HBO’s The Nevers reimagines a Victorian London in which a bizarre supernatural event transforms normal citizens into the “Touched.” The small group transformed by the mysterious event consists mostly of women, with each affected individual gifted with a special ability/talent.
Treated as pariahs by those who weren’t changed, the Touched find companionship and safety at the St. Romaulda’s Orphanage. Amalia True (Laura Donnelly, Outlander) and Penance Adair (Ann Skelly, Vikings) oversee the orphanage and are fiercely protective of those who, through no fault of their own, have been shunned by society.
Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly teamed up for interviews (via Zoom) to discuss their roles in the sci-fi action series created by Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Donnelly’s Amalia possesses the ability to see brief glimpses of the future and Skelly’s Penance is a brilliant inventor. Polar opposites in personality, Amalia and Penance’s unwavering friendship is at the very heart of The Nevers. And during our interview, it was obvious that on-screen friendship reflects the off-screen relationship between the two actors.
What was your initial reaction to the project? Did you immediately jump at the opportunity to be involved in an action series?
LAURA DONNELLY: “When I first read the pitch, it was one line. It was like, ‘Victorian women get special powers and try and save the world.’ I kind of felt, ‘I don’t know…doesn’t really sound like my thing.’ And then I went in for a meeting and when I did I got told the whole thing – like all the spoilers. I got told everything about Amalia, everything about the series, and I was completely hooked because suddenly I realized it was so much more than what that one line was telling me. Talk about don’t judge a book by its cover!
The layers of it, the sheer scale of the ambition of it, I couldn’t believe. The fact that as a character Amalia has everything wrapped up in it that I could want for a character. There is, like you say, action which I was dying to do, but it also really stretches me dramatically as an actor as well. You know, I get to use all of the skills that I’ve learned in that department, and I knew that it was also going to be telling something that was socially relevant to us. And I knew that I was going to get to be part of a largely female cast which is too good an opportunity to miss because that never happens. So, everything about it was appealing. It was an absolute no-brainer.”
ANN SKELLY: “Whereas in contrast, every time I turned a corner I went, ‘Oh, wow!’ And then I’d walk down the road and I’d turn a corner and go, ‘Oh, wow!’ And then keep going and it’s more, ‘Oh, wows.’ I just was piecing things together along the way and Laura would sometimes feed me information – illegal secret information. So, yeah, I was very much piecing it together along the way, I think. It was like a world unfolding in front of me. It was incredible.”
What was the most challenging part of getting into character?
ANN SKELLY: (Laughing) “I break every single prop I touch which, as you can imagine, does not come in useful. And sometimes when Penance’s contraptions break, they don’t break in the way that I need them to. That seemed quite challenging for me…being able to control these uncontrollable props in a way that makes it look on purpose.
I would say that and Penance’s joy. I can’t believe how little I’ve investigated what it means to be happy or what it means to be light. For roles, I’ve always been in a dark, dark headspace/mindset. ‘Let’s get in here,’ you know? It’s incredible how lightness and humor is quite hard to do.”
LAURA DONNELLY: “I think for me playing Amalia the challenge was to gather up all the information and do all the research that I needed to do being aware of her backstory, being aware of who she is at her core. Gathering all of that up but then deciding just how to only reveal so much and what to keep in, and what is subconscious to her. What is she keeping hidden even from herself, never mind what is she keeping hidden from everybody else. And so, holding on to those various layers of knowledge and awareness is quite tricky. It usually requires me going back over scripts several times to remind myself exactly where I am in any given moment.”
ANN SKELLY: “I love how her answer isn’t being underwater for a week in a corset.”
LAURA DONNELLY: (Laughing) “Being underwater for a week in a corset was fairly challenging, too.”
Speaking of that, can you talk a little bit about the spectacular action sequences, like the car scene in the first episode and the fight in the lake?
ANN SKELLY: “That car is actually drivable. It’s too bad I don’t have a driver’s license because it would probably make everyone else feel safer. And speaking to always breaking props…I haven’t broken the car. I have hit a curb once which was a shock for everyone.
That first episode…that car for when it shoots out the back of the carriage, me, Laura, and Violet (Prettejohn) who plays Myrtle were kind of put in the car on these roller coaster tracks and there was a green screen behind us. And what they would do is they would propel us forward on these roller coaster tracks and then drop us down, giving us a bit of a headache, and then shoot us off again. It was just this most bizarre experience, just shooting in this kind of Victorian square on these roller coaster tracks with a big green screen behind us. That, for me, was incredible.
But I’ve got actually a stunt driver too, so I don’t mow down all the crowd when we’re racing through the streets. Thank god for her!”
LAURA DONNELLY: “In terms of the big underwater fight, it was physically really challenging but I had an absolute ball. It was nothing like I’ve ever done before, for sure. I’ve never done any kind of diving, so I had to spend two days training just to learn in a wetsuit in the underwater stage at Pinewood Studios. I learned how to go five meters under and I was in the breather and the goggles and everything.
But on the second day they expect you to take the breather and the goggles off and you just have to swim 25’ across the tank. That was probably the single most intimidating thing I’ve ever had to do for work. And I don’t get very nervous about a lot of the physical stuff. I’ve got an amazing stunt team who I trust. I trust them with my life. I used to be a gymnast when I was younger so I’m quite familiar with throwing myself up in the air and hopefully not landing on my head. So, it was definitely a challenge in that sense.
The strange thing is once I got into Amalia’s costume for rehearsal, I went into the water then and I just had no problem with it because I was in a completely different mindset. Suddenly I was Amalia and I wasn’t Laura. I just went into the tank, like, ‘This is fine. I’ve got this. This is absolutely cool.’
We spent a week doing it and it was physically exhausting, but it was so much fun. And Martyn Ford who plays Odium is not only the biggest man on the planet but one of the nicest men as well. He’s a very, very sweet man and we just had a lot of fun as I tried to climb up him dripping wet in Victorian garb.
What do you think Amalia loves about Penance and Penance loves about Amalia that draws them together and gives them that special connection?
LAURA DONNELLY: “Well I think I can definitely speak to what Amalia loves about Penance because it is genuinely exactly the same thing I love about Ann. It’s a warmth that she brings into a room with her that softens all of my edges. I just feel – and did feel immediately upon meeting Ann and certainly in the early days of us working together – just somebody that I knew I could trust and somebody that I knew I could be very open with and really let my guard down and knew that it would be accepted. She feels like somebody who’s going to just accept you for who you are and it’s going to be fine. That is a complete Penance/Ann crossover in their personalities. And that is what Amalia loves about Penance.”
ANN SKELLY: “I love this question because I get to hear Laura say nice things about me. What does Penance love about Amalia?”
LAURA DONNELLY: (Laughing) “You’re at a loss.”
ANN SKELLY: “I think that there are so many things, actually. I think there’s a special quality to Amalia in that there’s just something in her that it’s like an immediate magnetic quality, I suppose, which Laura very much possesses. And it’s something that she can’t act…or maybe she can act and she’s just that good. (Laughing) But it’s not something that you come across often.
And particularly I would say that me and Laura’s relationship and feelings towards each other translates as what you see on screen. I think Laura is just an incredibly special person and she brings that to Amalia. Penance can easily trust her and go into battle with her down any dark alleyway. And I would too with Laura, which is quite nice.”
Do you think the show speaks to modern women’s experiences? How does it relate to what we’re going through today?
LAURA DONNELLY: “Yes, absolutely. It was one of the main things that drew me to the project was the fact that I felt it spoke a lot to what women experience at the moment.
We’re having all of these discussions about, well, obviously about the #MeToo movement. And we’re having at the moment discussions based on some horrific recent events in the news in England to do with women’s safety on the streets and what is the responsibility of men in that. How much should they be a part of that discussion? Really, it should be about men educating each other and educating young men and boys. I think there’s a lot there to do with why is it up to these people, the people who suffer from being a minority or an oppressed people, why is it their responsibility to go out and make other people treat them better? It should be the responsibility of the people who already have the privilege and already have the power. That is, of course, as well an argument that is extremely relevant to other social issues like Black Lives Matter and anything to do with a group of people who are oppressed and do not have their voices heard.
It’s incredibly relevant to the conversations that we’re having today.”
On a lighter note, can you talk about the gorgeous costumes and how they helped you slip into these characters?
LAURA DONNELLY: “Our costume designer is Michele Clapton and she is the very best that you can get. Her attention to detail is incredible, right down to there are underthings that I am wearing that have things sewn onto them that are relevant to Amalia’s character that of course no one is ever going to see but that she has there just in case. The level of detail and the subtle little signals that she’s giving out through her design is just amazing.
It’s part of the reason that I think this would merit watching over. I love to think that people would watch these first episodes and then go back and watch them over and over again because every time you will get clues and details from costuming and from hair and makeup, and all the very purposeful decisions made around those that just do let you in in tiny ways to the characters.
And then on top of that, they’re made in a very practical sense. We’re in those costumes all day every day – I’ve got to fight in them. We’re in these corsets and the corsets are made specifically for our bodies so that they’re so much more comfortable for us. Everything has gone into making sure that these are just the most incredible costumes we could possibly have.”
ANN SKELLY: “Yeah. And on a more obvious note I suppose I can speak to is I love Penance’s soft blues. I love the combination with the earthy browns. I feel like it totally says so much about her and her personality right away and the character. You know, that kind of soft gentleness combined with the grounded solidness of her character. I think that’s really a strong visual which I just really love.
And speaking of the corsets, it is incredible how personal they’re made for us. She’ll supplement instead of a steel bone in some parts she’ll put in a plastic bone instead if that particular part of your body is a funny place – a funny angle. I really appreciate that so much.”
What sets The Nevers apart from other sci-fi series?
ANN SKELLY: “I think it’s a total refresh of the genre. I know there are Victorian period shows with sci-fi elements – or period shows with sci-fi elements – but this show makes such incredible use of the sci-fi and it makes such incredible use of the abilities. They’re so personalized and there’s such different stories being told there.
You can make of them what you will and what the meaning is – I won’t project that upon anyone. But for my character, I love that she’s one of the few who actually adores her power and can make use of it. It may have been something that she’s never even known that she wished for. But then there are other characters who have ‘turns’ that completely are so useless to them and then there are other characters who are held back so much by their powers, or their powers just make them stick out or are dangerous.
I think it’s really an amalgam of humor and adventure. It’s philosophical in dialogue at times. I think the show does a lot of things.”
LAURA DONNELLY: “The only thing I would add to that is myself not withstanding – I’m talking about everybody else here – I have never seen a show with an ensemble cast this strong. The performances in this show are incredible. Every single person without exception is just providing something so special and so truthful and so amusing and so nuanced. I watch shows for the performances, as an actor that’s the thing that I’m most interested in, and they really are – down to every single one of them – incredible.”
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The Nevers premieres on HBO on April 11, 2021 at 9pm ET/PT.