“Society’s problems don’t all get solved when the cisgender men die,” says Ben Schnetzer. The actor is referencing the central premise of Y: The Last Man, a new series streaming on FX on Hulu in the US and set to premiere in the UK on September 22 on Disney+. It’s an adaptation of the acclaimed comic book series by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra about a cataclysmic event that wipes out all mammals with a Y chromosome. All bar two, that is. One, Yorick, an amateur magician with a passing resemblance to Hamlet’s jester of the same name and the ‘Y’ of a title that cunningly also stands for the ‘Y’ of ‘Y chromosome’ and the ‘why’ of the ‘why is this all happening’ question that runs through the narrative. And two, Ampersand, Yorick’s pet capuchin monkey. Why do they survive? Y, indeed. The series takes us on a quest to find out.
Crumbling Pillars of Infrastructure
Y: The Last Man is a fictionalized imagining of what might happen if all the world’s cisgender men were wiped out, of course, and both the graphic novel and series explore this for entertainment purposes. But did Schnetzer ever think about or discuss from his own perspective what the world would really be like if something like this happened?
“I remember getting sent statistics from Eliza Clark, our showrunner, about the percentage of people who work in certain jobs, like transportation, who are cisgender men,” says Schnetzer. “And in a lot of these jobs that is the vast majority of the workforce, and Eli talks about how the United States and then the world outside that operates on a trucking economy. So, supermarkets are stocked because trucks deliver the food at a certain time, and it’s a constant cycle of just when you need it, the truck comes and delivers it. And when you realize that the vast majority of truck drivers are cisgender men, just starting there, you realize like, okay, wait a second, well, then in this amount of time, food runs out.”
It’s a narrative that will be familiar to readers in the UK right now with that same industry currently battling against a large-scale shortage of drivers and looking to encourage more women to enter the industry as one solution. The problem is manifesting itself as understocked shelves in supermarkets and a shortage of many other supplies. The scenario is very real.
“In this amount of time, these certain pillars of infrastructure start to crumble,” Schnetzer continues. “And so we had a lot of discussions about what would this be like, what would happen, and there is a trajectory that is laid out for us by the graphic novel. But there was also so much detail that Eli and the writers and the creative team really wanted to fill in as far as like, what would this actually be like? How would politics play out? How would these dynamics play out? At what point would people start to lose water, start to lose power, and I think the story’s richer for that.”
Real-Life Is Richer
It sounds like we could all use the series as a guide to prepare in case we ever did find ourselves in this situation. Of course, the answer is in part a greater focus on equality. Although it wouldn’t solve all problems should half the population suddenly cease to exist — and over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they’re still exploring the fallout of their own little population-shrinking blip – it would mitigate against issues like food production and deliveries grinding to a complete halt. It’s super interesting that Y: The Last Man is leaning into the real-life aspect more, particularly given that other echoes such as a deadly pandemic reverberate through both the fiction and reality.
“I think when you are adapting a comic, there’s a million different ways you can go,” says Schnetzer. “But there are two general avenues where you either go, ‘we’re gonna really set this in an ultra-heightened world’, or ‘we’re going to get some dirt under our fingernails and really root this in the world we live in today’. And I think we went for the latter. We went for a core of verisimilitude. And it’s very fun to explore.”
In a world that leaves mainly women to deal with the fallout, you might consider the premise a device to allow the series to depict an abject matriarchy, like so much science fiction, horror, and fantasy before it. Particularly when your cast includes powerhouse actresses including Diane Lane, Ashley Romans, Marin Ireland, and Olivia Thirlby, among others, inhabiting some of the story’s most powerful characters. Think Alien, David Cronenberg’s The Brood, and Dario Argento’s Suspiria, in which all-female societies or sororities are seen as horrific. Or maybe the series gives the story license to venture somewhere closer to the opposite end of the scale – as Robin Williams once said, “If women ran the world, we wouldn’t have wars, just intense negotiations every 28 days.”
Instead, says Schnetzer, Y: The Last Man isn’t quite so black and white.
“I don’t think it follows suit to the extent that you’re speaking to, but I think it weaves a very rich tapestry,” he begins. “You know, the world is not binary. Society’s problems don’t all get solved when the cisgender men die. But at the same time, it doesn’t throw everything there is. It doesn’t throw everything into total chaos, the way it wasn’t before. The world is populated by individuals. And there’s a real rich world to discover and be rebuilt in this different frame and through these different circumstances.
“What excites me most about this show is it’s a real character-driven piece. And you get to follow the journeys that these individuals are undertaking, and it’s a very rich world. You see the worst of people and you also see the best of people. It just adds to the texture and the richness of the world beyond this event, because if anything, it speaks to the fact that there are no binaries; there is no ‘it’s this or it’s that’, it’s such a mix.”
So What Else Has Changed (Or Not)?
Given that Schnetzer espouses the richness of the adaptation, it’s probably a good time to ask about what other changes they might have made to the comic books for their version, and whether these might surprise fans.
“Yeah, I think there are changes that might surprise fans,” he says. “But I think also fans are going to also be very surprised at some of the things that remain the same, and some of the echoes from the graphic novel that ended up resonating in the adaptation.”
One thing that Schnetzer hints does remain the same is an undefined cause of the mystery plague. That’s despite rumblings online that suggest Brian K Vaughan had written in the script a definitive cause. In the comic books, the cause is left deliberately obfuscated, with several possible origins introduced but never one definitively called out.
“We had a lot of discussions about it [the cause],” he admits. “We had, individually, discussions about theories, and I think we each kind of, in character, started formulating our own narrative that we built around what has happened. But I think because it’s such a mystery in the show, coming up with something definitive was never something that any of us felt we needed to do — as a uniform version for the cast. I think everybody, in character, is able to spin their own thread about what they believe happened, and organize their own narrative around that.”
Whether or not the show ever reveals the cause remains to be seen, but the prior success of The Walking Dead, a show that also deals with the apocalyptic fallout of a devasting plague, proves that you don’t necessarily need to reveal a plague’s origin to build a successful show. (Interestingly, Y: The Last Man was published before The Walking Dead in comic-book form, and Y: The Last Man is sometimes amusingly referred to as The Walking Dude in a nod to Yorick’s traversing of the globe looking for answers and its similarities with the zombie title).
Yorick & Ampersand & David Schwimmer
And so to the monkey. The Walking Dead might have had a tiger but it doesn’t have a monkey. Ampersand is his name, and he is adorable. The capuchin companion to our hero, Yorick, Ampersand also survived the cull despite (presumably) possessing a Y chromosome. Schnetzer isn’t about to tell us how these two might be linked in the series beyond their simian-human friendship so the conversation instead turns to David Schwimmer, naturally.
Schwimmer recently complained about working with the monkey who played Marcel on Friends, saying that he (actually she) would stay on his shoulder between takes while the trainer would feed the monkey live bugs that would drop all over Schwimmer. He also raged about the monkey’s timing and the fact that it often didn’t do its job right, messing everything up. Ampersand looks like a dream to work with and absolutely adorable, I point out, but did Schnetzer have a similar experience to Schwimmer?
“You know, at first, I was a little bit disappointed when I found out that we weren’t going to use a real monkey on the show,” says Schnetzer, revealing that Ampersand is, in fact, computer-generated. That’s a no, then.
“I was a little bit like, ‘Oh, come on, it’d be so cool!’ And I was really looking forward to having this relationship with this animal. And then after about two seconds of thinking about the day-to-day reality of everyday showing up to work and having to play opposite a primate, as exciting as it would be, I automatically realized that [whether the monkey got it right or not was] the only deciding factor as far as what takes get used; when a scene is complete. All that stuff will be [down to] does Ampersand hit his mark, when he needs to? Does this happen? Is it timed out right?”
And actually, not only does it mean that he gets to avoid fifty percent of the age-old advice to never work with children or animals, but it also means that the creative team on the show gets to shape the monkey’s character completely.
“It’s fun because Ampersand has taken on such a personality for us in the making of the show,” explains Schnetzer. “And everybody has their own relationship to him and their own way of interacting with our Visual Effects department. And it was really fun. In episode 2, just about all of my scenes are just me and Ampersand. And he was a good friend. He’s a good scene partner.”
In fact, episode 2 is one of Schnetzer’s favourite moments in the series so far with Ampersand.
“Ampersand gets us into a lot of trouble,” he says. “So there’s a real, I think, very beautiful arc in the second episode between Yorick and Ampersand, where it looks like all might be lost. But they find each other. Ampersand is a wildcard and he causes a lot of trouble, but he he also saves the day every now and then. So I think people will really enjoy his presence as a character in the show.”
If we’ve learned anything from the likes of The Mandalorian and the MCU, it’s that audiences definitely love cute critters, from Baby Yoda to Baby Groot and beyond (Morris, we’re looking at you.) Finally, I ask Schnetzer if he’s actually able to escape from a straitjacket as Yorick manages in the opening episode.
“I did, actually! Thank you for asking that because I worked really hard at it,” he says. “We had a consultant who is an escape artist himself named Jonathan Goodwin, who was very, very, very helpful to me in the preparation for the show; and also a magician, based in Toronto named David Ben, who was also really helpful. There’s a few card tricks and sleight of hand moments that happened, that he really was extraordinarily helpful in crafting. It was really fun actually, to immerse myself in the world of escape artistry, and the world of illusionists in preparation for the part.”
Watch out, Vegas. Here comes Ben Schnetzer.
Y: The Last Man is streaming now on FX on Hulu and hits Disney+ in the UK on September 22.
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