We caught up with Jessica Jones star Eka Darville ahead of this weekend’s Supanova Pop Culture Expo to find out how he went from Byron Bay to the Marvel Universe.
The binge-worthy Jessica Jones — a 13-episode series about the eponymous hard-hitting, hard-drinking private detective (and former superhero) — is Marvel’s second collaboration with Netflix, following the acclaimed Daredevil series.
Set in Hell’s Kitchen, Jessica Jones uses the old comic book trope of mind control to tackle darker and decidedly more mature themes than your standard Marvel fare, from sexuality and assault to post-traumatic stress disorder. Released to the streaming service last November, the show was a hit with critics and audiences, and Netflix has already renewed it for a second season.
Aussie Eka Darville appears on the show as Malcolm, a neighbour of Jessica’s who struggles with drug addiction, and eventually becomes an integral part of Jessica’s life.
“It’s such a once-in-a-career experience, if you’re lucky, to be involved with a project like this as an actor,” he says.
“It’s Marvel, so when you sign onto a project with that brand name attached, you know there’s a certain build-in audience. Regardless of what you do, it will be watched, even if it’s not received well. That’s a rare thing, especially for a TV show.
“And to have Netflix involved, who haven’t produced a bad show to date… I definitely had an inkling as to the quality and the scope of the project.
“As an actor, the big thing is knowing your involvement. The project might be incredibly successful, but they might also write you out or kill you off or just run out of things for your character to do. All these things can happen. So for it to be received so well, and for me to be such a big part of the project, is a very unexpected and exciting and beautiful outcome.”
If Eka looks familiar to you, he should. Born in Cairns and raised in Byron Bay, he was cast in his first TV series, Blue Water High, while he was still in high school. He went on to appear in shows like Power Rangers, Spartacus, The Originals and Empire, before landing his most substantial role yet in Jessica Jones. He’s come a long way — but none of it has really come as a surprise.
“I grew up in a very optimistic and liberated creative family,” he explains. “Anything was possible. There was never really any thought given to the difficulty of any particular goal. The outlook was, ‘If that’s what you want to do then you’ll succeed at it’. That was a very empowering world to live in.
“My mum was an African dance teacher and my dad made African instruments, along with a plethora of other very left-of-field, avant garde pursuits that they were into, and they somehow made their way through life doing those things, because that’s what they loved. So there was just never any kind of limitation placed on what I could do.
“Byron is probably the most blessed place you could hope to grow up in, because it’s so rich, culturally, and has such a high turnover of tourists who bring a fresh, joyous energy, so you don’t have that stagnation that you get in other small, coastal towns. It’s got an amazing party scene, and it’s one of the most consistent places in the world to surf. So there’s lots of things to do there, and it’s a great, great, great place to grow up. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
A true triple threat, Eka’s creative upbringing — his parents, Chinta Reiss and Cheze Darville, are practically Byron Bay celebrities — saw him develop his skills as a musician and dancer, as well as an actor.
“Acting never consciously took priority over my other pursuits, it just kind of happened,” he says. “For a while, music, dance and acting were all equal players in my life, but I always kind of knew with dancing, for instance, that the upper ceiling limit is to be, like, a backup dancer for Beyonce or someone like that. That’s the top of the game, and for me, that’s such a limiting thing. That really doesn’t inspire me.
“So I’ve put dance into the category of something that I just do for myself. I don’t ever want to have to make money off of it, or do anything with it on that level. It’s just something that I absolutely love, that brings me the most joy in the world, and the way I can keep it that way is to leave it as something that I just do for passion, for joy.
“With music, I will still, at some point, have a career in music — it’s just something I feel like I want to do later, because transitioning from acting into music is a very easy switch to make. I’m always playing and keeping my chops up, it’s just not something I’m able to fully commit to right now.”
Eka was well known enough for his creative pursuits, in fact, that his casting in Blue Water High received local news coverage at the time, despite it being his first role.
When he found out he’d scored a part in the Sydney high school drama, he had to choose between studying at the Victorian College of the Arts, where his application had been accepted, or jumping straight into life as a working actor.
“I feel like money is pretty inspiring, so the choice was pretty simple,” he laughs. “It was like, well, do I want to rack up a HECS debt in order to study acting and eventually have to come out of school and start at square one, or do I want to just learn as I go and make money doing it?
“I chose the latter option, and I’m so glad I did, because the biggest challenge with acting is getting a brand to trust in you. Brands are sheep, just like any other demographic in society, and if somebody has been willing to put money behind you in the past, then it’s a lot easier to make people think you’re a safe investment in the future. So that first role is incredibly important, and probably the hardest role to get.
“I got that first role under my belt when I was pretty young, and from there it’s just been about climbing what seems to be a never-ending ladder.”
The next stop on that ladder was a role in Power Rangers RPM, where he played the role of the Red Eagle Ranger. (In other words, he’s a bit of a veteran when it comes to this superhero TV stuff.)
“That was actually a really incredible experience,” he remembers. “For all its faults, creatively, some of the best friends that I have in the industry, actors and producers and whatnot, are from Power Rangers. We had such a close-knit little group and we’ve really kept in touch.
“It was very physical. I did a lot of martial arts as a kid, so getting to do a lot of the stunts and the martial arts in the show was awesome. It was shot in New Zealand, and because of the lack of really strong unions in the southern hemisphere, you can really get away with doing a lot more. So I actually got to do a lot of my own stunts, which is totally not the case in the States.
“I definitely played Power Rangers as a kid. I remember being in year one and playing Power Rangers out in the sugarcane fields next to our school, and always getting made to be the Black Ranger, because I was the only black kid at school. I guess I got my vengeance on the kids when I booked the Red Ranger role. So it was definitely one of those little childhood dreams fulfilled.”
A recurring role as Pietros in Spartacus: War of the Damned (also filmed in New Zealand) followed, before he moved stateside and took on larger parts as Diego in The Originals and Ryan in Empire. That exposure led to his casting in Jessica Jones, where he’s been praised for his sensitive portrayal of drug addict Malcolm.
“I interviewed ex-drug addicts and I interviewed psychologists who work with addicts, just to get an idea of the psychology and the mental framework of people who are suffering from addiction, and the kind of ailments that come with that,” he says.
“I also did a lot of research online, just watching videos. There are a lot of people that document their experiences coming off heroin, and there are very definitive phases that people go through when they’re coming off that drug.
“So I did that research, and I found the physicality of it within myself. I feel like once you find the walk of a character and the way a character moves, you can embody them more, so I put a lot of work into that. And then there’s the voice of the character, and a lot of little things. It’s all background work.
“When it comes to actually shooting the scenes on the day, you’re not thinking about any of those things. They’re second nature. They just fall into place, and you can be fully present with the other actor. I think that’s the single most important thing, in life and in acting.”
When the show was released, Eka watched it the same way the rest of the world did — he binged on it, devouring as much of it as he could at once.
“That’s the only way I watch things. I have a two-and-a-half year old child, so I don’t usually get time to watch anything, so when I do get time, I just binge and churn through it and hopefully make it to the end before I have other duties to attend to.
“I love the Netflix model, not so much for the binge-watching aspect of it, but because of what they’ve been able to do in terms of placing the value back into content, versus appealing to the lowest common denominator audience that people want to advertise to.
“As a TV actor on standard network television, your job is to basically get people invested enough to sit through the next ad break. With Netflix, there is no ad break. There’s no ulterior motive, other than creating good content. That, in itself, is changing the quality of TV writing in a huge way.
“Network television is really in a scramble right now to pick up its game and keep up with what Netflix and Hulu and Amazon and HBO and Starz and all those streaming and pay TV models are able to do. So, as an actor, I’m incredibly grateful for what they’re doing.”
Eka will return for the second season of Jessica Jones — but before that, you’ll see him in The Defenders, the all-star Marvel Netflix team-up series spinning out of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.
“Jessica Jones is confirmed for another season, but we won’t be going back for ages. It’s a really long gap. We don’t start shooting until, like, February 2017. They have to do all the other Marvel Netflix shows first, and then they’re coming together in a show called The Defenders, which is being shot before our second season. I will be in The Defenders, as well, so there’s lots of work in the future!”
Eka Darville will appear at the Supanova Pop Culture Expo on the Gold Coast this weekend (8-10 April), participating in a general admission Q&A as well as signing and photo sessions throughout Saturday (10:30am to 5:30pm) and Sunday (11am to 5pm). For more info, visit supanova.com.au.