From showrunner Gillian Flynn and inspired by the original British series, the Amazon Prime Video eight-episode conspiracy thriller Utopia follows a group of comic book fans who have bonded over their obsession with a seemingly fictional comic that they quickly realize is not only very real but very dangerous, as it predicts threats to humanity. As they find themselves trapped in life-or-death stakes involving the comic’s central character Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), this group of friends — Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd), Samantha (Jessica Rothe), Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges) and Grant (Javon “Wanna” Walton) – have to step up in a big way, if they’re even going to have a chance at succeeding in their mission to save the world.
At the virtual junket for the series, Collider got the opportunity to chat with co-stars Jessica Rothe and Desmin Borges about what drew them to this project, how surreal current events in the world make this story feel now, having an actual Utopia graphic novel to work with, and how they felt about the season finale for their characters.
COLLIDER: This show is fun because it never stops being unexpected. When this came your way, what was it that most interested you? Was there a specific aspect of the story that you felt most drawn to or connected with?
DESMIN BORGES: I think I can speak for both of us, even though I’m usually inclined not to speak for someone other than myself, but when a Gillian Flynn project comes across your desk, you say yes and hope that they end up offering it to you because she is just so brilliant and thoughtful and caring, not only about the world that she’s creating, but then you find out she’s exactly that same way in real life. What a dream it is to work hand in hand with her and create something as darkly exciting and traumatic and heartfelt and funny as Utopia.
JESSICA ROTHE: I love my job so much and I love being able to inhabit different kinds of characters and different worlds. Sam is just such a vibrant, passionate, unapologetic human, and so different than Tree. She really believes that she’s going to save the world. Getting to inhabit someone who is just so sure of their destiny and so sure of the steps they’re gonna take, even if they don’t know exactly how it’s going to fall out was just a delight. I like to believe that I carry a little more of Sam in me now than I did before. Her character was a huge reason that I was interested in this project, in addition to working with Gillian. Gillian has written such an incredible female protagonist in Jessica Hyde, who is flawed and damaged and feral and violent but also so tender in some ways and like a wounded child. Only very recently in modern media have women been allowed to be all of those things, and to be messy and go for the guttural. I really loved that I got to be a part of a show that did that, with Sam doing it in her own way and then also supporting Sasha [Lane]’s portrayal of Jessica Hyde. It’s just been a joy.
There are definitely a lot of disturbing things explored in this story. How did that feel the time you first read this and how did the context for that change, as the world around you changed?
BORGES: We started shooting it in the middle of April of 2019 and finished shooting it the very last week of September of 2019. The viral pandemic parallel really didn’t come into play until the last eight months or so, unfortunately. The eagerness to dissect why the violence and danger needs to be there, in order to propel the action and continue to move the characters forward is always interesting. Considering that violence can be a turnoff and be overwhelming if done gratuitously or incorrectly, I don’t believe we fell into any of those traps. Gillian kept it sharp and subtle, in certain aspects, and without it, we would have a much flatter conspiracy theory. There wouldn’t be nearly as much propelling these nerds to continue to figure out who they are, where they are, why they are, and how the hell they’re gonna help the world from the place that they find themselves in.
ROTHE: There’s just so much humanity and heart in these characters and in this story. It has been surreal watching the current events unfold and feeling like it’s deja vu from shooting. We’ve talked a lot about how, in some ways, it’s actually the perfect time for the show to come out, as heartbreaking and ironically funny as it is, because all of these characters are so relatable and so human. I think that each and every audience member will relate to a different person and hopefully will be able to process some of the past eight months and their experience in watching these characters move around in this slightly heightened alternate reality of what we’re going through. There’s also just such an insane amount of hope sewn into the DNA of the show and such an emphasis on, if you band together, there is nothing that can stop you. That’s a message we need now more than ever.
What was it like to have an actual Utopia graphic novel to work with and to be able to see and hold it, when you’re doing a show that’s essentially all about it?
ROTHE: It’s the best. Sam and Wilson Wilson are not only the expert but we also probably initially got to handle the comic book pages more than anyone else and treated them with reverence. The amazing thing is that João Ruas, who created all of the artwork for us, and he’s an artist out of Brazil, hid clues in there in a way that we even had to hunt to find. I bet that there are Easter eggs laid that he and Gillian decided to put in, that we won’t even discover until Seasons 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. That’s just such a fun and exciting creative place to live in.
Does it also make you feel nervous to hold it because people will freak out if something happens?
BORGES: Well, it was the only copy, so we were very tender with it, throughout the process. One of the things that I find most appealing about the show is how some of the comic book comes to life in the actual storytelling of it, or when we’re dissecting it and trying to break it down. You get a really tangible visual effect of how dangerously, horrific and beautiful these images are, on the page, which you don’t necessarily get to see as an audience member when there’s a camera over someone’s shoulder while you’re just getting a quick glimpse of a page. The moments where it really comes to life are truly exciting.
Since you don’t all make it to the end of the season, how did you feel when you read the ending and learned about your character’s story for the season?
ROTHE: That’s a great question and phrased very well. I knew about Sam’s general arc when I auditioned and then was lucky enough to be cast in the role. It’s so tricky because there are parts of it that are terrifying and horrifying and heartbreaking and strange and unexpected. As Sam would say, it all happens for a reason and the greater good is the most important thing. No matter who or what needs to be sacrificed in pursuit of that greater good of saving the mother-effing world, I think she would get behind it 150%. I think the way Gillian has unraveled this story is so delightful because no one is safe, no one is who they seem and you don’t know who you should trust. That’s just such an exciting place for an audience to live.
BORGES: And that’s basically the place that Wilson has been living from his entire life. He’s very comfortable in his bunker behind his screen. When he actually interacts with humans, seeing that’s not in his wheelhouse, those aren’t his strengths. And so, watching him go through the struggles that he goes through early on and seeing how he shifts, morphs, and changes, and ultimately gets to where he is by the end of the first season. There’s a joy in knowing that he’s grown as a human and there’s also a dangerousness that immediately is bestowed upon him. Once you go from seeing no horror to seeing horror constantly, that dramatically alters somebody and their heart and the reactions, from that point forward. It’s along the same lines, of never really knowing who to trust and when to trust them, and whether or not that path is the path that is ultimately the best for you.
Utopia is available to stream at Netflix.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.