INTERVIEW: Colm Feore’s classical training serves him well in ‘The Umbrella Academy’

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Colm Feore has been long-regarded as one of Canada’s greatest acting talents. You could argue that the secret of his success rests in his versatility or his classical training. Or you could even make the case that his abundant enthusiasm provides the fuel for his performance. I, however, think it simply rests in the joy he clearly has with his roles; shown particularly by his amazing performance as eccentric billionaire, Reginald Hargreaves (aka, ‘The Monocle’) in Netflix’s newest comic/television production, The Umbrella Academy.

“He can do anything!” Colm said about this role during my conversation with him.

Which is exactly what Colm can do, anything. The man’s repertoire of roles ranges from Shakespeare to science fiction and everything in between. But with his talent and credits in so many geek-culture roles (The Chronicles of Riddick, Thor, Gotham et al.), of course, he was tapped to play Hargreaves, a multi-talented tycoon who takes it upon himself to train seven talented youngsters to be a team of super-heroes. I asked Colm if he had a special affection for these sorts of roles.

“Let’s face it… they’re a lot of fun,” he admitted. “Especially if they’re well-written and beautifully produced… and you know it’s going to be at the top of its game, with everyone involved! THAT’S fun!”

Colm’s enthusiasm was so infectious that I had to ask him about what it was like playing Hargreaves.

“I treated Reginald Hargreaves very much in the same way that I treated King Lear,” he told me. “There’s an enormous amount of stuff that goes into preparing, so that when you end up on the set, you discover that there’s a lot of stuff to it. Take Riddick, for example. When people asked me, what was I doing on Riddick, I said, ‘Look around the cast!’ In order to get this stuff across, you have to hire classical actors. This is heroic stuff and you need actors who know heroics. Shakespeare’s less dumb, but when you come around to Thor … starring Sir Tony Hopkins, directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, I’m sure Sir Tony treated his role very much like King Lear.”

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There is a great deal of truth to this. The more speculative the role, the greater the need to relate it to basic human values. It takes a gifted actor, well-versed in the stuff of metaphor to be able to find the common motivations that the audience can understand and appreciate.

“If you’ve got actors who have done classical theatre for forty years, then they immediately have a frame of reference for this stuff. They just have to ask, ‘Do you remember this, this, and this? Well, it’s more of that.’ And they get it immediately. It seems to me that Hargreaves is much the same. And I said to Steve Blackman, that he was somewhere between Hopkins and Peter O’Toole!” he quipped. “Do you remember My Favourite Year? ‘I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!’ “ Colm said, in his best O’Toole voice. “He’s this wonderful, outrageous, but very furious and serious harsh reality!”

Having worked with many of these wonderful talents isn’t just a professional experience though; it’s an opportunity to find trust in the creative process of others. This trust enabled Colm to find the joy in playing Hargreaves.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Tony (Sir Anthony Hopkins) a couple of times. He has this very easy connection to something dark and deeply convincing. And Hargreaves is somewhere in between those. Outrageous, winning Olympic gold medals for fencing, probably a chess champion and scary as hell when he wants to be. You know, I had to trust Steve Blackman because, they aren’t all written. Even though we had the comic, they were saying, ‘We’re going to take carte blanche with this’. Gerard and Gabrielle were with us, certainly for the first week of reading and the first week of shooting. It was ‘do what you want to do’. Steve felt enormously liberated by their confidence in their discussions wherever the show was going to go.”

Colm is partly responsible for introducing a new wave of fans to this franchise. The first wave is the comic audience, who, like me, are certainly happy to see another thoroughly entertaining comic picked up for television. But the second wave is the television audience who can appreciate the show on its own merits but also then go back and look for the comic to compare. I mentioned that part of the fun for me was to watch and share the show with my oldest daughter.

“That’s extraordinary. I think that was the whole idea what Steve and everybody at Netflix were thinking: yeah, this could go somewhere and could really appeal to people in a broader way, and get them to read the comic – all of that cross-pollination is good for everyone.”

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(Dark Horse Comics)

Part of that cross-pollination is the way that Feore saw every detail of the Monocle come to life. Expressions, mannerisms, even researching the Russian language to ask the Russian mother how much for her baby! Because of course, Reginal Hargreaves can speak Russian! Colm related that even the costumes were hand-made:

“Oh yes! Hargreave’s outfits were made by people I used to work with here in Stratford about 35 years ago! Every item was hand-made and that says volumes about this character. Everything he wears is a deliberate action; it’s a story in itself and when you see the finery, you know that he wore that article of clothing for a reason. What does that say about the character? What does that mean? There’s an enormous amount of information you can mine from this show that warrants a second or third look at it.”

We see this detailed type of approach extended into the future motivations of Hargreaves.

“I’m going to play this as harsh as I can. I trusted Steve when he said ‘you really have to be the catalyst in all of this activity’. And when I saw it all together, I realized that he [Hargreaves] truly has to be an irredeemable prick. You can’t misunderstand him. We need to know that he has driven those children to distraction. By determined training, pushing, shoving, demanding – he’s like a good parent who wants the best for them – and from them. The world is hard and harsh, particularly for you who are gifted. It’s lonely at the top – get used to it. It made sense to me.”

There was no doubting that this role was for Colm. I know everyone that I’ve spoken to about this role unanimously agreed that there couldn’t be anyone else for the part. I asked Colm to share his thoughts about acquiring the role.

“Well, you know, and I don’t know if Steve knew this, but it just goes back to the Riddick and Thor thing; classical acting is an extraordinary foundation for a career in this. The framework and the building blocks of everything you’re ever going to do are probably in Shakespeare. I’m very, very lucky. I’ve been trained in this, I’ve got to play all these things and I grew up here in Stratford and I understand heightened reality, where the word ‘poetic’ is not a problem. We want to see the extraordinary. I don’t want to see stories of ordinary people dying; I want to see kings or queens and worlds collide. In order for worlds to collide and to have someone articulate exactly what is happening, you need a classical actor. Guys like me make sense in this stuff.”

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Colm’s presentation of Hargreaves is more than just one performer’s work though. A classically-trained actor thinks like an ensemble. He knows how to show the wardrobe, for instance, to display to the audience where the hand-stitching and effort went into creating Hargreave’s sense of fashion. He also knows when to give ground on the stage, in order for a particularly vital aspect of the story to be emphasized. Feore knows all of these things and it not only adds a tremendous amount of entertainment value to the show – it also reinforces the fun he his having with his craft.

“Classical actors know how to throw themselves into a role and treat it seriously. You know how, sometimes, when a role doesn’t go over well and everyone thinks ‘ah, this is silly’ and gives a cawed version of it, and you know they’re not invested in it. I don’t have that problem; I think it’s real. I think it’s ennobled and extraordinary which I hope will compel extra attention and interest. But I also think that it’s training. I’ve been trained how to move, how to fence, to dance, speaking and all those things that are part of a skillset. How to twirl a costume – I know that those people downstairs spent a hundred hours stitched the lace for an Elizabethan collar. Do you think that I’m not going to show the paying public where all the work went? Who’s talented? Where the skills are? It’s my responsibility.”

Speaking of ensemble, I had to ask Colin about working with the kid versions of the students of the Umbrella Academy.

“Terrific. We were very, very fortunate to work with such great kids. Then, there is Aidan Gallagher, who to my mind, is extraordinary. By the end of the show, I honestly believed he was 58. Because he is such a fine actor and interacts so well with the likes of Kate Walsh and all of his siblings, without giving ground! I mean, he’s 15 years old. He was 14 when we started. I think he’s a reincarnation of someone else and not a 15-year-old boy from L.A. But his professionalism and maturity really astounded me. He’s got an unfettered elegance that I can only dream of. I was really blessed to be surrounded by such solid, professional actors.”

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I asked Colm to relate one of his favourite moments on the show.

Robert Sheehan – who I am a big fan of – and I had this one scene together, in a barber shop. I took some pains to prepare for it and given that it was one of my only scenes with the adults, I was determined for it to be good! So, I went to one of the local shave shops here in Stratford, The Artful Badger. I said, can you sell me a straight razor and some advice? I went straight home and put a knife to the side of my face! Luckily the gashes were hidden by my beard and mustache! But I was practising to be good for Robert! So, I just adored the idea of being able to go in there and tell him ‘this was the plan’, but then, of course, I just fade away as I’m about to tell him. We knew this was going to be a dramatic moment, filmed in black and white, filled with spontaneity but such seriousness. It was fun seeing this scene through my wife’s eyes when we watched it together.”

Given Colm’s involvement in so many geek-friendly projects, I had to ask him if there was a particular fandom that he called his favourite.

“I come from classical theatre and that’s pretty geeky to begin with! When I get asked to be a part of any of these things, or there’s a quarter of a page of super-secret, NDA stuff – then I tend to get into it and immerse myself. I become focused on whatever it is I’m doing at that time and then I become an expert and fully versed. When I was in Spider-Man, I was an expert in that.”

He continued.

“But you know, the one I really was hoping would come back was Riddick. We had signed for possibilities. I mean, it was a planet of the dead, so that being dead I thought was probably good! I saw myself like Dame Judi Dench in flowing white robes for parts two and three, suggesting to Vin Diesel that he could move that way, as we point Obi-Wan Kenobi-like!”

It was difficult to refrain from smiling throughout our conversation. When you talk with someone who clearly loves his work, that is a joy in itself. To hear the level of satisfaction and excitement in Colm’s voice about Hargreaves and the other characters in his long repertoire, left me with not only a greater appreciation for this respected actor’s approach to his work but with confirmation that there is no-one else who could play Reginald Hargreaves as ably, and as joyfully, as him.

The Umbrella Academy is in good hands, as we move further into Season Two. I look forward to learning more of what Colm Feore has in store for us as more of Hargreave’s background is revealed!

About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.