Apocalypse Wow: The Umbrella Academy cast on their time-bending second season
Editor’s note: This story was written prior to Elliot Page’s announcement that he is transgender.
A hero crawls across the ground, exhausted beyond endurance. A vicious storm rages around him, and hope seems lost. Suddenly, a ghost appears; an apparition of someone this hero loved. The hero reaches out his hand, croaking, “Ben... Ben…”
Hoth this is not. Though reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, this scene happened on the Toronto set of The Umbrella Academy season 2. The hero in question is Klaus Hargreeves (Robert Sheehan), and he and his siblings are once again trying to prevent disaster. Nothing they’ve tried has managed to calm the super-storm raging around them. That’s when Ben (Justin H. Min) appears. Ben died years ago, so Klaus, who’s a medium, is the only one of the surviving siblings who can see and talk to him. It's caused a lot of bickering between them, and Klaus is increasingly annoyed at being Ben’s only translator to the living. But now, at a moment of crisis, maybe Ben is the only one with the power to save the world.
But wait. There’s another urgent question, and filming temporarily stops so that the producers and crew can debate it: Would a ghost’s hair move in stormy wind?
There are arguments for both sides. Some think Ben’s hair should move in the wind so it looks consistent with the other characters in the scene. Others argue that a ghost’s body is inherently intangible, and therefore would not be affected by mortal winds — plus, Min’s hair is so perfectly coiffed that it’s hard to imagine any force on Earth moving it. Because Umbrella Academy showrunner Steve Blackman isn’t on set to mediate this debate, they decide to film it both ways (some takes utilize a giant fan blowing in the background; other takes don’t) so he can pick later.
“I'm on set a lot, but I have to go back and forth to L.A., and so I get those questions,” Blackman tells EW months later. “Sometimes I'm like, ‘Are you really calling me about this?’ But then I realize it's a really good point. There is a logic we have to make true because if we don't, someone's going to call us out on it. It was a long debate about whether a ghost’s hair can be moved. In the final version, I opted not to have the hair move. But I welcome them to call me for any of those questions. They're always fun to figure out.”
“Would wind blow a ghost’s hair?” was only one of many dilemmas that had to be worked through by Blackman and the other writers of the Netflix series as they went about constructing season 2. First, and most pressing: Where the hell did the Hargreeves siblings go when they blinked out of existence at the end of season 1 — just after one of them blew up the moon, sending a bunch of lunar asteroids on a fatal collision course with the Earth? Even more importantly, when did they go?
Back to the beginning
Years before it was a Netflix show, The Umbrella Academy was a comic book — written by My Chemical Romance frontman Gerard Way, illustrated by Brazilian artist Gabriel Bá, and published by Dark Horse. It first landed in 2007, a year before the one-two punch of Iron Man and The Dark Knight gave birth to a new, streamlined 21st-century superhero zeitgeist. By contrast, The Umbrella Academy was unafraid to be weird, colorful, and unique. It wore distinct cultural influences proudly on its sleeve while also using them in new ways. If you were a 2000s emo kid brought in by the MCR connection, The Umbrella Academy might also send you off looking for Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums or writer Grant Morrison’s cult-favorite ‘90s Doom Patrol comics to find the sources for these flavors.
In his introduction to the first collected edition of Umbrella comics, Apocalypse Suite, Morrison himself coined the delightful term “necrodelic” to describe the aesthetic overlap with MCR music videos like “Welcome to the Black Parade.” Imagine making a debut so impressive that your biggest inspiration is immediately one of your first fans. That’s what a kick in the teeth The Umbrella Academy was, fresh and fully-formed right from the get-go.
The series further distinguished itself from Marvel and DC superhero fare by being self-contained — a new, original universe born just as so many comics and their spin-off TV and projects became limited to just two major worlds. You only had to read a few comics to get the scope of Way and Bá’s world, which of course created a huge thirst for more. A year after Apocalypse Suite came the second arc, Dallas, which put the JFK assassination through the Umbrella Academy filter (one representative scene finds a monkey dressed as Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” JFK-style). Dallas deepened character relationships, gave more texture to the world of the Umbrella Academy, and sprinkled many hints at future story lines. But then it was followed by... silence.
Way returned to music, making two more MCR albums (leading to a blizzard of tour dates that made writing comics on the bus way harder than before) and then a solo record after the band’s 2013 breakup. Bá teamed up with his brother Fábio Moon for beautiful non-superhero comics like Daytripper, which won a prestigious Eisner Award in 2011. A full decade passed from the release of Dallas to Dark Horse’s 2018 announcement that the long-anticipated third volume of The Umbrella Academy, titled Hotel Oblivion, was finally on the way... at just about the same time Netflix was announcing a long-awaited TV adaptation.
Season 1 landed on the streaming platform at the zenith of MCU superhero culture, just a few short months before Avengers: Endgame smashed box office records. Way and Bá were on board as executive producers, which reassured devout readers. And by exchanging Joss Whedon-style quips for intimate character moments and focusing on family dynamics more than world-saving shenanigans, The Umbrella Academy has carved out its own space and a giant fandom. The second season’s release this week seems fueled by its own galaxy of hype and excitement — no Comic-Con launch required.
At its heart, Umbrella is about a dysfunctional family of misfit superheroes, trained to exploit their powers in service of justice, but all a little underdeveloped when it comes to basic love and kindness.
Each member of the Umbrella Academy was born with extraordinary powers at the exact same moment across the world to women who mysteriously hadn’t previously been pregnant. Forty-three such children were born this way, but these seven were the ones adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore in the show), an eccentric billionaire industrialist who is also probably a space alien (the fates of the other 36 children have not yet been revealed). As a sign of how cold and results-oriented their childhood was, the kids go by three different naming systems. When they were young, Hargreeves gave them numerical designations to signify a chain of command and their relative importance to him: Numbers One (the leader and golden child) through Seven (the supposed mediocrity, the spare). As they grew, they also each got superhero monikers and civilian names, except for Number Five (Aidan Gallagher), who time-traveled away from home as a kid so never got past the numerical stage. The comic favors their superhero codenames: Spaceboy, Kraken, Rumor, Seance, Horror, and (eventually) the White Violin. The show prefers their human names — Luther (Tom Hopper), Diego (David Castañeda), Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Klaus (Sheehan), Ben (Min), and Vanya (Ellen Page) — signifying a preference for their relatable familial dramas over some of the book's more surreal superhero spectacle.
Season 1 of the TV show mostly followed the arc of Apocalypse Suite — reunited after the death of Sir Reginald, the grown-up Hargreeves siblings have to put aside their differences in time to stop Vanya from bringing about a prophesied ragnarok — but made important changes.
Casting was a big part of this, of course. Gallagher was 14 years old when filming began. Now 16 and growing fast, he displays maturity and wisdom beyond his years. The kind of person your grandma might call an “old soul,” Gallagher has the uncanny ability to believably inhabit Number Five, a character who looks like a young teen but carries the weight of decades spent alone in an apocalyptic wasteland. Sheehan, a hypnotic speaker whose sentences are peppered with unexpectedly enlightening references and asides, often arrived at seemingly on the spot, was already an online fan favorite from Misfits, another unique take on superhero TV. They make it seem like Number Five and Klaus walked right off the page as three-dimensional characters. Castañeda played Diego less like a cranky vigilante and more like a romantic hero (it helped that his police partner, Patch, was changed from a monkey to a human, played by actress Ashley Madekwe), while Raver-Lampman and Page brought out new sides of Allison and Vanya, not least their complicated sister relationship.
Music was another way that the show honored the comic while taking full advantage of the TV medium. The Umbrella Academy has always been imbued with music thanks to Way’s experience and sensibilities. Allison is a celebrity whose voice can compel other people — “rumor” them — a power that can easily backfire and causes deep ambivalence about her fame and influence (perhaps that explains why Way, with his pop singer background, told EW in 2018 that Allison is his favorite character to write). In the premiere episode, each Hargreeves sibling dances to the same song (Tiffany’s version of “I Think We’re Alone Now”) in their own childhood bedroom, unaware that the others are doing the same. The season ends with an apocalypse triggered by Vanya’s furious violin playing. In season 2, each fight is soundtracked by a different pop song, ranging in time from early Backstreet Boys to a cover of Billie Eilish. Blackman tells EW that he would shuffle through his music library before writing scenes, looking for the perfect soundtrack to a battle or an intense emotional exchange.
The biggest difference between the show and comic, though, came at the end of season 1. In the original story, the team manages to avert disaster at the last minute when Klaus uses his telekinetic powers to stop debris from shattering the planet. No such thing occurred in the adaptation. The team came together (including Ben’s ghost!), but it wasn’t enough. The world did, in fact, explode, and the Hargreeves siblings were only able to survive thanks to Number Five activating his time-travel powers at the last moment — but that also didn’t go quite according to plan.
Second chances, in the past
The opening scene of season 2 shows where the family ended up: 1960s Dallas. While the Dallas arc of The Umbrella Academy comic sent the team to JFK’s time for a couple issues, the show expands it into a season-long period piece. Each character is dropped out of the time vortex at a slightly different date in the early part of the decade; Five is the last to materialize, and immediately discovers that his siblings’ actions in the past have brought about a new apocalypse way ahead of schedule.
In Gallagher’s words, “The opening shot is just like, ‘Okay, where the hell did we end up? Where are my siblings? Why is there a tank here? Oh s---, I'm in the '60s and there are nukes falling from the sky!’ So it's a wonderful way to launch into our season.”
Gallagher continues, “Everyone's got this new and really interesting arc for their characters. [He’s] becoming a lot more personable, but coinciding with that, he's got this huge problem of a completely new apocalypse happening several decades before an apocalypse even naturally occurred in the timeline. So yeah, in season 2, he just crawls out of that insanity and more into his anxiety.”
As his first step in figuring out how to avert this disaster, Five seeks out Luther. But the one-time Number One isn’t much interested in being a leader anymore. He failed in his lifelong mission to save the world (and, by extension, fulfill his dad’s expectations of him), on top of learning that his years-long mission to the moon was a ruse concocted by Sir Reginald to keep him occupied. He lost his human body and replaced it with a gorilla one — all for no grand purpose.
“Luther's holding a lot of weight,” says Hopper, who previously headed up Starz’s Black Sails. “The fact that the world ended, and he did bad things in the process of getting there like locking Vanya up, that’s all weighing on him. He's taking out all that angst into the role he now has in the past, which is, he's ended up basically working as a henchman, an underground cage fighter.”
Luther’s found a new father figure in the form of a local nightclub owner (John Kapelos) who's all too happy to have a strapping superman fight for him. He and his siblings are inserting themselves into history and stepping on all kinds of butterflies. They might end up destroying the world before America can even get to the moon at the end of the decade. “They're going to ruin the f---ing timeline,” Castañeda says, and only Five seems concerned about getting them all together while keeping time and space intact.
As classic time travel hypotheticals go, “Would you stop the JFK assassination?” is like the light-side counterweight to “Would you kill baby Hitler?” Diego is certainly tempted to try to change history for the better, from the moment he lands in 1962 and sees Kennedy speaking on television. According to Castañeda, this experience reminds Diego of a memory from his childhood when he noticed Sir Reginald react emotionally (a rare occurrence) to a mention of the JFK assassination. Just as Luther is turning away from the memory of their father, Diego is trying to find a connection.
“Diego doesn't actually want to leave,” Castañeda says. “He wants to stay in this timeline to fix some things. He has a clear thought of, ‘You're not taking us back. You left us here. Great. Stay away. I'm going to fix some things here.’ I think all of us are in that mindset.”
To be fair to the Umbrella Academy, it’s not that they’re entirely cavalier about the fate of the world. It’s just that many of them were thrown into the deep end of the past — by themselves — and have to find ways to survive. This is especially challenging for Allison, who gets dumped in the Jim Crow South, still lacking her powerful voice (damaged by Vanya at the end of season 1), and now made a target because she’s Black. This is a significant change from the comic, where Allison is depicted as white and even goes undercover as Jackie Kennedy at one point.
“She has suddenly found herself in a Southern state in the '60s and she's a woman of color,” Raver-Lampman says. “The rules are very different for her than they have been her whole life. She is now not allowed to do certain things or be seen in certain places with certain people. That is the rudest of awakenings for her.”
Fortunately, the ‘60s were not just a time of oppression, but revolt as well. Shortly after running afoul of a “whites only” sign and the racist cops who enforce it, Allison is taken in by civil rights activists, and even finds love with local movement leader Raymond Chestnut (Yusuf Gatewood). While Diego sets out to use his abilities and knowledge to save the president, Allison can’t help but wonder if her own powers (once recovered) might help the cause.
“Allison knows... the ability to change people's minds and opinions is a huge power. The outcome of the civil rights movement could be completely different, but she knows how tricky her power is and what the backlash of that could be on that kind of a scale,” Raver-Lampman says. “In the immediate moment she might be saving someone's life, but what's the backlash of that for [her daughter] Claire in the 21st century? There is so much more at risk than there ever has been for her.”
Vanya doesn’t even remember the apocalypse she kick-started due to a bout of amnesia. Thanks to the help of Sissy (Marin Ireland), who takes her in after accidentally hitting her with a car, Vanya also falls into an anachronistic affair. As Vanya and Sissy grow closer, they develop a relationship much more powerful than the emotionally abusive one Vanya found herself in last year with Harold (John Magaro), but also run up against a culture of homophobia.
“She's a very different person,” Page says of season 2 Vanya. “You see someone who's much more comfortable in their skin. I think in many ways, what happened at the end of the season with Vanya, I guess that was not great for the world, but for her, it was the ultimate release — a way of coming to terms with so much in her life. This is the step after that, where she goes on a journey discovering and exploring who she is in a whole new way.”
For Klaus, finding himself a few years ahead when he time-traveled to the Vietnam War in season 1 means his lover, Dave (Cody Ray Thompson), is still alive — he hasn’t yet signed up to fight. Maybe Klaus can save him. Klaus and Ben arrive first of all their siblings, in 1960, and while he waits for a moment of opportunity, when he knows where Dave will be and might be able to intervene — Klaus ends up leading a proto-hippie cult.
“We all have a kind of a nostalgic facsimile of what the ‘60s were. All of the iconography that has survived the ‘60s, we all put that into a hodgepodge in our brains and go, 'This is what the ‘60s was.' That’s what Klaus sort of does,” Sheehan explains. “He goes back and embodies that thing to a bunch of people who don't understand what that is, but he kind of gets the jump on it. He takes credit for it. He takes credit for a lot of things.”
One thing Klaus keeps taking credit for is Ben’s presence. An invisible ghostly brother sure helps Klaus prove his mystical bona fides to his new cultish followers. But as Klaus luxuriates in his newfound popularity, Ben strains against his restrictions.
“This season it was really important for us to try and establish the agency and independence of Ben as a character,” Min says, “even though he is still tethered to Klaus.”
Min continues, “I think there are things that Ben has always wanted to do and has always wanted to pursue.”
After all the individual journeys the siblings go on this season, finding out things about themselves and their history, it eventually comes time to stop the apocalypse again. There’s that nuclear disaster Number Five walks into at the beginning of the season, and also that super-storm that perhaps only Ben can stop. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, but that doesn’t stop the Umbrella Academy from trying to save the world — because only if they succeed in doing so will it be possible for them to go back to the future.
Motion and still photography by Brent Mata, Brandon Mata, Evangelos Polychronopolous & Zexi Qi/Neer Motion for EW. Color by Dante Pasquinelli for EW.
Styling: Castañeda - Michael Miller/Stella Creative Artists; grooming: Tara Hickman; Jacket: Valstar; Top: 3Sixteen; Pants: AMI Paris; Belt: Levi’s; Boots: DSquared2. Hopper - Michael Miller/Stella Creative Artists; grooming: Katya Thomas/Carol Hayes Management; Jacket: Valstar; Knit: King & Tuckfield; Pants: Reiss; Belt: Grenson; Shoes: Tod’s; Watch: Omega. Min - Avo Yermagyan/Forward Artists; Grooming: Sonia Lee for Exclusive Artists using Alba 1913. Page - Samantha McMIllen/The Wall Group; Hair: Brian Magallones; Makeup: Frankie Boyd; Polo: Theory; jeans: AG; boots: Doc Martin; White shirt: Officine General; Tie: Vintage; Jeans: Hudson. Raver-Lampan - KJ Moody/The Only Agency; Hair: Neeko/Tracey Mattingly; Makeup: Joanna Simkin/The Wall Group. Sheehan - Michael Miller/Stella Creative Artists; Blouse: Vivienne Westwood; Bodysuit: Vivienne Westwood; Jeans: Neuw Denim; Sunglasses: Linda Farrow.