With IDW Entertainment’s October Faction hitting Netflix this Thursday January 23rd, The Queer Review‘s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with one of its stars, Aurora Burghart. She plays Viv Allen on the show, the twin sister of out and proud gay high schooler Geoff (Gabriel Darku). In the wide-ranging interview, Aurora praises how Geoff’s sexuality is handled in Season 1, “It’s probably one of my favourite things about the show. Geoff is accepted for who he is, completely and wholly with no caveats. By his family, at least. Also, in terms of visibility and representation, Geoff’s a young man, who’s brown, who’s gay — and I hope there are people out there in the world who watch the show and feel seen.”
The interview also explores how her character responds to discovering powers within, the #MeToo resonances of one of the season’s storylines she’s involved in, experiencing being bullied while at school in London, the show’s deeper messages, where she’d like to see her character go next and her favourite high school set movies.
James Kleinmann. The Queer Review: Firstly, tell us a bit about your character Viv and how she fits into the world of October Faction.
“Viv is special, but she doesn’t know that yet. She’s always been quiet, observant and slow to trust people or make friends, the opposite of her brother, but recently she’s started to feel like there is something different about her — something that sets her apart. Although she is a near-genius straight A student, she can’t quite articulate what she’s feeling. Maybe she’s too scared, maybe she’s too shy. Maybe it’s because she is pure emotion personified. Whatever it is, we learn pretty quickly, in Episode 1 in fact, that she isn’t just different — she’s powerful. What she doesn’t know, is why. Her role in the world really comes down to her emotional bond with each member of her family. She is hugely emotionally connected to both of her parents and her brother, even though the rest of her family struggles to remember what their bond is. And because Viv is guided by her inner moral compass, she holds everyone, herself included, to an incredibly high standard, ethically speaking. Viv is the driving force behind holding her family to account for their wrongdoings. Everyone fails to meet her standards, especially as the show goes on. Viv’s family also fails to see how much she needs them, because they are too busy fighting their own battles. But no matter how many times the door slams in her face, she will always be there for them. In time, we see how complicated her loyalty to her family really is. With the force of her morality and her family loyalty, she could change the monster-human universe as we know it. But we’ll leave that to Season 2…!”
What similarities are there between you and Viv, or are you pretty different…?
“Viv’s pretty studious and so am I. We share an interest in both the sciences and the arts, seeing them as complementary and not contradictory. But I’m way less introverted than Viv. Probably, when I was younger, I dealt with my insecurities like Geoff did, by being outspoken and forcing my “wit” on everyone. How embarrassing! Although I’m not sure I’ve moved away from that entirely yet! Viv and I also definitely share the whole moral judgement thing too, although I think this genuinely comes from a belief that the world can and should be better. Oh and, uh, I guess I should add stubborn to the list. We’re both very, very stubborn. She’s probably a bit more stubborn than I am though, sometimes to her detriment.”
How aware were you of the IDW Publishing comic series before you took on the role, was it something you read as you were preparing to play Viv?
“I hadn’t read it, but it was hugely helpful to me when approaching my character. It was a really fast turnaround from casting to filming, like, I was flying to go film in North America two days after the offer came through! So I didn’t get to prep with the comic for months and months beforehand. But once we got there I made a huge scrapbook with Viv at the centre, and tried to make sense mainly of all her relationships. Season 1 is very much the origin story of the graphic novels, so I asked myself, ‘How did she become this calm and this powerful? When did she become mediator between good and evil? What made her fight against Presidio’s doctrines?’ I hope I go some way to answering those questions.”
How into comic books and graphic novels are you generally, or was it pretty new to you?
“Yeas, I’m actually pretty new to the comic book scene, but I love it! I’ve always been a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy. What I think is so amazing about these genres is how they can lift you out of ordinary life into extraordinary circumstances, but they’re always holding up a mirror and asking us: ‘What do you recognise about this picture? What is wrong with it?’ And somehow the surreality of it makes the themes all the more palatable. Also, though, they’re also just fun, and adventurous and that’s pretty awesome. I like being lifted away from the real world into fantastical worlds. Growing up I read all the Harry Potter books, and the Narnia books, and a lot of Chris Wooding novels. And some of those books I’ve read time and time and time again. I like being spirited away.”
While their parents are out facing vampires, werewolves and warlocks…Viv and Geoff are fighting monsters of their own at high school! Viv finds it hard to make new friends, how would you describe the way she navigates her new high school life as she tries to survive it?
“Viv really struggles to make friends. I think she really hates the weird, surface-level, superficial behaviour a high school environment can engender, so she fundamentally rejects it. I also think she takes pride in defining herself as an outsider, and tries to prove that she doesn’t need other people to survive — which is wrong in so many ways. In reality, for Viv, making friends and then losing them every time she has to move school because of her parents’ work means it kind of just hurts too much to bother. Plus, with her brother being the golden popular boy of every school they’ve ever attended, Viv naturally gravitates towards being his opposite, and takes on the role of quiet outsider — the ying to his yang. That said, this time at school she finds a real challenge. There’s a friend she makes who appears to be genuinely committed to her and then completely betrays her, and she is being bullied in a way that is completely new and humiliating. She suddenly becomes the target of a lot of abuse. It’s really damaging, and I think the inner strength she finds to survive what she’s going through is remarkable. And also to forgive people for their mistakes. Viv manages to just find this resilience within, and she doesn’t shout about it. I think this season is just scratching the surface of how strong Viv is, and how much she can endure and overcome.”
How did your own high school experience compare, did anything resonate with you with what Geoff and Viv are going through at school?
“Oh my, oh my. I was bullied. A lot. Some of it racial. Some of it just the classic insecurity that high school breeds. Everyone reacts differently to that pressure. My ‘friendship group’ was like the Mean Girls of south London. Halfway through, I just quit the group and joined the nerdy kids, because I am fundamentally too studious to try to be cool. A couple of other people did the same thing. That was a great realisation, I wish I’d had it sooner. Ironically, I still have dinner every now and then with that original group, because once we left we all grew up a bit, and we managed to put our differences aside. But yeah, my school was pretty rough, so I understand why people reacted the way they did. In fact, high school is just a bit rough! But I was lucky in that the teachers invested a huge amount of time and energy into the kids who studied hard. It’s almost like I got a private education in that sense, they’d stay behind and give me 1-on-1 lessons in whatever I needed so I could get the grades I wanted to get. In the UK equivalent of my Junior and Senior year I moved to a different school and that was amazing. I joined this big lovely group of friends and honestly we studied hard and partied harder. I think I got all my partying out of my system in those two years!”
What did you make of the way that show deals with bullying? Including cyber bullying – there’s a video of Geoff in the cafeteria that’s uploaded to YouTube and gossip about Viv ends up being spread on social media too. We get an insight into what the bullies are dealing with in their lives too don’t we…?
“The show is genuinely very compassionate to everyone, the bullied and the bullies, in the same way it is to humans and monsters. The impact of cyber bullying on the twins is huge. Sadly, it kind of feels like they just shoulder that burden because they’re in a position of powerlessness. New kids at a new school, where the biggest and baddest mean kids have specifically targeted them. They handle it as well as they can, although I wish in many ways they had gone to their parents or someone in authority for help. Viv definitely ends up with a target on her back in a way I don’t think Geoff does, just because she is quiet and she doesn’t like to make a fuss. But what I love about the show is that we see why the bullies are behaving the way they do. They are hurting, grieving, hiding — and they transfer and project it all onto the easiest targets. It’s still wrong, but I think seeing their vulnerabilities does help make sense of their behaviour. Also, I think they’re jealous of the twins. Viv and Geoff are different, they stand out. The thing about “outsiders” is they have something that sets them apart. And when a person in a clique, a person who is trying so hard to fit in, sees that there is a person who has something different about them, who naturally stands out from the crowd, they get riled up. The show definitely explores the pressure on the bullies from their own families to uphold a certain way of being perceived.”
Viv’s twin brother Geoff is very open about his sexuality and the family all seem very accepting , what did you make of that aspect of season 1?
“It’s probably one of my favourite things about the show. Geoff is accepted for who he is, completely and wholly with no caveats. By his family, at least. Also, in terms of visibility and representation, Geoff’s a young man, who’s brown, who’s gay — and I hope there are people out there in the world who watch the show and feel seen. That is so fundamental and important in today’s world, feeling seen and heard. Growing up especially, you feel invisible if you don’t see yourself reflected in the art around you. We have to embrace everyone in our society and make sure there is proper representation in the stories we tell. I feel so privileged to be part of a show that holds that value at its core. I hope through the show we are reaching a hand out through the screen to some viewers and saying, “WE SEE YOU. You are part of this world, this culture, this society, and you are accepted, you are free, you are loved.” If there is one takeaway from the show that I could wish for, it’s that.”
What do you admire about Geoff’s own openness about his sexuality and his self-acceptance?
“Geoff is fearless. He refuses to compromise anything about himself, regardless of how other people receive or perceive him. He has a remarkable inner strength which allows him to be true to himself at all times. I am really here for that. He also stands up for himself, even in difficult situations, which is incredibly brave. I think he is helped a lot by the fact that his parents and sister are so supportive. But I truly believe that his ease with himself as a person, and his openness about his sexuality are a fundamental part of who he is. It’s part of his indelible charisma. And his self-acceptance means that he has a huge and high regard for truth and integrity, in a way that is really inspiring for others. Just being who he is, he gives permission for other people to be who they are.”
The American high school movie is almost it’s own genre – and there are some wonderful high school set scenes in October Faction that made me want to ask you whether you have a favourite high school movie or TV show and why?
“It is its own genre! Where do I begin? Obviously Mean Girls, which is totally iconic. Clueless, my goodness, just so ridiculous and amazing. 10 Things I Hate About You, which makes my heart clench just thinking about it because I love it so much. Get Over It is incredible and funny and I think I know most of the music off by heart. And I would like to point out that three of those are retellings of Shakespeare plays. The Bard — so relatable!”
I love the dynamic between the twins Viv and Geoff, tell us about creating that onscreen relationship with Gabriel Darku. Did you get to hang out at all before you started shooting or during filming and did you bond over anything in particular?
“I’m glad you like it! You know, we didn’t meet until the first read-through, which was just days before we started filming. And I remember thinking, ‘My goodness, he’s so serious and well-prepared and talented — they’re going to realise I’m a total fluke!’ But as soon as we got on set, Gabriel and I just clicked. It’s like he made everything so easy for me. Viv made complete sense with Geoff by her side, and Gabriel and I work together so easily. We really didn’t have to try. And just as people, we get along so well which is hilarious because we are very different. But I think we share quite a similar spirit of adventure, and he is very empathetic and understands the world by his own creed, which means that his self-assuredness and honesty and integrity make him not only a great on-screen brother but a really great person to hang out with. It’s funny, sometimes a part of a character lingers with you. I’ve inherited some of Viv’s shyness. But the other thing I’ve inherited is that Gabe is just my brother now. That’s it. He’s my bro!”
How did you find having to learn to speak some Japanese for the role? Did you just learn to say the lines you needed to say or have you taken it further than that?
“Oh my goodness, it was hard! I speak dribs and drabs of other languages, French, Russian, bits of others here and there. I’m very mathematical and systematic at the beginning of learning a language. I can’t get my head around it until I know the grammar, but I also need to hear it a lot to get a sense of the musicality and intonation. So just having to learn these whole scenes was crazy! But the speech coach was great in that it was all broken down into its tiniest parts so we could learn it that way and then put it all together. For me, I mainly needed to hear the scenes in roughly in the same “key” as I speak in. Of course, my head was spinning anyway. But I just tried to remember my character’s intentions, and play the scene as honestly as I could in this whole new language. My takeaway? Japanese is a really cool language. I’m actually hoping to go to Japan later this year… maybe I’ll try and learn a bit more before I go.”
The analogy between the way monsters are treated in October Faction and the way humans can demonise what’s different from them in the real world gets more explicit as the show goes on – I love that there’s a deeper message in there as well as it just being an entertaining show. What did you make of that aspect of Season 1?
“For me, I love that there is a deeper message beyond a cool show about monster hunting. I think it’s really important that work has a deeper meaning, and takes into account the society it will be speaking to. It’s a dialogue. TV shows, films, theatre — they all have the ability to comment on and speak with the world in a very subtle way, and to provoke audiences into really considering deeply quite big questions about morality and politics. So I hope people watch this show and can see the mirror image about prejudice in our world. It’s 2020, and the battle for humans to not factionalise feels like its coming to a head.”
In the house party episode there’s a distressing incident between Viv and a boy at school, which is made even worse by the way she’s not believed and the school takes the boy’s side of the story – there’s a clear resonance with the #MeToo movement isn’t there – could you talk about how this is handled in the show and what you admire about the way Viv navigates what happens to her?
“Yeah, I know the scene. It’s definitely resounding with #MeToo echoes, and I’m glad we acknowledge this movement with its own moment in the show. So many young people, above all young women, go through high school or university and come out the other end with a #MeToo experience. Again, in terms of visibility and representation, the show is acknowledging this happens — which is important because people are so often not believed, like Viv. Without giving too much away, in the show I think the way it’s handled is true to life in many ways, in that so much isn’t said and it’s messy and unspoken and so much of the way Viv handles what has happened to her is internalised and silent. So when Viv finds herself speaking out, it’s not to authority, where she is dismissed, but to her peers, and she becomes the voice for many other people speaking out too. I guess that’s where the #MeToo resonance comes in. What happens when a group of people bypass biased authorities to form a collective where they can voice their experiences. But there’s certainly unfinished business in this season. And I feel angry on Viv’s behalf that her sexual awakening is tinged with this experience. What’s amazing is how she responds, because she begins to do things on her own terms. She begins finding her own voice. Her integrity. There’s a leader in Viv, even if she doesn’t know that yet.”
In a flashback sequence during the opening of one of the episodes we see Geoff and Viv watching an old Frankenstein movie on TV. How do Viv’s views on monsters compare to her own parents attitude?
“Viv is too compassionate to ever take on her parents’ view of monsters. She has the remarkable ability to form connections with everyone and everything if they are willing to be vulnerable with her, and she will always err on the side of seeing the possibility for good in a creature before she’ll see anything else. In some ways, this is naive and can get her into tricky spots. But it’s also her most redeeming factor. For Viv, if she has to save the world, that includes monsters. She cares for all living creatures. Having said that, if you wrong her I think she has an incredible capacity for vengeance. Everyone though, humans and monsters, start on an even playing field.”
What would you say to give people a flavour of what they can expect from October Faction season 1?
“Expect a complete medley of genres, in the best possible way. It’s colourful and dark. It’s serious and silly. Spy movie meets high school drama. And there are a lot of surprises in store. Shit goes down!”
Your character is in an interesting situation by the end of the series, what would you like to see her do next, or what direction would you like to see Viv go in if there’s a season 2?
“I’ve been speaking to the writers and producers of the show about this a lot. There’s a million different ways to get her there, but I think Season 2 needs to begin exploring Viv’s power. She begins as this little introverted weakling, but it’s pretty clear from the first episode that how Viv seems on the outside is different from what’s happening on the inside. She’s very powerful. In some ways, I can imagine her struggling to control herself in Season 2. I think that would be interesting to explore, especially because it could work in contradiction to her strong moral code. I don’t know how she would react to doing something bad.”
By James Kleinmann