‘The Umbrella Academy’: Jordan Claire Robbins on the Challenges of Playing a Robot

     March 11, 2019

the-umbrella-academy-jordan-claire-robbinsIn the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy, the primary care-giver for the seven superpowered children adopted by Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) is Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins), who appears to be the perfect housewife and mother, but as A.I., it’s actually because she was programmed that way. As the only mother Luther (Tom Hopper), Diego (David Castañeda), Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Klaus (Robert Sheehan), Vanya (Ellen Page) and Number Five (Aidan Gallagher) have ever known, she has encouraged them through their own personal struggles, but she’s also made them wonder whether she’s evolved enough that her emotions toward them are real.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Jordan Claire Robbins talked about how she came to be a part of The Umbrella Academy, what she was told about who Grace would be, what she was excited about exploring, developing her performance with showrunner Steve Blackman, how much Grace’s impeccable appearance helped inform the character, the unusual family dynamic, seeing herself with prosthetics and CGI, and how much she’s enjoying the reaction from everyone who’s watched and is still watching the series. She also talked about her experience doing an episode of The CW series Supernatural in Season 13, and the path she’d like to continue on, in her career.

Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.

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Image via Netflix

Collider:  Grace is such an interesting character. Especially on a show where there are so many wacky, weird and wild things happening, it’s cool when you can still stand out among all of that.

JORDAN CLAIRE ROBBINS:  Yeah, so true. There are a lot of amazing characters, and everybody is very different, so it results in a really crazy world that’s tons of fun.

How did you come to be a part of The Umbrella Academy? Did you go through a whole audition process for the show?

ROBBINS:  It’s actually really funny how it came to me. I had a friend who was going out for it and she said, “This is amazing! I think you’d be a really good fit for this.” So, I asked my agent, back in Toronto, and they called casting, who said they would need a tape because I was in Vancouver, so I sent in a self-tape. And then, pretty much right away, I found out that I was being considered for it and, about a week later, it all came together. It was pretty fast, once they called and said that they knew I was the right one for it.

When you started on the journey with this character, what were you told about who she was? Did you have any idea exactly what she was or what this journey would be, or did you learn about that later on?

ROBBINS:  The first thing I did, when I got the role, was read the comic because, obviously, that’s really an amazing resource to have, but my character wasn’t really in the comic very much. It was obviously a really cool character, but there was a lot of questions. So, one of the first things that I did, once I got to Toronto, was to sit down with the showrunner (Steve Blackman) and Peter Hoar, who directed our pilot and also our last episode this season, to talk to them about the character and ask about the arc. They really laid it out to me, so that was nice. We didn’t have all of the scripts, at the beginning. We got them one at a time, as we were shooting. But, I had this general idea of the arc. I didn’t know how it was gonna end because they were really tight-lipped, which was cool for all of us. We didn’t know how it was gonna end until right at the end of shooting. They kept the last few pages from all of us. So, I had a sense of my character’s arc, just from that first meeting, and then things changed, as we went along. That’s the thing about TV. You don’t have a beginning, middle and end. You’re getting it, as you go. There were definitely surprises, which was weird for this character.

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Image via Netflix

From what you did know, going into the series, what were you most excited about getting to explore, as this character, and were there things that you were nervous about?

ROBBINS:  Definitely! I think the best roles are the ones where you’re really not sure how you’re gonna do it and you’re afraid of it. That was definitely how I felt, going into this, just because of the nature of the A.I. It’s a really unique type of character to play, and it’s the type of character that I think would be really cool to watch, if it was done well. So, the challenge was keeping within the limits of the fact that she is A.I. and not human, but then always leaving the audience wondering how much is going on, beneath the surface. There’s a lot of time travel and a sense of time, for all of the characters. Grace was with the kids, as they were growing up and when they were young people. And then, when the kids all come back to the house, once they’re grown up, she’s been alone, wandering the house for 13 years. That was a completely new sense of time. And then, after the fifth episode, once she’s turned back on, she’s completely different, in many ways. For me, it was just about coming up with a timeline and having a sense of her evolving, and these kids and their love triggering something in her.

Grace is very interesting because she isn’t human, so her emotions are not quite what you would necessarily expect from an actual human being. What was it like to gauge that? Were there a lot of conversations about how to play her emotions, or how real to make it all feel?

ROBBINS:  Our showrunner, Steve Blackman, was pretty great about letting me find her, myself, but that was definitely a conversation we had, as we went along, with the different directors. For example, the really heartbreaking scene with Diego, at the end of Episode 3, where he makes that horrible decision, there had to be a conversation about how much emotion to show. It’s a very pivotal, very meaningful moment, but you can’t see her responding to it, in a way that a human would. It was about conceding that, so you get a sense of emotion. She is programmed to display emotion the way that a mother would, but I also thought it was really important to see the audience wondering whether she had evolved the way that Diego thought, and whether she had her own consciousness and emotions that looked beyond the programming. I think it was about walking that fine line, where you’re seeing a sense of emotion, but you’re not sure whether it’s programming, or if it’s actually coming from Grace, herself.

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Image via Netflix

When it comes to her wardrobe and makeup, Grace is always impeccable and head-to-toe perfection. What was it like to get into that, every day? How much did all of that inform your performance and the way that you carried yourself?

ROBBINS:  Oh, it was huge. Christopher Hargadon, the costume designer, was amazing. Costumes are huge for me, getting into character. You see images of a 1950s housewife, and I did a lot of research on the way that women carried themselves then, but the second that I got into a beautiful outfit and my hair and make-up was done like that, I felt like I really transformed and moved differently. It was hard not to because some of those costumes had so much width that you just found yourself swaying, in a way that you don’t normally. So, it made a big difference. It was pretty funny ‘cause sometimes I would show up on set with my normal hair and make-up and normal everyday clothes, and no one would recognize me. I almost didn’t recognize myself. It definitely gave me the opportunity to step outside of myself and get more into the character.

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