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Amazon's VR afterlife rom-com Upload accidentally helped its cast prepare for the pandemic
It’s always fascinating when science fiction seems to predict the present day, even if these called shots aren’t technological specifics (like Star Trek’s flip phone communicators). Sometimes the modern-day parallels are unintentionally serendipitous thematic similarities. That’s the case with Amazon’s new series Upload, which is a high-tech rom-com created by Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation) and primarily features its physically distanced characters interacting through video chats and VR.
That’s a must when one half of the will-they/won’t-they central duo, Nathan, has been uploaded to a digital afterlife. Played by Robbie Amell, Nathan is killed in the pilot episode of the show and kept around as an avatar by his rich girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards). However, while in Lakeview, the posh, digital resting place of the bougie, Nathan begins to develop feelings for his customer support rep, aka “angel,” Nora (Andy Allo). Thus begins the socially distanced love story that, weirdly enough, has felt like the norm under coronavirus safety measures — and it’s a way of living that the cast has carried over from shooting to real life.
“Playing Nora and bringing Upload to life kind of prepared me for, or was a little bit of an insight to, now,” Allo told SYFY WIRE during a quarantined junket video chat.
“I was just telling Robbie and Greg the other day that it’s so wild because I feel like I’m living Nora’s life," she explains. “She communicates with everybody through technology, and here we are doing interviews through Zoom and I’m talking to my friends and family through FaceTime. It’s too real; it’s too close that that’s how you connect with people.”
Before social distancing, FaceTime calls from an unrecognized number were an “absurd” idea, Zainab Johnson, who plays Nora’s co-worker Aleesha, says with a laugh. In the world of Upload, though, there are no audio-only calls: Everything has a video attached. Which, in a locked-down world, has started to become more and more common. Johnson found the show’s treatment of video calls (the only kind of call there is in-world) analogous to her changed attitude today. “I’m just picking up FaceTime calls,” she says. “I want to see people — I want face-to-face interaction.”
Edwards has an even more personal connection to her character on the show, who’s in a seriously long-distance relationship. The actress told SYFY WIRE that she’s seen Ingrid’s plotline resonate through her life under lockdown. “I’m engaged, and my fiance lives on the West Coast and I live on the East Coast,” the actress says. “I was expecting to be in L.A. on April 1, and I’m not. I’m in Massachusetts still ... FaceTime has been my best friend and my greatest enemy at the same time. That’s been my lifeline to him. We haven’t seen each other in almost eight weeks now.”
Kevin Bigley, who plays Nathan’s similarly deceased and uploaded friend Luke, says that watching movies online with friends has felt like the VR hangouts of the futuristic show. “We’ve been watching movies with friends where you have to sync it up,” Bigley explains, “which is very similar to when Nora’s out there [in a shared virtual reality] with her dad on that pier.” The actor also says that his current “isolation” and the “carbon copy” aspect “of every day being the same” also reminded him of the simulated life in the series.
Of course, Upload wasn't a reaction to the pandemic, despite all the overlap. The idea had been gestating with Daniels for decades — the creator had been writing versions of the idea since his days at Saturday Night Live — but it feels more prescient than ever.
“I think that’s going to be an interesting conversation when people watch it," Johnson muses. "Like ‘Oh wow, they really got the pandemic — they really got that really quick.’ And they don’t know that it was created way before."
“All of the FaceTiming and video calls are really spot-on,” Amell explains. But even some things that fans might see as ripped from the headlines are just incredible accidents. “Some of it’s just total coincidence,” Amell says, “like the masks in the first episode have nothing to do with coronavirus or any kind of virus. It was more a take on pollution and what’s happening to the world now, 15 years from now.”
However, the actor was still optimistic about any areas of connection viewers can draw between the show and real life, saying that “the parts of it that feel a little bit relatable right now will actually help bring people into the story.”
Upload hits Amazon on May 1.