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It’s tempting (and understandable) to want to be happy all of the time. However, Brave New World, a new, upcoming Peacock series based on the seminal dystopian novel by Aldous Huxley, offers a glimpse of a society where everybody has to be happy all of the time, whether they like it or not. It’s an insidious, subtle bit of control — it’s not that people aren’t allowed to feel dissent or have independent thoughts, but that they’re too blissed-out to even consider the possibility.
Despite seeming perfect on the surface, the society of New London is no way to live, and for the actors tasked with playing characters who are only supposed to be thinking happy thoughts, it was a bit of a challenge to leave their own emotions behind.
“When I feel something, I just feel it. I can’t hide it. In real life that’s how I am,” Jessica Brown Findlay tells SYFY WIRE during Brave New World’s virtual press junket. Brown Findlay plays Lenina Crowne, a “Beta+,” a somewhat high-ranking member of New London’s caste society. Embryos are designed and sorted, people happily work at their assigned station, and monogamy, money, religion, and other troublesome notions are outlawed. And yet, Lenina feels something’s missing — and no amount of Soma, a mood-leveling drug that all citizens pop like Tic Tacs, can fill this void she can’t quite define. Essentially, Lenina feels the tug of emotions that normal people — people like Brown Findlay — feel all the time.
“I naturally want to react to something or feel shame, and they don’t feel shame in the same way," Brown Findlay says of Lenina and her peers. “There are emotions and complexities that we have that are not obtainable, they don’t even have words for them.”
Brown Findlay says it was tricky to dampen down her own emotions in order to play Lenina, even as a traumatic experience gradually awakens more of Lenina’s natural instincts. At least Lenina starts with some sort of recognizable emotions, though, even if they are just falsely happy ones. Joseph Morgan plays CJack60, a member of the “Epsilon” caste who seems to exist only to do mindless janitorial tasks.
“The Epsilons, they don’t really feel any strong emotions and they all get menial tasks to do. They’re bottom of the food chain, so they’re cleaning up: taking up rubbish, collecting glasses, and cleaning toilets,” Morgan says. “They live in the moment. For me, it was almost similar to the way a dog sees the world. They don’t think about the past or what’s ahead of him, but just deal [with] the stimulation as it arises.”
CJack60 might have one of the more extreme emotional journeys in Brave New World’s early episodes, as he goes from essentially having no emotions to being saddled with unfamiliar feelings after a tragedy. But on the other side of New London’s spectrum, a high-ranking Alpha+ named Bernard Marx is having problems of his own. Bernard is played by Hary Lloyd, who is perhaps best known for playing smug, deeply insecure characters like Game of Thrones' Viserys Targaryen and Counterpart's Peter Quayle. Turns out, Lloyd is pretty good at playing that type of character.
“Well, smugness and insecurity are two characteristics that are very foreign to every actor,” Lloyd says with a laugh, although he says that Bernard is different from those other two roles. As an Alpha+, everything should be especially perfect for Bernard. “But he’s aware that he’s not right and he doesn’t fit in and he doesn’t know why. And he’s the last person who should feel like this,” Lloyd says. “And actually that reveals a kind of bravery, unlike the other two characters, perhaps.”
Even though he’s in a position of relative power and tries to wield that power to make himself feel as important as he’s supposed to be, you can’t help but feel for Bernard a little bit.
“I really like the guy. I liked him more and more as I played him,” Lloyd says. “I remember early on, the crew would always feel a little bit bad for me. After I would shoot a scene, somebody would be like, ‘Oh, Bernard...’ I remember that kind of date. I was always that guy.”
In the early episodes of Brave New World, while CJack60 is having his personal emotional awakening, Bernard and Lenina travel to what was once the United States to visit “The Savage Lands,” a theme park where New Londonites can experience reenactments of garish, outdated traditions like religion and monogamy. The locals who do those reenactments, while savages to the people of New London, are actually, well, just like us. That means characters like John, as played by Alden Ehrenreich, do actually have a full range of emotions.
“I think I had an easier time because I didn’t have to wrap my head around as many unusual ideas or rules that I had no experience with,” Ehrenreich admits.
That’s not to say Ehrenreich (or John) have it easy. Even in the Savage Lands, John doesn’t quite fit in for reasons that will eventually be revealed. And, when he makes it to New London, he’s a total oddity, dubbed “John the Savage.”
“I think that’s mainly the way they see him, that he’s a human being expressing himself and they’ve reframed that to be the more monstrous thing,” Ehrenreich says. John’s an outsider in a strange land, a sort of role that Ehrenreich has played before. As Han Solo in the standalone Star Wars movie, he’s a scrappy up-and-comer in a complex world of crime he doesn’t fully understand yet, and in the Cohen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! he’s a sweet, thickly accented Western star who can’t help but stand out in Hollywood.
“In all of these situations it’s about understanding their environment,” Ehrenreich says. “Not belonging is something that’s all about where you are and who you’re around, so understanding thoroughly what that feels like and finding a way to make that come through is the way to go about it.”
As the name suggests, Brave New World isn’t our world. Even John doesn’t think quite the way we do. But, as emotions flood a society that was designed to oppress people through unthinking pleasure, people are going to learn uncomfortable truths in a world intended exclusively for comfort.
“It’s one of those great TV series where everything is challenged and people are stripped right back,” Lloyd says.
All episodes of Brave New World will be available July 15 on Peacock.
SYFY WIRE and Peacock are both owned and operated by NBCUniversal.