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Dead and Loving It! Justin Min on Ben Hargreeves, Robert Sheehan & the Diversity of Umbrella Academy

Photo Credit: Netflix

It’s been nearly a month since The Umbrella Academy made a smashing debut on Netflix, and it seems this merry band of super weirdos is here to stay. We had the wonderful chance to join a round table Q&A with Justin Min, none other than the series’ spectral, surprise sibling, Ben Hargreeves. Min was kind enough to share some words on the hilarity of Robert Sheehan, discovering and recreating his comic book counterpart, and working with show runner Steve Blackman.

Your character has a very interesting relationship with Robert Sheehan [Klaus], you’re sort of his guide to understanding the dead since that’s what he can see, could you talk about that very unusual relationship?

It is unusual. I think in a lot of ways Ben is functioning is like ghost, but in a lot of and most ways he’s just functioning like his brother — in the ways that Ben was like when he was alive. I think Ben and Klaus have always had a strong connection, even while growing up. They’ve always looked out for each other. So the fact that Ben is dead obviously presents its share of challenges, but in many ways, they still carry the same dynamic. They still joke around, sass each other up, but at the end of the day they still love each other very deeply.

If you continue to delve into this character is there anything you find as a surprise to learn about yourself as an actor?

I think the technical aspects of this project were unique to me. To be in scenes where no one can see me, except for Klaus, was an interesting thing to play. It’s really funny because there were multiple times where we would have to reshoot scenes because one of the other cast members would accidentally make eye contact with me or see me when they weren’t supposed to. So technically, it was interesting in that way. And obviously, the opportunity to develop this relationship specifically with one character throughout the course of this show was very unique. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in crime than Robbie [Sheehan]. Yeah, all in all, it was just an incredible experience.

This is quite an ensemble show! It’s a huge cast and every actor has to play their part even more so possibly than before with a show like this. How did you find working in such a big ensemble like this?

I’ve worked on a couple of sets, obviously not to this scale. I know a few of the other cast members have said the exact same thing. There was such an interesting chemistry with all of us since the first day we all met. It really did sort of feel like a family, as cheesy as that sounds. I think that our characters are truly extensions of who we are as people, and so it’s funny, even when the cameras stop rolling we all sort of play our part still, have fun, and joke around. It’s been such a fun time. I act most of my things with Robbie, so I‘ve been able to develop a relationship over the course of filming and that’s just wonderful as well.

Speaking of the ensemble, did you and your fellow cast mates have to work a lot with your younger counterparts to understand the headspace of the adult versions of your characters?

I can only speak for myself, I’m not sure to what extent the cast members did. I’m sure they did. Personally, I knew early on Ethan [Hwang] would be playing my younger self. I called him up and I saw him as soon as I landed in Toronto. We instantly got along. We had a lot of discussions on what we wanted to do with the character, how we would try to play it. We wanted to have a similar essence and take so it would make sense that I would be playing the older version of him. I think Ethan does an absolute incredible job as young Ben, and that was that.

It’s interesting your character, out of everyone, being dead has made you a little less dysfunctional than everyone in the family. It’s really fun to watch. Since Ben is such a mystery, were you able to spend time talking with Gerard [Way], getting tidbits on how you developed who Ben was and get more backstory than was presented in the series.

Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to speak with Gerard directly because I was unable to make the first table read where he was present. But I heard everything second-hand through our showrunner Steve [Blackman]. Steve and I had constant conversation throughout shooting the show in terms of who Ben was, what he would do, who he would be, his relationship with his other siblings. Because, obviously as most of you already know, Ben was not in the source material.

He was just sort of referenced as the dead sibling, maybe a couple of flashbacks, but other than that nothing else. It was really exciting to be able to create a character from scratch. There were even a couple of times where they would make revisions and we would have to go back and shoot a scene again because of things we would discover about Ben as we were going along. That was so fun and exciting and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to create a character from the ground up.

To that point, Steve Blackman and the writers did a brilliant retcon of The Umbrella Academy as far as it allowed them to diverge from the comics, to possibly get Allison’s voice back, and I’m guessing to get you as Ben back. Did you know your role would grow when you took it or did you find out later? How did you react?

Not at all, I did not know anything. I didn’t know anything about anything actually. When I first auditioned for the show, I was given fake audition material for a fake character. I had no idea who I was playing and what I was doing, I did the best I could. I went through multiple rounds of callbacks, again still not knowing anything. I got the call that I booked this amazing part of this new Netflix show but that “we still had to like know who you were.” I would say a week before flying out to Toronto, I was finally told I would gonna be playing Ben Hargreeves.

I ran out to the comic book store as quickly as I could. I started to read all of them, lo and behold I realized that  he was dead, so I was even more confused. I had no idea what was going on. Then finally my conversation with Steve happened, then I got a better sense. But what happens with Ben at the end, I had no idea. I was discovering that all as I was reading it, so when I read that final script for that final episode I was shocked and happy, and excited, but I had no idea that where they were planning on taking the character. I don’t even know if they did. I think it sort of happened more and more organically as we began to shoot the series, because I think they realized that this sort of dynamic between Klaus and Ben was really special, and something they I wanted to lead into.

What has it been like for you to watch the fanbase for this series grow, and know that you’re a part of that?

It’s been insane, it’s been overwhelming, it’s been incredible, it’s been amazing! As an actor all you could ever hope for is that something you do is enjoyed by an audience. And the fact that this show is being enjoyed by so many people around the world, it’s so amazing and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. You know to be quite honest, I knew sort of going in what my character would have been, I knew at the end of the day Ben was gonna take a little bit of a backseat this season in terms of his storyline and what would be happening. I was perfectly comfortable with that. So the fact that fans have responded to Ben even though he plays sort of a minor part this time around, I don’t know what to say. It’s been so overwhelming and I’ve been so grateful.

Are you feeling the pressure for next season now that everyone is pretty much in love with you the first day?

I mean if we do keep this up, which I hope we do, yeah there is a pressure but when you’re in a scene with Robbie Sheehan, nothing can really go wrong. He’s just the best scene partner, the funniest guy. Half the thing we did  he had provided, we were just having a blast. Yeah there would be some sort of pressure but at the end of the day, I think we just have a good time like we always do.

Has he taught you any Irish swear words?

All he does is speak in Irish swear words!

What was your reaction to learning your character’s backstory, in particular his ability to kind of turn into this “thing”?

I laughed! I thought it was so ironic this character called “The Horror,” has these monsters under the skin, he’s actually the most shy and the sweetest of the group and his family. The fact that he doesn’t enjoy being a “superhero,” doesn’t really want all this attention and want to do all these things. It was really fun to play into that and  to know that about Ben. I just wanted to create a character that would be memorable enough that the audience would believe because of his death the family split apart. I wanted to be something good that would make them believe he was integral enough part that the family split apart once he had passed away.

Since this series is the first to kind of break the superhero mould that we are experiencing on TV, what would you like future superhero properties and series to take away from The Umbrella Academy?

I think at the end of the day what makes Umbrella Academy resonate with so many audience is its relatability. It’s not about the superpowers, it’s not about this craziness they find themselves in. It’s about a family, I think anyone anywhere can relate to the dynamics of a family, the dynamics of a dysfunctional family. The fun and craziness that pursues, and beneath, the love that every family has for each other. I hope that future properties can see that the action scenes, the glitz and the glam, all that is great and fun, but people are looking for human stories and something that is relatable. I love that our show really highlights the underdogs, and these people who seemingly don’t have their lives together, but still come together and do good and enact change, and love each other the best way that they can.

It was really awesome to see a racially diverse cast involved in this, do you think that added layers to what you were just talking about?

Oh 100%! You know diversity is so important to me, it’s one of the issues I am most passionate about as an Asian-American actor. I couldn’t be more grateful to our creative team and for Gerard, who has even admitted that’s one of the things he wanted to change the most with the show, is to create a diverse cast and a cast that reflects the world that we live in today. I think diversity is still lacking quite predominantly in the superhero genre space. To be able to have a diverse cast in that space is really exciting. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity.

The Umbrella Academy
Photo Credit: Netflix

Is it difficult to keep your focus in a scene like the “motel scene” with Robert [Sheehan]?

That scene was so much fun to shoot! I’m sitting there with Robbie and suddenly 40 extras walk into the door, with the most gruesome injuries all over their bodies and their faces. It was really scary but really, really fun to shoot. Everyone was such a good sport. That room was tiny and to fit that many people in there was bit of a task. It was so much fun and everybody was on board. It was one of my favorite scenes to shoot.

How hard was it for you to not talk about Ben all this time?

It was one of the hardest things I had to do! It was really hard, it was really, really hard! I wanted to share my experience and talk about the show, and get my friends and family excited about the show even before it came out. But again, I wasn’t really allowed to talk about myself. But with all that then, when the show did come out and it was a surprise for all the comic book fans, it was all worth it in that moment. For them to experience the surprise of Ben being there when it was not expected he would be there, it was amazing.

You brought up the music earlier, was the music ever present while filming? Some of music was so integral to what was going on on-screen, did you guys have any playback music while filming these scenes?

We didn’t, but for any of the dance sequences they had all the playback. But unfortunately for audio purposes we couldn’t have audio playback while reciting our lines. However, Steve was very, very good and clear about the musical choices he would use, sometimes they would be as specific as the song he eventually ended up using.  In the script he would always write the name of a song or something in the vein of the name of a song.

So that was really great for us as actors because we would have a good sense of what that scene would sound or feel like and play off that. But also at the end of the day, it was also nice not knowing 100% what the music would feel like. I think the beauty of the music is that it actually often clashes with what’s happening in the scene, so I think if we had been fully aware with what the music would be it would have maybe got into our heads and wouldn’t be able to play the true reality of the situation. Which is what I think makes the music shine even more so, because it’s sort of undercutting everything that’s happening in the scene itself.

If you could have the ghost of any famous person haunt you like Ben haunts Klaus, who would it be and why?

That’s a really good question. Let me think. Maybe, probably Steve Jobs? So that he could tell some things to invent and I would invent them and be the next Steve Jobs? I also think he was a fascinating character, and to know more about him and pick his brain. I recently read his biography and he’s been on my mind.

Catch Justin Min on The Umbrella Academy which is currently streaming on Netflix.

Alisha Weinberger
Alisha Weinberger
Alisha Weinberger is a comic book, video game, and animation enthusiast and critic. Along with comic reviews, she also maintains The Pop Break twitter feed. Alisha thoroughly enjoys the warm embrace of coffee, says "dawg" and "dope" ad nauseam, and shares a reluctant resemblance to Tina Belcher.

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