Desmin Borges spent five seasons playing the lovable war-vet suffering from PTSD on FX’s criminally underrated You’re The Worst. He’s about to take over your TV as a bunker-dwelling, comic-book-obsessed conspiracy theorist trying to prevent the apocalypse on Amazon Prime Video’s sci-fi thriller Utopia. But Borges’ greatest talent is how he can convincingly string together words like demagoguery and Chicago foodie recs just a few minutes after waking up from a nap, which is when we caught up with him to chat about the new streaming series. (To be fair, Borges has a nine-month-old to keep entertained during quarantine and some of us only have two cats and our ADHD-riddled brains, so he’s obviously more deserving of that sweet, blissful shuteye.)
Utopia comes from author and showrunner Gillian Flynn, who adapted it from a U.K. series by Dennis Kelly. It follows a group of outcasts who believe a prophetic comic book story, written by an unknown author, holds the key to stopping the next apocalyptic event. Borges plays one member of the group, an oddball genius named Wilson Wilson, who gets sucked into a world of corporate espionage and secret assassin networks due to the comic book and its real-life heroine, Jessica Hyde.
If it all sounds weird as hell that’s because it is. It’s also an addictive binge-watch that feels oddly perfect for these strange times. We chatted with Borges about the show’s unique form of escapism, taking castmates like Rainn Wilson and Dan Byrd on food tours of Chicago, and why he’s drawn to flawed characters on TV.
This was shot before the quarantine happened, but how do you think a conspiracy thriller about a global pandemic is going to land right now?
The thing is, I think a lot of people are looking for closure, of any sort, and I don’t think we’re going to get it any time soon in reality, you know? One of the things that Gillian [Flynn] does so well on this show is she takes that sort of dangerous conspiracy thriller and mixes it with a dark comedy. We have a genre mashup going on. So even though we have these moments that are dark and exciting and somewhat close to the world that we live in with the backdrop of a viral pandemic, we also have these moments that are really humorous and tender that kind of weave in and out of the story and give you breaths during those times that might get a little too heavy.
There’s definitely more humor on the show than in real life.
I was talking with Rainn [Wilson] about this a couple of days ago, because we’ve been getting these questions a lot about whether it’s going to hit too close to home. And like the short answer to that is, “Well, it depends on what your experience in this viral pandemic has been like” but I think for most people it won’t hit too close to home because of what we’re dealing with in reality versus what we’re dealing with in our Utopian reality. There is no civil unrest happening in Utopia, even though we’re in the same timeframe of now. There are not active protests happening that are very much needed against police brutality. There’s not a fascination with fascism and demagoguery, which seems to be like a worldwide concept. Everyone in the show believes that science is fact and fact is truth. Now your version of that depends on whose side you’re on, but there’s not like half the country thinking that you shouldn’t wear a mask. We are dealing with those sorts of experiences in our real life but we’re not necessarily discussing those in the world of Utopia. So I think it’ll be a bit of a hopefully engaging break for everybody.
This show is based on a U.K. series. Did you watch that to get a feel for how your character had been played before?
I didn’t want to make choices that had already been made. I wanted to make my own Wilson Wilson and within that, I think we found somebody who resembles what a normal 30-ish person who lives in his parents’ home with seven other family members and may or may not have a bunker in Chicago looks like. I’m originally from there. I know that Midwest family feel. I grew up in a seven flat gray stone in Logan square with my family, so we had a variety of Puerto Ricans, Greeks, and Italians running in and out of our space at any time. I wanted to have that family feel of a loner who was extremely intelligent and at the same time, kind of round him out a little bit. I put on almost 30 pounds for Wilson, which was interesting considering the choice was made to shoot in the dead of summer and Chicago when it was crazy humid. I mean, my beard was four pounds of that 30.
Wilson is a hardcore conspiracy theorist. Did any of that rub off on you?
Well, my wife and I did talk about building a bunker on the outskirts of New York somewhere. I mean, I think it would be fun. We keep saying like after every national catastrophe like this is the worst that it’s ever been. How many times are we going to say there before we’re actively prepared for it to really be the worst that it’s ever been?
You’re a Chicago native and this show was filmed in Chicago, so did you take the cast on any good foodie tours of the city?
Dan Byrd and I, we went on many a foodie adventure together because our call times were very much the same so we’re always kind of riding out together and riding in together. I actually took him to the famous Gene & Jude’s. One thing that’s really funny about Gene & Jude’s is that they don’t have ketchup. They don’t put ketchup on the dog, they don’t have ketchup if you want to dip your fries and it’s something that you have to let everyone experience their first time going.
So Dan and I are sitting there, eating our dog, having our fries, drinking our soda and he was like, “Oh man, I need some ketchup.” And I was like, “Mm-hmm.” I just keep taking my bite and he goes up to the counter and you know, Dan Byrd, he’s just so unassuming and such a nice guy. He says, “Hey, can I have some ketchup?” And the guy was like, “What?” And Dan just kind of like looked, and the guy yells, “Hey, Tim, this guy wants some ketchup.” And the guy stopped cooking and he came over and he put his arm around Dan and said, “Boy, we don’t have ketchup here.” That was pretty fun. But other than that, I felt like we were all discovering new places in Chicago because it’s really turned into like this culinary breeding ground. There are all these storefronts that you can get cheaper in Chicago than you can in New York or LA or San Francisco. Steph Izard has Duck Duck Goat, Girl and the Goat, and Little Goat Diner. You’re getting really interesting fashion-forward type of food in a very Chicago style sort of way. So all of us would go out and sample as much as we could while we were there.
I think both this show and You’re The Worst could be described as dark, even bleak comedies. Is that something you’re drawn to, as an actor and a TV fan?
I mean, I just finished Schitt’s Creek, and I absolutely loved it so maybe it’s comedies about not-so-great people turning great or finding that there’s something great within their lack of greatness? I think one of the things that I’ve tried to do my entire career is to give voice to people who feel voiceless. There weren’t a lot of people when I was growing up that looked like me on screen or in film or on stage so when I get the opportunity, I try to emulate those types of people. I think one of the main things about people who feel voiceless is that they’re aware of their flaws, you know? They know that they’re flawed and even despite the flaws, they still try to lead a life worth leading, whatever that may be.
I mean, when it comes down to it, who wants to play just a one-dimensional character? You get to really dig into someone who feels human and has just as many awkward and bad days as they have great and happy days and then you feel like you’re being able to add a part of real-life to this fictional space that sometimes it’s hard to make it seem like it’s real. Not particularly with Utopia. You just kind of fall into it and hope you don’t mess it up. Trying to elevate what they already have on the page, it’s no easy feat. But then they put a really good cast together and have really great directors coming through and I think what we did here in Utopia — we really elevated what was on the page. I think it’s going to be a pretty exciting ride.
Amazon Prime’s ‘Utopia’ streams on September 25.