Utopia Falls is not your average YA sci-fi series. Sure, the TV show — created by prolific Canadian music-video director R.T. Thorne and now streaming on CBC Gem — is getting compared to dystopian dramas like Hunger Games, but Utopia Falls isn’t that easy to classify. Set in the post-apocalyptic future, the series follows a group of teens living in an underground colony called New Babyl. To maintain order and preserve culture, dozens of 16-year-olds are pitted against each other in the Exemplar, an annual entertainment competition. ("It's like if the world of Divergent did America's Got Talent," noted one critic.) The winning teens get fame and the satisfaction of keeping the peace in a heavily regulated society. (The show’s secret weapon is its killer soundtrack steeped in hip-hop, featuring legends like Grandmaster Flash, Kendrick Lamar, and Biggie Smalls.)
The premise of Utopia Falls is refreshingly unique, but the show also stands out because its cast is predominately people of colour, with two Black leads (Robyn Alomar and Akiel Julien, who play privileged dancer Aliyah and outcast Bodhi, respectively). Utopia Falls is Toronto native Alomar's first series and I'm her first-ever interview. When the 23-year-old actress gets on the phone from L.A., where she now lives, she nervously tells me she’s trying to get her roommate’s “yappy corgi” to stop barking, then proceeds to, like a pro, whittle the complex premise of her show into a soundbite: “it’s a sci-fi genre-bending series with characters who express themselves through music and dance.” She’s already nailing this, which could be thanks to years of observing her famous dad handle press. Alomar is the stepdaughter of Toronto Blue Jays superstar, Roberto Alomar.
Here, we talk about growing up with a Canadian legend, the importance of having Black hairstylists on set, and what her role could mean to future generations.
Playing Aliyah requires a lot of dancing and, of course, acting. Were you anxious about tackling both?
At the beginning, I was a little bit stressed out about it. When I was originally auditioning for the role I was like wow, I’m so close, I really want this. Then when the dancing audition came up, I was like, oh shoot, this is going to be the one thing that keeps me away from this role. Once I got the role, I started taking classes non-stop trying to prepare because Aliyah is a trained dancer. We would have six-hour dance rehearsals. I had only danced when I was younger, so that was stressful when we had to learn different types of genres, but everyone was really supportive, and it ended up becoming really fun.
It’s easy to compare this show with other YA sci-fi series that have female leads, like Hunger Games or Divergent. But this show is different in a lot of ways, and so is Aliyah. How do you think she stacks up against some of the other characters in this genre?
I think that Aliyah stands up to them, but you know, Katniss and all these iconic females in sci-fi, I’ve never really found myself represented in them. I always found myself having to relate to 12-year-old Rue in the Hunger Games, for example. I feel like a lot of different girls and people out there are going to be able to see themselves on screen and see themselves in Aliyah and I’m really excited for that. I would be so happy if I was a little girl and I saw myself in the centre of the screen.
We don’t see a lot of leads that look like you, especially on Canadian television. What do you think that’s going to mean to the next generation?
I think it’s going to mean a lot. I hope that it shows people that it’s important for Black people to be represented in all sorts of genres of TV and film, not just historical fiction. I have a baby sister who’s five and it’s really cool for her to be excited. She already wants to go out and buy a doll with curly hair. It’s so small, but it’s so meaningful to my little sister. I can’t wait to see how that touches other people and I hope that it inspires others to feel good about what’s happening on screen now.
We know it’s so important to have that representation behind the camera as well. Tell me about working with R.T.
He's so patient and kind and encouraging on set. What made me really happy was that you could tell his work really matters to him. As you watch the series, everyone is incredibly diverse and that’s what it should be. I feel really good about that. Even people working behind the scenes, from the makeup and hair team…
You had Black makeup and hair stylists as well?
Yes, we definitely did. They were so amazing; I just have to give them props. It was so awesome. The hair, they had down pat. The skin, it was glowing. And I’ve definitely had the opposite experience.
Can you give me an example of working with a white hairstylist or a makeup artist and why that wasn’t a positive experience for you? I think a lot of people still don’t understand the importance of having Black stylists on set.
There were a lot of experiences on other sets where white makeup artists would be doing the main cast and they would have all of their makeup done and it’d be great. Then they would do my makeup and they wouldn’t even put the care into it. Even when they did, I looked crusty as hell. I looked kind of grey. I was definitely ashy — which is not a good feeling at all to be on set.
How did it make you feel?
It makes you feel like your role isn’t as important. Like they don’t need to understand your skin tone at all. It was frustrating and I felt, because I had a smaller role on this project, that I couldn’t really speak up. But I did. I remember I asked for concealer. I was like “girl, you gonna put something here?” and she was like, “Oh, I guess.”
It's a difficult position to be in, but you had the courage to say something.
Yeah especially at that time because when you are a smaller part of the cast, you feel like you can’t say something. Especially on a predominantly white set.
Do you think that’s getting better?
Yeah, honestly, I think it is getting better. At least for me, I’ve been lucky enough I’ve done a few projects and only one of them was with white male director. I’ve been lucky to experience that diversity on set. A lot of people haven’t even gotten that, but so far that’s been my experience and I’m really grateful.
Your stepdad is Roberto Alomar, Blue Jays legend. Has he given you any advice on being a public figure?
Definitely, I feel like he always warmed me up for this. I remember me, my mom, my little sister, and my dad went to the Toronto Zoo when I was younger, and he was being stopped every second. I thought it was so cool that he stopped for everybody. I was like holy cow. It was so nice and inspiring, like wow, I want to be that. As for advice, he says, "stay true to yourself, don’t let the little things bother you, and always just speak from your heart and believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself then no one else is going to."
Does he give you baseball analogies when he’s giving you advice?
Pretty much. Baseball is part of his life, so he relates so many things to that. Whether it’s with acting or boy problems. It could be anything, he’ll relate it back to baseball.
Do you go to him for your boy problems?
I used to but my dad is very honest. He gives his brutally honest opinion, so I go to my mom first now to soften things up for me.