David Castañeda is a killer interview, and this comes as, well…not a surprise, but a bit of a shock, because I didn’t realize how much of a balancing act is it to play Diego Hargreeves (aka Number Two), the superhero that is probably the most “superhero”-like on the wildly popular Netflix series The Umbrella Academy. He has to bring a lot of attitude to his character, but comes across as this laid-back, not at all Diego-like, really stand-up dude. It’s astonishing the chameleonic work that he does on the show, and on top of this, how well he annotates specific Easter Eggs or scenes for which to look out, which enhanced our enjoyment of the show (which we already loved).
The following is a condensed and edited version of a wonderful phone conversation with David Castañeda of The Umbrella Academy.
Brief Take: What did you like most in season two of Umbrella Academy?
David Castañeda: You know what, man? You could say everything. There was a lot of excitement coming in when we had the scripts, because obviously we knew the characters well that we already had this flow going from over a year ago. And when Steve (Blackman) came in, he said: “This is where Diego is going to start and this is where he might end”, because he never really did give me the ending. There’s a lot with which to play, a lot of time’s prep, a lot to time to talk with other cast mates and see what they’re having. It’s almost like Christmas. It’s like: “Yo. What’s your character going through? What’s your character going through?” How it all ties in together, I feel like that was such a special thing. The bond in itself with the cast, the writers and the directors coming in, I think that it is like a well-oiled machine.
BT: Your table read was a momentous occasion. What was it like getting back into it with your Hargreeves family after the time off?
DC: It was like the first day of school. You show up, and I had spoken to a few of the cast mates when I was travelling abroad before I went to Toronto. And I’d spoken to a few of them and seen what their take was on the scripts. It was like everyone was coming in and showing off their [chuckles] brand new shoes and their backpacks and their pencils and trying to figure out how it’s going to sound, because obviously, when you read the scripts it’s one thing and you can put it up in your head, but once you put it out, then you read it and you’re hearing Klaus and Ben and Ellen (Page) and Tom (Hopper) and Emmy (Raver-Lampman) and Ritu Arya or Yusuf (Gatewood) or everyone coming in, it’s a treat.
BT: How immersed were you for your trip to the jungles of Thailand a month prior to filming?
DC: It was like a next day thing, so I remember once I started watching some films, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted, and I started thinking about things, I said: “Do you know what? There’s a thing about being not understood and not being able to communicate to the outside world.” And I brought it up to a buddy of mine one day and I said: “I’m thinking about going somewhere in which I can pretty much feel disconnected from the things of which I know”, which is the English and Spanish-speaking communities, and also to stay in shape and to learn a different art form. And so I saw Muay Thai camps and there was a Muay Thai camp and I booked it the next day. I flew almost like in 48 hours, I was gone. No one knew. I think that Steve Blackman, the showrunner, saw a video of me in a moped in the jungle and he just sent me a message saying: “Please! Stay off your phone while you’re driving”, [laughs] and that was like the first message that I had with him, and it was pretty much saying that we’re about to shoot in 2 weeks, so he was saying: “Just don’t get hurt”. And that’s not to say that obviously when you go into these camps, because I went to two camps, and it was really nice, man. Obviously, it was terrible midway through it. Midway through it, you start missing your family, your friends, not a lot of people are speaking Spanish. There was one person I met from Guadalajara that I met who was really nice. But yeah, it is an experience that at that point, I hated it, but I would recommend it and I would do it again.
BT: Did the natural look means this was actually your own hair and beard?
DC: The beard was. The hair, unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to grow it out that long. I tried my best. I think that I had maybe 5 months of not cutting my hair. And I looked like a bum. And I would walk and people would just jump off the sidewalk and go around me, [laughs] because I just looked so sketchy.
BT: I thought that you actually looked a lot like Antonio Banderas.
DC: Yeah, because once they found me, they had to beautify me, Charles. You know what I mean?! There were like: “We’re going to give you long hair and a beard”, but actually the beard I eventually grew out, but “we’re going to give you this”.
BT: At one point you see a picture of yourself without the beard and the hair and you say “I hate that photo”. Was that an in-joke or something?
DC: [laughs loudly] No! That’s why Diego never cuts his hair or shaves his beard, because if you really pay attention, Lila was the one who shaved him and gave him the goatee. If it were up to him, he would have kept his whole thing. I think that the same way that he doesn’t like being identified as a hero, he likes to be under the surface on everything. At least that’s what he portrays, because when Herb said: “You’re a legend”, he was almost shook, but pleased, like: “Really?”.
BT: What did you enjoy most about working with Ritu this season?
DC: Oh, it was beautiful! It’s a good friendship. When we started, I said: “Hey, would you mind just kind of rehearsing?”. What we did is that we just started talking about kind of intricate things about the characters and how parallel they were to each other and the possibility of that’s probably what they’re seeing, but they’re not saying, and it’s all underneath that parallel story that they both have. But it was great. Ritu, she’s an amazing actress, man. I feel like every time we did a scene, and that’s not affecting the other cast, who are incredible, but when I was working with her, I didn’t have to put on anything. It was a wonderful experience.
BT: What was a moment in which you were thinking ‘this is going to turn out incredibly’?
DC: Charles, every single time, dude. It was much more about the experience of being on set and pulling it off. So for example, the Mexican embassy, the dance, we took choreography for like, I don’t know, at least once a week for like 6 weeks, right, with a professional dancer to learn this balance. And I knew that there was a lot at stake for that whole sequence because you had a torn relationship between Lila and Diego, the dance routine in which Lila was obviously trying to mask what she was hiding and then the attack of the Swedes, when I thought: “What a wonderful way to kind of sum up a show, to have part of this in which part of my heritage was being displayed, part of the action that is very attractive to the stunts that I like to do and having to play with Lila and 5 at the same time.” I think that this sequence was very special and also Steve had hyped it up before we even shot it, he said: “You’re going to destroy the Mexican consulate”. And I just thought: “Great”. [chuckles] And I even knew about that before I went to Thailand, I just knew that: “Oh, he’s crazy. I mean, he’s a little cuckoo”.
BT: This show doesn’t work if the family doesn’t get along as famously as you do on and off screen. What was the click?
DC: We all get along, man. And I think that how they cast this team, it was just perfect. I was actually pondering that yesterday, how we never had any chemistry reads, we never tested together, it was just like they knew that these characters would come in and obviously, at the beginning of Season one, we had been apart for 13 years. So it did work, this being unfamiliar with each other for over a decade, and as the episodes went along, each episode was about three weeks, right? As each episode came along, we started bonding again, as these characters. Also as actors, we started bonding. And now when you jump into Season two, I mean, it’s only been seconds from, technically story wise seconds, since we blinked out of the apocalypse. And so now actually, when I watched a few episodes of season two, I thought: “Our chemistry is just spot on, man”. I mean, I’m not trying to sound like a prick, but our chemistry is better than the first season.
BT: On the show you have a complicated relationship with your father, but what do you think about Colm Feore in real life?
DC: He is wonderful. He’s just wonderful. I cannot speak any more highly of Colm Feore. He’s a fucking master of the craft. Every time I see him come on to the set, I say how professional and lovely he is. And it’s interesting I think because I have to find a way to hate him. So it’s been good trying to find that separation of being on the set off-camera and having a very loving, comfortable dynamic as work colleagues. But then having to jump into the scene and doing, say, the scene where he stabs me or having the light supper at the Tiki restaurant and having to find that inside, he is not Colm, he is Reginald Hargreeves. I still see Reginald Hargreeves as an anomaly, I think that’s why Diego even tries to jump in and save JFK, because if you notice in episode nine, I believe, the Majestic 12 are celebrating JFK’s murder, and Reginald is saying: “You shouldn’t have done that, that was not part of the deal”. And I think that Diego knows something about that, that there is a possibility that if JFK hadn’t gotten murdered, he would have had a better childhood. Reginald would have been different and he would have seen the world differently. And maybe instead of raising them with fear and disapproval, he would have raised them and championed them with love. I think that Diego, end all and be all, he was trying to better understand Reginald. Obviously, he’s a lot more than we expect. Like an Alien.
BT: What was it like to shoot season two in Hamilton and season one in Toronto?
DC: Man, it was a blast. Steve Blackman is a genius, man, he really just knows how to take the show in its own way and still honour the comic book. And I think that’s what makes the show really special, the second season. The first season is amazing, but right now it’s going into uncharted territory in certain aspects, and he told us, he said: “We’ve converted a whole street in Hamilton to the 1960’s Dallas.” And hearing it, I was like: “Oh, that’s great“, but it’s not until you step on to that set and you see it—you see the cars, the people, the outfits, the costumes…the signs of these locations that they had to change. They had to go into these owners’ homes, the owners would have to say: “I’d like to [chuckles] change this for six months” and get the approval of the city and stuff. That goes to show the production in general and how top-notch it was, but it also did help in doing scenes because you didn’t have to think of being in Toronto. I love Toronto, man. Charles – Toronto, man, you guys are doing it good, man. Beautiful beautiful town, beautiful people.
BT: What kind of themes do you lean into when you’re playing Diego and participating on this series?
DC: Just to tell the truth. I mean, that’s it. I think the effects and production and everything else, the direction, I think of the vision of trust to know that whatever we are looking at, whether it’s a baby Pogo, or if it’s Vince Carmichael, or if it’s The Handler, that as long as to me, if I ground the character in truth and the stigma and the grudge he has toward his father and how he grew up. And obviously there’s so many other factors that effect Diego, but if I just play it as truthful as possible, it won’t feel like a parody, it won’t feel…hopefully people can connect to it, rather than just be in awe of the spectacle. They can actually see people and therefore then be reminded like: “Oh, shit! This is kind of wacky”, you know?
BT: What was it like shooting the Date Announcement video in which you had a sheep and a Starbucks splash stick for Diego?
DC: Yeah, it was fun. I think that the Netflix marketing team, they’re so ahead of the game in getting people hyped and knowing what would get the fans revved up, and obviously, quarantine is the big thing going on, so we wanted to make sure that it does not matter, it does not need to look professional. They sent us these frames. They said that “these are the frames to kind of replicate it and you can use whatever you like”. They said: “David, you can use knives, you can use your kitchen knives”. And I wanted to, but then I had just gone to Starbucks that morning, and I had this little thing that I was playing with the whole morning and I said: “I’m going to try this”, and the sheep, I bought it at the Farmer’s Market, actually a week ago and it was keeping me company through quarantine, so it was my boy! It was my friend. Yeah, man. [laughs] It was like the first episode of season one and we saw the dance. And we were like: “We’re not sure if this is going to work out”, but it’s like: “Okay, let’s do it”, it was kind of like that same thing in which we’re going to do a dance routine and it’s going to be from home and it turned out being actually really funny, because I was having a ball looking at everyone else do their thing from home.
BT: What’s great is that everyone dances in their own way. Did you have instruction about how to do so or were you allowed to do what you wanted?
DC: When I read it, I remember thinking: “Oh, we dance. Great! Alright. I’m in”, because I want to be doing things that I haven’t seen before. Steve kind of told us: “How would your character dance?”, and he would speak about how he would have ideas for certain characters, and my idea was like he’s violent and also he takes himself really seriously, and I thought to myself: “Who is it that’s someone that I look up to that I can just not force a different dance”, and obviously The Fresh Prince was like a big thing and when I lived in Mexico, I incorporated dance moves that I learned in Mexico, I would like pop lock and breakdance and stuff. [chuckles] So it ended up working out pretty well, man. I think I had like two takes when I did the dance scene because that was just…I was tired, man. They put that whole song on and people were just behind the frames looking at you and it was probably scarier than doing an actual scene. Because you know, I’m not a professional dancer and it’s not my sweet spot.
BT: Tell me about the scene in the rain in Season one in which you bonded as a family?
DC: Oh man. That was episode one. We had a three week hiatus after we finished that episode and I remember, as bad as it sounds, I just thought that I needed to give everything I could in this moment, because it was almost like my audition, I felt like. Because I didn’t know if after this episode, because everyone was amazing, man. And I thought that if I don’t bring my A game to this, it’s going to be three weeks in which they’re going to look at this and think: “Yup. We’re going to need another one. We’re going to need a new Diego”. It was very much more of a bond between Luther and Diego, I remember, between myself and Tom (Hopper), we probably got to practice that fight weeks in advance. And when the day came about, we shot that fight in I believe two and a half days. It was freezing, the rain, the ground had solidified, it was mud and it was now ice-mud. And I couldn’t feel my fingers and they were throwing fake rain on us, because obviously it wasn’t raining when the fight started and then we had to shoot everything with rain, and I can only imagine everyone else behind us when we were fighting, how cold they were watching two men wrestle in the mud. [laughs] It was great! Robert (Sheehan) was so kind. I remember he just looked at me and gave me a little wink and a thumbs up and I was like “great!”, because that might have been I’d say the fourth day of shooting.
BT: What was it like filming the final episode?
DC: It was one of the trickier episodes to shoot, I would say. I think because of the snow, it snowed on us. Steve had to figure a way to work the snow into the episode. I remember reading episode 10 and it was almost like I took a step back and got thrown back, because this is prior to learning about how it ends, right? And I thought: “Oh my God! What a build-up”. I was really excited. As excited as you are watching it, I read it and I saw it and it wasn’t until we were shooting it, that it was cold and freezing and I was thinking in my head: “This is going to be worth it”, [chuckles] “this is going to be great.” Because obviously, you’ve got to aim high. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.
The Umbrella Academy seasons 1 and 2 are currently streaming on Netflix