THE BOYS IS A SHOW where babies shoot face-melting laser beams from their eyes, where you might get choked out by a sentient firehose-length penis, and where people’s heads explode like Fourth of July fireworks. Like the Garth Ennis comic books it’s based on, the Amazon series is a twisted send-up of DC and Marvel comics that contemplates the question, “If superheroes existed in the real world, how would they really behave?” Would they set up leagues in the pursuit of justice? Would they avenge on behalf of good? Would they erect schools for gifted youngsters? Or would they act with impunity, depravity, and cruelty because that’s what you do when you can make people’s heads explode? If you, dear reader, have spent any time watching the race of mankind go by in the year 2020, you know the answer.
For all its comical grotesquery, The Boys saves most of its blunt force for its social commentary: It savagely lampoons the Hollywood machine behind the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. (One character’s remark on a particularly on the nose superhero scene being filmed: “This Joss rewrite is great!”) Its Big Bad is a monolithic critique of late capitalism, Vought American, a corporate giant that grows superheroes in labs and then shills them to packed multiplexes of adoring fans while also selling their services to the government as weapons of mass destruction. And in its second season, the show introduced Vought’s latest ready-for-primetime celebrity supe, Stormfront, a cool-girl influencer who turns out to be a century-old Nazi. By the season’s penultimate episode, her mask has slipped from dog whistling culture warrior to out-and-out white supremacist with a God complex.
In the comics, Stormfront is a square-jawed Superman by way of the SS, an old-school comic book Nazi. Recast with Aya Cash, whose cutting mix of humor and humanity in the cult hit You’re the Worst earned her a devoted fanbase, Stormfront is a thoroughly modern monster. Cash plays the character with a breezy, sarcastic millennial affectation that perfectly captures a certain strain of American Nazism—insidious and at times hard to pin down, like when she quietly and dismissively antagonizing her super-group’s one Black member. In other scenes, when she delivers populist and nationalist screeds against “super-terrorists”—the xenophobic scapegoats of the show’s universe—”pouring across our borders,” she delivers it with a full-throated conviction that, unfortunately, feels too familiar. In a show that very often veers into the delightfully absurd, Cash knows when to play it scarily straight.
Cash talked to Men’s Health about tackling sensitive issues like racism and white supremacy in an over-the-top superhero dramedy, what surprised her about Stormfront’s costume, and the one scene she wanted to kick up a notch.
Stormfront has emerged as the central villain of the season, and in the same way that Vought often represents the evils of capitalism, she represents the evils of white supremacy, nationalism, and culture wars. The show tackles a lot about racial justice via a Nazi who can shoot lighting out of her hands! How much did you know about this character before you came on the role?
When I auditioned, there were some dummy sides conveying a version of a scene meeting Homelander and some other things, but not much that was actually in the show. But when I got the audition, my agent warned that this is going to be a really controversial character. So I had a heads up about who she was. And my response was, “Well, I don’t think the answer is to not do something that’s uncomfortable. I think the question is, Is it being done right? Is it being done thoughtfully in how it deals with issues of racism and white supremacy?”
So I basically just asked, “Well, can I talk to Eric [Kripke, The Boys’ showrunner]?” And right before my audition, we sat and talked for half an hour about the character, about what he thought was important. And he was so smart and so thoughtful, I just knew I would be in good hands. So even though I wasn’t able to read the script to know exactly what was going to happen, I knew that it was going to be dealt with in a way that I could support. So that’s what I came in with when I got the job.
In the comics, the character is a man. But swapping the gender of the character added a whole new dynamic to the chaos she’s able to sow.
The fact that there’s a gender swap, I knew some people would have very strong feelings about that. I also have strong feelings about gender swaps. I don’t necessarily think we should just be switching roles for no reason. But I think there was a lot of thought behind why a gender swap would be important in this case and why it would be even more confrontational to Homelander to have a woman in this role versus a man.
Beyond the somewhat subversive casting of a Jewish woman to play a character originally written as a Nazi man, the gender swap shows the insidiousness of white nationalism and racism. When we picture white supremacists marching in our streets, we think of men in polos and khakis with tiki torches. But it’s not just a gendered ideology. There are women in the movement too.
Yeah, we do see women spouting this ideology now. They’re doing it in different ways and it may be in more coded language, but it’s definitely not just a masculine trait to be a white supremacist. It definitely crosses both genders. You mentioned the fact that I’m Jewish. I’m half Jewish, and when we’re talking about what’s been going on in the world, it’s also an example of the privilege that I get to play this role, which is not something that I would have expected. My Jewishness has become a much bigger deal all of a sudden because of this role, despite the fact that I’m non-practicing. My mother’s Catholic, and I was raised Jewish, but I identify as Jewish because that’s what I’m identified as. I haven’t had to think a lot about my Jewishness in a long time. And now, all of a sudden, that has become a big point of conversation. And that’s fascinating and interesting. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I’m saying that it starts an interesting conversation.
So the question of identity that the show explores has crossed over into real life in some ways.
Well, because I’ve had to sit in my anxiety over it. I once made a joke about being a Jewish girl—even though I don’t practice, and it’s not been a part of my life for a long time—and I never thought twice about it. And this role has made me think about it because people are now commenting on it. And then there’s my anxiety with being identified as Jewish in terms of there being threats to me and having to deal with that. And then there’s the privilege that I could even choose to identify as Jewish or not. That’s also something interesting to look at—just because of the color of my skin, I could possibly pass for Jewish, or not Jewish. What is being Jewish? Is Jewish a race? Is Jewish a religion? I just think it brings up a lot of interesting questions for me personally.
The first glimpse viewers get of Stormfront’s true nature is when she kills Kimiko’s brother and calls him an anti-Asian slur based on color. This is a show that really pushes a lot of boundaries, and there was an even stronger racial slur that the character could have used. So clearly the writers showed restraint. Did you ever have conversations about when to pull back and when to push the envelope?
We shot a lot of different versions of the scene on that day. The writers gave themselves the option to figure out what the right balance was. That’s one thing we did quite a bit. But I also feel like [Stormfront] uses pretty violent language. The reality is that that’s the world we live in and that The Boys exists in, and to pussyfoot around it is not going to help anyone—so I do think there’s a reason behind using some of the more vile language. But they don’t use the N-word, and I’m grateful for that, personally, because I would have had a very hard time saying it. I’m glad I didn’t have to go through the process of what that would mean for myself. Although it’s probably good for us all to think about it. But you can’t walk certain words back—there are certain words that are so powerful. So I think that the writers made the decisions they felt were best to both engage in a conversation and also not overstep.
There’s a great running gag of the women of Vought being forced to promote a “Girls Get It Done” tagline. It mocks cynical attempts to market to women, but at a time when studios are also making concerted efforts to produce movies with female heroes by female directors. As an actress, how do you navigate the difference between the hollow marketing of female characters and genuine efforts to center women’s experiences in movies and TV?
It’s an interesting question. I think I may be slightly more hopeful than I should be. I try to see when people’s attempts at inclusion are coming from a real, positive intention. However, the idea of “Girls Get It Done”—even if a place like Vought is just thinking, Oh fuck, we need more women!—can be positive because it shows how social pressure can affect people’s pocketbooks. Change can come from a lot of places, and it’s much harder to take change back. But I do think that the co-opting of any social movement by corporations is problematic if it’s not part of a longterm commitment. There’s the optics of a quick press statement. Okay. Start there. But what else? What else do you do as a company to actually promote equality within that company? You can’t just jump on what’s trending. There has to be a phase two.
Between her name, her super powers, and her half-buzzed haircut, this Stormfront bears a resemblance to Storm from X-Men. Was there a superhero that you channeled when creating the attitude and look of this character?
Honestly, I had very little say. The suit was built on me, the haircut…they said, “We’re shaving half your head today.” I said, “Okay!” When I had auditioned for the role, I’d thought of her more as a “cutesy fascist”—blonde hair, blue eyes, pictures with my rifle, that sort of white supremacist. We tried a bunch of different things, but it was very clear they were going in a different direction.
It was a good choice because, as a viewer, her indie millennial sensibility throws you off her scent.
The truth is that Stormfront comes off as a satirical version of the progressive left in the beginning. She looks sort of like: I’m from Portland and I’ve got a side shave and I’m alternative and I’m a strong feminist. I think it’s both a purposeful misdirect and a send up of that [type of person]. Everybody gets taken down by The Boys. It’s an equal opportunity show in that way.
Was there a scene that particularly shocked you when you saw it on screen, even as somebody who was on set?
Most of it! There are moments that I can’t, I have to close my eyes during the show. There’s some crazy stuff! The whale, obviously. We were all in total shock when we saw it. Also, some of the “intimate” scenes are pretty ridiculous. I don’t even know if I can say this, but I had some real strong opinions about those sex scenes [between Stormfront and Homelander] and my ideas were in there for a little while, and then they got cut. But I really wish they would have gone with my idea! I think it could have been even more shocking and illuminating.
It’s rare to hear somebody from this show say they really wanted to tone something up a notch. What was it?
I wanted a merkin because she’s a hundred years old. She would not be groomed! That wouldn’t have been sexy when she was growing up, and we tend to internalize whatever we found desirable growing up. So I wanted a very full bush. We created a merkin, which took many weeks. And I wore the merkin on the day. We shot it. As Homelander disappears out of frame, he is going right in there. Unfortunately, they cut it.
Sounds like you were invested in this merkin!
Oh, I have videos and pictures of the merkin process. I had notes on the merkin! Because when it first arrived, I was like, “I said full bush, but realistic full bush. Not like this. This looks like a small child’s head—a child that’s turning into Beast from X-Men. What happened?” [Laughs] Anyway, so much for that.
Gotta say, even for a conversation about The Boys, I didn’t expect to end on giant merkins.
Start on racial justice, and end on merkins. That’s a recipe for a good interview.
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