Hailed as "the Romanian Breaking Bad”, Umbre is indeed the story of a family man who leads a double life - one with his wife and children; the other with some less than savoury elements of the criminal underworld. Everybody in Our Family star Serban Pavlu plays Relu Oncescu, a Bucharest taxi driver who mixes quality time with his loved ones with a secret life as a Mafia debt collector.
Mixing black humour, rugged thrills and a brilliant central performance from Pavlu, Umbre doesn’t pull any punches. The actor’s muscular presence, often pitched against hammers, monkey wrenches and steel bars, ensures the gritty aesthetic is constantly unnerving. There is no sugarcoating how brutal Umbre’s portrayal of the criminal element is, especially after Pavlu’s conflicted but terrible taxi driver accidentally kills someone and is drawn even deeper into his inescapable double life.
SBS spoke to Pavlu about the show that sees Romanian television competing with the best the world has to offer…
You are best known in your homeland as a comedian, now you are threatening to electrocute people in a spa, chopping up bodies with a chainsaw and generally taking care of business. How are you enjoying the transition from funnyman to tough guy?
It's an extraordinary feeling to be able to go from one genre to another just like that. I have always imagined acting like having this ability to approach different roles and, actually, my favourite actors are those that can make a successful transition. I believe this is professional acting. After all, we study drama and comedy in school. But I have many roles in theatre plays, really different roles, and I think this has helped me a lot.
What attracted you to the role of Relu?
What drew me is the fact that he is not exactly a regular hero. He has a lot of dark parts and a mysterious past, so he is not just a nice family man fighting bad guys. I think this makes him a more interesting character to play.
What did you think when you first read the script? Were you concerned about filming any particular scenes?
I was very skeptical. In Romania, there hadn't been many attempts at a similar series, and what had been filmed wasn't that good. It's a very strange feeling because it's something that has an irresistible appeal for an actor, but that seems to have all the chances to go bad. It's as if you have to play a hero that you used to be fascinated by during childhood and it's scary to think you might disappoint the kid you once were. But then I relaxed because I didn't see myself being cast in this role. After I got the part, I got really scared. What worried me the most were the action scenes - I knew nothing about filming them.
In a series full of tough scenes, what moment was the hardest to film for you emotionally?
Giani's (Gabriel Spahiu) death. I remember during the first takes I would always tear up. He somehow dies in my arms and it happens because of me, and I think it was a scene where I couldn't truly distance myself since I was very impressed with my partner.
How did you have to prepare for such a physical role?
It was pretty demanding. I went to the gym almost every day and I took boxing lessons. I had never done a contact sport before, so my posture was pretty silly. I had to work with that.
There is a lot of humour in the show. Do you think it’s important to help leaven the violence and make Relu more palatable to audiences as an anti-hero?
I think it was essential for the way the series was received. And for the character, it is indeed a way to make him more likable regardless of his actions. Anyway, it was awesome for me - I have really liked the humour aspect of the series.
You go totally nude when Relu burns his clothes to destroy evidence. Was that confronting to film?
I was terrified as that day approached, but when we had to shoot it, we were running behind on time and our DOP had prepared some smoke in the background and he really wanted to catch the sunset. So I believe no one was really paying me any attention. What was really scary was that we were filming very close to a forest that was full of bugs!
Umbre has been compared to Breaking Bad and was watched by more people than Game of Thrones season four in Romania. Are you a fan of those shows Umbre is now being grouped with?
Unfortunately, I don't have time to watch as many TV series as I would like to. But I have seen Breaking Bad and I liked it a lot. It is a genius thing the way they broke so many "rules" and they managed to create such a hit. I enjoyed every single episode.
It must be a thrill that this show is a success overseas...
It's a great feeling. I have imagined this moment many times. To be able to be part of a production that people on the other side of the world watch in the evening - in their homes, in their favourite armchair, having a beer - and to know they enjoy watching you, it's an incredible feeling for an actor.
The first series of Umbre is available at SBS On Demand. Watch the first episode right here: