Marin Ireland is tremendous on season two of the hit Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. It was a real treat to speak on the phone recently with the performer about playing Sissy, an unhappily married Texan woman with an unusual son named Harlan in 1960’s Dallas. The character embarks on a powerful and moving relationship with Ellen Page’s Vanya, who has travelled back in time after causing the apocalypse. Vanya gets hit by Sissy’s car in an early scene, leading Sissy to put up Vanya as a boarder this season and setting off an incredible chain of events in a powerful arc.
And what’s more, Ireland could not have been kinder or more eloquent in a very thorough interview in which spoke at length about working with Ellen Page as well as her role in upcoming Y: The Last Man.
The following is a condensed and edited version of my delightful phone interview with Marin Ireland.
Brief Take: It must have been the most incredible experience to star in The Umbrella Academy and Y: The Last Man, these sort of futuristic, end of the world projects, and now experiencing this period of 2020? You touched upon it a little bit in your Backstage article.
Marin Ireland: Yeah, it’s such a wild thing because we finished shooting The Umbrella Academy last (American) Thanksgiving, [laughs] it’s actually so surreal, it’s really hard to take it in. Which is part of what was happening when I was writing that, when I started writing that piece for Backstage, it was actually before the show had come out, but it was about things about which I was thinking this whole time. It’s hard to even take it in because normally in this moment, I would be seeing Ellen (Page) in person, we’d be at press stuff together—live—we’d be able to congratulate each other and we’d be going to press things and you’d have a physical experience of…even though we shot the show a long time ago, we’d be having a physical experience in our bodies now, of literally being out in the world, taking in the response. And it’s very disorienting! And I’m so moved, and Ellen and I are talking a lot and we’re sort of reminding each other this is exciting, this is great, and I’m not usually on social media very much, I didn’t even really have an Instagram account until like a month or so ago [chuckles] because I kind of shy away from that, but in this time, it actually feels really nice to feel like I have a connection with people with this project and it meant a lot to us making it. And even with Y, we were supposed to start shooting the season…March 25th, I think? [laughs] We were a week away from starting before everything shut down and we’ve been talking as a cast over Zoom, like once a week almost, we were talking regularly as a cast to try to stay connected somehow to each other. And we’re all over the place, there’s people in London, there’s people in New York and L.A. and Vancouver, so actually, it’s hard, it’s very hard in this moment to take things in in that way and to feel connected, as we’re all feeling. But it makes me feel so good to hear that it’s resonated with you.
BT: What an incredible performance. What was it like to play Sissy?
MI: Honestly, if Ellen and I didn’t have the chemistry that we have, like I met her before we started shooting, we have mutual friends, and so I met with her actually before I said yes, I sort of…I figured I couldn’t read anything, because it’s so top secret, so getting offered this part blind basically, I had a conversation with Steve Blackman over the phone and that was it. [laughs] I heard him describe it and I was like: [voice raising] I don’t know what this is! It’s crazy to say yes or no, based on a conversation, it’s like a big project, you know? And so I reached out to her because I thought: “You know what? If I’m working with her, if we’re not feeling the chemistry, it’s just not going to work out.” So we sat down together and like instantly, I was thinking: “Oh God, I’d be a fool not to get to work with this woman.,she’s just so incredible.” We really hit it off immediately and I used her so much as a beacon. I don’t have experience…like with Y, we just did the pilot and I don’t have experience in a show like this. I don’t have experience in this kind of genre work, and she does, not only on this particular show, but in this genre, she’s done other things in this genre, even. I was really able to…and I told her this, I was like: “I’m using you as my beacon through this work”, like in terms of: “Is there something different that I need to find my way through?”, because I also didn’t know what was scripted that was going to happen, so I was able to just sort of focus on her and keep sort of our connection as my real touchstone and throughline. We have a genuine connection. And so any time I was like: “Oh my God, look at my outfit, the fog machine is going, look at my crazy outfit, that’s so incredible, but like, I’m a cartoon in an amazing way, how do I ground myself?” And I literally just had to look at her. There was a scene that we have together in the car, that was a huge scene for us, that was a very emotional scene for me to shoot. And that scene in particular, I remember, there was a huge rainstorm, we were holding for hours and hours. It’s the scene in which I am trying to break up with her, and she’s like: “Trust me, trust me” and then we decide to run away together after that, and we ended up shooting that scene at about three in the morning after waiting on set for maybe 10 hours. [laughs] We shot that scene at three in the morning for like an hour, and I just remember thinking: “How are we going to do this?” Like, “This is an important scene” and I started to panic, like I’m not going to be able to do this, I’m just in the car with her and I’m thinking: “just…look in her eyes, be with her, this connection is…I can ground myself with her and our actual sort of trust in each other” and that is so special. I couldn’t imagine doing it with anybody but her and I couldn’t imagine trying to find that, if I wasn’t so lucky as to have someone like her sort of lead me through it. And even if it was the first season of the show, it would have been really challenging for me, but she was an incredible touchstone.
BT: You’ve been in projects with similar themes as this. How does your career throughline bring you to this role?
MI: I mean, it’s fascinating, right? Because we can, a lot of the times the power we have is in saying “no”. We don’t often get to do a thing that we would seek out as actors, at least I haven’t always in my career. I can look back and see all these connections. But I will tell you that I certainly, mindfully do say “yes” to things that have something to say. That’s something to which I allude a little bit in the Backstage piece, even, is wanting to feel useful, in a bigger way. I happen to have this particular skillset, which doesn’t always feel like, especially these days, that it counts as essential work. [laughs] These days, more and more, I’m like: “Gosh, maybe I should be a nurse or something, actually be able to reach out in a much more immediate way.” And yet, there are some times when I can feel like telling stories like the one that Ellen and I are telling or even in the play that I did about gun violence (On the Exhale), in which that actually does give people a space and language and certain kinds of representation to actually feel like I can use my particular skillset that I have and contribute something bigger to the world. That is important to me. I do feel like that matters to me, so I can’t always necessarily seek things out beforehand, but when something like that comes my way, I definitely feel that I do find myself more and more looking, especially, frankly, in the last four years for this country, I’m looking more and more for what’s the bigger reason? Is this contributing to our society, to a bigger conversation? Can I stand by this as something like that I’m using the skills that I have to be useful in a bigger way and purely for entertainment, which has its own value as well, but if you can do both, that’s really sensational. I can go to sleep at night feeling like I tried to be useful with my time on this planet. So yes, when those things come my way and I’ve had the opportunity to say yes to them, even this role, obviously, when Ellen and I talked about the potential for representation, and especially in the era we’re depicting. There were even fewer positive representations of LGBTQ characters and storylines. And both characters are flawed, my character is married. It’s not like she’s just sort of free from anything, but it’s part of the life into which she was born, in a way. Anyway, it helps me for sure, in terms of the choices that I make, that it helps that there’s a bigger value as well.
BT: What do you think of Vanya as metaphor, how she is electricity and what it means for your chemistry?
MI: That’s fascinating and really cool, and even the part of what happens with that is passing it along to Harlan, who then speaks. He speaks for the first time to his parents and it was something that was so interesting that we talked about a lot in terms of that moment in the storyline, too, in terms of what Vanya literally physically passes along to him, which then manifests as this metaphor of his sort of voice emerging. And we talked about that moment a lot when we were shooting it, that there has to be a moment in which it’s a good thing, even though we just watched when somebody seems to be sick, but something is like miraculous about it as well. And that sort of electricity that passes between Vanya and Sissy, as well, is something that I feel was really beautifully handled, in terms of the fact that like the overall thing about Vanya being the bomb. And that in this season, allowing that power to feel positive and not where it just ended in Season 1, where she has too much and maybe she needs to be contained, that there’s this other way, that’s like: “Yes, and also”, is she’s helping this little boy find his voice and she’s helping this woman feel like the fire has been lit inside of her for the first time, that there’s something really positive to that metaphor as well, of dealing with your power, and there is something very beautiful about that.
BT: What about stepping into your own power and participating in projects such as this one?
MI: That’s a really interesting question. I think especially that my hope is that I continue to find ways to push the boundaries of what people think I can do and what people think women do on screen. I feel like I have been so lucky. And I think that in large part, honestly, I think that I slipped into something accidentally, because the first thing on tv for which I was known and sort of surprised me in a big way was Homeland, so the fact that the first thing that I got known for wasn’t a girlfriend role, it wasn’t just a pretty girl. It was a terrorist. [laughs] I feel like that, in a way, set me up for the fact that I was then offered a bunch of villains in response to that, which I loved, I was like “great” and I think honestly, that’s been something that’s been really cool. Even the part on Y, I think it came to me because of other choice that I made. I do believe very firmly that the choices that you make in your career, what you say “yes” to does put you on a certain path. So being mindful about those things and the people with whom you choose to work and the content for which you choose to be a part, does start to build the path in front of you, that you kind of see, and you’re like: “I want to see it” when you look back at this in the future, but that the path starts to emerge. I do have a lot of hope for the medium at large, like film and tv, that as I get older in this business and familiar fears about women getting older in Hollywood, which is such a depressing trope, that as you get older, your options are more and more limited, but I do feel a lot of hope and I hope that [chuckles] I keep using the word, but I’m trying to be hopeful that the industry continues to push itself and that there keeps being surprises for me, because I do feel like Y was a surprise for me, this was a surprise for me. This was the kind of part I had never before played, in terms that she is this kind of woman and in terms of her open heartedness, [laughs] I usually play more complicated, villainous people, so it was really a thrill to be like: “She’s just a big open heart so much of the time” and that was really exciting. And especially stepping into power, I’m also trying to shed my own fears about that stuff and also shedding frequently ideas for myself and looking forward to trying to be surprised. I felt such a sense of freedom shooting this show with Ellen and I’m hoping to find more of that. That leaves a real feeling of power in your work.
BT: What did being a part of this awesome cast mean to you? Had you worked with anyone in this cast prior to this?
MI: No. I didn’t know anybody. I literally walked in on the first day, I shot my first scenes, my first scene was actually the first scene of the season, [chuckles] so it was also super monumental. I had just closed a play in New York the day before – I was doing the Susan Sarandon and Jesse Eisenberg play (Happy Talk), it was like I was coming right out of that and then suddenly, it was like the very first meeting. I didn’t know anybody. I knew Ellen, I had met her, but I didn’t know anybody else, I was suddenly in this outfit, [laughs] I was certainly super disoriented and I just remember that again, I was like “I’m so grateful that I met Ellen before and I know that I can trust in her and she makes me feel so at ease and it’s kind of more than I ever expected, honestly.” Because also, I shot maybe two days a month? My stuff with her was condensed and that’s why it felt like an indie shoot, because I can probably figure out how many days we shot together, I’m sure it wasn’t that many total, they were packed days, so it felt very, very intimate to me and my experience was very contained in that way. It kind of is hard for me to wrap my mind around it. It’s very moving to me. Honestly, even Ritu (Arya) said that about me. I’m such a huge fan of hers, I’m watching her like [chuckles] “Oh my God! It’s blowing my mind, it’s incredible.” We had a couple of days hanging out or running across each other in Toronto, but I remember thinking: “Alright, just look at Ellen’s eyes and try to do your best”, but I’m very overwhelmed emotionally by the whole response. It’s more than I ever imagined. Ellen and I ourselves had such a sense of responsibility, that we were holding ourselves to a very high standard about the storyline and what we were doing there. We just kept focusing on that, we really didn’t want anybody to be left down. The fact we feel like its being received as it plays is very, very moving and it’s really what we always wanted and what we hoped for.
BT: Who have you worked with previously that has been as generous and giving a scene partner as you?
MI: Hmm. Well I did a play early, early on with Frances McDormand, who mattered a lot for me. We did a play together in 200…2, I believe, it was called Far Away and was in the New York Theatre Workshop off-Broadway. [laughs] It was me, Frances McDormand and Chris Messina, and that was such a huge moment for me, working with both of them, honestly. And then, like other people, she’ll go back and do an off-Broadway play or a Broadway play and then she’ll go and produce Olive Kitteridge. She’s somebody that has continued to be a touchstone for me career-wise. Laurie Metcalf, I had worked with her on-stage. For me, certainly there’s a lot of people to whom I am looking as my idols that I’m like: “Wow, working with them is even better than I could have dreamed”. The other one I was going to say is Margo Martindale, the three of them in particular, they come from theatre, they go back to theatre, they do movies, they do tv, and working with them is even more of a joy and a privilege. You always get worried that you shouldn’t work with your heroes, because as Gustave Flaubert said: “Never touch your idols, the gilding will stick to your fingers”. Like, you’ll get disappointed. The three of them in particular are people that I always…I’m like: “Oh my God, it was even better than I dreamed”. I learned so much spending time with them. I was lucky enough to work with all three of them in different ways and they taught me so much.
The Umbrella Academy seasons 1 and 2 are now streaming on Netflix