Talking to The Umbrella Academy‘s Robert Sheehan is like injecting espresso straight into your veins. He’s a gregarious Irishman — who I suspect was wildly gesticulating during our phone call to discuss the Netflix show’s second season — as well as whip smart and extremely funny. As Klaus Hargreeves, Sheehan nailed down fan-favorite status while portraying the black-sheep sibling whose powers include communing with the dead. This ability doesn’t come without major downsides, which frequently leads Klaus into substance abuse, but this year, he’s got a whole new outlet.
Sheehan was cool enough to speak with us about Klaus’ adventures this season, including a key scene inspired by a Darren Aronofsky film. Klaus also becomes a doomsday cult leader, which is how he adapts to 1960s Texas, where siblings land (through botched time travel) ahead of yet another apocalypse. So, there’s plenty going on for him this season, and even though fans suspect Sheehan of being Klaus-In-Real-Life, he’s got quite the extensive list of credits and was, frankly, overdue for a major breakout role. During the course of this conversation, Sheehan broke into song twice (I noted one instance and will leave the other up to your imagination) and deftly ricocheted answers, no matter how strange the inquiries.
Robert Sheehan: How are ya? I’m lathered in soap as we speak.
I’d expect no less from you, so we might as well stick with that vibe. You recently Instagrammed a Season 2 poster while asking, “Who farted?” Do you know the answer to that question?
Yes, I do, in fact. Yes, I do. You wanna know the answer?
This is already an experience.
Tom. Hopper. It’s always Tom! [Tom plays the musclebound “gorilla,” Luther.]
I was totally off base. I suspected Justin L. Min’s Ben character. It seems like something that a ghost would do.
He can be quite straight-laced, though.
Well, Ben is still haunting Klaus this season. Who would you like to be haunted by?
St. Francis of Assisi. Just because there’d be little ghost woodland creatures following him around. That’d be quite eventful. You’d have little ghost hamsters, little ghost squirrels, little ghost centipedes, just following him around like a little ghost animal parade. It’d be like Ghost David Attenborough.
Have you ever personally had experiences with the paranormal?
I have a few friends who get a few pints and get a little paranormal, but apart from that, nooooo.
There’s a scene this season that I think people will talk about. You’re dancing, and the camera work is nuts.
Oh yeah, the liquor store. The camera was attached to me. It was clumsy, but we press on, regardless. Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream is what inspired it. They strapped one to Jennifer Connelly when her character was strung out on drugs. And I think all of the lead actors did that in that movie. And I think Mick Jagger had popularized that rig in some music video.
The song fits Klaus’ state of mind. Do you have a personal theme song?
No, if I like a song, I can play it to death, but nothing in particular, other than [starts singing loudly] “heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work I go!”
Klaus isn’t working, but he’s digging the 1960s as a cult leader. Do you see that as an extension of his personality, hedonistically, or is it a way of coping?
Yeah, exactly. It’s a way of coping, a coping mechanism, and I think it’s a replacement for drugs, like an anesthetic: praise and adoration and all that. I think praise and adoration is a form of an anesthetic that many people use, in the form of social media. You go on there, and they tell you how healthy you are and how great you look, and you think, “Oh, I should really stick with that filter. It behooves my skin tone!” And so on and so forth, so I think that with Klaus, it’s a bit like laying down at a shooting gallery, or as you guys call them, a heroin den.
If you had your own personal cult, what would your teachings be?
First off, I get first dibs on bank accounts and wives. It’s going to be a medieval cult, like kings, back in the day. First dibs! That’s a joke. But I think peace and love and let’s all have a cuddle and think about family. That’s a bit old-fashioned these days.
Did you do any studying up on cults or base your cult persona on any leader in particular?
Not really. We’re making the occasionally dramatic show, and I wasn’t playing a real-life cult leader. I was fascinated by cults anyway, because it’s a new design for living. They’re not necessarily all bad. In fact, I’d assume that there are quite a few good-meaning cults out there, like I don’t think there’s much difference in a society and a cult really. It’s hard to define a cult as anything but a society, that’s my point. So, there are probably good examples of that, and the bad ones get all the press, of course, but I’m sure there are some that are growing food, helping each other to be self-sufficient.
So, like a utopia? Your leader is a benevolent one.
The fact that the words “cult” or “commune” have been associated with drinking the kool-aid. Eventually, if everybody says that different designs of living are a threat by definition, you go, “Oh well, you’re a lunatic.” If you think outside the society that you’ve been born into, which frankly is great and all but can be deeply flawed and wanting, spiritually. It can leave people lonely. It can leave people broke. And I’m sure that there are [organizations] out there that are dedicated to love and self-sufficiency, not handing your power over to every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the name of convenience.
You do a lot of physical comedy in this season, including with the cult. Do you ever want to go really gung ho and maybe get ripped for a role?
Oh yeah, of course. I’d enjoy that! If you’re an actor, and you’re in it for the right reasons, you enjoy transformation. That’s the whole kick, so absolutely, I’d transform for a role.
The siblings land in Texas after Five screwed up the time travel. Have you ever been to the Lone Star State?
Yes, I have been to Texas once. I was at the SXSW film festival for Moonwalkers and had a whale, an entire whale, of a time.
Did you see any interesting bartenders like Bill Murray there?
No, I didn’t see Bill Murray, but I saw many more bartenders, but they were bartenders, so I wasn’t making any solid memories. But we screened the film in what was essentially a glorified pub cinema called The Alamo Drafthouse. That was the place, and they were slinging drinks during the screening. The waiter would come in as we were watching, and fling you tequila. This was quite a few years ago, but when we were due up on stage to talk about the film, (1) I hadn’t seen the film and was quite shocked; and (2) Was quite, quite drunk, so it was hard to talk tangibly about the thing and waffled like a mad man up there for about 20 minutes.
The apocalypse is upon the show again. Do you see any hope for society staving off an apocalypse like these characters?
Well, I think that kind of defeats the definition of an apocalypse, which means that most of humanity won’t survive. Christians are into that in a big way, they invented the idea, so I suppose there’s always a chance that someone would survive. Men and women are very, very adaptive, like cockroaches. We’re very, very good at survival.
During an apocalypse, would you rather be a warrior or a nun?
Oh, I’d be the nun. 100%.
‘The Umbrella Academy’ launches its second Netflix season on July 31.