Ever since it was a comic, The Umbrella Academy has been imbued with music at its heart — music as a way of feeling special, music as a harbinger of the apocalypse. After all, the series was co-created by Gerard Way, the former frontman of My Chemical Romance. But The Umbrella Academy’s connection to music has only increased now that it’s become a TV show on Netflix. Key scenes in the show are soundtracked by impeccably eccentric music cues, and Vanya Hargreeves (Ellen Page) finds purpose in the violin when she’s excluded from her powerful adopted siblings’ adventures. Most noticeably of all, real-life musician Mary J. Blige stars as a time-traveling assassin named Cha-Cha.
Longtime Umbrella Academy fans surely recognize that name. In the comics, Cha-Cha and her partner-in-crime Hazel are a pair of infamous killers who travel throughout time “correcting” certain individuals as needed to maintain the integrity of space-time continuum. The horror of their sadistic acts is matched only by the cartoonish absurdity of the giant animal masks they wear. They didn’t appear until volume 2 of the comic, but showrunner Steve Blackman knew he needed to get them into the show as soon as possible. The role stood out to Blige not just because of Cha-Cha’s violence, but also because of her many skills.
“When I read the script it was super exciting, but it was the character of Cha-Cha that drew me to the role,” Blige tells EW. “The reason why she drew me to the role was that she represented something I’ve never done, but I always wanted to do: I’ve always wanted to play bats—. I’ve always wanted to play someone with no emotion, who didn’t care about anything, who’s just murder, murder, murder. All-business, never wavering. I’ve always wanted to learn martial arts, I always wanted to shoot all different all kinds of firearms, and I did exactly that. That’s what drew me to the role.”
Blige did martial arts training every morning while the show was in production in Toronto, and started firearms training even before that. Because of Hazel and Cha-Cha’s masks, it would’ve been rather simple to let stunt doubles do most of the action, but Blige says both she and co-star Cameron Britton were determined to do as many of their own stunts as possible.
Though Hazel and Cha-Cha have similar skills, they have very different attitudes to their job. Blige says Cha-Cha is a psychotic murderer at heart: “She is just a sociopath, she doesn’t care about anything and anyone at all. The only person she does care about is Hazel because he helps her murder.” Hazel, on the other hand, mostly takes the same attitude towards being a time-traveling assassin that many people have with their own jobs that keep rolling back benefits while increasing hours.
“They’re working stiffs,” Blackman says. “They’re two people working for a company, they can’t get their per diems and they can’t get their benefits. This is an everyday thing for them. I didn’t want it to feel precious. In movies assassins are always so intense and uptight, but this is just Tuesday to them. For Hazel it’s just another job, but Cha-Cha loves it. She’d do it for free if she could. Having Cameron Britton and Mary J Blige just brought them to life: The size difference, the way they look at each other.”
Several people involved in the show say that the Toronto set was particularly close-knit, and Blige says she and Britton became real-life friends by the time they were done filming — though she admits starting with a scary impression given her co-star’s previous role as serial killer Ed Kemper in Netflix’s Mindhunter.
“He’s one of my really good friends now. He’s just so real. He’s not fazed by anything, he’s great to talk to, he’s great to learn from,” Blige says. “We had a lot of fun. We had some good chemistry, Cameron and I, because he’s a beautiful person. I saw him in Mindhunter, and I was almost afraid to do my scenes with him. Then I got over my Mindhunter nervousness being alone with him because he’s a beautiful man. But Mindhunter really messed me up, I almost couldn’t do my scenes. But as Cha-Cha I had to be in control of everything, so I’d be like, ‘I gotta remember that I’m Cha-Cha.'”
Blige’s performance brings the TV version of Cha-Cha to life in a way that distinguishes her from the more one-dimensional comic version, but Way couldn’t be happier. When EW spoke with him a few months ago about the Umbrella Academy comic’s latest arc, Hotel Oblivion, he expressed excitement at Blige’s role.
“It’s an honor to have her,” Way says. “There was a lot of momentum and positive energy around Umbrella Academy when it first got picked up. People just started to come in, big names and artists like Mary, and it’s super amazing. It’s really fun to see her play that character.”
Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy lands on Netflix this Friday.