‘The Umbrella Academy’: “It’s a dysfunctional family show – with a body count”

The TV adaptation of Gerard Way’s twisted superhero tale returns this week. With Season 2 seeing a shifting timeline thrown into the mix, its stars and showrunner speak to NME

The cast of The Umbrella Academy recently recorded a promo clip filmed – for reasons you’re tediously aware of – at their individual homes, thousands of miles between them. While a product of necessity rather than inspiration, It’s a fairly apt way of promoting the hit show’s second season, which arrives on Netflix tomorrow (July 31) and sees the Hargreeves clan, each gifted – or is it cursed? – with an extraordinary superhuman ability, exiled in the Dallas, Texas of the early 1960s.

While the scriptwriters manage to keep the show’s internal logic intact, you suspect that throwing a shifting timeline into a hit TV series must be a bit like deciding to script the new season in Latin – it suddenly makes everything much more complicated. “The joke in the writers room is we all have a different theory, so we all argue about time travel all the time,” says Steve Blackman who, as The Umbrella Academy’s showrunner, is responsible for taking the show from script to screen.

“The beautiful thing is [that] no one’s ever time travelled, to my knowledge, so you read the different theories by different astrophysicists and you get ideas of whether or not, you know, you could coexist with yourself in the past. And it’s a lot of fun, but we set rules for our world and we try to keep to those rules.”

“We set rules for our world” – Steve Blackman, showrunner

The time-shift has also allowed Blackman to tell a freer, funnier and more human story than the show’s frantic 2019 debut season. Where that one had to slog through the exposition essentials, season two finds time for more characterisation – and compelling subplots concerning the civil rights movements and the gay experience in the 1960s Deep South. “The first season is ‘meet the family’,” says Blackman. “Season two is getting to know-know them in a real way, so we dig deeper into everyone. We learn more about their good sides, their foibles and neuroses. And how they deal with stress, anxiety and the end of the world…”

Robert Sheehan as Klaus Hargreeves, Emmy Raver-lampman as Allison Hargreeves and Ellen Page as Vanya Hargreeves. Credit: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

For Ellen Page’s character, Vanya, anxiety over the end of the world would be justified – she caused it at the first season’s climax. On paper, the Hargreeves kids’ track record at superhero-ing is about as good as Chris Graylings’ in any given government position. In fact, The Umbrella Academy is about as light on actual hero-ing as a superhero show could be. “When I first read the source material. I didn’t even see the superhero part,” says Blackman. “I liked it, but I saw this is a dysfunctional family show – with a body count. I loved the Wes Anderson quality of dysfunctionality, and the way he does families like The Royal Tenenbaums.”

“When I first read the source material. I didn’t even see the superhero part… I loved the Wes Anderson quality of dysfunctionality” – Blackman

All dysfunctional families need a glorious fuck-up in its ranks, and in The Umbrella Academy it’s Robert Sheehan’s Klaus. Klaus’s power wouldn’t exactly be top of anyone’s list – he’s able to communicate with the dead and reanimate corpses, earning him the nickname The Seance, and – as a by-product – a problem with drink and drugs, the only effective means of blocking out the noise of the deceased. In the ‘60s, we find Klaus has become an unwitting cult leader, whose prophecies are pinched from not-yet-written TLC lyrics (“Don’t go chasing waterfalls – stick to the rivers and the lakes you’re used to”).

“I think Klaus liked the taste of the cult, but the result was working out in like, too much love and adoration,” reflects Robert. “And praise just became stifling. I think some people start cults literally just to cope, you know, to cope with being alive. They build all these structures. Fame, I think is probably cult-esque in a way.”

Sheehan is at home in London, lounging on a couch in a hooded robe sipping coffee and delicately nibbling breakfast items. Completing the scene of the rockstar in repose is a huge pop-art piece by his friend, a Galician street artist called Senor X, on the wall behind him. It’s not hard – even over Zoom – to see there’s plenty of Robert in Klaus, or vice versa. “Well, I’ve invested so much time into the little fucker,” he says.

“People start cults literally just to cope with being alive… Fame is cult-esque” – Robert Sheehan

Going back in time means Klaus faces prejudice for his sexuality, which in turn tests his resolve where drink and drugs are concerned. After the car-crash Klaus of season one, Sheehan was glad to show the character’s layers. “Klaus is, I think, at his most interesting when he’s in a constant sort of tumbling change,” he says. “He’s kind of a chimera.”

Sheehan did wonder if the ugly reality of 1960s life in the Deep South – particularly for Allison Hargreeves, played by multiracial actor Emmy Raver Lampman – might have been too much for modern sensibilities in a light entertainment show. “I was wary at the start that it was too real for our show, but I was completely wrong and Steve [Blackman] was right,” he says. “He made such a brilliant kind of Umbrella Academy problem inside the civil rights conflict, I thought it was brilliantly handled.”

Justin H. Min as Ben Hargreeves, and Robert Sheehan as Klaus Hargreeves in The Umbrella Academy Credit: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

Just as the disparate members of the family form bonds on screen, the cast have found firm real-life friendships via the show. The rakish Sheehan, a County Laois native who seems to have the spirit of the romantic poet running through his veins, has become particularly close to Tom Hopper, the Midlands lad who looks like he’s beefing up for an arm wrestle with Jason Statham. Together, the pair have started a podcast in which they explore a shared passion for better living, better health and better citizenship. “It’s called The Earth Locker, and it’s all about bringing the world’s best experts in health, medicine, the environment, and exposing them to the world. Our tagline is ‘let’s become better Earthlings’.”

“Luther is a small man in a big man’s body. I’ve felt that myself” – Tom Hopper

Tom’s character, Luther, is the muscle of the Hargreeves family, an overgrown strongman whose disciplinarian father exhiled him to the moon, alone, for four years – “Perfect preparation for corona,” laughs Hopper, who on the day we speak is mere miles from the boundary of Leicester’s newly announced local lockdown.

For an actor like Tom who is, to put it impolitely, built like a brick shithouse, being cast as anything but the action hero can be a problem. But in Luther, Hopper gets to play an extreme hero type who is one of the show’s most sensitive characters: he looks like a brute but cries like an emo.

“Luther is very much a small man in a big man’s body,” says Hopper, who finds wearing Luther’s muscles-on-muscles prosthetics is a sobering experience. “I’ve had times where I’ve sort of looked a certain way but inside I feel like I’m not filling that body. I’ve been in that frame of mind where I wanted to be as big as I could possibly be and would do anything to achieve it. It ultimately leads you down a path of unhappiness because the results just aren’t sustainable.”

Tom Hopper, 2020. Credit: Press

Luther’s brute force is, in the world of The Umbrella Academy, one of the more pedestrian powers up for grabs. The Rumour (Emmy Raver Lampman) can control minds by whispering in ears; The Boy (Aidan Gallagher) is a time traveller trapped in his 13-year-old body; Ben (Justin H Min) is, unfortunately for Klaus, dead; and Vanya (Ellen Page) packs powers explosive enough to bring about the apocalypse, which they do in season one.

The delightful weirdness of The Umbrella Academy’s world owes much to My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, who co-created the comics on which the series is based. There’s a clear creative thread between The Umbrella Academy and My Chemical Romance’s ambitious-but-flawed final album ‘Danger Days, The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys’, with its ray-guns, day-glo costumes and Tank Girl-like narrative.

Read more: ‘The Umbrella Academy’ season 2 review: A brilliant new adventure for the weirdest superhero team around

Blackman says it’s best to think of the two – the TV series and comic – as parallel universe versions of the same thing. “We accepted early on that these are two different things, and they can both exist at the same time,” says Blackman. “But if I didn’t have a great collaboration, that would be so much harder, because I would never want to disrespect Gerard and Gabriel [Ba, artist], who created these characters, or the fans who love it. I can’t do everything in the graphic novels and I have to do things that are new, but to have Gerard’s support just means the world.”

This time around, Gerard was kept busy with the long-awaited My Chemical Romance reunion, but still managed to contribute a brand new song, ‘Here Comes The End’, for the already rip-roaring soundtrack. “I think he was ready to go on tour and all kinds of things and I was thrilled for him,” says Blackman. “I’d sorted myself great seats!”

The reunion tour has been temporarily derailed by chaos, just as the efforts of the Hargreeves family often seem to. Which is apt given that Way has said writing The Umbrella Academy, which first went into publication in 2007, was his way of processing his experiences of being in the era-defining emo band with his own siblings and friends.

Showrunner Blackman has been able to bring his own experiences into the mix too – before joining the entertainment industry with The Associates, the Canadian TV show he co-created, he briefly worked as a divorce attorney, meaning squabbling families are very much in his wheelhouse.

“I have that stuff in the back of my brain somewhere, and you know, I wrote Fargo before this, which is also a show about very broken characters who are trying to achieve things. ” he says. “Plus both my parents are psychiatrists – I’m sure I’m messed up from that! Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to dysfunctional family shows.”

Tom Hopper as Luther Hargreeves. Credit: Netflix

Apparently so are Netflix viewers, who made the show one of 2019’s biggest hits. Surely we can expect The Umbrella Academy to return with a third season, virus permitting? “Well, you know, these conversations are always going on,” says Hopper. “We assume that we’re going to until we’re told we’re not – because we like to keep the characters alive in our heads and what could be possible…”

Hopper’s attention is stolen by something happening outside the window. Another apocalyptic event? A long lost Hargreeves sibling? No, a UPS parcel that Tom apologetically says he has to go and get – because even time travellers worry about missing deliveries.

Same question to Robert, then. “We love hanging around in this world and we love working together,” says Sheehan. “You know, Steve has an amazing ability to individually put us all through hell and back in a very unique way.”

The Umbrella Academy season two arrives on Netflix from July 31