Amazon's Utopia: 9 Things We Learned During The SDCC Panel

Utopia Graphic Novel - Utopia's ComicCon@Home Trailer

This fall, Amazon Prime will take viewers everywhere to Utopia. The forthcoming streaming show, based on the Channel 4 series of the same name, has been in the works for years with Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects) at the forefront. Originally set up at HBO with David Fincher at the helm, this conspiracy drama-thriller promises to be bold and audacious in its approach — though we've been left in the dark about what Flynn and her crew have in store for this long-delayed Americanized re-imagining.

Thanks to Utopia's Comic-Con@Home virtual event this past week, we not only got our first peek at the series through an exclusive teaser trailer but we also learned a lot about what this retelling will strive for, particularly with its enticing reworked premise and excellent ensemble. Like the characters, we're still searching for answers, but here's what we learned from our panelists, including John Cusack and Rainn Wilson.

Gillian Flynn During Amazon's Comic-Con@Home Panel For Utopia

Gillian Flynn Took Cues From The Original Utopia, But Made It "Gritty," "Nasty" And "Realistic" In This Version

When you make a remake of something, particularly a piece of media that's widely well-regarded, the key is to find a way to honor the source material while still putting your own individualistic stamp on it. You don't want to disappoint anyone who loves the original, but you don't want to make a simple retread. That's the philosophy that guided Gillian Flynn as she embarked on this journey. 

Having spent nearly a decade bringing it to life, it's clear that she's passionate about the original show and the material, but Flynn wanted to find a way to make this streaming series less poppy and more "gritty," ultimately providing a version that's "realistic," "dirty," and even "nasty" in its stylistic approach. Here's how Flynn described her new vision for Utopia:

My idea was not only to Americanize it and deal with things that are specifically resonant to Americans in a lot of ways, but also to make it gritty and dirty and nasty in a very realistic way. Whereas [Dennis Kelly] took his cue from the graphic novels themselves, I took my cue more from the 70s paraonia thrillers that I loved after Watergate that came out in that era where no one trusted anyone and there was a breakdown in what society, [the] government, the world was feeling like. And I wanted it to feel like that. I wanted that paraonia to feel very real.

John Cusack in Amazon's Utopia

John Cusack's Character Is A Completely Original Invention For This New Amazon Series

In this Comic-Con@Home panel, it was very apparent that, while respect would be paid to the original Channel 4 series, this Amazon series would be its own thing. One clear way in which it diverts from its source material is the inclusion of John Cusack's character, Dr. Kevin Christie. This scientific billionaire character isn't a counterpart from the original series but rather an original creation made by Gillian Flynn. She wanted a primary character to fill a void she felt was in the original show. Since the role is played by Cusack, this character probably won't be a minor player in this retooled narrative. So, the actor's involvement in this series is made all-the-more intriguing.

Ashleigh LaThrop and Sasha Lane in Amazon Prime's Utopia

Sasha Lane Compares Her Character To A Feral Cat, Googled Lots of Cats

Throughout this new series, viewers will discover the answer to the question, "Where is Jessica Hyde?" Before we learn her whereabouts, however, we need to learn who is Jessica Hyde, played by American Honey's Sasha Lane. 

In this leading role, Lane compares herself to a feral cat —someone who is a little "rough" and "intimidating" on the outside but is ultimately someone who grew up uncertain about a great many things:

She's like this feral cat who is a bit scraggly, a bit rough, a bit savage. But, just like a feral cat, there's a reason for it. She's spent her entire life just trying to survive. She doesn't really know much about where she comes from... She's someone you can find yourself kind of hating but also understanding, and I think that's why I have this big thing of a feral cat in my head. It's because you're so intimidating and so rough and scary and kind of paranoid, but there's a reason why, like I said. There's something deeper in there. So, she is a part of the answer but she's also just as lost as everyone else in her own way and hoping Utopia will give her answers as well.... I Googled a lot of cats, so that's how I took that on. [laughs]

Desmin Borges in Amazon Prime's Utopia

Desmin Borges Sees A Lot Of Himself In His Character, Wilson Wilson, And He Likes That He Gives 'A Voice' To The 'Voiceless'

In addition to all the other characters we'll learn about when Utopia premieres on Amazon Prime, we'll also get a chance to meet a man named Wilson Wilson, a conspiracy theorist who investigates Utopia with great interest. Played by Adeel Akhtar in the original Channel 4 show, this character comes courtesy of Desmin Borges, who is previously best known for his work in the acclaimed FX/FXX dramedy series, You're the Worst. We'll know all about him when the season is available to stream to full, but Borges jokes that Wilson x2 is a decent bit like him, while also later admitting that he likes giving "a voice" to the "voiceless." Here's what the actor said in this virtual panel:

Overall, the base of Wilson isn't too far from myself. I grew up in a seven flat greystone building in Chicago off Fullerton and Sawyer in the early '80s. And Wilson is living in a Chicago suburb with anywhere between eight and ten of his relatives at one time and may or may not have a bunker in his backyard that he built with his father. I may or may not have built a bunker outside of New York City where I cannot disclose the location because security is paramount. But as fast as the world goes, with The Nerds, as we call them, this is the closest group of friends Wilson's ever had. He's pretty much a loner and a thinker and likes to muse with stickies and conspiracy theories all over his bedroom walls. Being able to give a voice to someone who feels pretty voiceless is kind of cool.

Jessica Rothe In Amazon Prime's Comic-Con@Home Panel For Utopia

Jessica Rothe's Character Is An Activist Who Will  "Stop At Nothing" To Find Utopia

There are many bright acting talents to be found in Amazon's upcoming Utopia, and one of the brightest comes from Happy Death Day's should-be superstar Jessica Rothe. In the role of Samantha, Rothe notes that her character is an incredibly passionate activist who really believes in doing things instead of simply talking about them. She's not interested in philosophy, it seems. She wants to actively change the world for the better. And she'll ultimately "stop at nothing" to obtain the fabled graphic novel Utopia, in which she hopes (like the other Nerds) she'll find the answers that she has long been seeking.

Desmin Borges, Jessica Rothe, and Ashleigh LaThrop in Amazon's Utopia

The First Two Episodes Are Set At Comic-Con

While it's ultimately better than nothing, Comic-Con@Home isn't the same as the real deal. There are no crowds, no collective moments of elation or excitement. It's just a variety of Zoom calls moderated from afar, with panelists coming in from their respective homes. While it serves as an adequate replacement during an irregular year, it doesn't have the same effect. 

While Comic-Con attendees will need to wait a year or possibly two before they can safely return to the real event, there's another vicarious replacement to be found in Amazon's Utopia. As it was revealed during this virtual panel, the first two episodes will take place (at least in part) in the San Diego comic book convention. Given the premise of this streaming show and its intent focus on a devotedly sought-after graphic novel, this makes a lot of sense.

Sasha Lane in Amazon Prime's Utopia

Sasha Lane's Character Reminds Her Of When She Used To Be In Survival Mode

When given the chance to go more in-depth about the role she plays in Utopia, Sasha Lane admitted that Jessica Hyde was different than several other characters she has played throughout her growing career, but the role does remind her of herself growing up — by her own admission — and how she felt she was "always in survival mode," and how she felt "cold" and wanted to shut off her emotions. As opposed to other characters she played, where all of her emotions needed to be present, she appreciated that she got to "say less" and "be less," while also bringing compassion and empathy for a character who some might solely see as a "killer" or "savage." It allowed Lane to expand a bit and she thought it was ultimately a cool change to use this form of expression.

Rainn Wilson In Amazon Prime's Utopia

It Was Shot In Chicago... Sorta, Not Really

In order to bring this new version of Utopia to life, Gillian Flynn and her cast and crew decided to travel to Chicago to shoot this exciting new series. Although, if you watch the show and find yourself confused as a Chicago native about the scenery, it was clarified in this panel that Utopia wasn't ultimately shot in the more familiar parts of Chicago. Instead, the cast and crew found themselves closer to the outskirts of town, away from the action. As the trailer shows, the use of fields and deserted land will play into the show favor, at least visually, though actors like Rainn Wilson learned the hard way that they weren't anywhere near city life. Specifically, the actor rented an apartment downtown and had to commute the long, long way to set. Here's what Wilson said:

I was so excited to shoot in the great city of Chicago... But we didn't actually shoot in Chicago, okay? We shot in places like Schaumburg. So, we were in Chicago and we were so excited. We got apartments in downtown Chicago, and then we all took Ubers, you know, an hour and 20 minutes as far out from Chicago as you could possibly get, just on the verge of the cornfields.

João Ruas Illustration Seen In Amazon's Utopia Comic-Con@Home Trailer

They Made An Actual Utopia Graphic Novel For The Actors To Work With

As an actor, whether or not you have the props on hand to help you see in the eyes of your character, you try to make it work, to get your audience to believe what your character believes. While it might've been easy for Gillian Flynn to pretend there was an actual Utopia graphic novel, the writer worked with artist João Ruas to make a tangible book to illustrate (literally) why it's such a fixating source of enlightenment. In this panel, Flynn says she always wanted to have an actual graphic novel that could be seen and explored to help the audience understand why these characters become enamored by its discovery. So, she hired Ruas to completely draw out this graphic novel. Hopefully, it'll become publicly available someday. Maybe they can sell it at a future Comic-Con?

Are you looking forward to Amazon Prime's Utopia? Let us know in the comments! Additionally, if you want to check out the virtual Comic-Con@Home panel for yourself, you can watch it for free here.

Will Ashton

Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.