'Umbrella Academy' Emmy Raver-Lampman Demands More Black Writers in the Rooms for Black Stories
The double-threat singer-actress sheds light on the importance of representation, especially in today’s cultural climate.
In a time when society is filled with racial injustice and political unrest, and a second wave of a pandemic slowly creeping upon us, Emmy Raver-Lampman has managed to stay plenty productive during this time of social distancing by co-starring in a quarantine-style film The Untitled Horror Movie and prepping for Season 2 of Netflix’s breakout original series, The Umbrella Academy. No stranger to the acting biz, Raver-Lampman has effortlessly demonstrated her talent beyond “The Rumor” with roles in Broadway’s Wicked, Hair and Tony award-winning Hamilton as leading lady Angelica Schuyler.
Similar to her character Allison Hargreeves in The Umbrella Academy, Raver-Lampman is a talented, effervescent woman who is growing and learning — no matter the age or sociopolitical circumstances — to evolve and become a better version of herself as an actress, as a Black woman and as a human being. Over a phone call, HYPEBAE spoke with Raver-Lampman about what to expect from the upcoming season of The Umbrella Academy, what it’s like developing a film miles away from your co-stars and producers, and the need to up the representation and diversity ante when developing screenplays centering Black America’s narratives.
The Umbrella Academy Season 2 is available on Netflix July 31.
What were your thoughts when the opportunity to be part of The Umbrella Academy first presented itself to you?
It’s so funny because I was in San Francisco when I got the audition. I was in San Francisco doing Hamilton and it was like pilot season essentially, so I read the script and I was in love with how unique and wacky the family was. There is a wealth of content in the sci-fi world and I just love that this show was seemingly more about the human side of the family and then they also just so happen to have powers. It wasn’t like this family put on their super-suits, charged into battle, destroyed the bad guy and saved the city — which they do do, but it’s the human side of them that comes first, and the family drama and dynamic is on the forefront of the show. Then there’s the looming apocalypse which, as a character and as an audience member, you forget about it for a moment then it comes back because you’re distracted by the brutally poor choices that they make as humans.
Speaking of the human side, we’ve seen a lot of people such as yourself as Allison, Alexandra Shipp as Storm in X-Men, Nafessa Williams as Thunder in Black Lightning and countless others. How do you see the representation of Black women — or Black people in general — as superbeings in television and film in a non-stereotypical way?
I think it’s so exciting and I think it’s time, right? There are so many superhero stories to be told [such as] the beautiful Black woman who just got casted as Batwoman, Javicia Leslie. There are so many more avenues of storytelling to explore and I think representation is important because the Black experience, in this industry, is not in the forefront of storytelling and I think it should be. I am so excited, encouraged and elated if we’re talking about Black women specifically right now who are getting these opportunities and getting the chances to represent in these spaces that we’ve never been allowed to represent before.
Being part of The Umbrella Academy, I go to Comic-Con and conventions when I can in different cities. The amount of Black little girls who come up to my booth are just so excited that there is somebody that looks like them in a space that is predominantly white. The amount of cosplay of Black women and girls who dress like Allison and The Rumor are just so excited to have finally had the opportunity to dress like a superhero who looks like them. I think it’s so exciting and so overdue.
“I think representation is important because the Black experience, in this industry, is not in the forefront of storytelling and I think it should be.”
The casting of a Black woman in a role is actually where the work starts. There is, then, so much work in the best of ways to be done after that. The Black experience is a unique experience, so you have to pivot how you tell the story and it has to be from the perspective of the Black experience. It’s also opening the opportunity for writing to change for these superheroes and for Black women on the screen. Having more Black women in superhero shows and as these iconic roles is going to, and has to, provide opportunities for Black people in the writers’ room and in positions of power in the industry, because there has to be representation other than just the actor. You can’t have a room full of white people where they’re writing about a show where a Black woman is the lead. In this casting, I see it’s also going to affect production in every angle, which is also really exciting to get Black voices, Black writers, Black producers, Black directors and Black costumer designers. It is opening up the industry in a way that hasn’t previously really been opened before.
It’s not just about the Black woman playing the Black superhero, it’s also about the Black writers who are writing for her and the Black costume designers who are designing her costume for her beautiful Black body. As much as it’s exciting on-screen, it’s also exciting for the other side of the table: the production side and the writers’ room. I hope it encourages and opens up the industry to that — that you have to do that. You can’t just cast one Black woman and that’s where the work ends. That’s actually where the work starts.
Talk about exciting, Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy is falling upon us. What makes Season 2 so special and meaningful to you as a cast member, as Allison and as The Rumor?
This season, we’re definitely tackling and taking on some big issues. We have an LGBTQ storyline set in the ’60s which is complicated because it was illegal and considered a mental illness. Then we have Allison taking on and being a part of the civil rights movement. You are getting the fantastical, you are getting the same family with the same sense of humor and bigger and better jokes, action sequences and all of those things that you expect and want and are going to get from the show. But you’re also going to get some real heavy-hitting topics that hopefully will open up a world of conversation between young adults and their parents, especially for the moment that we’re in and in the wake of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. You are going to see some parallels [that] I think are undeniable of the fight and the struggle of the civil rights movement and the fight and the struggle of now. That is the same struggle, it is ongoing and it is so relevant, and so much a part of this generation as it was for the generation of the civil rights movement — and it was not that long ago. There’s a lot to take away from this season in entertainment, but also in lessons to be learned. This may be eyes opened to things they’ve never seen before.
How would you say we’ll be seeing Allison grow from Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy to Season 2?
I think this is a really stripped-down version of Allison. In the first season, she’s very accustomed to the vices, the crutches that she has created for herself and the lavish lifestyle that she has, but that doesn’t mean that she’s happy or fulfilled. I think this season, we’re watching that play out and watching Allison rediscover herself, go back to basics and understand that she doesn’t need to use her powers to find a man that loves her for who she is. She doesn’t need her powers to feel powerful and be powerful and strong. She is potentially looking at herself in the mirror for the first time and liking the reflection that’s looking back, and that’s a huge thing for her because last season there was a lot of guilt, regrets and unknowns. This season, we’re seeing a very new Allison who isn’t interested in taking the easy way out, isn’t interested in a quick fix and wants to fight the fight in a proper way, and not take the shortcut for a quick resolution. Nothing worthwhile is ever gained quickly.
Switching gears a bit from on-screen to on-stage, let’s discuss Hamilton. When did you first gauge interest in musical theateer and performance?
I was always a really active kid. I played tons of sports — soccer, tennis, track — and my parents put me in every kind of activity that they thought I would like until I finally found one that stuck the most and it happened to be theater. I loved singing and I loved performing. Anytime my parents would have a dinner party, I would always end up standing on top of the coffee table and demand that I would perform for the guests. I think I was always a very performative child and I think that’s manifested in being an actor and being an artist in theater, TV and film. I don’t know if it was actually ever an active choice of, “I’m going to go to college and go into theater, and then I’m going to be on Broadway and accept a Tony award.” I never had those types of dreams for myself. It always was just doing the things that made me happy, build me as an artist and allowed me to be creative in the way that I enjoy being creative. In some ways, I kind of stumbled into theater, but then in other ways, I’ve followed my heart and it’s definitely led me there.
With being a Black woman in arguably one of the most powerful plays to hit Broadway for the Black community, how do you believe Hamilton serves as a positive representation for Black people in theater?
On paper it sounds ridiculous, and I was hesitant to audition for it and I almost passed on it because I just felt like, “That sounds like a terrible idea” (laughs). Lo and behold, it was a genius idea and it gave agency, it gave voice, it gave opportunity to people of color and Black people in a way that is sometimes very elusive in the Broadway community. I think creating a world where we are telling these histories of all white people — Hamilton is white, Jefferson is white, Washington is white — and the majority of them are slave owners, you’re dealing with a very white part of American history, but being told by Black and brown bodies…is such a juxtaposition. It was just the way that it was told to me in my mind, “this is how we’re creating this.”
[Thomas] Kail, the director, I think the question he was asked almost all the time was essentially, “Who made the decision to cast the show predominantly Black and brown?” and Tommy’s answer is always, “We just casted the best person for the part.” When you take race out of it and you just want the people who are going to bring their best depiction of these characters, their actions and these actors are bringing their abilities to the table, you want a cast of stars. That original cast is unbelievable [and] a cast of some of the most talented human beings I’ve ever met in my entire life.
For me, the funny thing is I’ve done the show on-and-off for three years and I had only ever seen a Black man play Aaron Burr. It was Leslie [Odom Jr.], it was [Joshua] Henry, Austin Smith — every person I had ever met, in the time that I had spent in the show, [went] on in the role of Aaron Burr has been Black. I remember very specifically, it was towards the end of my time in the show, one of the understudies went on for Aaron Burr for the first time and it’s this unbelievably talented guy named Ryan [Vasquez], but he’s white. It was in the opening number and I remember looking downstage, looking to him, the breath literally being taken out of me and I was like, “Oh right, Aaron Burr was white” (laughs). It was almost as though history had rewritten itself in my mind because for three years, this story has been played by unbelievably talented Black men and it was like this space where I completely forgot that the real person whose life this was, and the people whose stories we are telling look nothing like us. But, we are telling a story representing the beginning of our country by how our country looks now, which I think is really powerful.
It was honestly so fun [and] one of the best experiences I’ve had making art. Every single person was in 110 percent, and none of us knew what the hell we were doing (laughs). We were all like, “Yes, this sounds crazy,” “This sounds amazing,” “I’m completely on board,” [and] “How are we going to do this?”. It really gave me a window into the other side of production [where] I’m still really new in this industry. I don’t have a block long resume of TV credits or movie credits so I’m still learning so much and excited to learn and [grow] as an artist in this medium.
[With] this movie, I’m friends with Luke [Baines] and he essentially was like, “Hey, my friend Nick and I wrote this thing. It’s totally insane, we’re in quarantine, SAG won’t let any of us be in the same room together, and we want to make this movie because I think we all want to see if it can be done and we’re all going out of our minds not being able to be artistic. Do you trust me and can we just go on this crazy adventure and see if we can make this thing?” I said yes, Timothy [Granaderos] said yes, Darren [Barnet] said yes, Claire [Holt] said yes, the cast said yes and we got a whole team of producers, set designers, lighting designers and we have a whole thing. [They] came over to my house, dropped off a giant box of equipment and then we hit the ground running. Every day, I was having to hang sheets over windows, command-strip phones to walls and do crazy things to make the microphones sound how they wanted. It was tedious, but in the most exciting way and everyone was just so committed and excited.
I actually have some re-shoots at the end of the week for a couple of scenes and I’m genuinely so excited to get back on Zoom with everybody and see everybody’s faces. It was literally the last thing that I ever thought that I would be doing in this quarantine, making a movie, and just the fact that it’s gotten so much traction already and it’s not even out yet — I’m so proud of Nick [Simon] and Luke for making this thing and this group of people who were just like, “F*ck it, let’s do it.” That was kind of the theme for the whole experience — no one has any idea what they’re doing, but we’re going to try to make this thing and if it works, awesome, and if not, now I have twenty new friends that I’ve still never met before.
From what I hear, they’re editing it right now and everybody’s really pleased and it turned out so good. Before we started shooting, we had a big Zoom with everybody sort of like a table read and even at the table read. I was like, “Oh, everyone is going in.” With table reads, people love them or they hate them, and no one ever knows if they’re supposed to go 100 percent. For the Zoom table reads [that took place] in our own homes, everyone was so committed and so full-out, and it just inspired and encouraged everybody to have fun and do their best. At this moment, all we can ask of anybody else is to just try to do your best and the attitude is that we can all win. When you do it in that mindset, then I think something exciting, cool and new is gonna come out of it that we’re all really proud of. Regardless of if people like it, that’s not our responsibility, but I’m proud of it. I like it and I haven’t even seen it.
Since your roles in The Umbrella Academy and Hamilton, and now The Untitled Horror Movie, how do you believe you’ve grown as an actress and as a performer throughout the years?
Every experience that I have, everything that I do, every new job that I get or every opportunity that I have, I learn from them. I’m constantly wanting to grow, and I need to grow. Growing is a huge part of being human, but also being an artist. Now more than ever, it is becoming very important to me to be a part of things that are celebrating the Black experience — in front of and behind the camera. I want to be part of stories that are being told for, written for, written by, produced by people of color and Black people. Representation is so important and it is now becoming part of a requirement for me to move forward in this industry, and any industry, and making that known and being part of the works that are here to amplify Black voices and the Black experience.
D’Shonda Brown is a freelance culture journalist, public speaker and mental health advocate based in Brooklyn, New York with a passion for mental health, social justice and uplifting the Black community through her writing. As a mental health advocate and suicide attempt survivor, in 2019, D’Shonda became Mental Health First Aid Certified for adults and children, and graduated from the Advocacy Ambassador Program by National Alliance on Mental Illness. D’Shonda is a proud Spelman College graduate and has interviewed notable names from Angela Rye and Soledad O’Brien to Chloe x Halle and Justine Skye.
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