INTERVIEW: Upload’s Robbie Amell on Death, the Afterlife and Working with Greg Daniels

What awaits us after death? It’s the age-old question we have yet to find an answer for, but in the new sci-fi comedy Upload, it isn’t heaven or hell expecting us on the other side, but a digital afterlife created from code. Set in the near future, the new Amazon Prime Video series doesn’t aim to answer life’s most mysterious questions as much as it does poke holes in our ideas of them.

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The series, which premiered this week follows Nathan, a ridiculously good-looking, but ultimately shallow coder, played by Robbie Amell, who dies in a freak accident when his self-driving car crashes. In a haste, he is uploaded to a digital afterlife known as Lakeview by his equally shallow and extremely wealthy girlfriend, meaning that she essentially owns him as a person. Upload comes from The Office US executive producer Greg Daniels, an incredibly successful TV writer whose resume reads like a list of the greatest sitcoms ever produced. From The Simpsons to Parks and Rec and King of the Hill, Daniels has more than proved his comedy writing chops, but in Upload, we get a different side of comedy.

While it might sound like a far-fetched idea, the notion of being locked in an artificial world is something most of us can relate to. We spoke with show star Robbie Amell about the new series and what it means to work with comedy royalty.

Q: First off, how have the last few weeks been for you? It must be a confusing time to release a new show with half of the world still in lockdown.

RA: It’s been a really weird time, but my wife, my seven-month-old and I have been really lucky that we’ve been able to stay home. We really trying to do our part and flatten the curve, so we’re spending a lot of time of FaceTime talking to family and on Zoom doing interviews. Technology has really made things a lot easier, in that sense.

Q: That almost seems to be a theme in the series, that technology has significantly changed the way we live, maybe not always for the better.

RA: It’s wild how it has coincided with the release, some the of the ways that the show mirrors the world has been truly strange. The show really hinges on this idea of a digital afterlife; it’ not really heaven, it’s not really a utopia or dystopia, it’s kind of a middle-topia where there are good things and bad things. I play Nathan, who is a bit of a shallow douchebag when you first meet him. He’s a coder working with a friend on a project, his own digital afterlife when his self-driving car crashes, which is very rare in the future. It looks like he is going to good, old-fashioned die, but then his very wealthy girlfriend uploads him to her account, meaning she essentially now own him as a person.

People ask me to describe it and its weird, but I think, weird in a great way. There so many things out there we can watch, you need to be a little weird to stand out. It’s down to Greg and writing team that he’s put together. They’re so great and creative, but yet the show still stays, at its core, grounded in relationships and that’s what people engage with.

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Q: What was it like working with Greg Daniels? Were you a fan of The Office and Parks and Rec before?

RA: I’ve been a fan of Greg’s for a long time. One of the first things we spoke about was which Simpsons episode of his I would know, and it was the one where Bart sells his soul. I was like ‘that’s a fantastic episode, I remember that one’. I grew up watching The Simpsons so it was a dream come true for me to work with him. Greg is someone who, for all his success, for someone who is so funny and equally smart, there is no ego. I couldn’t ask for a better person to lead the show. He has such a great track record of building relationships on-screen. We know he’s got comedy, but now we get to see this interesting, weird sci-fi side of him that he’s been working on for 30 years.

Q: One of my favourite elements of the show is the dynamic between Nathan and his ‘Death Concierge’ Nora. It feels like Nathan, while harmless is a bit of a dick, so it’s Nora that brings out that likability in him.

RA: You get the sense that Nathan just thinks things are going pretty great. I like that you said he is harmless because he’s not a bad guy, he’s just kind of coasting through life. He has a douchey girlfriend and he enjoys himself a little too much. It’s interesting that he essentially has to die to realise he wasn’t living that great of a life.

When he sees Nora, he sees someone who is actually struggling, and that’s a real perspective shift for him. When Nathan and Nora meet, they’re both at a point in their lives that they need a friend. After Nathan dies, he realises he didn’t really have friends and in Nora is so work-driven that she doesn’t have time for friends. The interesting dynamic is that the relationship isn’t meant to work because she living and he’s dead. That kinda takes a lot of the pressure off, and they can just become friends. It’s not quite Romeo and Juliet but there’s a connection there.

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Q: In Upload, this idea of death not being the end is quite a spiritual theme, but it’s played out in this ultra-consumer/capitalist environment. What was it like tackling a serious theme in such a playful way?

RA: All the credit really goes to Greg and the writers. They were able to take a serious question of what the afterlife might be like if people were to create it and you see that it still has a lot of the problems we encounter in our regular lives. Even in the afterlife, there is still division of wealth, employment inequality and greed, which comes when you turn it into a business. I really love that my character, who is quite selfish is the one that turns around says ‘this is bullshit’. It’s a digital afterlife, it’s just code, everyone should have this. It’s gross but it’s real. 

I think that’s part of what makes Greg so smart, is that he’s able to ask these serious questions while still keeping the show light-hearted and at its core, a comedy. He’s never preachy about it, it’s just ‘this is the way it is in our future and this is the world we live in’.

Q: Describe your ideal Lakeview. What does the perfect digital afterlife look like?

RA: My wife and I went to Australia a few years back and we absolutely loved it. We stayed right on Bondi Beach, so I wouldn’t mind an Australian version of Lakeview. Definitely, in your guys’ summer, we went back in winter and it wasn’t quite the same. I’m from Toronto so any chance I get to hit the beach, or golf is great. I think I’d take the breakfast buffet straight out of the show.

I’ve thought about this a lot and the real thing that matters is spending more time with family and friends.

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Q: How have you found the response so far?

RA: It’s been really great getting to talk to people who have seen the show already. We’ve been working on this for a long time and it means a lot to me and lot to Greg and the rest of the cast and crew. I know there are a lot more important things going on right now, but I think our show provides a bit of an escape for an hour or two, or six hours if you want to binge the whole season.

Q: What do you think the biggest message is in Upload?

RA: It’s a hard one. I think people will take different things away from it. For me, it’s the seventh episode where you see the change in Nathan’s character arc. He starts to realise that life is about the people you have around you; your loved ones, friends and family and the time they spend with you.

There is a really poignant line in that episode 7 where Nathan is talking to Nora’s dad and he says that “it doesn’t matter if last here for 1000 years, it’s going to feel short when we’re out of it.” 

Q: Now, you personally, what’s on the cards for Robbie Amell in the second half of 2020?

RA: My cousin and I recently had our new movie come out on Netflix, Code8 which was the number one movie on Netflix in the US and the UK, so that was really special for me. I’ve got two more Netflix movies coming out in the near future, the first of which is called Desperados and that will be out in June. The second is a sequel to The Babysitter, which will also come out on Netflix towards the end of summer, we finished it right before we went into lockdown.

You can check out Robbie Amell in the new Amazon Prime Video series Upload now. The full first season premiered on May 1 worldwide.

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