also a deep exploration of pain."
"There's a real sadness to the Academy," Sheehan adds, which he says balances the more "out-there" elements.
All the cast members are confident that if viewers watch just the first episode, they'll be hooked on the whole series. That's why Castañeda gets into his character Diego's personality to "threaten" people to give the first episode a shot. "Just watch one episode or I'll slash your tires," he says, while Hopper and Raver-Lampman laugh next to him. You heard the man!