special effects

How The Umbrella Academy’s Swole Gorilla Man Got So Absurdly Swole

Tom Hopper as Luther Hargreeves in The Umbrella Academy.
Tom Hopper as Luther Hargreeves in The Umbrella Academy. Photo: Michael Gibson/Netflix

Early in the first episode of Netflix’s Umbrella Academy, you’ll meet Luther Hargreeves (Tom Hopper), the de facto leader of this team of misfit superheroes. And if you’re anything like me, your first thought will be: God, that dude is shredded.

I don’t mean “shredded” like your normal superhero, or even like your normal chiseled Hollywood actor (though Tom Hopper is six-foot-five). I mean weird shredded — so big and oddly proportioned that there’s a clumsiness to Luther’s massive body. So it’s not exactly a surprise when, later in the season, a crashing chandelier exposes the hidden story behind Luther’s gargantuan muscles: From the neck down, he’s not a man at all, but a gorilla-man hybrid — and per Pogo, the Hargreeves family’s talking chimpanzee butler, he’s closer to the gorilla side of that spectrum.

A flashback reveals that Luther’s simian physique came from an experimental serum, deployed as a last-ditch effort to save his life after he took on a dangerous mission alone. This is an alteration from an even wackier explanation in Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá’s Umbrella Academy comics, in which Luther’s adoptive father, Dr. Reginald Hargreeves, grafted his head onto the body of a superstrong space gorilla. “I looked at the comics before I was officially cast, and I was like, Oh, my God. This guy is a human head on a gorilla body. This is nuts,” says Hopper.

Bringing this wild concept to life required a team of costume designers and prosthetic manufacturers, who worked together to ensure that this weird monkey-man could appear in Umbrella Academy without breaking the show’s delicate blend of style and realism. As Blackman sees it, even Luther’s initial transformation had to make sense, or at least more so than a hulking blue gorilla sewn onto a man’s head: “In our minds, maybe [Hargreeves] used human DNA to turn Pogo into what he was,” he says. “And maybe he did the same thing, in reverse — used simian DNA for Luther.”

In the Über-stylized Umbrella Academy comics, Luther is twice as tall and four times as wide as any of his siblings, and his gorilla body is covered in thick blue hair. But because Blackman felt those details made it “maybe difficult to take him seriously,” bringing Luther to life on live-action television posed a host of new problems. “You go, Okay, we’re gonna build an ape suit,” he says. “And then when you start doing it, you go, Wait. What does an ape suit really look like?

So the creative team behind the series set about making a gorilla body that would achieve the same effect in a more toned-down way. “We really wanted to be respectful to the story and the beautiful images created by Gabriel Bá,” says costume designer Christopher Hargadon. “But at the same time, certain things didn’t work on actual human people in the same way. Tom is very fit and everything, but Luther in the comics is so hulking.”

The earliest efforts at bringing Luther to life were much closer to the massive body from the comics. Hargadon says they tried a “very large muscle suit,” but quickly realized that the proportions wouldn’t work, even if it wasn’t quite as large as Bá’s original vision for the character. “It just became something kind of … malformed and unsightly. Tom wasn’t very pleased, and neither were any of us, when he was just a little pinhead,” he says.

“Tom has a head that is a certain size, and his waist is a certain size,” Blackman adds. “The bigger we got, the more we found, proportionally, that it just looked so odd.”

Luther’s look was finessed over the course of around a month, as the team reimagined the unrealistic proportions of the character in a more believable, practical fashion. “I tried disproportionate-looking models that seemed sort of deformed, as if the transformation failed a little more. But then he started looking like the Hunchback of Notre Dame,” says Blackman, who admits he “agonized” over the process. “There were tests where I was like, He looks like a big, round ball. Just kind of … round everywhere,” Hopper adds.

For the majority of the series, Luther hides his deformed body with an Army-green overcoat — a color palette Hargadon reserved specifically for the isolated, duty-driven Academy leader. At least five versions of the coat were made, to account for the stunt people who were different sizes than Hopper. “It was basically a process of redefining [Luther’s muscles] — paring it down, flattening the stomach, making everything a bit smaller. Once the clothes went on, it looked about 30 percent bigger anyway,” says Hargadon.

A behind-the-scenes look at Hopper’s muscle suit. Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

But like any bulky costume, Hopper’s gorilla-man muscle suit posed another problem: It was very, very hot to wear. When filming began in Toronto in January 2018, that wasn’t a problem in the chilly Canadian winter, but as production moved into the spring and summer, Hargadon says they outfitted the actor with a “cooling suit” that used “cold water in tubes to try to keep his body temperature down.”

“I went from being the coziest, warmest guy on set to being the hottest guy on set,” Hopper says. “Every take, I was like, I’ve gotta get this off! It got crazy hot.”

The final version of the muscle suit was manufactured by KNB EFX group, a Los Angeles–based manufacturer specializing in custom prosthetics for film and television, who built two identical versions in case one got damaged during filming. The team first took a mold of Hopper’s body from the neck down, and then they began the meticulous process of making the suit look as hairy as a gorilla. Rather than apply strips of hair in bunches, Blackman says that each strand was “hand-sewn” into the suit: “The team literally put in one hair at a time, so it was a very long process. It was painstaking and time-consuming, and we really did just get them in time.”

When you get past the shock of seeing Luther’s sheer size onscreen, the suit also contains subtle details like scar tissue, which hint at his rage and shame about his transformed body. “We figured, over time, that Luther would have tried to remove the skin, or patched it with other skin, but it didn’t work,” says Blackman. “He hates the way he looks, and he’s severely depressed about it,” Hopper adds. “In my head, there were times on the moon when Luther thought about ending it all, because he’s so torn up after the accident.”

Luther’s gorilla body makes several prominent appearances during the season, including the initial reveal at the Umbrella Academy mansion and a drug-fueled rave in the seventh episode. But unlike a traditional costume like the overcoat, the muscle suit was delicate enough that it would break down over time, especially during fighting and action scenes. The rave, in which Hopper danced in the bare-chested suit for hours, posed a particular risk. “I think we did more damage to the suit when he was just at the rave, dancing, then when he was punching in it,” says Blackman. “Tom had some pretty wild moves in that rave scene. He had to drink a lot of water, a lot of liquids, because he was sweating constantly.”

“The rave was crazy, because it was the middle of summer in a factory, packed full of people,” says Hopper. “It was so hot, and I had no ventilation. At the end of the shooting day, I took it off and it was just dripping inside.”

And, of course, there were earthier concerns. “If I ever had to go number one it was okay, but if I ever had to go number two, I had a serious problem with the prosthetic suit,” laughs Hopper. “I made sure I got everything done I needed to do before I got into it. I didn’t need someone cutting a hole into the backside.”

Despite all those challenges, both muscle suits managed to make it through filming more or less intact. “They’re quite expensive, so we’re very lucky they survived the whole season,” says Blackman. “That kept me up at night. I won’t go into how much, but they’re extremely expensive.”

And that’s a good thing, because — presuming Umbrella Academy gets a second season from Netflix — it sounds like we’ll be seeing a lot more of Luther’s bare gorilla chest in the future. “I believe we’re making more of everything for the season coming up,” says Hargadon. “And I believe, as far as that prosthetic goes, that we’ll be seeing a lot more of it.”

What could be next? A subplot in the second comic-book arc, Dallas, sees Luther turn into the world’s biggest couch potato, putting on hundreds of pounds via constant junk food and round-the-clock TV. Maybe we’ll get to see one of those supermassive costumes after all.

How The Umbrella Academy’s Swole Gorilla Man Got So Swole