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Interview: Rising Stars Devyn Nekoda and Phillip Lewitski Talk ‘Utopia Falls’

March 5, 2020Ben MK

When you think of Young Adult science fiction stories set in a dystopian society, the term "dance competition" doesn't usually spring to mind. Nonetheless, music and dance are two of the key components of Utopia Falls, a new Hulu original series in which a group of young people from the futuristic colony of New Babyl vie to be crowned the Exemplar — in a performing arts competition in which there can be only one champion. Along the way, however, they'll discover a centuries-old secret — and what follows will alter the course of the competition forever.

I caught up with two of the young stars of Utopia Falls, Devyn Nekoda and Phillip Lewitski, to discuss their roles, and to find out what makes this show special.

You both have backgrounds in the performing arts. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Nekoda: Yes! I started dancing when I was 2-years-old. I always joke and say I learned how to dance before I learned how to walk! I started competing in dance when I was 6 and did that for 10 years before I started focusing more on acting.

Lewitski: I was born into a fairly musical family. I was home-schooled, pretty much my home life. And I have seven siblings, and each of us all learned out own instrument. So music was a key component of my upbringing. I play violin and the piano, and I drum. So it's really cool to bring that and apply it to the show.

The show has obvious parallels to Young Adult fiction like The Hunger Games, but what makes it different is the whole dance competition and hip hop aspect of it. Is that what drew you both to the project?

Nekoda: When I first read the synopsis of the show I was intrigued by it all, to be completely honest with you. But the performance/hip hop aspect of it really set it apart from anything I've ever heard of before, and that was the cherry on top for me.

Lewitski: The music element of the show has been really intriguing, because it's not every day that you get to apply both your passions — which, for me, is music and acting. And so once I had the chance to read the script and get to know a little bit about this performing arts competition that takes place in New Babyl, it was really cool to merge that with The Hunger Games element.

Can you tell me about your characters, Sage and Apollo? What did you identify with the most about playing them?

Nekoda: My character, Sage, has a very kind soul. She's sweet, very down-to-earth, hard-working, and she will do anything for her friends and family. However, she also changes a lot throughout the series when she's faced with some challenges. By episode ten, I would say she's more confident and fierce. In a lot of ways, I'm a lot like Sage. But one thing that I picked up on right away was the fact that when we dance is when we feel the most free. That's when we can really let loose and let out any frustrations we have at that moment. It's truly a form of expression for Sage and myself.

Lewitski: A lot of things, actually. He was probably the most alike character that I've ever taken on. So it didn't take a lot of work to merge myself with Apollo, we just kind of fell into each other's arms. And after reading the character description and talking to the producers of the show and [learning] what their vision was and what direction they wanted to take Apollo, it was clear to me that I was right for this character.

How did you go about preparing for your roles?

Nekoda: I do feel like I'm a lot like my character. But to play Sage in a futuristic society that is completely different than our world today, I had to really think about the environmental setting of things. I had to make sure that I fully understood the city of New Babyl to further prepare for this role.

Lewitski: There were some sequences where I have these drum competitions that are pretty complex. I wouldn't consider myself an expert on the drums, but I had incredible music choreographers and music producers working alongside of me — David Hayman and Nikhil Seetharam being two of them — who were very onboard with some of the ideas that I had. It was definitely a good collaboration between the three of us, and other team members as well. But they took the time to touch on the subjects and culture that we were trying to portray. They were very hands-on with helping me out where I needed the help to make my performances look as real as possible. I also had a drum double for the more complicated sequences, but for the most part it was all me.

Was there a particular episode or a scene that was the most fun or memorable for you each to work on?

Nekoda: My absolute favorite scene to work on was by far the fight scene in episode ten. I got to do all of my own stunts, which is something I've always dreamed of doing. We had a great stunt coordinator, John Stead, and he made me feel so comfortable and really paid attention to my strengths and weaknesses, so he knew exactly what moves to put in the sequence. I'm extremely happy with how it turned out, so fingers crossed — if we get a season two, I'll get to do more scenes like that.

Lewitski: I think [it was] the drum sequence that I did in episode eight. I had a drum solo and we filmed it at this stadium just outside of Toronto that holds 25,000 people. We had 250 extras with a five or six-camera setup, so it really did feel like I was performing in front of an entire stadium. And so that nervous, anxious feeling was real. I was also really happy with the preparation and the hard work that I put into it.

The show is very much an ensemble effort, which is something you're both no stranger to, coming from shows like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Vikings. Can you tell me more about the energy and the camaraderie between the cast on-set?

Nekoda: I consider the whole cast my family now. From the minute we all met each other at the table read, I knew that we would all get along so well. They made the 13-hour days seems short and every night when I went home I couldn't wait to see them the next morning. We'd also go out together on the weekends, so we were pretty much all attached at the hip for four months straight. I feel extremely fortunate to have met them — we had the best times.

Lewitski: We became a pretty tight-knit family, almost within the first week of shooting. Even in some of the first read-throughs and table reads, it was pretty clear that we were all going to get pretty close. Working together — on 18-hour days, sometimes — you hope that you're going to get along with the other cast members. A lot of the time, especially when there's a young cast, there can be a lot of drama involved, off-set and on-set. But we really didn't struggle with any of that. It just helped to create a really good working environment.

Last but not least, what are you each working on next?

Nekoda: As of right now, I'm not working on any projects. But I'm currently living in L.A., auditioning and training for whatever comes my way next!

Lewitski: I've got a feature film that I'm doing in Nova Scotia this year. I'm very excited for it, and you'll know more about that soon.

Season one of Utopia Falls is now streaming on Hulu and CBC Gem.

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