‘The Umbrella Academy’: Ellen Page on a ‘Happy’ Vanya, Building a Romance in Season 2

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the second season of “The Umbrella Academy,” streaming now on Netflix.

It was the cliffhanger that caused jaws to drop around the world when Ellen Page’s Vanya Hargreeves sent out a wave of energy that destroyed the moon at the end of the first season of Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy” adaptation in 2019, creating an end-of-the-world scenario and raising tons of questions about how they would not only survive but also hopefully help right the wrongs they caused in future episodes. Page shifted gears after Season 1, to co-star in Netflix’s “Tales of the City” and release her environmental documentary “There’s Something in the Water,” co-directed with Ian Daniel. But now she is back to provide answers and more apocalyptic action in the second season of “The Umbrella Academy.”

When the second season begins, the members of the titular “Umbrella Academy” have been zapped back in time to various years in the early-1960s. They all arrive in the same alley, and they all have slightly different reactions to being sent on the journey alone. Vanya darts into the street, where she is hit by a car being driven by a housewife and mother, Sissy (Marin Ireland). Vanya ends up living with Sissy and her family, helping care for her young son Harlan. Vanya and Sissy end up falling in love and plan to leave her controlling husband, but Vanya is also called to help her siblings stop the end of the world, which this time is tied up in the assassination of JFK.

Vanya was such an internal character for much of Season 1, not fully sure of and at times also repressing, her abilities. How did learning what she was capable of at the end of the first season change her?

Her arc in the first season was obviously very extreme. She starts off with extreme anxiety and sadness and very much folded in upon herself, and she has no friendships or relationships, and needless to say that is because she is repressing a lot of trauma. And then obviously she has a huge release — she does end up blowing up the moon — but it was a huge emotional release. So where we find her in Season 2, there’s a weight, to a degree, that has been taken off her shoulders [and] she is able to exist more comfortably in her body, despite not remembering anything. She does have a new level of self-awareness and an ability to feel her emotions and have more control over them. But there is a lot still ingrained and a lot she still doesn’t know, and she is going to have to look at that and reckon with it at some point. So there has been tremendous growth, mixed with this underbelly that she becomes aware of again at the end of this season.

How do you think the way she relates to a family unit is different in Season 2?

In Season 1 any kind of longing was coming from a place that was just mixed up with so much trauma, so of course she’s going to be uncomfortable in this house and of course she’s not going to relate to this family. At the beginning of the season, she can barely even speak. And now, I think because so many of those repressed emotions were released on some level, and because she’s in a strange place, her desire to connect is major. She wants to learn and connect, and I think for the first time she’s really feeling the ability to even be able to connect with another person in a real way. The irony is she forgets everything but, on some level, she does seem to know herself better.

How did you approach her memory loss this season, meaning were there things she started to remember that you wanted to show her repressing?

Well, that will be up to audience interpretation on some level, especially the scene at the table when Hargreeves is saying “chooses to remember.” I don’t know that people will ever quite that answer. But for me, I was absolutely playing it that she did not remember. Not only did she release that amount of energy, but she had a gun shot at her [and] she got hit by the car.

Whether it’s entirely intentional or not, it might feel nice to be able to be a different person for a little while after dealing with all of that trauma.

Totally. I think because she sincerely doesn’t seem to be cognizant of the baggage and difficulties, et cetera, she does just get to exist. It’s so sweet. It was so nice to play Vanya happy. Last season it, was just, “This poor girl.”

It seemed like she was always something of an outsider in her family, but now she’s an outsider to this other, nuclear family, an outsider to Texas, an outsider to the 1960s. But she doesn’t know just how different she is in the beginning, which has to be its own set of challenges.

It was about figuring out how she was going to evolve throughout the season in terms of her differences, the way she speaks, the way she moves her body. In many ways it felt like, yes, you’re playing the same character with the same emotional core and issues, but in some ways it did feel like playing a new character. And so, it was about how to find the balance and getting to create a new Vanya. And she had new difficulties in this space, of course, wondering why no one was searching for her and falling madly in love and the obstacles that come with that. And the FBI [interest in her].

And then there’s the physical nature of the show, too, dealing with VFX and stunts, especially when she’s strapped to the chair, being jolted with electricity.

Torture. There was one take where they were shooting overhead and at one point I was just like, “Guys, I can’t do it again.” But I like the physical stuff. I think that’s one really fun thing about the job. You can’t help but just feel so profoundly engaged in the moment.

What was the VFX process for you in Season 2, specifically looking at scenes like lifting the lake water up to save Harlan or releasing the wave of energy at the house? Do you get to see previs at all to help guide your performance, or does the team strictly take cues from you on what to build at this point?

It’s kind of both. Sometimes it’s descriptive or some previs or just us talking. For the lake scene, that was pretty cool for me to see because when we shot that, it was just a big, giant pit and I just ran down, and I was thinking, “How is this going to look?” It was just me, looking intense with my arms out, and then they made it look like it was the bottom of the lake and it was incredible. The energy release this season was different because last season when it happened it was very uncontrolled, so it was sort of like her chest going up to the sky, but this time she had the ability to do it with her body. And I was on wires because I was floating. Usually it’s us figuring out what works and — if this is anything to say about this sort of thing — looks the most natural.

How did not working with the larger ensemble cast from Season 1 affect what you were doing in the beginning of Season 2?

At first it was just unusual, but so much of my storyline was with Marin Ireland, who is incredible, and that enabled us to, in the beginning, feel like we were making our own little independent film. And I think that probably allowed that relationship to have a foundation and grow.

What did you and Marin need to do to find the footing of Sissy and Vanya’s relationship, especially that this was a time when homosexuality wasn’t accepted and the feelings Sissy was having may have been ones she had been repressing for years or simply never experiencing for another woman before?

Always when you’re shooting something like that it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful to shoot a love story like that and it’s a love story that allows a woman in the ’60s to not only go through an experience as a queer woman but also as a woman who was in a relationship that’s possessive and she has barely any control over her body. And it weighs heavy on your heart, too, because you know a lot of people are still in that situation, even though things are better and it’s not illegal here anymore. But in the beginning, it was just about creating this subtle, very, very palpable connection that you see start growing between them. I even love the tiny, little moment when I’m going to play hide-and-seek with Harlan and you just see her stop on the top of the stairs and look. It’s about interweaving all of that and then when we’re holding hands, and you’re feeling that energy, it was about finding time to allow that to grow and breathe.

As the relationship grows, so does Vanya’s understanding of who she is and what she can do. How much did you want to see her struggle with revealing her abilities to Sissy and will she be accepted if she does?

Last season it was so alarming and surreal to even begin to imagine she had these powers, and there was a lot of anxiety and fear about them, and they were erupting from a place of such profound, deep, deep anger. And I think now, because she’s in this different space, the powers just don’t scare her as much. They just resonate as something incredibly, incredibly strange. There is a new level of comfort and control, but it’s mixed with having no idea how society and the people in your life are going to accept you. Because as she gets to know her siblings, she knows the effect it’s had on their lives. And you see Allison go through that this season, as well. There’s that moment [when they’re leaving town], that look-back to Sissy before she uses her powers on the police, is like, “I have to do this, but what have I just done?”

What did you need from the arc in order to believe and be OK with Vanya leaving Sissy and Harlan behind in the ’60s to re-join the Hargreeves?

For Vanya, she’s being re-connected to this family and seeing how, essentially, they come together as a unit with all of these powers and they do, on some level, feel they have a role in the world: They just are a team. I think it’s realizing that a part of you just doesn’t feel right living in a time that isn’t your time, and you’d be leaving your family who have these abilities that don’t quite fit into the world — and she’d continue to be a prime FBI suspect, putting Sissy and Harlan in horrible danger. Unfortunately that’s just going to be the reality of Vanya’s life in general, just because of who she is. That’s probably going to make all relationships, even friendships, quite complicated. This group of individuals is incredibly vulnerable to all of these forces that have a variety of interests in whether they live or die.

What conversations have you had with Steve [Blackman, showrunner] about what it means that Vanya’s powers can be transferred to someone else?

It’s pretty dangerous, especially when it’s Vanya related! This clearly had to do with, as we know, her abilities are connected to her emotions. Now this season she can control them better, and it’s really the FBI that makes s— hit the fan. That was a very specific situation, in terms of the severity of [Harlan’s] injuries, because she was trying to save him, and without realizing it, yes, that energy helped him come back. I don’t have Steve to look at right now, but I think it was specifically that reason. But yes, it’s dangerous and something one should remember for future seasons.

Do you feel like there is a followup to be done for your documentary on environmental racism racism and the effects of industrial waste on minority communities?

I did not go to Nova Scotia with my co-director Ian [Daniel] thinking we were going to make a documentary. I had connected with Ingrid Waldron, who wrote the book [of the same name], and the Grassroots Grandmothers and we thought I’d come up with a camera and put some things online. But then [when we were up there], we were like, “Holy s—, I think we have a feature.” It just happened. And we did everything we could to get it done. But yes, I do [think there’s more]. The Grassroots Grandmothers and what’s going on with Alton Gas, that’s still going. [The Northern Pulp mill at Boat Harbour] has been closed, which was amazing, but I bet stories will continue from there. So the short answer is yes, I think about it, but I don’t have any plans for it.

Do you have more people coming to you now, though — reaching out through social media maybe — and saying, “Look at this in my area” too to show just how widespread and systemic it is?

I have that and I think Ingrid has that as well. She wrote the book and is a professor and also a producer on the film and is a wonderful, wonderful woman, and I think a lot of people have reached out to her asking her to come speak in places over all the world. It’s an issue everywhere — all over the world.