UTOPIA is now streaming its entire first season on Amazon Prime. Based on the British series created by Dennis Kelly, UTOPIA has been adapted as an American-set version by executive producer Gillian Flynn. The series brings together a group of comic book fans, who are excited at the discovery of a sequel to their favorite underground graphic novel. They learn that the events and characters in the books are real, and find themselves in opposition to a sinister tech company.
Desmin Borges plays obsessive/compulsive genius Wilson Wilson, and Jessica Rothe plays Sam, two of the comic book aficionados. Cory Michael Smith plays Thomas Christie, the devoted but often unappreciated son of biotech mogul Kevin Christie (John Cusack).
Borges has been a series regular in YOU’RE THE WORST and LIVING WITH YOURSELF. His film credits include COMPLIANCE, MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS, and PRIVATE LIFE.
Rothe is the star of the HAPPY DEATH DAY films, and recently was the lead in the musical remake of VALLEY GIRL.
Smith is perhaps best known for his five years as Edward Nygma/the Riddler on GOTHAM. He costarred in the award-winning miniseries OLIVE KITTRIDGE; his film credits include WONDERSTRUCK, CAROL, 1985, and FIRST MAN.
This interview is a combination of a Q&A panel hosted by Amazon Prime as part of their portion of the virtual Summer 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour, and a subsequent virtual roundtable with the actors.
In a bit of meta experience, the UTOPIA cast got its own virtual Comic-Con panel. Borges sounds sad about the fact that it couldn’t be done live. “As someone who’s never been to Comic-Con before, I was crazy geeky excited to go with everyone here, plus whoever else we were going to bring. The fact that we had to do it virtually was, I would say, a bit of a letdown for me, because I’ve just never experienced that culture before. But as a kid who was really into BATMAN and SUPERMAN comics, I was trying to wrestle with myself with just what it might be like, and hopefully if everything continues to move forward in the world and with us, we’ll get another shot to do it sometime down the road.
Given that one of UTOPIA’s core building blocks is the notion of people responding to material, did any of the actors watch the original British version? Or did they think that would just be confusing, given that Flynn’s U.S. version is very different in many ways?
Smith responds, “I will start off by saying I didn’t spend any time watching the original series. Any time that I’ve been a part of something, and it has been quite a few times, where there is source material or another iteration that’s happened in film or television, I stay away from it, usually because stylistically, I just don’t like to watch something that someone else is doing. If there’s written material, then I always reference that. But I found that the scripts were really vivid and alive, and I’m a believer that the script that you have is the bible with which you work from, and all of your belief systems should be built from the source material that you have in your hands. I thought that Gillian’s script was beautiful and explicit, and I had a very clear understanding of the world, and I only wanted to sort of live in the world that was presented to me with the cast that was on the screen with me, in the environment which was built by the production designer. So, I relied solely on what I had. The day that the show is over, or my time with the show is over, I will happily go back and ingest the original show.
Rothe says, “I am lucky in some ways, I guess, because my character Sam does not exist in the U.K. version of the show. I had actually encountered the original show before this iteration of it was brought to me, with Gillian and Amazon, which is just such a perfect pair, a match made in Heaven. So, I have seen the U.K. show. I fell head over heels in love with it. It is completely and one hundred percent up my alley. I love dystopian thriller, action, pulpy weird shows. They do such an incredible job of capturing that in the British version that I actually had a moment of thinking, ‘How on Earth are we going to improve upon this?’
“But what I think Gillian did so beautifully is, she took that essence of what was so brilliant about the British show, and why it became a cult classic, and expanded upon it, and brings so much humanity and heart and humor into these characters, and not only that, gave us some wild twists and turns, and really departed from the seedling that was the original idea of the show, and as a result, I think that the show will garner fans, not only among people who were fans of the original, but people who weren’t. But this is very much their kind of show, and even people who don’t think that they would like a show based on a comic book, or one that’s geared in this lane, there’s so much humanity. It’s incredibly thrilling and filled with such amazing characters, depicted by incredible actors. So, it’s a joy. But Cory, I’m very excited for you to watch the other version as well.”
Borges elaborates on this. “Plus, we’re like mixing genres in a way. One of the things that I always found most gripping when I would read the scripts is how well Gillian weaved in a conspiracy thriller in with a dark comedy at points. There are moments where it just grabs you by the throat and then there are moments when there are levels of levity, and you get to float along and enjoy it, and then it f***ing grabs you again, and it’s nice to interweave between those, and get quite a bit of laughs along the way. So that it helps the mind, it helps the soul cleanse, and continues to progress the plot and the characters forward.”
So far as watching the U.K. UTOPIA, Borges says, “After having the opportunity to audition for the show, I immediately read the couple of scripts that they gave me, and then wanted a little more, because I had never seen the original, but I had heard of its cult following, and the level of dangerousness that it had, as well as how visually stunning it was. I just wanted something visually tangible that I could play off of. After devouring the first three episodes, because what Dennis Kelly created was so damn brilliant, I had to pull myself back out. Adeel [Akhtar, who played the character in the U.K. version] was absolutely brilliant and spot on, and if I was going to make Wilson Wilson my own, I not only had to pay homage to what they had created, but to allow Gillian’s version to bleed through me and have us [move] into a new avenue. So, I haven’t watched any more since those first three episodes, and the same as Cory – whenever this show is complete, or, given the nature of the show, when my time is done on this show, and I’ve had time to heal,” he laughs, “I will happily devour the rest of Season 1 and all of Season 2 of the original, because it’s pretty bloody brilliant.”
Does Smith see any similarities between Edward Nygma, who was able to conceal his psychopathic/sociopathic nature while serving as chief of staff to Gotham’s mayor, and Thomas Christie, who presents an upbeat corporate veneer to the public, but has a much darker side?
Smith replies, “Yeah, for sure. I see them as two very different characters, obviously, and one world is fictional and the other feels quite real. But there are absolutely correlations, especially in that narrative moment of Ed’s life. They [Thomas and Ed] are assistants to a great power, right? So, facilitating someone else’s desires, and being quite adept at it, and also, simultaneously, wanting more of the limelight. And I hope that, like Ed, Thomas has a moment to sort of step out from behind the shadow of his epic father and his accomplishments, as Thomas wants to do, and set out and achieve something on his own. You can see Thomas’s enthusiasm for wanting to be his own master, and leave an impact in a significant way, so I think he’s hoping and angling for a future where that is possible.
Wilson Wilson is brilliant, but his obsessive nature often isolates him from others. How did Borges approach playing that aspect of his UTOPIA character? “Well,” Borges says, “that’s not too difficult for me, because I usually feel like I’m in a different place than everybody else. And I don’t mean that snarkily. I grew up in a low-income household as a kid, in Logan Square, Chicago, in the ‘80s, when it wasn’t cool or hip to live there. For my entire life, I’ve been yearning to see people that look like me and sound like me in the things that I watch, and the things that I do. And so, feeling like an outcast, feeling like I’m voiceless, is something that I’m pretty used to. So, when I get the opportunity to fully flesh out people like this, so that other little ethnically ambiguous kids can see themselves in this light, and see that they’re more than just where they grew up, or what society tells them that they can be and how marginalized their ceiling actually is, I find it to be a great undertaking, and a joy to make them come to life, in a particularly human and hopefully dramatic and evolved way.”
Something very surprising happens with Sam early on. Did Rothe know about this going into the project, and what are her thoughts about it now?
Rothe says, “I knew what was happening with Sam [before signing on]. It was totally unexpected, and heartbreaking for me in some ways, because I have so much respect and admiration for Gillian, and for this cast, and I truly had one of the most remarkable summers, working with this group, and delving into this character. And Sam is such a delight to play, and I think she awoke in me passions and a fieriness that I hope I can carry forward into the world, because I think we need more Sams right now. But I have to say that I think it’s exactly what needed to happen in order to move the story forward, in order to give our nerds the terror and the adrenaline and the motivation, and to scar them and toughen their skins and mess them up a little bit to send them on their way, and really go on to save the world, which was Sam’s quest.
“In a funny way, I think Sam would look at it and say, ‘You know what? That’s exactly what was supposed to happen.’ Because she is just a conduit for this mission, for this purpose, and all she really cared about was making sure that greater humanity was saved, and I think she would sacrifice herself as many times as possible to make that happen. But yeah, I’m curious to see how people react,” Rothe laughs, “because it is jarring, but I think it also, in a brilliant way, shows you that, on this show, no one is safe. And that’s a very, very important lesson to learn, and one that I think makes the show really unique and special.”
Rothe continues, “As sad as I was, because what an incredible and epic show to be a part of, I think it’s what was right. Sam is like a phoenix. She comes in and goes out in [metaphoric] flame, and I can’t think of a better end for her than kind of defending what she believes is right, and motivating the characters along the way. And I know that she’s definitely given Wilson Wilson some emotional scarring that he’s going to have to deal with later. So hopefully, in a good way, but I guess that it all remains to be seen in the brilliant mind of Gillian Flynn.”
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Article: Interview with UTOPIA stars Desmin Borges, Jessica Rothe and Cory Michael Smith on the dark new Amazon series