When you’re a teenager, it’s pretty normal to be called lazy, or moody, or even selfish. In some cases the stereotype might even be true. What’s less normal though, is repeatedly being likened to a pigtailed psychopath who sets man-eating fish on her classmates.
“I’ve been compared to Wednesday Addams my entire life,” Jenna Ortega tells NME via Zoom, ringing alarm bells within the first minute of our interview. She’s explaining why, when cast as the titular enfant terrible in Wednesday, Netflix‘s new adaptation of Charles Addams’ darkly funny family classic, she didn’t find it hard to relate to her character – an antisocial goth with criminal tendencies who keeps a disembodied hand as a pet.
“I’ve been compared to Wednesday Addams my entire life”
– Jenna Ortega
“I was a pretty weird child,” she deadpans, “so I think that [didn’t help]. And I’m naturally very dry and sarcastic.”
Ortega is, of course, much friendlier than her on-screen counterpart – but she’s right to say they’re well-matched. Stuffed with sardonic one-liners, Wednesday lets Ortega display all of her barbed wit during its eight episodes. Set a little later in the Addams Family timeline than we’ve seen before, the spinoff series follows 16-year-old Wednesday after she’s packed off to a Hogwarts-like academy in the mountains because she maimed half the water polo team at her old school. There are more appropriate ways to punish the jocks bullying your brother, the headmaster informs her, than 50 lengths with a shoal of piranhas.
Wednesday’s new school isn’t like her old school though. The Nevermore pupils live in a medieval castle, and they’re all magical – from sirens and gorgons to werewolves and vampires. On days off, they visit the nearby ‘Normie’ town where they’re feared and hated by regular humans. At first, Wednesday treats everyone with equal disdain, but what’s that? A mysterious monster is eating kids in the woods and no one’s arsed enough to investigate? Here’s Ortega – and some of her co-stars – to tell us more…
This isn’t the Wednesday Addams you know
Got a soft spot for Lisa Loring’s original sitcom sweetheart? What about Christina Ricci’s dour-faced ‘90s reinvention? Well, forget them entirely. Ortega takes the best bits from her predecessors – the classic look of Loring; that expressionless, painted mask from Ricci – and mixes it all up into a thoroughly modern, Gen Z profile that’s perfect for the show’s high school drama aesthetic.
“It’s not often that you get the opportunity to play such an iconic character,” says Ortega, grinning. “There were challenges along the way, but we wanted to make this an interesting new version [of Wednesday].
“It was also really wonderful to make her Hispanic. I think that was a really cool decision on Netflix’s part and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to [give something back to] young girls that look like me because it was definitely harder growing up [without so many on-screen role models].”
She has friends…
In the past, Wednesday has flown exclusively solo. Even as part of a family unit, the mysterious and spooky style icon preferred to do her own thing – sneaking off to stage ambitious science experiments or setting playful traps for her blockhead younger brother, Pugsley. But this time, she needs a sidekick.
“I play a werewolf from California called Enid Sinclair,” says Emma Myers, Ortega’s smiley co-star. “She gets bunked with Wednesday at Nevermore and is the exact polar opposite of her. But it kind of works out because opposites attract and she is very into gossip so becomes Wednesday’s informant on the rest of the school.”
Striking up a friendship (of sorts), the detective duo work together to track down a murderous monster in their midst – and uncover secrets about Nevermore’s dark and secretive past. Unfortunately, some of the other students don’t take to Wednesday’s haughty demeanour. They try and disrupt her plans.
“My character, Xavier, is the son of a famous psychic called Vincent Thorpe,” says Percy Hynes White, introducing perhaps the show’s slipperiest customer. “He and his dad aren’t really close but they’re a very rich family and he gets everything that he wants. He’s very moody and kind of a suspicious character.”
Xavier also has an on-again-off-again girlfriend who becomes Wednesday’s fiercest frenemy. “Bianca Barclay is a siren, which means she has the ability to [magically] persuade people with her words,” explains Joy Sunday. “She is very charming and also very competitive. She takes things very seriously. But that’s also because she has a lot to hide. She’s quite like Wednesday in that they both put up walls but there is softness underneath.”
There’s even a love interest!
If you thought Wednesday having friends was weird, wait until you meet Tyler Galpin. Tall and floppy-haired, this part-time barista is dreamy in all the right places. He spends most of the series failing to convince Wednesday to go on a date with him – but will her frostiness last?
“I don’t go to Nevermore like the others. I’m a ‘normie’,” says actor Hunter Doohan, “I think Wednesday and Tyler bond because they’re both trying to get out of town. He becomes an unlikely ally for her.”
It’s set in a sinister castle
And if all this wasn’t Harry Potter enough already, Wednesday’s new adventures unfold inside a creepy, old palace in the hills. There are winding, stone staircases, dreary dungeons and… children’s play equipment?
“There were these really cool swings on the outside of the castle that a lot of us went to play on between [takes],” remembers Myers, getting excited at the thought. “It was shot at a place called Cantacuzino in Romania. I definitely tried to sneak off several times to snoop around but unfortunately I didn’t get very far…”
Ortega battled through COVID for a key scene
Every teen drama worth watching needs a killer school disco episode – and Wednesday’s doesn’t disappoint. Decked out like a doomy snow globe with bright-white furniture, a smoke-filled dancefloor and hundreds of candles, the Rave’N Dance plays host to Ortega’s most memorable moment: a quirky, jerky jive session featuring some of the coolest on-screen moves since Jack Rabbit Slim’s Twist contest in Pulp Fiction.
“I choreographed that myself!” Ortega tells us later. “I’m not a dancer and I’m sure that’s obvious. I’d gotten the song [The Cramps’ 1981 single ‘Goo Goo Muck’] about a week before and I just pulled from whatever I could… it’s crazy because it was my first day with COVID so it was awful to film.”
“Yeah, I woke up and – it’s weird, I never get sick and when I do it’s not very bad – I had the body aches. I felt like I’d been hit by a car and that a little goblin had been let loose in my throat and was scratching the walls of my esophagus. They were giving me medicine between takes because we were waiting on the positive result.”
MGM, the production company behind Wednesday, confirmed to NME via email that “strict COVID protocols were followed and once the positive test was confirmed production removed Jenna from set.”
“I asked to redo it but we didn’t have time,” she adds. “I think I probably could have done it a bit better…”
Wednesday was inspired by a goth queen
An iconic teenager needs iconic influences, and you don’t get more iconic than ‘70s rocker Siouxsie Sioux. “I watched a lot of the Banshees’ ‘Happy House’ video,” Ortega reveals. “I feel kinda bad because I ripped off a couple of her moves. There’s a bit in Wednesday’s [Rave’N] dance where I’m jumping to the left and I have my arms to the side and that’s something that [Siouxsie] did on stage later in her career.
“There’s also a move that she does for a really long time while singing at the mic stand [Ortega mimes a hand movement] and I did that as filler while I was waiting for the camera to move. I had to improvise a lot.”
Tim Burton directs some episodes
Over the years, Burtonesque has become shorthand for grim and twisted, so it would have been weirder if the Beetlejuice filmmaker hadn’t got involved with Wednesday. Serving as executive producer (alongside creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar) as well as director on four episodes, Tim Burton’s blood-stained fingerprints can be seen all over – from the show’s moody aesthetic to its not-for-kids gory fight sequences. We asked Gwendoline Christie, who plays Nevermore’s imposing headmistress, what it was like working with him.
“You would be in the scene and you would hear this chuckle coming from the [side],” she remembers, “then you would know the next words would be ‘cut’ and ‘ok it worked’.”
She continues: “Tim really encourages you to be yourself, who you really are as an actor. He wants you to push it as far as you can… He can give you very detailed notes and he can also just let you fly. I’ve left the experience truly feeling liberated.”
That disembodied hand isn’t CGI
When you hear the words Addams and Family, what pops into your head? Most likely, it’s Vic Mizzy’s earworm theme tune. Well, the Netflix marketing bods know that too, which is why they used the track’s distinctive finger-clicks as a central part of the first teaser video, released earlier this summer. In it, Wednesday steps out of the darkness accompanied by Thing – her pet disembodied hand who serves as a faithful sidekick throughout the show. The clip is simple, effective and got us all excited – but bringing Wednesday’s meat hook mate to screen wasn’t quite as easy…
“It’s so crazy, Thing is an actor wearing a full [blue] body suit except for the hand,” says Fred Armisen, who plays hairless Uncle Fester in the series. “It’s not green-screen, it’s blue-screen where they shoot the empty set and then shoot it again with the actors.”
“A lot of the set was designed specifically for him,” adds Ortega. “We would call the props ‘wild desk’ or ‘wild bed’, and they would be mattresses with man-shaped holes so that he could lay down [and hide his body from the camera], or desks that would have draws removed or holes in the side.”
The finale is BIG
NME has only seen seven of Wednesday’s eight episodes – the finale is still under wraps – so we’re as excited as you are for the show’s full release later this month. Luckily, Ortega is able to give us an extra tease.
“I remember it being very big,” she says cryptically. “I remember there being a lot of night shoots. And I remember there being a lot of fire…”
Season two is still up in the air
If you can’t get enough of Wednesday’s sassy putdowns and monochrome fashion sense, then make sure to show your appreciation online. Season one might be in the can, but that’s no guarantee of a second.
“I have no idea if we’ll come back,” says Ortega. “It could continue but it could also end. I think that’s what’s kind of nice about the show – we have the option.”
‘Wednesday’ premieres November 23 on Netflix