Wednesday Addams is making it cool to be kooky again.
Executive produced by Tim Burton, the new Netflix series “Wednesday” (now streaming) reintroduces the pale, pig-tailed purveyor of sinister sass as a 16-year-old and brings aspects of “The Addams Family” mythos into a teen-oriented mix of “Harry Potter” and “Scooby-Doo.” There was a lot for Jenna Ortega to love playing the girl in black, especially her darkly snappy sense of humor.
In the first episode – after a nasty incident with piranha that gets her expelled from her school – Wednesday is sent to Nevermore Academy and meets her new roommate, the happy-go-lucky Enid (Emma Myers). Morticia Addams (Catherine Zeta-Jones) says her daughter Wednesday – who’s horrified this girl might hug her – is “allergic to color,” and Enid asks what that means. “I break out into hives and the flesh peels off my bones,” Wednesday deadpans.
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“I’ll remember that for the rest of my life,” Ortega says about first reading that line in the script. “I don’t know, maybe it’s the flesh. It really got me.”
First appearing in Charles Addams’ comic strips in the 1930s, Wednesday was a prime-time member of the 1960s “Addams Family” sitcom and two 1990s movies (played by Christina Ricci, who also appears in “Wednesday”). “She’s a truth-teller. She’ll say the things everybody else wants to say, and she can get away with it,” says Alfred Gough, who created the new show with Miles Millar.
As in “Smallville,” their 2001-11 spin on Superman, they wanted to take an iconic character, “get under the hood, see what makes them tick and also tell a chapter in their life that nobody’s done,” Gough says.
He and his longtime TV partner have four daughters between them, most of whom “have Wednesday-like expressions and sayings,” Millar adds. “It was definitely a personal motivation as well, in terms of how we could express our fatherhood in that character and also make a show that our girls would love.”
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In the series – which throws comedy, horror, supernatural mystery and a John Hughes influence into its spooky brew – Wednesday’s not happy at all to attend Nevermore, a school full of werewolves, sirens and other “outcasts” where Morticia and her dad, Gomez (Luis Guzmán), met. She immediately butts heads with Principal Weems (Gwendoline Christie) and her classmates, but slowly (and reluctantly), Wednesday begins to form important friendships and even some possible love connections while trying to solve murders and dig into Nevermore’s distressing past.
“Wednesday” also fleshes out new aspects of the Addams clan. Thing is entrenched as a loyal sidekick; Wednesday becomes child-like hanging with Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen); and the relationship between Morticia and her daughter deepens.
“Young girls growing up learn so much from their moms, whether they intend to or not, down to the way you get ready in the morning, certain mannerisms or traits that you have,” Ortega says. “And women tend to be closer to one another than they realize.”
Burton was drawn to a coming-of-age story told through Wednesday’s black-and-white perspective. “I was a teenage boy version of that myself,” says the filmmaker, who also directed four of the eight episodes. “Honestly, all those weird feelings kept flooding back to me of being in school and teachers and society and all that stuff.” (A water polo scene in the pilot episode was borrowed from Burton’s childhood, sans the man-eating fish.)
He says Ortega struck “the right balance” by being true to Wednesday “without softening her character,” while “showing sort of a humanness underneath it.”
Most critical for the actress was that “we weren’t making her like every other teenage girl,” says Ortega, who reveals that Billie Eilish was on “the mood board” when figuring out Wednesday’s look and wardrobe.
Becoming Wednesday was part of Ortega’s job, so she studied everything from German to archery to her signature dance moves. The 20-year-old actress loved playing the cello (“It’s really challenging and really finicky”) and trained with a former member of the Romanian national fencing team: “He was kind of an older, harder guy, so if he was impressed it just meant the world to you.”
But Ortega says she also became protective of the character, to “not sacrifice who she was for the sake of a teen television series. I learned a lot about using my voice. I’ve never quite fought for a character like that before.”
While Wednesday’s been around since the ’30s, Ortega brings needed modern vulnerability by infusing the role with a bit of herself. “I have a really nasty resting face; I look mad all the time,” she says. “People will come up to me and tell me that they were intimidated by me. But part of it is I just have crippling social anxiety.”
She figures the supremely snarky Wednesday actually does hate people but is socially anxious too. Her aggression “looks like a shield, and it looks like this powerful statement by her, but really it’s just her own natural insecurity,” Ortega says. “That’s also very relatable for young girls, and doesn’t have to be seen necessarily as a negative thing.”