I’ve done a lot (!!) of talent interviews over the past decade and one of my favourite pairings of all time was the recent pairing of Utopia stars Jessica Rothe (Valley Girl, the Happy Death Day franchise) and Desmin Borges (Living with Yourself, You’re the Worst). The talented duo were playful, eloquent, introspective, and gave me tremendous insight into their respective acting process as well as the Amazon Prime Video show. The following is a condensed and edited version of our delightful conversation during the press junket day for Utopia.
Brief Take: There’s a tremendous amount of respect between your characters on the series so I’m curious, as performers, what did you like best about working with each other?
Jessica Rothe: That’s a great question. One of the great things that we found in making this show is that all of our characters were a little closer to home that we could ever have expected so I have so much admiration and respect for Desmin and his work ethic and incredible talent and enormous heart, and those are all things that Wilson Wilson has as well. [laughs] Though he may be a little left of centre when it comes to his beliefs and frenetic energy, but Desmin is an absolute joy to work with. He’s so incredibly passionate and talented, and when you’re working, you can’t wish for anything else in a scene partner. But we really, really did luck out because every single actor on this show is not only insanely talented and hard working but also just a good person, and that is so rare to find in this business. I really feel like I hit the jackpot on this job.
Desmin Borges: I agree. Jessica definitely hit the jackpot on this job. [laughs] No, I mean to piggyback on what she said, and I don’t want to say the exact same qualities about her in particular, but when you are sharing a screen with someone who is just so fiercely loyal and down to try anything…I mean one of the greatest things that I always found in acting school was that as long as you are doing everything you can to ignite your partner and make them look good, other actors that are of the same mindset and of the same skill level will do the exact same to you, undoubtedly without question and without even thinking about it. And that’s the situation that we found ourselves in – from number one on the call sheet all the way to number ten. I was already enthralled and excited about working with all of these people. Sasha Lane in American Honey was absolutely brilliant. I grew up in Chicago in the ’80s and there weren’t many people more famous than John Cusack then, you know? I think Rainn Wilson was probably the one I was most nervous to work with because I’m a huge Office fan and I think Dwight K. Schrute is one of the most brilliant comedic characters ever created. Ashleigh I had previously been a fan of her work, Dan Byrd, I’ve loved his work, and I mean Happy Death Day, I’ve seen the movies multiple times. I’d never told Jessica that but now she knows and so does the rest of the world. And then when you have Cory Michael Smith, I’ve known him from my New York time and he’s brilliant. Christopher Denham, I saw him in Red Light Winter in Chicago before we ever met in New York. Then Farrah (Mackenzie) and Javon (Walton), when you’re dealing with young’uns of that calibre, you know you’ve got to bring it. Especially Javon because he’ll knock you out! [laughs] I mean when you’re the state boxing champion, he’s a fiercely competitive little guy and you see it come out. And I don’t mean ‘little guy’ in a negative way, I have a four year-old son so any person who’s smaller than me is a ‘little guy’, it’s just my vernacular now. But when you have so much admiration for everyone before walking on, you just hope that you can give them back what you know they’re going to be giving you on any given take.
JR: And we were really lucky on this job because every single person came in with such a depth of experience and enough work under their belt that they knew their own process and knew what they needed and knew what they needed to ask for. And that is such a gift because, as Desmin said, there’s nothing better as an actor than when your scene partner turns to you and says “hey, you know what’s really going to help me get through this scene? let’s do this. Let’s play off each other, let’s bounce off each other.” We as a cast went and sat in Millenium Park by the bean and ran lines and brainstormed, and it’s so rare to find people who are so excited to work outside of work, and that’s my favourite way to work. We also all got on as friends, so it was a really unique experience.
What were your motivations to play your respective characters and what were your takeaways from playing them?
DB: I mean the main motivation, for me, originally, is that a Gillian Flynn project was coming across my desk. When a Gillian Flynn project comes to you, you say yes before the audition even happens. You’re just lucky to be included in the world that she’s created. So we’ll start there, and then you add in the brilliance of Dennis Kelly’s Utopia and the brilliant job that they did with Wilson Wilson there, and you just want to honour what they created and built and make it your own from there. So ultimately, I was in direct admiration of the people that I was going to be working with and the people that I was taking the baton from and leaving it to the next generation. I wanted to make sure I didn’t mess it up. I wanted to always be open and find new levels for Wilson and uncover truths about him that I might not have originally noticed when they were on the page. When you have people around you that are willing to dig and ignite things in you that you didn’t necessarily want to get to originally, you find what we have in these first eight episodes.
JR: I was just such a fan of the U.K. show. I really, really am drawn to dark, twisted, funny dystopian works. In middle school, when we got to the dystopian part of our English class and we read 1984 and Brave New World and all of those kinds of books that are social commentary, but because they’re in the realm of sci-fi or slightly different than the world we’re operating in, I really think that it gives people the unique opportunity to look in the mirror at themselves and at the world around us and really go into places that are uncomfortable, because it’s masked behind this kind of adventure heightened reality, so I think the show does that so beautifully.
In terms of Sam, I was so honoured and excited and delighted, similarly to Desmin, to be a part of a Gillian Flynn project and to jump inside her world. She’s such a genius and she’s such a special, incredible, intelligent woman. It was really amazing for me to portray a character who is so passionate and is so unapologetic about her beliefs and wants and isn’t afraid to go after her own destiny, and go out there and safe the motherf’ing world, as she would say. [laughs] She has quite a potty mouth, which I also really enjoy. I think that what I took away from the experience of playing her is that we are all in charge of our own destinies and we are the only things standing in the way of us going out and really changing the world. All we have to do is decide that we’re going to do it and surround ourselves by good people, and go after what we believe in and our dreams. I love that that’s a part of the show that we’ll hopefully get to share with hundreds of thousands of people, because I think it’s such an important message, especially right now.
DB: I’m not sure how many people are necessarily aware of the hierarchy of our show. I forgot to answer this part of your question and I’m sorry to jump in, but one of the things that I took away from the show was how much I yearn for female empowerment around me. I feel like there’s very much a lack of it within our normal societal structure that we live in, that I was blown away by the female power structure that we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with a female lead, a female showrunner, the majority of our producers are strong, amazing, thoughtful, caring, extremely talented females. Not to speak down to any other production or project that I’ve worked on, but this experience, what we had in season one, if that’s what it’s like to be surrounded by so many amazing women, sign me up for that every day of the damn week, every week for the rest of my life.
What were some of the challenges that you faced while working on the series?
DB: I think one of the challenges for me in the series had to do with my idea of physically altering myself to be what I thought an early to mid thirties Chicago born and bred native who lives at home with multiple family members and built a bunker in his backyard looks like. I’m originally from Chicago, I have deep roots there, and I understand the vibrancy of the people in the city, the work ethic of the people of the city, and the food portions of the city in general. They are mid-West massive. When you’re dealing with somebody who is so intellectually forward, fitness is really on the back burner for him. So I wanted Wilson to be not only full intellectually and emotionally, but physically as well. I ended up putting on almost thirty pounds for him, including a beard that was close to four pounds. We weighed it after I shaved it off. [laughs] Being uncomfortable in my own skin allowed me to be uncomfortable in Wilson Wilson’s skin in interacting with humans. He’s very good when he’s by himself or on the internet chatting with people, but when real life interactions happen between people, that’s not a place that he’s necessarily comfortable or well versed in. You add that to the humidity of a Chicago summer and just all of that collaborating together inside my skin was probably the most challenging portion of it for me.
JR: It’s such a wonderful question but a hard one to answer because so much of this shooting experience was so easy because of how talented and amazing every single creative around me was. But I’m a really big people pleaser in my life, [laughs] and I want to be the best scene partner I can be and I want to be all of those things, but Sam takes up a lot of space. She believes that she knows what’s right. So stepping into a place where I was that forceful and that outspoken and that driven made me very uncomfortable, but the funny thing is, that’s the way I could be the best scene partner I could be. Because if I was being timid, it didn’t serve anyone because that’s not how Sam would interact. So it was fun stepping into a part of me that society or I might label as bossy but in this world, it’s more of a take charge gung-ho attitude that comes from an incredible amount of passion and desire to save the world. I think that’s a really beautiful thing.
What’s your personal utopia? Something you’re very passionate about that maybe outsiders would consider odd.
JR: I play Dungeons and Dragons.
JR: And I love it! There are many reasons why I love it but I happen to have the best Dungeon Master, DM, in the world and he is my husband. It’s just such an incredible outlet for creativity and imagination and story building and problem solving, which are all the reasons why I love acting, but it’s channeled into this very funny, nerdy outlet that I don’t even think is that nerdy because it’s just awesome. My character is named Grock, he’s a warrior tortle, which is like a giant turtle that worships Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. He does the people’s eyebrow sometimes. It is such a joy! One of the amazing things about things that you become obsessed with that might seem a bit outside the realm of mainstream culture is ‘well this makes total sense and everyone should be in this’, and it’s not fringe at all. That’s my personal little obsession.
DB: I think my personal obsession is quite a huge fad, especially if you check Instagram. I grew up in the kitchen with my Italian grandmother and everything for me starts and ends with food. I learned how to tie my shoes underneath her kitchen table, I learned how to count using different pasta shells, I learned how to fall in love and how to fall out of love somewhat graciously through that kitchen. So I geek out about food in general, I geek out about chefs in general, I geek out about different cuisines and the overall experience you get being with people while you’re breaking bread together or sharing wine, whatever it might be. I think there’s a lot of love and humanity and conversation, especially tough conversation…I’m Italian, Greek, and Puerto Rican, there was never a family dinner where there wasn’t a tough conversation, but we got through it because of the food. The food guided you through this world that can be polarizing and individualistic and selfish at times. When you have something as yummy as some of the things that you see posted on Instagram [laughs], you should be able to share it amongst people, whether you’re like minded or not, I feel like we’re able to throw all the masks away and enjoy it.
JR: That was one of the main ways that we bonded on the show, I have to say, Desmin took us on a culinary tour of the city. So the nerds put on a few pounds but we became closer in heart and we are forever grateful to our fearless leader for showing us where all the best donuts and croissants and burgers and ice cream, and the list goes on and on, but man, what a food city.
Utopia is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video