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Set to premiere on Sept. 25 — and based on the British cult hit of the same name — Amazon's Utopia finds a gang of online friends thrust into a global conspiracy. Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop), Ian (Dan Byrd), Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges), Sam (Jessica Rothe), and Grant (Javon Walton) discover a graphic novel, Utopia, that foretells cataclysmic events, pandemic outbreaks, and other threats to humanity. The unlikely heroes must keep a sinister organization from obtaining the book for their own nefarious purposes… and save the planet in the process.
On a warm fall day in 2019, SYFY WIRE is in Chicago, where Utopia is currently shooting on location at a hotel. Production has transformed the inside lobby and bottom floor into Fringe Con, a small bootleg convention. Cosplayers walk the grounds. Publishers such as MKO Comics and Horsemen have erected booths to promote their line of comic books and merchandise. However, the main action unfolding involves Ian and Becky. The pair are sipping drinks in the bar area. This moment captures their first meeting.
“The group, for their own reasons, are very preoccupied and fixated on finding this next edition of the comic book,” Byrd says during a break. “I’m more preoccupied with meeting Becky. I met them online, so I am enough of a nerd to be in these forums and be interested in the subject manner. But what really drew me in was the connection I made with Becky.”
“Becky is really sweet and kind-hearted and believes in Utopia, because she is living with a debilitating illness called Diels,” continues LaThrop. “I believe the cure for this disease lies within this graphic novel. That’s why the search for this novel is important to me. On the other side, one of the nerds in the group is Ian, who I’ve had a lovely flirtation with over the past several months.”
These so-called nerds are ordinary people sucked into extraordinary circumstances. Sure, everyone has their own motivation for acquiring the graphic novel, and those reasons ultimately place their lives in peril. As the dangers escalate and the group is put through the ringer, they must raise their game and rise to the occasion in order to survive.
“They are immediately thrust into extreme circumstances,” Byrd notes. “In that circumstance, they are not left with much of a choice but to carry on. They are finding out what they are capable of as the story goes along. The boundaries keep getting pushed further and further, and getting more and more extreme.
“Also, they are introverted, nerdy people that sit and make friends on the internet,” he adds. “Then, all of a sudden, the internet isn’t even a part of their lives anymore. They are just in the most extreme reality imaginable.”
One key player, and a bit of a wildcard, lies with Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane). The daughter of the graphic novel’s creator in the original series, Jessica has been on the run for a long time. The reimagining presents a new take on the character, while maintaining the essence of the previous incarnation.
“I want to describe her as this feral cat, kind of creature,” Lane reports during a conference call on the set. “I literally watched videos on feral cats and went off of that. I thought back to when I, myself, was a little more secluded and just relying on human instinct versus using empathy or using any other type of thing that we learn. I just think of this animalistic feral cat, who is trying to figure things out.
“For Jessica, she needs Utopia because it’s going to ger her some idea of why she’s doing what she’s doing,” adds Lane. “She’s looking for her dad, so she believes, ‘Well, maybe this is what’s going to get me the answers.’”
With Jessica’s guard up, it’s nearly impossible to trust anyone. That wariness and cynicism extends to Ian, Becky, and the rest of the quintet when she encounters them.
“These are just a couple more people she doesn’t really want anything to do with,” explains Lane. “Like I said, when it comes to a feral cat, we’d rather not interact. They are a bunch of people who may, or may not, get in the way of what she’s trying to do. She’s a bit standoffish at first.”
Utopia will deviate from the British source material. After all, the American version’s first season consists of eight episodes. That’s two more episodes than its counterpart. That simply means there’s more room to build the mythology and explore the characters. One departure involves the introduction of John Cusack’s Dr. Kevin Christie. Charismatic, media-savvy, and brilliant, the good doctor will prove pivotal in the crisis at hand.
“This character is such an idealist and really wants to help save the world and do good,” Cusack notes. “He’s a star of the biotech world and science world. He’s trying to address a lot of the problems of dystopia, of where the world is going. It’s a very cool character with a lot of upsides.
“There are forces at work,” he continues. “Kevin’s trying to create a product that is going to help the food supplies. He gets accused of something with that product. There are things with the FDA. Things get muddled and overlap. He ends up having to work with another scientist, named Michael Stearns (Rainn Wilson), trying to prove whether what he did was OK or not. It’s more gray areas that way.”
Best known for his roles in Sixteen Candles, The Sure Thing, The Grifters, High Fidelity, and 1408, Cusack is a movie veteran. He hasn’t spent much time on television. That changed when Utopia showrunner Gillian Flynn reached out to him.
“Gillian offered me the part, which is the nicest thing in the world,” Cusack reflects. “You read the scripts and the writing is so extraordinary, that you are like, ‘Oh my God!’ I think I read all the episodes in four hours. After I read the first two, I called and said, ‘Yeah, I’m in.’ They said, ‘Don’t you want to finish it?’ ‘No, it’s great.’”
Similar to its predecessor, the remake won’t shy away from any real-world issues. Overpopulation is only one heavy topic it tackles. Indeed, Utopia completed production before the COVID pandemic hit, but the show’s relevance wasn’t lost on the cast… even back in 2019.
“We always had this joke of, ‘Are we reading our lines or are we reading the news?’” Byrd concludes. “I feel like things mirrored a lot of what was happening in the world. They all had this common denominator. We were definitely thinking of those types of stakes when filming.”