If you ask Justin Min what sets The Umbrella Academy, based on the Dark Horse comics written by Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, apart from other superhero movies and series we’ve seen in recent years, he’ll tell you that, at the end of the day, it’s because it isn’t about superpowers at all.
The actor, who plays Ben Hargreeves in the Netflix series, contends that what really draws viewers in is its relatability.
“It’s not about all the craziness they find themselves in,” he pointed out in a recent interview. “It’s about family. I think, no matter who you are, you can relate to the dynamics of a family and even a dysfunctional family. I love that our show highlights the underdogs and the people who don’t really have their lives together who can still come together to do good.”
It was this crazy, dysfunctional family dynamic that ultimately drew the Asian-American actor to the project, though he admits he did not even know what he was auditioning for when the process first began.
In fact, from the first audition, he was, in a sense working blind. He had been given fake scenes to audition with, even during numerous callbacks. It wasn’t until after he had booked the job and was a week out from getting on a plane to fly to Toronto to begin filming that he was finally given the title of the show and his character.
Min practically flew out of his home to the local comic store to gather as much information about his character as he could only to discover what was perhaps the biggest shock of all.
“Lo and behold I found out he [Ben] was dead,” he said, laughing. “I was even more confused. I had no idea what was going on.”
It wasn’t until he finally arrived in Toronto to join the rest of the cast when he had the chance to speak with writer Steve Blackman that things began to come together for him.
Ultimately, he points out that this worked in his favor because he, along with the show’s writers, were able to build the character from the ground up with some of that development coming well into the shooting schedule for the series.
Through a bit of retconning and tweaking to the original plotting of the comics, the showrunners had given new life, or rather a new afterlife, to Ben. Of course it helped that Klaus Hargreeves, played by the delightful Robert Sheehan, happened to be a medium!
Still, the fact that Ben was only there in spirit presented its own challenges to filming.
“It’s really funny because there were multiple times where we would have to re-shoot scenes because one of the other actors made eye contact with me or ‘see me’ when they weren’t supposed to,” he explained.
This dynamic allowed him to really work on developing the relationship between himself and Sheehan, whom he refers to as the “perfect partner in crime,” during the shoot. Ben is still Klaus’s brother, even in death, but he is also is some ways Klaus’s conscience.
“We thought it would be interesting to see how the fans would react” he said. “If they would think that Ben was a ghost or functioning as Klaus’s conscience. Our characters are very much extensions of who we are as people. When Robbie, on or off set, would do something hilarious, I would just roll my eyes and laugh at him.”
That dynamic came in handy shooting with Sheehan, and Min admits that many of their scenes together contain various improvisations from the Irish actor.
Neither Ben nor Klaus were ever entirely comfortable with their powers in The Umbrella Academy, at least in part because there seemed to be so little they could do to control them.
Ben, who was also known as The Horror while he was still alive, went through a horrific transformation each time his powers manifested with giant, lethal tentacles springing from his body that could easily kill everyone in a room.
“I thought it was so ironic that this character known as The Horror who has these monsters under his skin is actually the shyest and sweetest of the group,” Min said. “He doesn’t enjoy being a superhero and he really doesn’t want the attention. I just wanted to create a character that would be memorable enough that the audience would believe that because of his death, the entire family split apart.”
Looking back on the project now that it has been released and become a sensation among fans old and new, Min’s gratitude is almost overflowing for a multitude of reason, not the least of which was the fact that The Umbrella Academy showcased some diversity in its casting.
“It’s one of the issues that I’m most passionate about as an Asian-American actor and I couldn’t be more grateful to the creative team and for Gerard who has admitted this was one of the things he wanted to change most,” he said. “A diverse cast that represents the world we live in today? I think that diversity is still lacking in the superhero genre space so it was really exciting.”
He’s also excited for the extended family he gained by working on The Umbrella Academy pointing out that there was an instant chemistry between all of them, and that even when the cameras stopped rolling, it still felt like they were a great big family.
The Umbrella Academy is currently streaming on Netflix, and while it isn’t official yet, there are rumors that the announcement of a season two is imminent and both Blackman and Way have commented on their hopes that the show will continue.