Finding New Life on Doomsday
A group of actors take control of their own destinies in a short-form series.
Sonja O’Hara felt trapped in a recurring nightmare as a young actress in L.A.
“I did a bunch of horror movies where I was running around in a bikini getting chased by a guy with a chainsaw, and I thought, ‘If I have to do this for the rest of my life, I’ll never do any of the things I want,’” she says. “So I moved to New York City and started writing my own scripts to be able to escape that.”
One of those scripts was for an independently produced Web series, Doomsday, about Yesterday’s Promise, a fictional cult in upstate New York that lures rootless young people. “At first it seems like this hipster commune yoga retreat,” O’Hara explains. “I play the gatherer of the sect, who seduces people to get them to join the cult.”
Although that sometimes requires O’Hara to wear even less than a bikini, this time she’s the one choosing to reveal herself. “To come full circle and have agency over my sexuality is thrilling,” she says. “It’s everything I wanted to do — play a complicated, messed-up, interesting woman. And now I can write these roles for other people.”
That includes Karin Agstam, O’Hara’s co-executive producer on Doomsday, who co-stars as Dagny, the leader of the cult. “It’s a dream role,” says Agstam. “It feels good after years of struggling and scraping to have something like this happen.”
During the production of Doomsday’s first eight 15-minute episodes, Agstam became a mother in real life, and her pregnancy and newborn baby were incorporated into the series. “It was a very intimate process,” she says with a laugh.
In fact, Doomsday has proven a labor of love for everyone involved. “We were lucky to find very committed actors,” says Jaspal Binning, who co-directed the series with O’Hara and plays Dagny’s power-hungry second-in-command (and possible baby daddy). “They’ve taken it to a different level.”
While shooting at a friend’s home in the Catskills, “the cast and crew all lived together, crashing on sofas and the floor,” O’Hara says. “We joked that we became a cult while we were portraying cult members on screen.”
That camaraderie has extended to the TV-festival circuit. “Our cast has been flying across the country — we’re like a traveling circus,” says O’Hara. “We submitted to the big three television festivals — the New York Television Festival, the Independent Television and Film Festival and SeriesFest — and when we won awards at all of them, we realized maybe there really was something here and we weren’t just crazy.”
Recently, Doomsday was ruled eligible for an Emmy nomination in the category of Outstanding Short Form Drama or Comedy Series. “We didn’t think that we, outside the Hollywood system, could make a show that was Emmy-eligible,” O’Hara says. Though the show didn’t get a nod, “It’s incredibly exciting to even qualify for the Emmys.”
Although Doomsday treads on some of the same ground covered by long-form Emmy contenders like HBO’s The Leftovers as well as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Path, several factors differentiate it. “We have a younger, more diverse perspective,” says O’Hara. “The other shows are wonderful, but they’re mostly about older, straight, white people dealing with an upper-crust society that’s crumbling underneath them. These characters come from nothing.”
The fact that the group’s leader is female also makes it a TV rarity. “That sets us apart from every other show I’ve seen, except Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which is also about a matriarchal cult,” jokes Agstam.
As O’Hara notes, “our cult is led by this Swedish guru and her British-Indian right-hand man — I don’t think I’ve ever seen those archetypes.”
Like Agstam and Binning, who share the same ethnic backgrounds as their characters, O’Hara is an immigrant to the U.S. (she was born in Canada), and Doomsday reflects all of their experiences as strangers in a strange land.
“We came to this country knowing literally no one and found our own sects,” she says. “Our friends became our families, and that’s what I’m interested in exploring: What makes people come together and form these inseparable bonds?”
That question becomes more poignant given the divisions that only seem to be growing deeper and causing greater conflicts in contemporary society. “There’s complete unpredictability over what’s going to happen next,” Binning says. “That’s the political climate in England and in America, and it’s exactly the same for a cult.”
Echoes O’Hara, “There are more parallels to Doomsday in the real world than we would like to believe. You feel like this is literally happening right now.”
Still, Doomsday paints a more multi-colored portrait of life inside a cult than the ones we’re used to seeing on screens. “I wanted to write about victims of Stockholm Syndrome in a really compassionate way,” O’Hara says. “It’s easy to condemn these people, but ultimately they’re all human. I’m interested in finding out how they got there and not just judging them and writing them off as villains.”
O’Hara drew on documentaries like Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Back in her L.A. days, O’Hara appeared in industrial videos that she later found out were produced by the Church of Scientology.
“I was portraying a girl before and after some indoctrination that made her go from being a total wallflower to being buoyant and sweet,” she recalls. “I only had wonderful, positive experiences with the people on the set, but you never know what’s going on beneath the surface.”
A former member of the Buddhafield sect, which was the focus of CNN’s 2016 documentary Holy Hell, approached O’Hara after a screening of Doomsday and thanked her for portraying cult life so accurately.
“He appreciated the truthful depiction of the darkness and that we showed the playful, joyful whimsy, too,” she says. “Because if it’s all awful and miserable, nobody would stay. We explore some of the beauty of what it’s like to live with 15 of your best friends, but at some point you want to kill each other.”
Or yourselves, in the case of Doomsday. The first episode opens with an eerie overhead shot of multiple Yesterday’s Promise members lying naked and dead in a field. “You know with the name Doomsday, it’s going to get dark and Jim Jones-esque,” says O’Hara. “We start there, then go back to the beginning to show how these seemingly normal people end up drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid.”
That doesn’t mean Doomsday will have a similarly short life. “The dream is to be on a giant platform where we have the exposure and resources to make this series for a long time and tell all of these characters’ stories,” says O’Hara, who executive produces the show with Vincent Petrosini and has been negotiating with potential distributors.
As for future seasons, “there’s a big probability Dagny’s going to start another sect and may end up in Hawaii with a shaved head and using a different name,” O’Hara teases. “And I’ll be seducing another group of ignorant young people.”
But in the end, “we just want to share our work with as wide an audience as we can,” O’Hara concludes. “If we can achieve that, it’s all we can ask for.”