featured Interview

Exclusive Interview: ‘The Father’s Olivia Williams and ‘The Crown’s Pip Torrens on Their Roles in ‘The Nevers’

April 7, 2021Ben MK

Every superhero team needs a leader. But if Olivia Williams' Lavinia Bidlow is the Professor X to Victorian England's answer to the X-Men in the new HBO sci-fi fantasy series The Nevers, then it's fair to say that Pip Torrens' Lord Massen is her Magneto. Two headstrong characters at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to their views on those supernaturally gifted individuals known as "the touched," both Lavinia and Lord Massen are key figures in a brewing conflict between the touched and everyday Londoners. Despite their most sincere efforts, however, will either of them be able to put a stop to that conflict before it explodes into all-out war?

I sat down virtually with stars Olivia Williams and Pip Torrens to chat about what makes The Nevers so unique and to find out what it was like filming the first half of season one during the pandemic. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What was it that attracted you both to this project?

Williams: The script that we both got in 2019 was an extraordinary piece of work that incorporated so many extraordinary ideas and extremes of the human condition, both historical and fantastical. It wasn't one that, as an actor, I thought I could turn down. It was too exciting and too wide-ranging to ignore. I've been on hugely ambitious movies, but the fact that this is longform television, it is unbelievably ambitious — both intellectually and creatively — what they've built. Every single character has a thousand possibilities that could be realized. And it's just such a joy to see a historical drama that embraces such diversity, as life and London did at the time. It's just never been shown or discussed or dramatized in quite this way.

Torrens: I would echo that. I got a look at the script and it was absolutely extraordinary, in that it appears to start something and then break the mold almost immediately. It's very attractive to see a conventional-seeming plan subverted in very creative ways. And what's great about this as well is that we're finding the otherness in even the most conventional-seeming characters. So those of us who are playing the faces that you might expect to see in a conventional drama are revealed to have qualities which make them, in many ways, just as "other" as those that you would think of as the conventional others, if I can put it that way.

The show is a period piece with a sci-fi/fantasy twist, but it also deals with such themes as discrimination and sexism. How did you, as actors, take that into consideration, in terms of your portrayals and creating the right tone for your characters?

Torrens: You do what you can, in every case. You research where there's a historical context, and then you're gonna forget most of what you've researched. But then perhaps you’re left with some simple principles to base your character on. And in Lord Massen's case, it's something deeply personal, which drives him to be the man he is. But it's very difficult because very often there are decisions that haven't been made by the creative teams — about how much I need to know, how much my character knows. All the characters carry this potential inside them.

What was it like filming during the pandemic?

Williams: The sad thing is that actors are inherently sociable people. And we want to hang out. Quite a lot of the fun is happening in front of the camera, but quite a lot of it is happening off-camera. And COVID separation means that that's gone. Actors obviously don't have to wear masks on-set, but anybody who speaks to them has to be wearing a clean and new surgical mask. So you become a bit like a leper — people don't want to talk to you cuz it means they'll have to go and put on PPE and wash their hands. If you approach the sound department or the electricians to go and scrounge a cigarette from them, they basically run away from you. [laughs] So there's a sad loneliness to it, but there's also the absolute joy of seeing work being done and seeing people again, and acting and playing.

Torrens: Absolutely. There were times when we were filming when the set started to feel more like you were approaching a nuclear power station than anything else, because of the levels of security. But HBO had the resources to continue and to adapt during the lockdowns. Even when we had small lockdowns in the period when we were shooting, towards the end of last year, they were manageable because of the scale of the production. So we were incredibly fortunate in that way compared to other performers in other areas, who really suffered.

Last but not least, what do you want viewers to take away from the show?

Williams: There were some amazing women in science [during the time that the show is set]. We're learning more and more about Marie Curie and [also] within Britain there was a woman who was a great mathematician [that] might have invented the first computer. Films about these people are always very earnest, but there's a joy to this [show]. Any young woman watching this who feels moved to be a scientist or to be an inventor will feel that this [tells them they can] be what they want to be. So often we see historical pieces where diverse people aren't doctors or women aren't scientists, but this rewrites history and says everything is possible.

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

You May Also Like