David Castañeda, Robert Sheehan, and Cameron Britton, were pretty relaxed when we sat down to chat about their new series, Umbrella Academy. The trio of actors were lounging around a hotel room barefoot when I met them last week, but they had a lot to say about the series, filming in Toronto, and their co-stars.
Umbrella Academy follows a group of gifted would-be heroes, all born on the same day in 1989 to women around the world who hadn’t shown any signs of being pregnant moments before.
Seven of the 43 babies are adopted by a billionaire, Sir Reginald Hargreeves (played by great Canadian actor Colm Feore), who raises them to find out about their abilities, and train them to be heroes.
The series starts when Hargreeves dies, and the group of would-be heroes come together again to say goodbye, but it’s not a happy reunion. There’s turmoil between the adopted siblings, and Hargreeves did them no favours by raising them to be heroes, rather than as a family.
David Castañeda plays Diego, the knife-wielding do-gooder with a bad attitude; Robert Sheehan is Klaus, a drug-addicted flamboyant mess who can speak to the dead; and Cameron Britton is Hazel, a time-travelling agent trying to keep the timelines from being messed up.
Read the full interview below to find out what the series was like to make, the actors’ thoughts on their characters, and some of their favourite people that they worked with, including Mary J. Blige.
The first season of Umbrella Academy is out now on Netflix.
Andrew Powell: For you guys, how do you picture the characters when you go out to start playing them? What was the part of them that got you into the character?
David Castañeda: It’s hard to picture one because then you start pre-assuming things about a person. So it’s interesting because even Cameron would mention that Steve wouldn’t allow us to see scenes or cut product and stuff. Because it is true, it’s a weird kind of world so it is hard to picture. I didn’t really believe myself until I actually saw the pilot and I saw the score and everything added where I was like, “Oh shit! It does sell.” But the image of something was really hard to pinpoint, especially starting at the beginning.
Robert Sheehan: I suppose it’s hard to take out the old bag of tricks and go, “This is what I did,” because it always sounds rubbish. But if you just are clear of what the character is after, what they want, make sure to listen to the other act, you know what I mean? It’s not rocket science, as they say. It boils down to people talking in a room most of the time. So you just have to tackle it moment by moment and make sure none of the moments are sticky. And in fact, that was one thing that this show …
I did a play about three or four years ago and I decided at the beginning that there were going to be absolutely no moments in that play that I didn’t enjoy. Because you talk to actors, and they’re like, “This bit’s a bit tough, it’s awkward, and I’m just going to get through it.” But what was interesting about that run is by the end of the run, they had a profound hatred for those moments in the play that they had just let be, that were rehearsed and staged, and that’s what they were now. They just had to get through them. The hatred for that just grew and grew and grew for those moments.
So in Umbrella Academy, I never ever wanted to feel sticky about any moment at all and that meant just bringing a madness to it, or bringing something to it, or completely changing it, saying it under your breath, burping, farting, whatever. Whatever just to create something interesting. So that was …
Castañeda: I mean, sort of, I guess unwittingly, I always seem to end up taking a character and making it as challenging for myself as possible. I find something that’s hard to make interesting, and see where it can go. With this one, how do you make morose something you want to watch? Just kind of going through the motions, sort of depressed dude, how does that … What is interesting about it? A little nervous at first, for a while, but we trust everyone and what they’re saying is working. And there’s so much going on in this show. If you’re somewhat interested one scene, the next scene is coming in about two minutes. It’s going to be an entirely different character with entirely different energy. That was sort of the madness of making it. Somehow it works. Somehow it pieces together and feels cohesive, even though it’s incredibly varied.
Powell: And that was apparent. I spoke to him about it, just the fact of trying to build that out of such variety of storylines, and plots, and everything else. You bring up something interesting: what do you guys see that the characters want?
Sheehan: Drugs! That’s the great thing about a drug addict. What they want: very simple.
Powell: But is that what he needs, I guess, would be the other side of that question? What do you think he wants, and what do you think he actually needs?
Sheehan: I feel like I’m at a shrink’s office. Is that what he needs, Robert? Is it, though?
Well he clearly doesn’t need loads of drugs. I suppose with Klaus, when we first meet him, the interesting thing is his very, very skilled methods about going about acquiring drugs. So you see he’s got charm in his toolbox, he’s got manipulation, he’s got ferocity, you know “Venus the Klaus” can come out if needs be. So he’s sort of textbook drug addict who’ll do anything and everything to get drugs and to manipulate, subjugate people’s wills.
So that laid the form, I suppose, of playing the character.
Castañeda: In a lot of ways, Hazel’s one of those folks who lives in a very small town and never leaves it and complains that their life has nothing going for it.
Sheehan: He’s not far wrong, as you say.
Castañeda: Yeah, and what he needs is just that simple thing to know to follow your wants. And know to want something. Wake up, basically and just needs to wake up. It’s very common. Somebody was traveling through time and he finds this boring. It’s a pretty closed mind. It’s kinda weird to play an unimaginative person.
Powell: As an actor especially, yeah that’s like approaching it the exact opposite.
Castañeda: It’s hard for me to not have an imagination. So yeah, I’d say he needs to wake up.
Sheehan: You know the Aboriginal culture, they believe they have three brains, we all have three brains: head, heart, and stomach. And their diagnosis of the Western world, and I tend to agree, is that we’re just living life with the wrong brain, with the rational brain. Everything is rational, everything is A to B, everything is functional. That’s a way to essentially lead to massive depression and unhappiness, if you don’t listen to the heart brain. The heart makes decisions that the brain overrides. And if you were to ask old Swami Osho he would say, “This is the servant, and this is the master,” but somehow the servant has become the master, and the other way around and things are all topsy turvy. But I kind of feel like Hazel is a perfect case-in-point to that. He’s been put in this very, you have to keep your job, you have to do this, you have to kill this person, and move on to the next job, and that’s the modus operandi. Really his heart and body are telling him two very different things.
Castañeda: Well, obviously, he wants to, I’m speaking from a subconscious level, what he wants is he wants to feel valued. From the moment he was adopted, he wasn’t even … there was a price put on him. There was a price, he was sold, and also he was put second in command, which he obviously thought he could be better and …
Cameron Britton: A lot easier to be number three than number two.
Castañeda: Yeah, because obviously you know your place. Number two, you feel like you’re close enough to get there, and the dad never gave him the recognition that he thought he deserves, so I think he wanted to find value in to all these things. And for a need standpoint, I think he needs to understand what real, unconditional love is. And that’s why he has such an attachment toward Grace, for example, who, as weird as he is, that was the only way of affection he was able to find. And, having seven siblings, six siblings who are all dealing with their own issues. He can’t get out of his own way to see that not everyone is meant to be a vigilante. Not everyone is meant to do what he does, only because he has his own demons. I don’t know how … I don’t know if I can go deep in to that, but that’s close.
Powell: So then why did he keep doing the hero stuff?
Castañeda: Well, because he didn’t know anything else. He doesn’t know what else to do. When you’re raised a certain way, it becomes this thing … What did you call it?
Sheehan: Oh yeah. Hedonistic selflessness.
Castañeda: Hedonistic selflessness, which is like, he was just doing it, not so much to help people, but because he got satisfaction out of it. And, when you’re doing things out of that mindset, it can be of a slippery slope. And to overextending yourself, and not really fixing what’s going on inside.
Powell: So, for all of you guys, shooting in Toronto, what was it like? Did you see the city much? Did Toronto play a part in what the show is?
Britton: Yeah, of course. Yeah.
Sheehan: We did a lot of location shooting. A lot.
Powell: Yeah, I saw a few shots I recognized. Obviously Queen West.
Sheehan: Yeah, Griddy’s Doughnuts, of course. Is Griddy’s Doughnuts still there?
Britton: What would projects do without abandoned buildings? Shot in so many abandoned hotel rooms.
Sheehan: There’s that weird ex-soap factory. Did you guys shoot in that?
It’s an ex-soap factory where we shot the rave, there’s a big rave that takes place, myself and Tom “Hops” [Tom Hopper] are involved in that and another character who shall remain unmentioned.
But, yes, it’s an ex-soap factory, so all the crew are walking around with bloody gas masks and shit on. And you’re going, “Should I be breathing this air for hours on end?”, and panting, and running around, crawling along the floor. Kicking up all sorts of soap dust. So yeah, we saw many dark and shadowy corners of Toronto. We had a ball here. I was even over in Parkdale. I’m telling ya, when you’re surrounded by that many charming crack addicts at all times, it’s quite surreal.
Britton: It’s a lot of inspiration coming in to … going to the set.
Sheehan: Yeah, exactly, yeah! It was, it was kind of, poetically, the perfect area to live in to play Klaus, actually. Living in Parkdale. Because it’s where all your lunatics are.
Britton: It’s like Jesse Pinkman, from Breaking Bad, he said that his first year, he was in Albuquerque, spending it in the alleys at one in the morning, trying to get in character…
Britton: Yeah, and he was like, “You know what, man? Never again.” He’s like, “That was a little overbearing”, he said.
Castañeda: But it played.
Britton: Yeah, it played great.
[There was a little break here where the three guys had an interesting chat about the upcoming Breaking Bad movie.]
Britton: Yeah, fucking cold. Very cold. One of my scenes was outside Griddy’s at three in the morning. You don’t even have any dialogue, it’s this long tracking shot following him and Ashley. And it would take a lot of time to set back up, and they’d put these big coats on us between the takes. But by the time the take was over, the coat was actually colder than the air when it would go back on you. And then, some genius thought, “Why don’t we give Hazel some ice cream to lick during it?”
Truly the coldest I could hope for during acting.
Powell: Well, I hope if you come back this year, you get summer scenes, maybe?
Sheehan: No, because the thing was, the first series is all set over eight days. And we shot from deep, dark Toronto, deep space winter in to lovely, “look, it’s Spring, everything’s gushing forth”, and vegetables in abundance. There’s only two seasons here. There’s this intense, uninhabitable winter and then lovely, gorgeous Toronto where everything’s sunny and people are frolicking in the park, smoking weed and growing veg and stuff. I loved it, absolutely loved it.
Powell: Well, I hope we get to shoot in summer for a second season. So there’s a lot of cast here, did you guys have any favorite people to work with, or favorite scenes? Something you’d like to mention?
Sheehan: Well, I suppose honorable mention, I went out and spent a couple of nights in Colm Feore’s place in Stratford, which was lovely. Colm was just the best. He’s one of those dudes, we were in Los Angeles until yesterday. The day before, I was all set to go to the gym, and I sat on the rooftop of the hotel, trying to get the last bit of cloud. And I texted Colm, going, “If you’re around, come pop up to the roof, say hello.” And then didn’t go to the gym, me and Colm drank a bottle of Prosecco. We were there four hours later, still chatting. So I love Colm.
Britton: I wouldn’t have gotten through this shit without Mary [J. Blige], man. It was five months of mostly scene work with her. So if we had not gotten along, I wouldn’t be a fun interview. I’d have to fake my way through it. But I hoped we got along fine, and I certainly didn’t expect us to be as close as we are. We come from very different lives and one day she just stops being Mary J. Blige and she’s just Mary. And she helps do that. She demystifies herself. She’s just a big kid. I don’t think that comes across in any personas or anything. I’d love to see her perform.
Sheehan: She laughs more than anyone.
Britton: Best sense of humor on earth, man, yeah.
Sheehan: Yeah, she’s always chortling away.
Britton: Yeah, cracking up. She’s 48, but I’m pretty sure she’s just two 24-year-olds in one body. We danced in the car on the way to the club, we dance in the club, and we’re dancing on the way back. She just wants to have a good time.
Powell: That’s fantastic.
Britton: It makes shooting in a place she’s never been a lot friendlier. And it makes those long set days a lot more fun.
Sheehan: Yeah, everybody came to this job with the best will in the world. And really all took care of each other when we weren’t filming and stuff.
Britton: I keep waiting to meet all these dicks I hear in the industry.
Sheehan: Yeah, I know, yeah.
Britton: I haven’t met one yet.
Sheehan: But we’re in Canada, you see, where it’s illegal to be not nice.
Castañeda: Maybe Hopper. [Laughs]
Yeah, I had a great time shooting with everyone. It was kind of this thing where on Sundays, sometimes I’d go up and have a coffee with Tom for hours or I’d pop up with Robert and we’d go to Montreal or go get some sushi. Cameron never replied to my text messages, he was very method.
Britton: I never got them.
Castañeda: He’s very method. He’d send me a photo of him in a bloody mask. Say, “Hey, thinking about you.”
Powell: Did you keep any masks, Cameron?
Britton: The masks! Couldn’t wait to get rid of those. They’re gone by episode four. We’re secretly high-fiving each other. It’s hard as hell to see in them, fight in them, talk in them, hear in them. Couldn’t breathe. We built fans in them, still couldn’t breathe. Pop the eyes out, then CGI the eyes back in.
Powell: Are you serious?
Britton: Yeah. The poor stuntmen were trying to fight in them. I wasn’t even allowed to fight. I was on another project, so Tony wouldn’t let me. So those fights are mostly the stuntman John. He was having to do suplexes in a giant mask and finding a way to make it fit without wobbling. It was rough. Most of my beard was made of yak hair, so every time I’d pull it off it’d all come flipping out. Little things that audiences don’t know or care about.
Sheehan: Yeah, yeah, that take up all of your day. They shoot touch-ups and repetition.
Britton: Three minutes of actual shooting as an actor and the rest is just gluing yak hair to your face.
Sheehan: Yeah. Yes indeed.
Powell: Well, thank you very much.