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Interview: The Umbrella Academy’s Ritu Arya

by Charles Trapunski

Two words: Lila Pitts. If you haven’t fallen for Ritu Arya based on her mesmerizing performances in the hugely underrated Netflix series Feel Good (watch it, it’s tremendous) or The Stranger, we promise you will adore her in the wildly popular The Umbrella Academy, in which Arya inhabits the aforementioned enigmatic character of Lila Pitts. She absolutely goes to town with the characterization and it’s a remarkable portrayal by a transformative actress.

We had the opportunity to speak with Arya on the phone from the U.K. and she is one of the sweetest people that you can imagine. The following is a condensed and edited version of our fun chat with the kind Ritu Arya of The Umbrella Academy.

Brief Take: Your character feels like a game changer on a series that is already a game changer, and a disruptor of the highest order. How did you get into character as Lila?

Ritu Arya: That’s cool! Well, I did a lot of prep. When I read it the first time, she’s this unhinged, playful, unpredictable, shocking character and I completely fell in love with her right away. I have a different process—I think—depending on whatever is the project. But with her, I looked at a lot of films and some paintings, actually Egon Schiele paintings that really…I had put them all over my trailer. They’re really weird, physically and they’re quite out there and I think that helped me get into character. I also heard this thing that Angelina Jolie did, when she was doing Girl, Interrupted, that she had put—I don’t know if I should say this—[laughs] that she put porn around her trailer. I did that. Not because I think of Lila being as much highly sexualized, but more that it felt like quite a ballsy thing to do and kind of bold. And having that around my trailer as well I think affected her. It was funny, though, because the costume dressers would come in and they didn’t ever say anything about it. They just thought I was a massive perv. [laughs] That, and I would just listen to certain songs. You know, it was a whole journey.

BT: Every time you come on screen, it’s like the balance is disrupted. That must have been a blast to play.

RA: Wow. I mean she’s just written really well. I’ve got to give credit to the writers for that because she’s just an incredible character that everything feels like a game for her and I think there’s great power in that. I would just bring this. She’s always three steps ahead of everyone else, and when you are coming in with a mindset like that, something shifts.

BT: The intensity that comes off in your scenes with Kate Walsh and with David Castañeda is palpable. What was it like to collaborate with them as scene partners?

RA: Aww, it was incredible. I love working with David. I think he is incredibly talented and he was very considerate and generous. He would always do something different to what I had imagined when I was rehearsing and that’s always really fun. It never felt like work with him. We were always messing around and he was up for playing games and things like that. [laughs] Kate was lovely too. She has a very busy schedule and I think that episodes 3-6 we had to do within two weeks or something really ridiculous. She was from the early morning to the night and we would go a bit delirious. I remember one day that we were lying on the floor in the middle of the night, laughing. I think that it was one of the hotel scenes. We were  laughing hysterically at something which was small, like I think it was that a door had creaked. [laughs] Being delirious basically bonded us. [laughs]

BT: This show is really phenomenal, especially this season. What was your favourite moment to shoot?

RA: My favourite moment? I can’t choose! [laughs] There’s many! I loved the stuff at the beginning when we were in the insane asylum. I loved the uninhibited nature that Lila possesses and that as a setting itself, it was eerie and unusual. Then I loved doing all the fight scenes. I’ve never done anything like that before on screen and it was a really cool challenge. I think 5, Aidan (Gallagher), was great with whom to work as well. He’s brilliant, he’s focused and professional and I really liked working with him. And that last episode! That was a dream for me. It was mad because it was in the snow and I felt like we were already going through something together. Sometimes it was like I just need to get my lines out because I was that cold. I couldn’t think of anything else, but I hadn’t worked really with the rest of the cast yet and that was exciting to emulate their powers and spend time with them. Many wonderful memories.

BT: What about the fact that on this show the female characters are really bringing it?

RA: Yeah, I agree. I think Ellen (Page) and Emmy (Raver-Lampman) are such beautiful humans and talented actors. I feel very grateful to be working alongside them. They’ve got some really big storylines and scenes to do which I think that they do very well.

BT: How much do you enjoy the storylines in this series and into what themes are you leaning?

RA: I mean I enjoyed it very much. I think that to be honest, you can probably tell on screen. [chuckles] I love that these characters are…they’re a dysfunctional family. The fact that in season two, they just come together by the end of it is beautiful. They kind of work through their issues separately and I love that unity with which we get rewarded by the end of the season.

BT: What about the theme of otherness on the series and how it champions and celebrates diversity?

RA: It’s wonderful. I think that was probably my first impression with season one, with how it was alternative. I feel like it’s a real celebration for all the oddballs out there—which I love. I think it’s one of the more progressive shows and I love that there is the queer storyline with Ellen and Marin (Ireland), who I think is amazing. I  think that they have great representation in the show, kind of without talking about it. That’s important. I love that about the show that they’re not sort of preaching about the diversity, that they are simply doing it.

BT: There seems to be a lot of connections between Lila and Lava, your character in Feel Good.

RA: Really, in which way would you say?

BT: *Spoiler Alert* Mommy issues?

RA: Yeah, I know what you mean. I loved playing Lava, that was a lot of fun. She has her own troubles as well as Lila, right? I think that they come out in different ways. Yeah, good point. I hadn’t really thought about that.

BT: There are a couple of Toronto connections as well.

RA: Yeah, that’s true! And actually, because Mae’s from Toronto, Mae Martin, she was visiting her family while I was in Toronto filming, so we hung out a bunch. Yeah, fingers crossed for the next season of Feel Good, who knows?

BT: How does your real life talent of drumming play a role in your performances?

RA: Hmm! I guess if I had a day on set in which I thought that I was rubbish, then I could just go and play drums and smash it out and then I’m normal again. [laughs] I don’t know, it feels kind of separate. It feels hand-in-hand in the way that I feel that I can do a better job with acting when there is something else that I love as much. It’s not sort of on this pedestal of being everything. It helps me probably without me realizing. But I was in Toronto and I’d have a scene and then if I would have the day off, I would go into a rehearsal room and jam by myself. I don’t know, it’s what I like to do to have fun.

BT: What is it like playing a villainous character and yet working with performers that you like in real life?

RA: I guess it doesn’t feel like an effort, it helps me to have a good relationship with the people that I’m working with. If you’re lucky enough to become friends with your cast outside of work, then that, for me, only helps create trust and freedom on the floor when you are doing the work. From day one, they were all lovely to me—they were inclusive. I don’t think that a lot of them knew that I had powers until this episode. It came out to us toward the end of filming. [chuckles] That was a lot of fun, but it helps me a lot to be friends with the cast.

BT: What is your favourite part of the process and acting in the moment?

RA: How much time do we have? [laughs] I work hard. I have to work really hard in order for myself to enjoy work when I’m on set. I will read the script several times, I will make a list of all the things that my character says, that other people say about her—just get as many clues as I can. I love being a detective about that stuff. And then I’ll make a list of things that I want to research, like documentaries or books or film. Then I’ll think about all my scenes, my journey, my relationships—probably the most important thing, I try to make it about the other character as opposed to myself. And I guess what this person is trying to get at and why. I would try and relate it to myself, use what is going on in my life a lot in my roles, ’cause I think that’s the most useful for me in terms of getting to the most truthful performance. And that can end up sometimes with the character bleeding into my personality during that period of time we are filming. [chuckles] But I really like to immerse myself, whether that be in my backstory or keeping a character diary every day, meditating upon which kinds of questions that am I asking myself as this character.

Sometimes I think about what animal my character represents, where is their weight, where is their gaze going, their kind of pace, their rhythm. I follow Laban as well, the Laban movement, which helps me differentiate from my characters.

It changes so much, depending on what I find useful, because then things get stale, but I guess that helps a lot. I’ll have my music on set, often, music helps me stay in the zone too, often.

BT: What would be the music that would get you into character as Lila?

RA: [laughs] I listen to a lot of this artist called SOPHIE. They’re an electronic artist. Have a listen. See what you think.

BT: What do you like to watch? 

RA: I love The End of the Fucking World, I think it’s incredible, unique and brilliant. I quite enjoy things that are a bit offbeat. I watched Ozark recently, Oh my God! I got so sucked into that and binged it. I thought it was brilliant, I think that Jason Bateman’s amazing. And I’ve been watching all of Adam Sandler’s movies, [laughs] I think he is brilliant—really underrated and funny. Anything that Aubrey Plaza is in, I’m down. I like weirdos.

BT: What can you say about Red Notice? I’m really excited for it.

RA: I’m very excited too! I play an INTERPOL Agent who is on the hunt for the most notoriously skilled art thief. I’m working with The Rock and Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot and I cannot quite believe that that’s happening. [laughs] They’re incredible! I guess that I’m just taking it day by day. I find it amazing that three years ago or whatever, I was doing stand-up in the back of a pub, doing children’s theatre, and now I’m doing action scenes with The Rock. Life is quite hilarious.

The Umbrella Academy seasons 1 and 2 are currently streaming on Netflix

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