Actor You Should Know: Jessica Rothe of ‘Utopia’
[SPOILER ALERt: This feature includes a major spoiler regarding the second episode of Utopia, so if you have not seen it, look away! Or find two eyepatches if Wilson has any left.]
Now that you have had the weekend to binge Prime Video’s new pandemic thriller Utopia, you know that things get real bad by episode two. The conspiracy-loving central heroes—comic-book nerds Sam (Jessica Rothe), Ian (Dan Byrd), Wilson (Desmin Borges) and Beck (Ashleigh LaThrop) who meet at a Chicago fan convention to bid on the recently discovered manuscript of a graphic novel that may herald a pending outbreak—fall prey to a band of assassins who have been dispatched by god-knows-who to retrieve the unpublished comic and exterminate everyone who has seen it.
But it is not these killers-for-hire who exact the show’s first truly shocking twist. No, that horrifying honor belongs to Jessica Hyde (Sasha Lane), the up-til-that-point fictional (and feral) comic-book character who turns out to be very real and very violent. In an effort to remind her new charges who is in charge after a screaming match with Ian, the wild-eyed runaway suddenly puts a bullet in Sam’s head, instantly killing a character we all thought was in it for the long haul.
Given the rest of the nightmares that rise up as the first season proceeds, Sam may have gotten off easy. But we sure feel robbed by Rothe’s early exit because she’s fast becoming one of our favorites, thanks to her turns in Netflix’s Valley Girl remake and the two Happy Death Day horror flicks. Here, the upbeat and optimistic actress opens up about Sam’s fate and how Utopia actually delivers some hope within the timely tale, which is yet another reason we think ya’ll should be playing close attention to this one.
OK, so when they pitched an interview with you, obviously it was to talk about Utopia. But all they needed to say was Happy Death Day and I’d have been all-in!
Jessica Rothe: Oh, thank you!
Those movies are just super fun and you’re this great new take on the Final Girl.
That is such an incredible compliment because I’m in awe of the legacy of the Final Girl. I mean, when you just think about actresses like Jamie Lee Curtis and the path they carved for actors in every genre. It was a hard act to follow, but I was lucky to be paired up with the brilliant and very darkly twisted, but lovely [director] Chris Landon. So we were able to do some really fun things and I have to say, it was the first time that I ever really felt like someone was celebrating me for the weirdo that I am.
And that’s what I love about it…your character in the movies is weird and funny and not what we’re used to.
Thank you. Yeah, I mean, I think it’s so refreshing and so lovely when young women get to see other young women being weird. And that’s something that I’m very protective of and very passionate about because it’s easy for us all to go on Instagram and put filters on our faces and depict very polished versions of our lives. And I’ve been through times where I’ve wanted to do that too, but I think it’s empowering and wonderful to be like, “Hey, you’re not always going to be perfect. And actually who you are when you’re imperfect is so much more interesting.” And that’s a long journey that I’ve been on as human in this world and an artist.
It takes time.
And with Utopia, the cool thing is also you’re representing a specific type of person in the comic-book world, the comic-book fandom , because people have this idea of what comic-book fans look like. They don’t think that they’re civic minded or environmentalists or even just pretty blonde girls.
I know! It’s one of the brilliant things that I think [showrunner] Gillian Flynn did. She’s a genius for so, so many reasons. I mean, when I heard about this project, I was just so excited and so passionate, not only about the character of Sam, for all of the reasons you said—for her activism and her passion and her foul mouth, her kind of unapologetic enthusiasm about saving the world and this comic—but also about the idea of working with someone as prolific is Gillian Flynn. So in that way it was a no brainer.
And Sam gets one of the biggest twists of the TV season, at least the fall season.
[Laughs] I’ve been asked a lot like, “Were you sad about this?” And it’s like, “Well, of course.” Because anytime you land on a job with an insanely talented cast and a brilliant showrunner, who wouldn’t want to stay on that for years and years and years? But I think Sam would agree that it’s what needed to happen in order for this group of misfits to save the world. And that is, in some way, her dying wish. She is the first person to say that an individual is not as important as the common good and I really, really think in a funny way, her demise is exactly what she would have wanted.
I mean, of course, she would have wanted to go to the end and solve all the problems. When I was filming the show, I realized that in the back of my hand, like, “Oh, Sam thinks she’s in like some sick-ass superhero action movie.” Like she feels the stakes and it’s exciting and she knows when the camera angle would look at her in a certain way. She’s in some ways playing out her own fantasy in this experience. But I do think that [her death] was needed to show how unpredictable and violent and dangerous this world is, not only for the characters, but for the audience. I mean, I’m not going to toot my own horn, but Sam is kind of the Ned Stark of this thing. [Laughs]
There is so much chemistry with the group of you in just those first two episodes. Did you guys get to rehearse to kind of get that vibe going?
We rehearsed a little bit, but I have to say the thing that … I have so much respect for Desmin and Ashleigh and Dan Byrd and Sasha and the entire cast. Especially our little core group of nerds, we just got on so well almost instantaneously. It was such a beautiful cocktail of so many reasons why it works, I think that everyone who’s on the show has been working for a long time and is incredibly talented and passionate and shows up with their work done. And so there was an incredible amount of respect between all of us as performers.
We would go out to dinners and then go to Millennium Park and sit underneath the bean and run sides and ask questions and make sure that everyone felt safe. And Desmin and Ashleigh are both from Chicago, so they showed us around. All of that time together really, I think helped create the kind of beautiful patchwork that is that friendship. I just had such a wonderful time with all of them.
And obviously everything else that the show is taking on is so incredibly uncanny as far as where we are in the world.
Oh it’s been wild. We finished shooting in September and we could have never, ever, ever in a million years guessed that this would happen. Gillian’s been trying to make the show for six years and even though, in some ways, it’s hard and weird and heartbreaking that it’s coming out now and kind of uncomfortable, there also is this really funny, ironic joy to it. I really hope that the show provides people with a safe space to kind of process their own journey they’ve been going on because it is a heightened reality. It’s not the one that we’re in and a lot of times, heightened reality in genre can help us process things that if we were to look straight in the mirror would be too difficult to deal with. I also think the show, at the core of it, has so much hope.
It is interesting how this is group of people were immediately activated into solving the problem instead of running from it.
Exactly, and I think we need more of that in the world. So I hope that it not only gives people that room to process, but it also inspires them and empowers them. And lets them know that they can be the heroes of their own story. That is such an important message to me right now to put out in the world. Your voice matters, you can enact change. It’s just about doing something.
Utopia, Season 1, Streaming Now, Amazon Prime Video