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Exclusive Interview: Stars Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly on Playing Victorian-Era Superheroes in ‘The Nevers’

April 5, 2021Ben MK

When you think of superheroes, you don’t normally think of women during the Victorian era. But in the new HBO series The Nevers, that's exactly what we get. Set in an alternate version of late nineteenth century London, where a mysterious event has granted some people — mainly women — uncanny abilities like telepathy and pyrokinesis, the show follows a group of such individuals. Known as "the touched," these women face discrimination and are generally regarded as a threat to the British empire. However, when London comes under attack from a violent and much more dangerous adversary, they are also the city's last line of defense.

I sat down virtually with two of The Never's stars, Outlander's Laura Donnelly and Vikings' Ann Skelly, to chat about the show, their on-screen chemistry with one another, and what the experience has taught them about female empowerment. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What was your initial reaction when you first read the script?

Donnelly: My first reaction was how complex and beautifully drawn the characters were. There are so many different elements — drama, action, and some beautifully touching moments and some really, really funny moments. It made me really excited about the idea of being able to explore that as an actress. And [along with] the parallels it has with the world that we're in today — in that it deals with so many of the issues that we are collectively dealing with today — it ticked all the boxes of what I want I'm looking for [in] a character to play.

Skelly: When I read the first script, I remember feeling out of breath cuz there was so much happening in the one episode. It was also so visual [that] I could just watch the program in my head. But then when I actually got to see it, it was so much more. I didn't think that was possible. And I think the attention to detail is something that will be really interesting as well, when people re-watch the first episode. Cuz it's so dense and there's so much there that it makes your job very easy, even though there's so much in it. So I really liked that and the balance [between] the humor and the sci-fi and the Victorian period stuff, [as well as the] adventure and tragedy, too.

Your characters, Penance Adair and Amalia True, are the first characters we meet in the show, and it's clear right away that you have a fun chemistry with each another. What was it like creating that chemistry and did you have a favorite scene to film together?

Donnelly: In terms of creating the chemistry, we met in a chemistry read with each other. It was really important these two characters did have that. We were auditioned on that basis, and we really clicked very early on. It helped when Ann walked into the room [and] we obviously discovered in that moment that we were both Irish. And so — [as] Irish actresses living in London — we already had loads in common, and that really helped start that off for us. But as we went on to rehearse, and then film through the first episode, we did just connect very quickly. And that's a lot to do with [the fact that] the dynamic between us is actually pretty similar to the dynamic between Amalia and Penance. We do have a lot in common with them, in that sense.

And in terms of a favorite scene, I think [it's] probably a lot of the stuff that we do in the first episode. One of the first scenes we see them in [is] where they go to the Haplisch home [and] they find out about Myrtle. That's one of the first proper scenes that we got to act [in] together, and I have very fond memories of that one.

Skelly: Oh yeah. When I actually got on-set with Laura and we actually started doing scenes together, I really felt I could trust her and look to her for directions in scenes. Because she's exactly the type of actor I just love to work with. She's not someone who is very different and then switches something else on and you feel like you're not even in the same room. She's just so seamless and just reveals herself so truthfully. That's an actor-ey kind of phrase, but it's really true when it comes to Laura. I'm a big Laura fan, I suppose, and I just wanted to be friends with her. So I tried really hard to make her like me. [laughs]

One of my favorite scenes between Amalia and Penance comes in episode five. But between episodes one to four, I would say the scene were we get high together on the opium. I think Laura's so funny in it and it was just a lot of fun to do with her. And it was a night shoot, and I love night shoots because they make you feel like you're really bold and you shouldn't be there. So it was fun in that way.

Were you involved in the stunts for your characters? What was the weirdest or most unusual thing you had to do on-set for your roles?

Donnelly: [As] my character, Amalia, I have to do a lot of stunts. And that required six weeks of training before we began episode one and a lot of learning different physical skills that I haven't learned before. So there were a lot of unusual things, in that sense, that I had to do. Probably the most unusual was learning how to do a fight underwater. We spent a week filming in the water tank at Pinewood Studios. And so I had to [get] in the wetsuit and learn how to dive [with] the breathers, the goggles, and all of that, and then I had to learn how to discard all of that and act underwater. So that was a steep learning curve for me. But it's definitely one of the most fulfilling things I've ever learned to do. I had so much fun with that scene in the end.

Skelly: [It's] probably not as exciting as Laura's cuz [she] did live underwater for a week, but I have to deal with props a lot. And I usually do end up breaking them — and not in the way that they're supposed to break either, unfortunately for us all. But I don't have great coordination, so [one time I] broke the prop and nearly took out the camera guy as well. So little things like that shouldn't be weird, but for me I manage to make them [so].

Was it challenging filming the action sequences while wearing the Victorian-era costumes?

Donnelly: It is actually easier to do an action scene in a corset that you would think. I learned a lot about my posture and about how to keep things looking very sharp and very straight, which is essential to fighting, especially on camera. When I first began training, my stunt team would film me on their phones and then I would have a look at what it looked like. And it never looked anything like what it was supposed to, like whenever the stunt woman did it. I learned that it was a lot to do with posture, and so the corset really helps with that. But the long skirt is just a nightmare. Trying to get up off the floor in a long skirt is impossible, basically.

Skelly: I can barely walk a straight line. I don't know how [Laura does] it. I ran up the stairs once and I was very tired afterwards. A lot of my skirts have pockets, so I can always bring my little doodads with me, thank God.

Last but not least, you both play characters who are strong in different ways. What did you take away from your characters, in terms of female empowerment?

Skelly: One thing that really appeals to me about [Penance] — and one of her greatest strengths — is her softness and how she approaches things with such positivity and light. I remember, as a younger actor, I would have probably glorified pain and suffering [as] "You gotta go to dark places to act." But one thing that is equally important — and we can forget to examine it as much as we do the painful experiences — is the joys and the light in the world. That's such an important aspect of it all for me.

Donnelly: What I learned from playing this part and from the story as a whole is that, as women, we are better [and] we go much further when we support one another. It doesn't have to be any kind of competition. Culturally, women are very used to being pitted against each other all the time. And it comes across really clearly in this show that we have so much more to gain from friendship than we do from competition.

The Nevers premieres April 11th, exclusively on HBO Max and Crave Canada.

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