Prepare for weirdness.
“Chambers,” the new horror series created by Leah Rachel, debuts Friday on Netflix.
The 10-episode first season, starring Uma Thurman, Tony Goldwyn and newcomer Sivan Alyra Rose, tells the story of Sasha, a teenager who receives a heart transplant. Her health seems strong but her behavior starts changing and she finds herself taking on some sinister characteristics of the donor.
“It’s super-weird,” Rachel said. “It’s very dark. It’s a psychological thriller about the merging and battling identities of two teenage girls.”
Rachel, who grew up in Akron and went to Firestone High School (Class of 2004), has been working on the series for more than a year as the creator-writer-showrunner. She spent six months in New Mexico, from May through October, shooting with directors who included Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“American Horror Story”) and Geeta Patel ("The Mindy Project").
She has worked on TV shows as an actress and writer and has directed three short films, but “Chambers” is her biggest project yet.
“It was a whirlwind,” said Rachel on the phone from Los Angeles. “I slept about three hours a night for a year. It was a wild learning experience for sure. Netflix was so supportive of making this weird show. And it came out pretty damn close to how it was in my head, which I hear is pretty rare.”
“Chambers” mixes fantasy and horror. The concept for the show came from Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter ("Traffic"), who was impressed with some of Rachel's previous work and reached out to her. It is set in a “mystic" area of Arizona (though shot in and around Albuquerque, N.M.) and examines cultural appropriation. Sasha is Native American. The heart donor was a rich suburban white girl, who, it turns out, was not as perfect as everyone thought.
Uma on board
Landing Thurman was a real coup.
"We had this amazing casting director out of New York, Alexa Fogel,” Rachel said. “When I first heard about the whole Uma Thurman thing, I thought it was some kind of joke. Then, the next thing I knew, I was sitting with Uma in New York pitching her the whole show.”
The Oscar-nominated actress was impressed.
“It was incredible meeting with Uma,” Rachel said. “She is so smart and has so many great ideas that we then incorporated into her character’s script. She acted like a sort of godmother of the show, guiding us. It was my first time doing this, and the actress we cast in the lead role of Sasha was a total newbie, and Uma really mentored her through it.”
Thurman, best known for her iconic roles in “Pulp Fiction” and the “Kill Bill” films, and Goldwyn (Fitz Grant on “Scandal”), play Nancy and Ben Lefevre, wealthy New Age-y types who become obsessed with the girl who receives their late daughter’s heart.
Thurman liked the script so much, she also signed on as a producer.
“I think there is a lot of personality in the show that is atypical,” said Thurman before a screening of the first episode of "Chambers" at the Series Mania Festival in Lille, France, late last month.
“There is a lot of female energy in it, and a lot of heart at the same time," Thurman added. "I feel like a godparent of the show and the characters. There are wonderful young people in the show who I think are special talents, too.”
In addition to Rose, the younger cast members include Lilliya Scarlett Reid, Nicholas Galitzine, Kyanna Simone Simpson, Griffin Powell-Arcand and Sarah Mezzanotte.
Akron film on hold
Leah Rachel was Leah Vogelsang when she was growing up in Akron. She adopted Rachel, her middle name, as her stage name, when she moved to Hollywood about 13 years ago. Her parents, Susan and Brian, who recently moved from Akron to California, visited her on the set in New Mexico, as did her brother Joe, who also works in the entertainment industry.
“Joe came out when we were shooting the second episode,” Rachel said. “He supported me and stayed up with me. And he and my parents both came out during the 10th episode. They knew I was in a vat of craziness, but they hung out and were very supportive."
As the showrunner, Rachel was largely on a 4-4 schedule: four days on the soundstage, followed by four days on location.
“I was the creator of the show, but I also had to focus on the smallest details and set the tone for everyone," she said. "You need to be a manager and keep the team together.”
One project that was put on hold: Rachel’s feature film, tentatively titled “The Young, the Hot and the Bothered.”
Set at an Akron high school, she described it as a sweet love story with a similar vibe to “Lady Bird.” Rachel wrote the script and plans to direct. Brother Joe would produce. If the financing can be worked out, Rachel said they would love to shoot it on location in Greater Akron.
The success of “Chambers” will determine when that film goes forward.
“I kind of had to put everything on pause this past year,” she said. “But depending on whether we get an order for a second season or not, that movie is next on the list.”
Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.