Aya Cash on Taking The Boys by Storm, White Feminism and X-Men

Frazier Tharpe
·13 mins read

Amazon’s The Boys just concluded a wild second season of exploding heads, Neo-Nazism, Trump administration satire and political allegory. It’s been eight episodes of deceptively sharp social commentary couched in a B-movie, seedy superhero universe that imagines what our world would look like if heroes existed amongst us. The answer: they’d be products of corporate America, narcissists with no regard for the individual American citizen, who keep the country safe for their own fame at best, and at worst, pose as much of a threat as the bad guys they do destructive battle with.

The series, developed by Eric Kripke from the comic book by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, ramped those themes up considerably in season two with the addition of Stormfront, played by Aya Cash, who joins The Seven—the Justice League-esque collection of heroes who operate at the behest of their corporate benefactor, Vought International. Whereas the series’ main villain, Seven leader Homelander (a singularly great Antony Starr) is a homicidal loose cannon prioritizing his own public image and agenda above the safety of others, Stormfront reveals herself to be an even more insidious and dangerous enemy when the titular Boys—the anti-“supe” faction of ragtag heroes who battle Vought—learn she’s actually a 100 year-old Nazi.

It turns out that Stormfront’s husband started Vought and created superheroes as a Hitler-esque Final Solution; she has now resurfaced to finish the job with 21st century tools. In one particularly bracing sequence, an opening montage shows a man who ingests Stormfront’s coded rhetoric and xenophobia on a daily basis murder a store clerk he suspects might be a foreign “super terrorist.” \

Cash never let us see her sweat: She plays Stormfront with a delicate balance of genuine unpredictability, deliciously acerbic energy and unsettling conviction. Avid TV viewers know playing a quick-witted smartass who can give as good as she gets is nothing new for the actress, who put up a similar, Emmy-worthy performance for five years on FXX’s underrated, bitingly acidic romcom You’re the Worst. But while that show was a critical darling, The Boys is a bonafide hit, making this Cash’s biggest role to date. In the wake of the finale, GQ caught up with Cash to talk about white feminism, bringing awareness through escapism, and more.

Mild spoilers for The Boys season 2 follow.

Going into the season, I was expecting you to be evil because that's just the nature of being cast as a superhero on this show. But I wasn’t expecting a full-on Nazi?

The name is the one giveaway. I think if you actually know what Stormfront is, then it's kind of a glaringly obvious thing, but if you're not familiar, I think it was a real surprise. It was like the first contemporary Nazi website. [Cash’s You’re the Worst co-lead] Chris Geere just tagged me in something since Stormfront is trending on Twitter and my reaction was, Oh God, is it about the election? Or is it about the show? [laughs]

It’s wild to even have to ask that!

Well it's funny because on Twitter sometimes the You’re the Worst hashtag would be used in relation to politics and now, you know, confusion either way.

Is Stormfront’s true nature what drew you to the role?

I knew she was this sort of contemporary, social media savvy racist. I didn't necessarily know that she was an actual Nazi because I hadn't read the comic books yet. And you know, I knew the Stormfront reference, but I also thought it could have been an accident. She does shoot [bolts] out of her hands. But nothing is really an accident on The Boys, which is what I've come to discover. And even if it is an accident, it's probably going to be used intentionally. Like the flies in season one, I think that they're gonna figure out a way to [acknowledge that]. That's funny to talk about now because of Pence.

But a few things drew me in. One, I'm not your typical superhero. So the idea that I would get to fly and do all these crazy stunts and things I'd never thought I'd get to do in my career was really exciting. And then yeah, the other thing was, while obviously I violently disagree with her, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try to play this role. And I thought what Eric and the writers were pointing out in our own world, or pointing at, I should say, was really important. So it was scary to take her on and be the face of this disgusting, hateful ideology. But I thought the messaging behind it was right. If there was glorification of this person in a way, then I couldn't have taken the role, but I saw where they were going based on my conversations with Eric. And I was excited to hopefully—I mean, it sounds crazy—but bring awareness through this character of just how hate and evil is packaged these days.

The show wears its Trump allegories and themes on its sleeve, but the writers really turned it up a notch this year through the addition of Stormfront and some of her tactics, like deepfake Facebook memes, dog whistle rallies and spreading xenophobia. It's a little unsettling to watch, especially in moments like that episode seven opening montage.

I think it would have been unsettling last year and it's even more unsettling this year. It feels even more tender. It is for me too, even to watch it and think about it in a new light. But it was often like doing a horror film, and it's never really scary to be [shooting a] horror film. There are plenty of moments that look crazy on screen that are an absolute blast to shoot, like all the fight stuff [in episode 3] with Karen [Fukuhara] and Abraham [Lim]. We were singing musicals in between. You don't really feel it. But the few moments that were super uncomfortable and, and truly awful are when I have to use a racial slur and there's a real life human in front of me. That's not a fun thing.

Do you think the show’s satire packs a bigger punch because it's couched in superhero genre trappings, so it's a little deceptive?

Well that's actually the trick of all sci-fi, fantasy and superhero stuff. If you're not actually saying something about the real world, it's not going to draw you in. We think that we're joining escapist fantasy, but almost all good fantasy is couched in reality and is a commentary on the culture that it comes from. What The Boys is doing isn’t even crazy unique, it's just so out front with it in a way that we're not used to.

I just read the Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin and it's basically about the apocalypse and the earth fighting back for a world that has been destroyed by us inhabitants. I haven't read anything about this, maybe I'm wrong, but in my mind it's a commentary about global warming. The Boys is very upfront in holding up a fun house mirror to [society]. And it's unapologetic in its depiction and that's what packs the strongest punch. But I think there are ways that The Boys is—I can't believe I'm saying this—but there are subtleties within The Boys and its critiques, too.

In what ways?

For example, something that I had not thought of when I was shooting is that Stormfront’s presentation in the first three episodes is as this sort of badass white feminist. And there’s an exclusionary nature that is a part of white feminism’s history. To have her come out as a Nazi is not necessarily a misdirect--possibly, those things can go hand-in-hand. And I didn't see that at first. Somebody wrote an article about it but I'm assuming that the writers were thinking about things like that, that there are these less obvious ways that things are tied together. That was really interesting to see that pointed out and to have to think about that and think about myself obviously, because I am a white feminist, and what it all means.

In those first three episodes you mentioned, Stormfront’s characterization actually reminded me of Gretchen from You’re the Worst a little bit. Why are you drawn to these kinds of acerbic, badass roles?

It's always more interesting to play someone flawed, and I'm definitely someone who trends on the darker side—not the Nazi darker side, but in terms of my sense of humor and sarcasm. However, I also think that the roles are drawn to me more than I'm drawn to them at this point. Once you play something and you show that it's in your wheelhouse—this business is, let's be real, all about money. Nobody wants to take a chance. They want to hire people that they know can do the job in the way that they see it.

So in terms of those roles, I actually feel like I'm less drawn to them now because I've done many of them. And it can be really enjoyable to revisit that, but I'd also love to be doing other things. I joked to my agents, ‘I just want to play nice people from now on,’ because you know, Stormfront is dark on another level. I got to do Easy, and [creator] Joe Swanberg actually wants to know, what do you want to do that you haven't done? And at that point, I was like, I just want to play like someone normal...I want to be a pumpkin spice latte girl.

Seriousness of the subject matter aside, this show is also wildly out of control--there's an exploding head every other episode. I imagine it’s really fun to work on?

Totally. It’s a blast, and it's not something that I'm good at, which was really fun. Like I'm not a physical person, I'm not a gym rat, I don't run. So to get into shape and to be ready for fight choreography… I feel like there's always a little magic watching something that you've been in, because the experience is so different than what you see on TV. The chaos of the set is suddenly gone. On a show like this, it's even more fun because there's so many moments where you're just hopping up and down, pretending to fly, or have a harness on. There's all this bulk and it looks crazy and then there's so much magic involved [in the finished product] that’s really fun to watch back.

So did this scratch the superhero itch for you, or if Marvel calls for X-Men are you dropping everything?

I mean, sure. I need a job. It’s funny. I was asked about this recently and I was talking about my love of X-Men because I grew up reading the comics and I said the characters that I’d want to be. And then everyone spins it to be like “Aya Cash Says She’s Going to Play Beast.” I jokingly said that I would love to play Beast, but I wouldn't do it. They would kill me. I don't want to do it as a gender swap. I doubt anybody's going to be knocking on my door for [X-Men]. But if they want to knock, I’ll open.

One of my big questions when they revealed Stormfront as being 100 years old was, what has she been up to in the meantime? Was that a backstory that you filled in for yourself or can we expect more on that next season?

I pitched a lot of things that I'm sure won't be used, so I can probably tell you. I was like she was Jane Fonda doing music videos in the eighties. Like there should absolutely be a workout video tape of Stormfront doing Jazzercise. I love the idea that she’s been many different people and I can just come back and keep swapping wigs. But it's all up to God, meaning Eric Kripke. I mean, she's pretty far gone. Let's be honest. There's not much of Stormfront left, but you never know.

We're also about a year and a half removed from the You're the Worst series finale. How’s it feel looking back now?

Oh, awful. I still cry about it. It was the best job that I ever had and those people are my family. I still talk to them all. Chris Geere just interviewed me for Interview magazine, which was so sweet. He did all his homework, which was adorable. I keep waiting for someone to be like, why don't we do one more? If someone would air it, I know we would all come back and do it. But maybe it's too soon. I feel like people are like, it just ended. We don't need another.

Looking back at the last time we talked in 2015, it was interesting to see that you were speaking about things that have become even more prevalent this year, in terms of diversity and representation in Hollywood. How are you working to continue those conversations and be supportive?

Look, this year has been horrible for so many reasons, but for me, the hope that I see and the amount of conversation around these things is the positive of 2020. I can only speak for myself. I am still learning. Even if I was talking about it five years ago, that doesn't mean that I am done either. And I think 2020 has been a lesson for me and many people like me that we need to be doing better and be more active in our allyship activism, whatever it is that you want to call it. But we still bear responsibility and it always sucks to realize that you're incomplete, but that's the nature of being a human for the rest of your life. And so my experience has been asking, have I done enough? Where am I with my own learning?

I think that if we want to be patriotic and live in the ideals of America, then we can clearly look around and see where we are failing in those ideals. And that's what patriotism is, is to try to live up to those ideals. So it's odd to me that patriotism has become the reasoning for not doing better, for not acknowledging our failures, because I want to live in a great country that is trying to live up to its ideals. And we have not, from the beginning of our country's founding, but that doesn't mean that we can't, as long as we keep acknowledging and trying and doing better.

Originally Appeared on GQ