If you watch the show because it’s cool and you like the powers and you love superheroes, that’s fine. But really, the show’s about injustice.
FOX has just renewed The Gifted. The comic book TV series concerns a group of mutants in their fight against Sentinel Services, a government-funded special unit, which is boldly rounding up their kind with complete disregard for due process. The X-Men do exist in this particular Marvel universe, although they’re known to have gone into hiding and don’t manifest—at least for now.
This season, a seemingly normal family saw their lives upended when their children were revealed to be mutants. After going on the run from the authorities, parents Reed (Stephen Moyer) and Kate (Amy Acker) turned to the Mutant Underground, a secret network of persecuted mutants, to find safe passage. The show uniquely positioned itself to tackle real-world issues head on from the get-go: white supremacy, terrorism, and America’s current political minefield. Featured alongside original characters to the Marvel Universe such as Eclipse (Sean Teale), are recognizable comic book faces like Thunderbird (Blair Redford), Blink (Jamie Chung), and Polaris (Emma Dumont).
Polaris, a.k.a. Lorna, is one of the Mutant Underground’s fiercest leaders. As we edge closer to the season one finale, it appears that Polaris might undergo an evolution in her powers of magnetism. In the Marvel Universe, a secondary mutation hits some mutants later in life, usually well after their powers first manifest during puberty. For instance, in the case of Emma Frost (played by January Jones in X-Men: First Class and Tahyna Tozzi in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), her mutant powers went from strict telepathy to also being able to transform into a solid diamond form.
The two-part season finale of The Gifted will air on FOX on January 15.
I was a little late, but I saw all the available episodes this week. Do you binge-watch shows?
Oh, for sure. That’s where the future of programming is, right? Everyone loves binging stuff. I’m so late to the game with this, but I just recently binge-watched the first season of Stranger Things. It’s so good! Now I know what everyone was freaking out about for so long.
Congratulations on getting picked up for season two.
Thank you! It’s super awesome. Yeah, we were pretty surprised. The finale hasn’t even aired yet and we’re already picked up. We just don’t know where we’re filming yet. We filmed season one in Atlanta because that’s where the mutants are “on the run” in the show. We might be changing locations. I’ve been pitching that they should go on the run to Barcelona. [Laughs]
That’d be nice. It’s a blank slate right now. You must have a lot of questions.
Totally. We know nothing. I think a lot of season two will depend on where we’re filming, and not even just which city but what studio lot or whatever. Our creator Matt Nix and FOX and Marvel had an idea as to what the mythology would be for season one, but it sort of changed because we were so rushed. Also, explaining this world to the general populace outside of Marvel fans was a very unique situation. We have nine leads on the show so there’s a lot going on. In season two, I think we’ll finally get our rhythm and see the mutants more in everyday life. Does Lorna pay for the laundromat or does she steal quarters from the machines? Eclipse has this welding ability so maybe he works in an auto shop. I’m not a writer so I could be totally making stuff up.
Polaris is honestly my favorite on the show. She’s the most confident, she doesn’t take shit, and she thinks for herself. But she also has heart. You said in a past interview that you had never felt so close to a character as you do now. Did you feel that way from the script stage?
Beyond! That’s right, I never felt so close to a character before, ever. That doesn’t just go for characters that I’ve played but also the characters that I’ve read. Polaris is so tough and really can’t be pushed around. She’s so stubborn. She also has a lot of heart and would do anything for her friends and family. I highly relate to her. When I first got the role, I had no idea who I was playing. They just told me that it was FOX and Marvel, and Lauren [Shuler Donner] and Bryan [Singer] and Matt were involved. So I knew it was going to be a great project no matter what. But I didn’t know who I was playing. The original character description was just, “She’s a tough, but passionate mutant.” It was really general. So when I read the first script for the pilot, it just blew my mind. Matt and all the writers did such a great job in getting her just perfect. All of our characters are so different, but I could read a stage direction or a line for Polaris and know it’s her. It’s just so specific. I would love to take credit for that, but it’s on the page, and in the comics with the original mythology. I will say that it’s not in the animated series where Polaris is a weak teenage girl. [Laughs] She’s this cute little thing. I really love what she stands for. I love Lorna.
Polaris is Magneto’s daughter. Is that narrative thread explored in the season one finale?
Everyone wants to know if we’ll ever mention Magneto. We don’t mention him by name and we don’t ever see him, but we make it very clear that Magneto is Polaris’s father. I haven’t seen the final edit so they could’ve edited things out, but hopefully they didn’t. There’s Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and Anya who passed away in the comics, but Polaris is Magneto’s only living birth child. I think we all need to remember that. [Laughs] She’s very much her father’s daughter and we see that come out. But it sucks because she really doesn’t want to be like her dad. He abandoned her. She has so many conflicting feelings about him because she also has very real feelings of, “I’m so much like this person. This is someone I could potentially look up to—if he was around.”
The Mutant Underground, and all mutants in general, are outcasts in general society. But Polaris is an outcast within the mutant community as well. She thinks differently. She’s strong-willed. She has very loud opinions. For her to know that this man exists who’s that same exact way—same powers, same stubbornness, and same aggression issues—is heartbreaking because he doesn’t want to be in her life. Another thing: Lorna is going to have a baby. Great. Cool. She’s very early in her pregnancy and she’s also trying to save the world. She doesn’t want her kid being hunted or whatever else after birth. That’s her reality. But what if she can’t change the world before the baby comes? Now she’s thinking, “Is that what my dad thought when he abandoned me? Did he give up a life with his daughter to go save the world?” She probably needs to go to therapy. Sadly, mutants get denied of everything, including mental health care. So there’s no hope for her.
That’s a full plate. The show is incredibly upfront about tackling real-world issues. That obviously resonates with all of us. Do you have a lot of discussions about that going into each episode or is it all pretty evident to everyone on the cast and crew what you’re aiming at?
Traditionally in television, there are table reads every week where the cast, the producers, and the network get together to go over the scripts out loud. We don’t have that because our schedule is so tight. But there was no need to go over it. We knew exactly what we were doing. There was that one scene that Jamie Chung filmed where it’s a flashback of her going on a date and they’re confronted by a mob of anti-mutant protestors. In the script, they were written to be holding tiki torches. I don’t know if they actually filmed it like that on the day, but that’s a very clear statement. I don’t shy away from using terms like Nazi. I think the anti-mutant people are Nazis. They want to destroy and kill a group of minorities? That’s horrifying. It’s so blatant that we don’t need to talk about it. It’s what the entire show is about. If you watch the show because it’s cool and you like the powers and you love superheroes, that’s fine, too. But really, the show’s about injustice.
In the earlier episodes after Polaris is imprisoned, we see her hair dye washing off to reveal the iconic green in the prison shower. I know that’s something rooted in the comics. How did you guys arrive at Polaris’s overall look for the show?
Yeah, the reveal of Polaris’s hair in the prison shower is a direct pull from the comics. Creating her look was I’d say the hardest because Polaris looks like a mutant in so many ways, but then she really doesn’t in other ways. I mean, if you met her on the street, you’d think she’s just some girl with green hair. This season, we wanted her to be super street-level and based in reality. She has a ‘90s grunge look to her clothes and she has choppy, short green hair. Also, everyone wonders, “What lipstick is she wearing?” The lip color is just part of her mutant qualities so it’s stuff like that you don’t really think about. Don’t even get me started on the wigs. It’s been a whole thing. I have green wigs, black and green wigs, black wigs, color-changing wigs that go from black to green and then green to black. There’s a lot going on. But I think the green hair is something Matt really wanted on the show, that it grows green out of her head and she feels the need to dye it black so she can hide. Basically, Polaris is a piece of work. [Laughs]
The wigs, the lip color—your fans must scrutinize every detail. Marvel has rabid fans.
Oh yeah, they scrutinize every little detail. The fans of the show, and specifically Polaris fans, are so amazing and so supportive and so invested, and honestly, the best in the world. It’s so silly because we’re only allowed to post photos on social media that don’t have spoilers in them, right? Well, in episode three, my character uses her abilities to fly. I wasn’t allowed to post photos from set so I just posted a picture of me in my costume, no spoilers I thought. Of course, leave it to the fans to figure out that I changed shoes and now wearing shoes that are steel-toed. A bunch of people are going, “She’s going to fly in the next episode!” How do you figure that out? Also, since my character originated in 1968 and has been around for so many decades, I expected a lot more criticism and scrutiny about the portrayal of her, to be honest. But I only received positive feedback and so much love. I wasn’t expecting that at all because, you know, people have opinions.
I’m glad you brought up the flying because I want to ask you about your dance background. You trained in ballet. You were of course previously on the ABC show Burnheads where you played a dancer. I’d imagine that helps you in your superpower choreography.
I trained in classical ballet since I was three years old. I don’t think I’d be able to do half the stunts if I didn’t have that background. Also, with Polaris, her movements are so specific. She definitely has the Magneto vibe to her, but we wanted her to be feminine. Even in the comics, even though she’s powerful and strong in her body, her arms and hands always look graceful. This has nothing to do with the show, but if you look at what Elizabeth Olsen does with Scarlet Witch, Polaris’s sister, it’s very different, but also very elegant and feminine. I always love the way she does Wanda’s hands. She’s a classically trained ballerina so we have that in common. It really helps.
Oh I didn’t know that about Elizabeth. Would it be correct for me to assume that you wanted to become a ballerina at one point? What changed and how did you transition to acting?
I’ve wanted to be a lot of different things. At one point I wanted to be a professional dancer. At another point I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I’m actually in school to get a degree in mechanical engineering right now. But how did I transfer over to acting? I grew up doing musical theater. I didn’t even know I could act. I have a very weird story about how I fell into it, which is that you keep signing six-year contracts with networks and you kind of get caught up in it. Of course, there was a point in time when I got offered a spot to go study at the Bolsoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. There were many days when I was sad that I didn’t go, but I had a job, which is here. I’d already committed to NBC and everything happens for a reason. I was never really like, “I’m going to become an actor” or “I knew when I was five that I would become one.” I never had that moment a lot of people talk about. But I always loved performing, obviously, which is why I gravitated towards dance. It’s been an interesting road. I just kept jobs and really love it.
What I really love about this show specifically is that, like theater, you build this family. You build a family that you trust no matter what. You’re doing something pretty scary and nuts where you drill it until you’re exhausted. You do months and months of rehearsals and then go perform together for even more. You spend so much time together and bond so well with these people. I think that’s what we have on our show. Again, it’s so lame that I say this, but they really feel like my family. We’re so close. We know so much about each other and we’re way too involved in each other’s personal lives. It’s just bad. [Laughs] Honestly, Sean [Teale] and Blair [Redford] feel like my brothers, and sometimes, I want to kill them like I would a brother. It’s just great.
On a different register from Polaris, you were on the TV show Aquarius where you played a member of the Charles Manson cult. I have a strong fascination with cults.
Oh my gosh, everyone does.
I’m assuming you never joined a cult yourself, but what do you tap into for a role like that, which is maybe very far away from you?
That’s a great question. I’m going to be totally honest: I won’t say that I hated it, but I really struggled with playing that character on Aquarius. She also had the same name as me. Playing Emma was hard to do. Not only does she join a cult, but her base personality is so different from mine in every way. She was the exact opposite of who I am. She was weak and sheltered and easily manipulated and couldn’t stand on her own two feet and shy and introverted. It was really difficult. Honestly, playing a Manson girl was so hard because I had to go to work every day and ask, “What are you doingggg? Why are you making these choicessss?” [Laughs] But what comforted me is that I was representing something that was totally real because this happened to a real girl and this was a real event. If it weren’t real, I would’ve had an even harder time with it. Basically, in that scenario, I just clung onto any ounce of reality I could. We read all the books. We actually had a library in our writers’ office full of books about everything Charles Manson and cults and the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. That’s what really got me through all those scenes where I’m like, “What is she doingggg?” I almost want to say that it was my coping mechanism, just reminding myself that it’s based in reality. Tapping into that was super hard, but research helps.
Do you go to the writers more in that sort of situation?
Actually, it’s the exact opposite, which is so ridiculous. I ask no questions because I had to admit to myself that the writers and the creators on that knew my character better than I did. They created her so my hands were totally tied behind my back like, “Whatever you want her to do, you tell me, because you understand her,” which I know is horrible as an actor and you should never say that, ever. I was talking to Sean Teale about this and he was saying, “You should always be able to understand your character’s point of view and appreciate it. If you can’t, you can’t play them.” So if I played a sociopathic killer, I have to find some ounce of something based in reality. But Emma was really a character that I didn’t understand even a little bit. [Laughs] I asked no questions.
But with Polaris, I understand 100 percent and ask so many questions. If a line doesn’t seem like Polaris, I feel like I can say, “This doesn’t feel like her.” Again, I’m not a writer and I don’t know what’s best, but if something feels wrong, I feel like it’s my job to bring it up. Also, to be fair, I’m playing someone with bipolar disorder. Polaris is unmedicated and can’t get medical attention and probably hasn’t even tried to. I’m playing someone who has a mental illness that she doesn’t fully understand and that really influences every single thing that she does. In my first conversation ever with Matt Nix while shooting the pilot, he said, “Polaris is mentally ill and I want you to understand that it’s going to be tricky. You have to think about that for every single scene that you’re in.” So what is her mood today? Is she having an episode? Is something triggering her? I feel blessed that, not only do I work in an environment where we can openly talk about mental illness, but we also get to put it on screen and let other people be part of the conversation. It affects Polaris’s everyday. For someone like Blink, it doesn’t. Blink has her own problems, obviously, but Polaris has to think about it 24/7, 365. It’s great that we can talk about stuff like this at work.
Going into the future of the Marvel universe as a whole, what are you excited about? There’s always talk about having some crossover between the TV universe and the cinematic one.
Personally, I feel amazing about that. I would love that. I’m so happy that the Avengers get to be with the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, but what I want to see happen is them making a House of M movie where they have Ian McKellen’s Magneto, me, and the twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, come together. That’s what I want. That would be everything. People would freak out. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m involved, but I think people would love that: everyone united, being badass, and doing crazy shit together. I think that would be great.
That would for sure be an event movie.
Totally! I think it would be a big deal! Forget these Infinity War movies. Let’s get House of M. Come on, people! This is mutant royalty.
Well, you have a great thing going with The Gifted. You’re really perfect as Polaris.
That’s so, so sweet, and I’ll never believe it because they saw the broadest spectrum of people for Polaris. They saw every age, every ethnicity—they saw everything for her. Nobody really knew what they wanted for Polaris so I’m really happy to be stepping into her shoes.