Last month, I wrote a few words about why you should be tuning in to Runaways on Hulu, Marvel's latest television venture. Hopes were high for the series premiere, and luckily, show-runners Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (Gossip Girl, The OC) have not let fans down. The ensemble coming-of-age story brilliantly captures the spirit of Brian K. Vaughn's beloved '00s graphic novel series, while adding its own creative liberties to make it an even greater success on the small screen.
In short, the premise is this: six teenagers who were once friends but have since grown apart come back together upon the discovery that their parents are part of an evil super-villain cult. With its predominant theme of questioning authority figures who you should be able to trust, the show feels perfectly at home in 2017 — which is, likely, why it has resonated so strongly with young audiences. Another reason is that the show's casting is perhaps more diverse than any superhero series before it, both in terms of race and sexuality. And each character subvert stereotypes in their own way: the popular church girl likes other girls (the first openly onscreen queer female in the Marvel universe), and the school jock is actually a genius.
Oh, and did we mention that four out of the six main characters are girls? This is perhaps one of the most significant steps forward made in the cinematic superhero universe, which is still predominantly male. (Hollywood is seeming to only now just be catching on to the potential of female-drive superhero narratives, with the overwhelming success of comic book rival DC's Wonder Woman earlier this year.)
We caught up with the four leading ladies of Runaways — Allegra Acosta, Virginia Gardner, Lyrica Okano, and Ariela Barer — to discuss what the series means to them and why they feel so strongly about setting an example for the generation that's watching.
Allegra Acosta, aka Molly Hernandez
William Defebaugh: What is it about Brian K. Vaughan's writing that spoke to you when you first read Runaways?
Allegra Acosta: I think it’s interesting that he wrote them in the 2000s, a long time ago, and yet they are so modern. He had so many female-centric roles that are strong and powerful. It didn’t fall into any stereotypes. Now that we have this show recreating his beautiful work, it is even more modernized. We have people of color working on the show, more females working on the show. And we still have that spunk he carried that made all these fans fall in love with these relatable characters.
WD: It almost feels like it was written for 2017.
AA: It was perfect timing on Marvel’s end because this is a show we really needed now in our political climate. I think it shows kids that you can be your own hero, you can fight for what you believe in, and you can really be passionate and involved and still grow up through different circumstances and have a successful outcome. I think that’s the message from the show. But also, what if your parents are evil? Maybe that can be a metaphor for other things — other evils in the world. I think our show covers something that 2017 is all about.
WD As much as the superhero universe has made progress when it comes to diversity in recent years, there are still not many Latinx superheroes out there. How does it feel to get to play one?
AA: It’s amazing. I think the fact that they changed Molly to be this strong, intelligent and observant Latina character is kind of surreal and mind-blowing. They could have easily fallen into stereotypes. Josh and Stephanie and Jeff Loeb and Brian K. Vaughan, they all came together to make sure that none of our characters fall into stereotypes. I think that’s where a lot of TV goes wrong when portraying a person of color or females in general. They always fall into a little box. So it doesn’t feel like a real representation of this world. The fact that I get to play a character who’s not a stereotype, who is not a statistic, who is strong and beautiful, it’s incredible. She’s just a girl growing up and learning more about herself. It’s everything that I wanted to see since I was little. I hope this show opens the eyes of people who are doing television and movie casting. I give props to [our casting director] Patrick Rush, he knows what’s up.
WD: In the show we started to see like Molly wanting to find out more about her parents, obviously that’s a motivator for her. Do we get to see her exploring her racial identity more?
AA: Definitely. I think her main focus is finding her parents and learning more about herself. Because even though she is mature beyond her years, I think she always has this internal issue that she doesn’t really have a family to back on. That’s why she listened to Bomba Estéreo in the first episode, because she really want to submerge herself in her culture, because she’s curious. She doesn’t have family to educate her on these things. So she explores.
WD: What kind of experiences that the characters are exploring as teenagers navigating high school do you relate to in particular?
AA: Right now, I am the only minor on the show. I go to school everyday. After I finish a scene I go straight to school. I’m a normal kid who lives in this entertainment business and that does a bunch of school so that I can shoot a scene. So I relate to being stressed out about a test or about biology while also trying to do all [this other work].
WD: Why do you think it’s important for young girls to see this story?
AA: I think Molly represents teenage girls. Normally at this age, we tend to be in a specific box, molded to society standards which is totally BS. We need more girls that are empowered and are still growing. She and I will still makes mistakes and that’s what makes it beautiful. You’ll see a real human being and not this idolized God. I’m 14, I'm growing. It’s important for young girls to see how strong and valuable they are. They will grow up to be these amazingly talented, strong, and aware women. This show has a lot of that. Molly wears whatever she wants. She says whatever she wants. She learns whatever she wants. This is what young girls need right now, especially in 2017. We really convey this strong female hero that they can be inspired by.
WD: If you could have a superpower, what would you choose?
AA: Mixture of shapeshifting and flying. If I could shape shift into anything for one day, I would be Rihanna and I would fly.
Virginia Gardner, aka Karolina Dean
WD: What is it you love about playing Karolina? What do you relate to about her?
Virginia Gardner: I think I can relate to her in her age, she’s not totally known in who she is and trying to figure it out who is she and what her priorities are and whose she attracted to and all that stuff about growing up as a teenager, I think that’s a challenging time and I think not just me but a lot of people can relate to going through those changes and trying to figure out what you've been told your entire life is actually what you want to believe in or not.
WD: Given what we know about Karolina’s character in the comics, how does it feel getting to play one of Marvel’s first gay superheroes?
VG: It feels great. I’ve had so many people reach out to me on Twitter and Instagram and other formats to say how much it means to them to have a [queer] character like this represented on TV, and those saying they were confused at 13, having a character like this has helped them so much. I really hope that I can help inspire a younger generation and give that generation hope and sense of comfort and strength.
WD: How did you go about preparing for that aspect of the role?
VG: I’ve been asked this a lot and I really didn’t think of her any differently, I didn’t approach her any differently than I would approach any other character. I just wanted to make sure that I could do this incredible character justice and bring her to life the best way possible.
WD: We’ve seen some tension explored between Karolina and Nico, which is true to the comics. How is that relationship going to be explored further in the show?
VG: I don’t want to give anything away to people, but I will say that me and Lyrica Okano who plays Nico have amazing chemistry, so I’ll leave it at that. There’s definitely some exploration that happens.
WD: In the comics, Karolina has another really big love interest, who is a shapeshifter. Has there been any discussion of that character entering the show or for her to have a bigger love story line?
VG: We talked about it for season 2, but I can’t even confirm a season 2, so I can’t help you out much there. We’ll see.
WD: Obviously rebelling against authority figures is a theme that a lot of young people can identify with at any time, but especially in 2017. Do you think it’s a coincidence, the show coming out this year?
VG: I don’t think it was on purpose by any means, but I think it was a really wonderful coincidence. I think that in 2017 more than ever we need to be questioning authority, inspiring a younger generation to do the same and question now if the beliefs they’ve been told to believe their entire life are ones that they should continue on with. So I think that our show is creating a really positive message for the younger generation and hopefully we can start changing the world.
WD: Why do you think it is that in recent years we’ve seen superhero stories, which used to be more niche, now all of a sudden take center stage in the mainstream? Why do you that has happened?
VG: I think we need it. I think that we need hope right now. I think that at times things can seem bleak, especially with the political climate, so creating a sense of unity and a message of hope and good guys winning over bad guys is something that everybody needs.
WD: Speaking of, one of Karolina’s major storylines is her faith and her spirituality, which is a hot button issue that often gets excluded from teen dramas. How is it exploring that dynamic with your character and do any of your own beliefs inform your performance in that way?
VG: I would never knock religion, but I do think that it’s an important thing to be exploring and I think the idea that being told what to believe your entire life and wanting something different from it is a really important thing to be exploring. I don’t think enough people do that, so I think it’s less about religion and more about her rebelling against what she's been told to believe her entire life and trying to figure out if what she believes in is actually good or bad and trying to form her own opinion as an adult and not just doing what other people told her.
WD: I understand you have a Black Belt. Do you plan on doing any of your own stunts when the action starts picking up?
VG: I do have my black belt in Tae-Kwon-Do. As many stunts as they let me do, I will do myself. Sometimes they get a little nervous because I can be clumsy sometimes.
WD: If you could have a real life superpower what would it be?
VG: To fly! How dope would that be?
WD: Well, you’re playing the right character then.
Lyrica Okano, aka Nico Minoru
WD: What do you love about playing your character? What do you relate to about her and how are you different?
Lyrica Okano: In middle school I was going through this weird phase where I didn't really know what I was feeling and I felt really closed off from everybody and I would spend hours putting on my makeup for reasons that I’m still trying to understand. I think it was because I wanted to control how I look because I didn’t know how to control how I felt. So I really relate to Nico in that way. How am I different from her? When I was in high school I wish I stuck my ground more about who I was as a person. I think I was still in that phase of discovering myself, meanwhile I feel like Nico owns it. She doesn't give a fuck, she really owns the fact that she’s dealing with a tragedy, that she’s going through something and she knows that everyone looks at her and sees a lot of makeup and a lot of angst, but she doesn’t care. That’s her and she’s going through it, and she’s telling everybody to deal with it. I think that’s really badass.
WD: There’s a lot of discussion surrounding Karolina’s sexuality, but in the comics, Nico has her own complicated sexuality as well. How is it exploring that dynamic?
LO: Without spoiling anything, Virginia and I, we read the comments and we had a lot of time to discuss that. We would obviously ask Josh a lot of questions and he would never tell us what would happen with our characters so we’ve been able to play with that idea, because I’ve been rooting for Nico and Karolina from the beginning. I’m one of those fans, what do you call them, a “Deanoru”? Is that our ship? It’s all over Tumblr and I have been rooting for these character and I've felt the same way, so we definitely made sure that that connection between Karolina and Nico was apparent from the very beginning. And I’m not going to say if it’s going to be anything romantic, but definitely we’re conscious of Nico and Karolina’s history and how this story plays out in the comic books.
WD: In the books the parents were pretty much straightforwardly-evil, where as in the show there’s a lot more of a gray area. Why do you think [Josh and Stephanie] decided to go that route?
LO: Because I think it’s much more interesting to play with the idea that people who do evil things, they’re not necessarily not doing them because they were born evil. A lot of people have reasons for what they do, especially when it comes to parents. It’s easy for kids to look at their parents sometimes and think, “Oh God, they’re just trying to ruin my life,” but that’s not the case most of the time. And I think that’s more interesting to explore rather than black and white, evil and good.
WD: Why is it that you think now superhero stories are becoming so mainstream?
LO: I think we're all realizing that it’s not just this one group of people that we should be focusing on when it comes to being like, “this is your superhero.” There are different kinds of people who want to see different superheroes that they can relate to. I grew up looking for somebody I could look up to, a superhero that I could be like, “That’s kinda like me,” but I never found one. So it’s such an honor playing Nico because I feel I give a voice to all the Asian kids out there who have been looking for somebody to relate to and look up to.
WD: Why do you think it’s important for young girls to be seeing this story?
LO: There’s just not enough [women] in film and TV right now. I rarely see strong female character on anything and it’s usually that they’re put into the story to be the leading man’s love interest. [Runaways] shows that these female characters, they have their own motives and their own stories, and they’re driven by their own issues, and they have their own voices. I’m hoping it will inspire a lot of girls out there to know that they matter and they their stories are important too, and that they can rise above it all without anybody else’s help.
WD: What would you choose for your real-life superpower?
LO: I would want to have the ability to make really good food instantly. I’m serious! Every time I cook meals, I’m starving and I get frustrated that I waited this long to start cooking. I get lazy, but I’m a foodie. So that’s what I would want.
Ariela Barer, aka Gert Yorkes
WD: Tell me a bit about the audition process. How did the role come up and what was your reaction when you found out what part it was for?
Ariela Barer: The audition process was very funny because originally the only character that was specified to be Latina was Molly. So I got the breakdowns for Molly — a 14-year-old girl going through puberty for the first time. It just said for a Hulu show. And I saw it was from the creators of Gossip Girl and I thought, “I can pass for 14 if they cast like 30 year-olds to be 16 year-olds. This will work.” So I was really trying. After the audition, I got a call later saying they loved my audition but that no one would believe for a second that I was just going through puberty. So they asked me to try out for [Gert]. And the second I got that breakdown I thought, “Oh, this is me! Which is to say, she’s a feminist with her own personal problems, but kind of like a modern day riot girl. And after that it was just super easy.
WD: What do you love about playing Gert?
AB: I love playing Gert because I think she is written very much like a real person. She’s flawed and she’s filled with contradictions, but all of that is where all the growth stems from and so it’s really nice to grow to love this character with all her flaws and watch her work through them and become a better person because of it. I think her heart is in the right place. I think she’s a well-meaning person. She’s quick and she’s funny, but she has a lot to learn. I find it fun to go through that journey with her.
WD: Yes. I think one of the most fun things about her is that she’s such a staunch feminist and then at the same time she has such strong feelings for Chase, who is the school jock. Why can’t she be both?
AB: Exactly. Honestly, I am that same feminist and I’ve had some very stupid crushes. That’s the thing I love — she’s filled with contradictions that she’s real. The show is all about subverting tropes. With [Gert and Chase], I think it’s really empowering. If you think about it from a technical level, it’s just a gender swap of Summer and Seth [from The O.C.]. To give a girl that same sort of tenacity and that sense to just go after him unapologetically and to never think, “Am I good enough for him?” She’s just like, “Why wouldn’t I be good enough for him?”
WD: Let’s talk about the dinosaur in the room. What is the dynamic of working with Old Lace? [Gert’s pet dinosaur.]
AB: Ah it’s an incredible puppet. She has six puppeteers that work her. There is one side who holds her — this 180 pound thing. He holds her on his stomach. There’s someone else who works a monitor to move her head and her arms, someone else who moves her tongue, someone who moves her eyes, and someone pumping air to make sure she looks like she’s breathing. You can almost forget that it’s not real.
WD: Rebelling against authority figures is a theme that resonates with a lot of people especially in this country right now. Is that something that was on your minds as you were making the show?
AB: Definitely. Even just in smaller ways, not thinking of the major impacts. Just looking on set and seeing the strong women and people of color really coming together and getting a voice was a really powerful thing to just breathe in. The show is accomplishing that on every scale — whether it’s the message it’s sending out it’s also just putting a lot of women on set. Just being able to have a more equal energy at all time just resonates. When you watch the show, you see who has the voice. A lot of female writers wrote this. I think two of Gert’s biggest episodes were written by women and it was really lovely to be able to talk to them about what Gert’s going through, and Stephanie, our showrunner, really knows what she’s talking about. It’s really nice to think about the greater message we’re giving because we’re a teenage show so we’re trying to influence a younger audience. It’s nice to show these underdog characters and give them a voice when they come to terms with authorities they trusted and now can’t rely on anymore. They get to stand up and reclaim their power.
WD: Why do you think that stories about superheroes are becoming mainstream?
AB: I feel like there’s something that appeals to everyone. An outsider who gets power and gets a voice and gets to be the hero of a situation...it shows the inherent goodness in people by wanting to rise up and make a better world. It’s very real and important to people right now. These stories give them that chance to explore this side of themselves.
WD: What are you looking forward to exploring more deeply in the future on the show?
AB: My favorite part to explore is the personal relationship between all these characters. There’s so much history behind it. Diving into each person's mind in the show is exciting. Gert has mentioned mental health issues too, which I think are great to explore as person and as an actor.
WD: If you could have a real-life superpower, what would it be?
AB: Shapeshifting. I never thought about the possibility of just slightly altering any little thing in any given moment. That’s really convenient as an actor. I would use it to further my character studies. I would just go full-on Daniel Day-Lewis and transform all the way.