‘I relate to crazy very well’: Josh Duhamel’s heavy superhero role

Over a Zoom call from his Los Angeles home, his eyebrows shoot up in surprise when informed he’s promoting his new Netflix action-drama Jupiter’s Legacy on last week’s National Superhero Day.“Really?,” he says. “I did not know that.”That being the case, is he planning to bust out his character’s caped costume – he plays the Superman-esque, The Utopian – in honour of the occasion?“I am not, but maybe I should,” he says. “My son has a whole wardrobe of different superhero suits so maybe we will throw something on.”Model-turned-actor Duhamel, star of the Transformers action franchise, rom-coms New Year’s Eve and Life As We Know It and the comedy drama Las Vegas, says his earliest movie memory was of Christopher Reeve’s Superman at the Oak Park Theatre in Minot, the remote town in North Dakota where he was born and raised. But though he loved superheroes and Star Wars as a young kid, he left it behind when he embraced sport, eventually becoming the quarterback on his university’s football team, then modelling, then acting.So, when he was approached about a part in the TV adaptation of acclaimed comic book writer Mark Millar’s (Kick-Ass, Kingsman, Civil War) acclaimed graphic novel Jupiter’s Legacy, he was somewhat behind the Eight ball. For starters, he’d never even heard of the source material.“I had no idea – not even when I went in to meet with them for the first time,” he says with a laugh. “Nobody told me that this was based on a comic book. Now that I think about it I should have scolded my agent and manager for that.”Thankfully his then five-year-old son Axl (now seven), whom he co-parents with ex-wife Fergie, of The Black Eyed Peas fame, was there to lend a hand and school him in the superhero world.“My son is a huge fan of this stuff so by proxy I have become a lot more informed over the last few years because of him.”In fact, when Duhamel proudly showed off his Utopian costume for the first time, his son had notes.“It was something I will never forget,” Duhamel says. “The kid’s eyes nearly popped out of his head but he was very critical of it – he looked at it and he said ‘it’s too white’.”The startled Duhamel took a second look and realised Axl had a point and passed on the constructive criticism to the show’s producers, who also concurred that the pint-sized superhero buff was right on the money.“They added it some spot of grey in the arms and legs and ribs and stuff to break it up. So, he will forever be able to say that he affected a bit of the costume design of The Utopian.“He should get a credit – creative consultant or something.”But Duhamel was drawn to Jupiter’s Legacy – which sits somewhere between the satirical, uber-violent The Boys, and the trippy, time-jumping The Umbrella Academy – more for the family drama aspect than the chance to play superhero dress-ups. The eight-part series follows the fortunes of the world’s first superheroes, who gain their powers in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, and first have to figure out how to best use them for the greater good and later have wrestle with how to adapt them to a changing world and their roles as parents to super-powered children.Duhamel plays both the young, fresh-faced, idealistic Sheldon Sampson, who is changed forever after watching his father hurl himself off a building after the 1929 stock market crash, and his superhero alter ego The Utopian. To become the grizzled, bearded leader of the Union of Justice of the present day – with super strength, laser-beam eyes and the ability to fly – Duhamel had to spend hours in the make-up chair having a long, grey wig fitted and ageing prosthetics applied, a process he describes as “transformative”.“It felt as much like a family drama saga or a modern tragedy as much as it did a superhero story,” he says. “I loved that I got to play a dude who was in his thirties and then the same dude again 90 years later. And what does that look like? This young, ambitious man who has the whole world in front of him and then basically loses his mind after he sees his father jump from this building and starts having these crazy psychotic visions, that was so much fun to play, maybe because I relate to crazy very well.”So well did he relate to – and commit to – Sheldon’s crazy that Duhamel says it took him a good few weeks to recover mentally from the most taxing scenes where he keeps seeing visions of his dead father and begins to question his sanity.“It takes a toll, man,” he says. “I had to go there for about three weeks and it was exhausting. But also, at the same time, as an actor I love that stuff because it’s almost cathartic in a way. When else am I going to get to lose my f—ing mind in life? I get to do it on camera for a show and go to these places where I would never otherwise go and psychologically for me it’s healthy to expel some of that stuff.”Millar wrote the Jupiter’s Legacy graphic novels in the 2013, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, in part as an examination of how superheroes – the dominant modern film genre – fit into the American ideal. The show pits the younger generation of superheroes against the values long-held as indisputable truths by their elders, and leans into thorny modern-day issues such as terrorism, racism, police brutality, drug use and the changing face of the so-called American dream. And as the leader of the band of superheroes who lives by a strict code of “never lead, never kill”, The Utopian finds himself calling those values into question in a world he is struggling to reconcile with the one in which he gained his powers nearly a century previously.“I thought a lot about this stuff while we were doing it because he does embody the capitalist, American dream and the idea that you can build something from nothing, which I totally believe in and I hope we never lose that because that is what makes this country great,” says the fiercely apolitical Duhamel. “Obviously there is a lot we need to work on but again, I just want to make sure that if we are changing direction we need to make sure we are doing it for the right reasons and without getting too into it, that’s how I see it.”Jupiter’s Legacy streams on Netflix from Friday.

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