Amazon Prime’s UTOPIA

Executive Producer Gillian Flynn,

John Cusack

Rainn Wilson, Sasha Lane

Ashleigh LaThrop, Dan Byrd, Desmond Borges, Javon Wanna Walton

Jessica Rothe

What is Utopia and what is it about?

Gillian: It’s a basically a core conspiracy thriller, its about comic book nerds who think they’ve uncovered a possible cult graphic novel that has the secrets to what is happening to our world. I think we are on the edge of something dark and wanting to be saved and wanting someone to do something. It appealed to me from the very beginning.” What are important things you wanted to keep from the original series? “Dennis Kelly did the original UK version and did the version he wanted to. It’s very British and very translatable and beautiful to look at. It takes its cue from graphic novels. My idea was to not only Americanize it and specifically resonate to Americans in a way but to make it gritty, dirty and nasty in a realistic way. I think he took his cue from the graphic novels themselves and I took mine from the 70’s paranoia of Watergate and no one trusted anyone and what society and the Government felt like. I wanted that paranoia to feel very real and access that through each character. Each character has a different attitude toward the conspiracy if it is a conspiracy at all. It was the fun of that and the joy of building this world from scratch again. I watched Dennis’ wonderful version but had the notes and went from there.”

John: I was aware of the show in the UK but not super familiar with it. When you get a call from Gillian and she says she’s doing a show in Chicago I was really interested in it. I started reading the script at 4 in the afternoon and read till 3 in the morning. I said I was in because of the amazing writing and truly a world that I haven’t seen before. It’s sophisticated, crude, shocking and funny as hell. I was all in when I read the script. Dr. Christie is a character that I think American’s in the world can recognize today. He is one of these people who is at the top of the economic food chain and is trying to make the world better through science. He is the head of a huge multinational corporation and into everything and probably has connections to the foundations and think tanks. He is trying to make the world a better place from the 1% down and it awake about the problem the world faces like food and water shortages. He is working hard everyday to try to make the products he makes to preserve human life and preserve the future. He says ‘what have you done to earn your place in the crowded word’ and uses it to make people feel the need to be of service to the world. He isn’t the normal billionaire but use science to change the world for the better.

Sasha: I play Jessica Hyde and I feel she is this feral cat who is a bit scraggly and savage but like a feral cat. There is a reason for it. She has spent her entire life just trying to survive. She doesn’t know much about where she comes from and the point of everyone is looking at Utopia to save the world but she is this little girl inside. She is looking to find her Dad so she can get the answers about where she comes from. She is a big part of this journey to figuring out what is going on and for her she needs to figure out who she is. I think she is someone you can kind of hate but understand which is why I have this feral cat thing in my head. She’s rough and scary but there is a reason why, there is something deeper. She is a part of the answer but also just as lost as everyone else in her own way. She hopes Utopia gives her some answers as well. I saw a bit of the UK and get a feel for the whole world. When I saw myself looking at Jessica from that version I cut myself off. I wanted to have my own take on it and bring my own energy onto it and follow along the lines of what Gillian was doing with it. I took my own way and my own past and how I survived things. How I put a mask on to hide things and that’s how I took that on.

Rainn: I don’t want to give to much away but I will say that when I looked at the script I had the same experience as John and had the same reaction. It is outrageous and grounded and has a nice sense of humor running through it which was great to read. I was also drawn into the character of Michael Sterns, he is a basement dwelling, researcher very minor scientist at a tiny university that has been neglected and passed over for grants. Somehow he ends up connected to a larger global medical conspiracy and gets drawn in. Episode by episode he becomes an unlikely hero and I was drawn by that arc that he takes over the course of the episodes.

Ashleigh: As Becky is a character who is dying of this debilitating disease and so she is someone that profoundly believes that Utopia might have the answers in how to cure her. It’s very much life and death for her and the larger conspiracy is what she is drawn into.

Dan: As Ian is basically a super handsome, super charismatic – kidding! He is an outlier in this group of people that are after the comic book Utopia. He is skeptical that it holds real world truths. He is a fan of the comic book for being a great comic book but beyond that he is skeptical but the rest are very invested in Utopia. For Ian the quest is Becky. His primary motivation is to get some face to face time with Becky so he gets roped into this whole adventure with that in mind and obviously his position about Utopia evolves as the story unfolds.

Desmond: As Wilson is a believer and I think that’s an understatement. I believe he would allow me to characterize him as the foremost, leading, brilliant conspiracy theorist in the world and specifically around Dystopia which is the prequel to Utopia. Overall, the base of Wilson isn’t to far from myself. I grew up in a seven flat gray stone building in Chicago off of Fullerton and Sawyer in the early 80’s and Wilson is living in a Chicago suburb etc. As far as the world goes with the nerds as we call them, this is the closest group of friends Wilson has ever had. He has stickies with conspiracy theories all over his bedroom walls and given a voice to the voiceless is pretty cool.

Javon: As Grant as a whole is a very street smart boy you lives in the projects raised by a single alcoholic mother. He loves really cool characters and loves Jessica Hyde and he thinks she’s really cool. He really just wants a Utopia because he is interested in comics but doesn’t know the sacrifices of a Utopia. He uses the nerds to manipulate them and wants his hands on Utopia. He acts like he’s this cool rich guy to act like he’s getting Utopia.

Jessica: As Samantha she is a passionate activist who believes in doing things more than just talking about them. You see this a little bit when they go to Comic Con to retrieve Utopia because she’s surrounded by all these people who are obsessed with comics and the idea of comics and she’s saying ‘guys, we can’t just talk about ideas we have to change the world’. So I think she’s kind of selected the people who she brings into the group we call the nerds because they each believe in Dystopia and they believe in the message of this graphic novel and that it can change the world. They believe there are clues that can really change humanity. I think that Sam is someone who wants to make a difference more than anything. When she hears about Utopia and that the comic could exist she stops at nothing to try and find it. I think she has a big heart but I think she, like everyone else, is complicated and she can be a little bossy at times. Ultimately she just wants the best for everyone around her.

The first two episodes are set at a Comic Con!

Working with the artist Gillian says, “I had admired his work for a long time. I wondered who is this guy? I knew that I wanted the book to be able to be opened and to be seen and see why these people were so involved with it and tangible. We had to have it completely done and drawn out. Joao Ruas It was a matter of getting him on board because he’s based in Brazil. I sent him what each panel would look like and got them back very quickly. It was fun because I was trying to plant different Easter eggs inside the panels and tricks that would come back.”

Ashleigh: The artwork was incredible and when you watch it more and more you will pick up on different things. Not only is it stunning but its informative.

Desmond: Throughout maneuvering through different scenes, it would grab us and lead us down different paths. When you delved into these photos you’d see how beautifully rich and dark they are. They sent chills down my spine. His artwork is so beautiful and you are looking into eyes of people going through a tremendous amount of pain.

When you had a comic in front of you were you enthralled?

Ashleigh: Sometimes you couldn’t find them because they weren’t glaringly obvious.

Have you played a role that prepared you to play Jessica Hyde?

Sasha: I don’t think so. I think in an odd way what made me want to do this and love so much about this is that it reminded me personally of myself growing up. I was very much like I was always in survival mode, cold and shutting off my emotions. I kind of wanted and what I liked about it unlike my other characters is that I got to say less and be less and have an exterior that induced actions. You see her there but you are looking at hints about how her tone shifts or her eyes but it brings empathy and compassion for a character that is considered a savage or not to be touched. I thought that was really cool to tap into and really helped me expand a bit. It was nice to kind of use that form of expression versus being so…I like inward more than physical. I enjoyed it and a good way for people to tap into seeing past my knife and that there is a heart.

Set in Chicago, which some have connections to, did it kind of help at all?

Rainn: I went to high school north of Chicago. I just want to say I was so excited to shoot in Chicago. The actors in the Chicago acting pool that came in are amazing. The training in Chicago is crazy good with Second City, Steppenwolf etc. but we didn’t actually shoot in Chicago. We were so excited to get apartments in Chicago yet we ended up filming away from it.

John: Sure, for me it was great because I live here so to shoot here is a real treat. To film her felt so actual and the city is undershot in a way. There are a lot of weird and strange parts of Chicago that aren’t known. Even the Harold Washington Library was used somewhere in the dark night but its used specifically in a great way. It was fun to shoot here for me, a dream to come true with a great project, great actors and shooting in Chicago in the spring.

Desmond: It was my first time back since moving away from Chicago in 2009-10, there’s just a visceral feeling that I get being back here. A level of confidence that I don’t have any where else. John and I were chatting about this before, I had the luxury of having Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey running the city and at such a high level of greatness that those are your icons. You kind of want to follow in those footsteps in those ways by getting back to the streets. I was rediscovering Chicago again and it was super fun and I’m looking forward to getting back there sometime. I got to take my son to see another Cubs game but he was enthralled with the hotdog vendor. Overall it was an exciting experience remembering going to Comiskey Park part with my father and then taking my son. It was a beautiful blessing.

Ashleigh: When we did actually film in the city, we were filming in locations that I didn’t spend a lot of time in growing up. So there was this wonderful feeling of confidence because ‘this is my city!’ but there is an unsteadiness as well. It’s like my character who can be unsteady as well.

Tel us a little more about Sam and the connection with Desmond’s character Wilson?

Jessica: I think there is an insane amount of mutual respect between the two of them. These characters have never met before and they had these years long of online debating and researching and pulling apart this comic and getting into the mystery of Dystopia. They meet for the flesh for the very first time and they wonder if they are anything like what they imagined them to be. When Sam meets Wilson there is a connection, I think before she meets Wilson, she admires him and an ally in this world. Even if he wants to use some of his brilliant knowledge more toward conspiracy rather than changing the world, Sam believes she an change him. She looks to him as her second in command and kind of the ultimate resource of Dystopia and Utopia. She is impressed by his bunker.

Desmond: As gentlemanly as he can be he is not suited for that. He lets her believe she is the leader so he can keep doing things behind the scene. He can’t be a leader and still do his thing.

Jessica: He is generous letting her call the shots. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses but they are such an unlikely group that will save the world. They have heart.

Asking Rainn about the younger cast members of the show?

Rainn: What was it like working with these young whipper snappers? Is that the question? I think I am the OG nerd and they are all pretty darn cool in real life. I don’t know what I can say but getting to work with these actors was fantastic and one of the great things about the project is all these different worlds. You have the conspiracy world, nerdy world, academic science worlds and then John’s billionaire world and they all collide. That’s what makes the show so special.

Javon has accomplished a lot as a gymnast and Olympic boxer, and now actor?

Javon: You guys got to see me throw a few punches in scenes and using some gymnastics in their. I’m excited for people to see that.

Dan: I became a punching bag at a certain point. I guess I deserved it.

Ian’s main goal in searching for Utopia is getting close to Becky, What was one of your favorite scenes?

Dan: Probably, for me are all the crying ones. I got to get things off my chest. It was very cathartic for both of us. I can’t point to a specific scene without giving something away. I think my favorite scenes where the whole nerd crew was involved. Those were the easier ones to slip into this alternate reality and forget what we were doing (in a good way) and forget we were actors on a set of this world. These were my favorites.

Gillian: One of my key fear when I was putting together this core group of people was the idea of how they come together and feel viable and have each others backs. I felt so lucky with these guys. I had auditions separately and didn’t get to see them all together till they came to the set and we started filming.

John: The secret is that whoever is running the show is that if they are super cool then everything is super cool. The vibe was like a great adventure for everybody and as you got into and the drama kicked in the sense of adventure had a sense of danger and the macabre. It was such a fully conceived world that everyone got to drop into. I can’t imagine any actor not having a fun time on the set and with the material.

Why people should watch

Gillian: It is dark, chilling, charming, resonate and occasionally touches the heart.

John: You should watch it because it’s like nothing you have seen before and I think that’s a bold statement but I think its true.

Sasha: There isn’t anything like it and we have real cool people and gnarly things with a good laugh in it.

Rainn: Its got the conspiracy thriller aspect and a wicked sense of humor with a lot of heart.

Javon: Because there are a lot of twists and fun turns.

Jessica: Everything will have watched everything that’s on tv but watch it because this world is filled with incredibly strong badass woman.

Desmond: You should watch is because Javon will come and take you down and B because the world is so vibrantly beautiful and thrilling and darkly funny. You owe it to yourself to sit down with a ice old drink and drop right in.

Ashleigh: You should watch it because it’s dope and you’ll love it.

Dan: I agree with what everyone else said. It’s a completely unique and distinct experience and in today’s overcrowded television landscape that is a feat in itself. On top of that it is full of rich characters filled with a conspirator story filled with these lovely faces.



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About the Author

Jeri Jacquin

Jeri Jacquin covers film, television, DVD/Bluray releases, celebrity interviews, festivals and all things entertainment.