If you had any doubt that it's Mary J. Blige you're watching time-traveling assassin Cha-Cha throwing, and taking, punches and firing guns on Netflix's The Umbrella Academy, the singer/actor would emphatically like you to know that, yes, it is.
“I was serious about my own stunts," she told CBR ahead of the show's Friday release on Netflix. "I wanted to be able to sit in an interview and say, ‘That’s me, I’m doing that.’”
Blige stars alongside Cameron Britton as Hazel in in the adaptation of Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá's acclaimed Dark Horse comic series, about a dysfunctional family of superheroes who must reunite to try to stop the apocalypse. Cha-Cha and Hazel are charged with preserving the time stream, by any means, and preventing the Umbrella Academy from succeeding.
In the source material, Cha-Cha and Hazel ruthlessly hunt down a member of the Umbrella Academy, gleefully murdering and torturing anyone who gets in their way. They're an element of the comics whose execution Way and Bá were very particular about.
Showrunner Steve Blackman gave the duo the same treatment he gave almost every other character, keeping much of what was already written, but making use of the increased real estate offered by television to deepen stories and relationships without betraying the source material. To that end, Hazel and Cha-Cha needed to keep their signature cartoonish masks and remain human weapons of mass destruction. That translated to a lot of fight scenes, something Blige was game for from the beginning.
“Having Mary J. Blige was just sheer luck,” Blackman quipped, “I had seen Cameron Britton in Mindhunter playing Eddie Camden. I said, ‘I gotta have this guy,’ but I wanted to counterpoint it with somebody there’s no way they’re partners, but yet, they work. And then when I heard Mary J. Blige had called, I said, ‘Please, come do this.' She said, ‘Well, can I do my action, can I shoot the guns?’”
Blackman, of course, said yes. That led Blige to train in martial arts every day of the shoot in Toronto, and ultimately lighting a fire under Britton to do the same.
“I had to step my game up because Mary was just sending me videos of her fighting on a Saturday at 7 a.m.,” he told CBR with a laugh. “I’ve got a pizza hangover from the night before, waking up at 11 a.m. I had to start kind of stretching, taking it seriously.”
After training so hard and for so long, both actors said that performing their own stunts was a point of pride.
“She didn’t do all of it,” Blackman said of Blige, “but she did a ton of it. Some of it was just too dangerous for her face, but she did a ton of kicking and shooting. She was on cables, we threw her on cables. There was nothing Mary couldn’t do. We had to say, ‘No, Mary, you can’t do that.’”
Part of the reason for Blige’s enthusiasm about performing her own stunts is that she wants to do more. Or rather, she’d like to do more action. While she has acted on and off throughout much of her career, her recent Academy Award nomination for the 2017 period drama Mudbound has opened even more doors to her, and she's eager to show her range. “Mudbound is completely different from this character, this is something else," Blige said. "And I wanted that on purpose. I wanted everything to look different, so that people can say, ‘She can do different things.’
“I would love to do more of the characters that I did in Mudbound, and I would definitely do some more of this, but I just wanted to mix it up. These are the things I’m interested in that I want people to know I can do.”
Arriving Friday on Netflix, The Umbrella Academy Season 1 stars Ellen Page, Mary J. Blige, Tom Hopper, Cameron Britton, Robert Sheehan, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Adam Godley, Aidan Gallagher, David Castañeda, John Magaro, Ashley Madekwe and Colm Feore.