[Warning: The following contains slight spoilers for Y: The Last Man Episode 4. Read at your own risk!]
From its debut, Y: The Last Man broke significantly from the established framework of its comic book source material, which launched with a more narrowed focus on its titular sole-surviving Y-chromosome bearers Yorick Brown and his monkey sidekick Ampersand. Instead, the series adaptation broadened its scope to include a far greater backstory chronicling the onslaught of the mysterious catastrophe the wiped out genetic-male mammals around the globe and deepened the roles of the rest of the saga's characters.
But with the fourth episode, "Karen and Benji," the show began more closely echo the path trod by Yorick and Agent 355 in the original story as they embark on an epic trek across the radically altered American landscape.
Actor Ben Schnetzer joined TV Guide for a look at playing Yorick while settling into patterns more familiar to longtime fans of the book while simultaneously opening the mythology up for a brand new audience. Along the way, Schnetzer reveals how he connected to the reluctant heroism of the last man, and why he did – and then ultimately didn't – regret not getting the chance to work with a real simian co-star rather than a CGI Capuchin.
One of the things about that that distinguishes this from the graphic novel is that other characters get a lot more play upfront than Yorick. For you, what's interesting for you about a slower burn in revealing to the audience exactly who Yorick is?
It's fun, I think, because when you get a slower burn, you're able to dig a little deeper, which is really nice, and once you've really taken your time, laying that groundwork, I think you're able to reap the rewards down the road. I think there's a degree of nuance and specificity that you can reach when you really take your time, and that's been fun.
When I read the script the first time I hadn't read the graphic novels yet. And so, my first introduction to Y: The Last Man was through [showrunner] Eli [Clark's] first episode, which to me...It's been a really strong ensemble piece from the jump, that's kind of how I was introduced to it. And then it's really fun going back and reading the source material and having so much Yorick-centric material to draw from, and kind of bring that in service of the ensemble that's the focus of the TV show. So it's been fun, but I think you're able to get a little deeper on it and mine some new textures, when you take your time, the way we are.
We're getting into what's been one of the main thrusts of the graphic novel: the cross-country journey. Tell me what's been challenging and exciting for you to start Yorick down that path; we're really seeing him at point A of his story, so what's engaging about laying down the initial template for how Yorick's going to be?
Schnetzer: It's been exciting. I mean, Ashley [Romans] is such a great performer and such a great actor, a great teammate, and it's been such a gift that over this first season, we've been able to share so many scenes together...I think for me, it's been such great fun and such a great learning experience. And it's exciting to mine the origins of this relationship that in the graphic novel becomes such a central relationship through the narrative, to be able to really explore how it begins and where it begins.
And I think when it kicks off, these two characters are very suspicious of one another. They're both kind of forced into this partnership. Neither of them really wants to be there. There's a great deal of skepticism and a lack of trust, and they're really feeling each other out. And it's always fun, I think, to look back and see how these things start. And so I think for Ashley and I, it was fun to kind of try and let go of whatever expectations and preconceived notions we had about this friendship and this relationship, and start to kind of really mine it from the ground up and build it from the ground up.
And Destiny Ekaragha, who directed Episode 4, the first episode that Yorick and 355, really kind of set out on the road together, she's a huge fan of the graphic novel, and it was very exciting and very fun for her to explore this kind of sparring that takes place between these two characters through this episode. And by the end of it, to have a bit of a journey over the episode, so that by the end of it, they're in a very different place than they are when the episode starts. And there's a real kind of intimacy in that last scene that the two of them share that I think is really earned by the end of the fourth episode, which I'm quite proud of.
We also get to see you in the first stages of the frequent cover-ups and disguises that Yorick is stuck with throughout much of his journey. Tell me about acting through gas masks and hoods.
Schnetzer: Yeah, Yorick's own cape and cowl! [Laughs] The technical aspects of it are always make for fun stories, for sure. We had a lot of different screen tests with, like, what kind of gas mask is it going to be? What is the visor going to look like? There were different gas masks for different lighting situations as well. I mean, one of the biggest challenges with the gas mask was how does the hood stay on with the gas mask on? So the props and the wardrobe department on this show were just phenomenal. They ended up putting magnets into the hood and also putting magnets into the gas mask, so it wouldn't fall off every five seconds.
One of the tricky things during Episode 4, it was like, I think it was February, and we were filming Toronto, and needless to say it was a little brisk! And so what would happen is the gas mask would fog up really quickly. But actually, it made for a really fun obstacle for Yorick and kind of added to his guilelessness. Literally having trouble seeing really added a bit of fun to it.
And there's a scene where we're walking through this kind of marketplace – it's like a makeshift flea market where people are hawking their wares, and we ended up getting into trouble in that scene, and 355 is kind of leading Yorick through it. And I think it's in the cut, I'm kind of holding on to 355 as we walk through it, and that was me straight-up just not being able to see where we were going and holding on to Ashley, because I was like, "I'm totally lost here!" But I think we just ended up kind of leaning into it, and it ended up being a really fun dynamic. Yeah, again, just tip of the cap to the props team and the wardrobe department on the show, because I think they just did such an incredible job creating this world.
We get our first real glimpses of Yorick's inherent reticence and the fact that he's not by nature a man of action and decisiveness, and how dangerous that's going to be for him in the new real world.
Schnetzer: Yorick is so kind of myopic in his focus, in that he wants to reunite with Beth and it takes him a long time to reconcile and come to grips with and really just metabolize the global impact of what's taken place. And I imagine in a world where once this event happens very shortly thereafter, cell towers go down, electricity grids start to shut down, the means of communication becomes so limited. And so, it's so difficult to get a sense of what's happening beyond Yorick's small sphere. He is very self-involved when we meet him and it was really fun to start this character on a journey and really give him somewhere to go.
Yorick has such a good heart and such a big heart, but he is immature and he is a little solipsistic, and he is a little self-involved, and he is quite insecure. And so he doesn't start this journey on a noble streak, really wanting to sacrifice for the greater good. That's kind of thrust upon him reluctantly. And so a lot of his what on paper would be more heroic endeavors are really kind of against his own better judgment. He doesn't think this is the thing you should be doing. But so doing, he discovers maybe a nobility that he didn't think he had, or a bravery he didn't think he had. And so, it's fun.
For me, the kind of unlikely heroes, anti-heroes, are always more interesting to me. As exciting and deep as the kind of archetype of your hero who goes on a hero's journey, as exciting and cool as those characters are, for me, what was always more exciting were the guys who kind of get roped into it. They end up in a situation like that by circumstance, and then have to make the best of it. And that's one of the things that's really exciting to me about Yorick as a character and the circumstances he finds himself in.
In this episode, we see the first real sense of the bond that Yorick shares with Ampersand. You get to play that without the benefit of a real monkey at your side. Or maybe with the benefit of not having one, if you asked David Schwimmer about his experiences with Marcel on Friends--
Tell me what's been interesting to you to be building that on-screen relationship with something that's a CGI creation.
Schnetzer: It's such a fun and exciting and engaging exercise in imagination. In these relationships, you want to find a specificity and a sense of honesty, and that relationship is one that's so important to Yorick. And I think there are things you can get away with in the vibrant panels of a graphic novel when it comes to him having a pet Capuchin that doesn't read quite as well or quite as honestly on film. And I think Eli and the team have done such a great job of translating that relationship in an organic way so that Ampersand feels like a true presence that you believe. You believe that this guy has a pet, but it doesn't step into the world of being too cartoony.
And so we wanted to kind of honor that relationship and honor the friendship that they have. Again, it's an age-old archetypal relationship between man and beast that is a really noble and fun. And I think at first I was kind of bummed out that we weren't going to have a real animal on set. And then after thinking about it for two seconds, I was like, "Oh, actually that would be so much work." Especially the locations we're filming on and the amount of action stuff we have to do, I think it would make every episode take twice as long to film, so it was a real joy. And the VFX team on the show is just so awesome.
Plus if you had a real monkey, you never know what kind of attitude he'd pull, depending on where he is on the call sheet.
Yeah, what kind of attitude the monkey's going to bring, and also, I know on every take, the only takes they would use…It would be like, "Basically you do the scene until the monkey gets it right." And then you're like, "Fuck, that's the take they're going to use. Of course." So I think we made out well.
Y: The Last Man currently premieres new episodes every Monday on FX on Hulu.