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There's quite the robust cast of more than 20 recurring characters fleshing out HBO's upcoming supernatural, Victorian drama, The Nevers, but there's really no question that Laura Donnelly (Outlander) and Ann Skelly's (Little Women) Amalia True and Penance Adair are the beating hearts of the narrative.
Opposites in demeanor and abilities, True and Adair are part of an undetermined percentage of the London population suddenly gifted with special abilities bespoke to each of them. Dubbed the "Touched" by society, they're now targets of those who want to tame or take advantage of their powers. True has the ability to now see glimpses of the future with random visions that are missing a lot of context; and Adair can see energy, which she harnesses to craft steam-punk inventions like self-propelled motorcars and portable voice recorders.
Together, they oversee St. Romaulda's Orphanage, a repository for mostly young women who find themselves shunned, stalked, or left adrift by their new powers. It's a safe haven, much like the friendship between the self-destructive True, who is more than happy to brawl her way through a problem, and the softer Adair. They shouldn't have anything to do with one another, but they do, and their scenes are some of the best peppering any given episode of The Nevers.
Having never worked with one another before, Donnelly and Skelly admit to SYFY WIRE they were both delighted how their early chemistry sealed the deal on their show dynamic for both creator Joss Whedon and themselves. "We really clicked very, very quickly," Donnelly says without hyperbole. "Chemistry isn't one of those things that you can make happen. It's going to be there, or it's not. And I guess just the fact that our characters made sense to us then made them make sense to each other." And from that connection comes the spine of the series, which the two reveal promises many, many surprises...
Laura, having come off a long, Olivier Award-winning stage role in The Ferryman and recurring work on Outlander, what did series creator Joss Whedon have to share with you in order to woo you into leading The Nevers?
Laura Donnelly: It was telling me all about it. [Laughs.] I got all the spoilers, I got all the information. You know, I wasn't gonna say no to that. She's amazing, complex, damaged, but it's really fun to play a character that was going to stretch me dramatically, in terms of my acting, but also allow me to do fighting, which I just love doing. [The series] seemed to just have everything in it that I could possibly want all in one part.
And then, on top of that, the sheer scale of the show. The ability to be able to be part of building this whole new world. And also, what was a huge draw was the fact that it was going to be on HBO, because I have loved everything I've ever watched on HBO. And even coming on — and I swear that this isn't a lie — coming out of The Ferryman, I had just had a conversation with one of the other actors in that, [and] we were like, "Right, we're going to decide what it is that we do next." And I said, "I'm gonna get a lead on an HBO show. That's what I'm gonna do." And as soon as [The Nevers] came up, that was literally a dream come true.
Ann Skelly: I had a similar thing! I just watched Sharp Objects around Christmas time and my little dream journal for like 10 years time was, "I want to be on [an] HBO show." That's so funny. I wonder if we wished for that at the same time?!
There's a really special rapport between the two of your characters every time they share the screen. Was that immediate behind-the-scenes as well?
Skelly: I really do feel like as soon as I heard Laura in the table reads I went, "Oh, yeah. Okay, I can just fill in the blanks I've had for my character just by hearing Laura's direction of things." And that takes a load off. Because it's so fun to get to listen and react off another actor that you trust so much. Laura's style of acting is just so real. And I love that, because it makes all the absurd, wonderful, bizarreness going on real all of a sudden. And I hope that's not a cliche thing to say, because I mean it more than anyone has ever said it.
Donnelly: I wonder if we just met outside of work, how much of our friendship would still resemble Amalia and Penance's? Because I don't know where one begins or the other ends anymore. We've gotten to know each other through these characters. And we do have a lot of similarities to our own characters and in our dynamic with each other. I guess just a lot of what you're seeing on the screen is just what we really are like with one another.
Skelly: Just talking about her in the rehearsals, I started to get a feel more for my character when I met, got to rehearse, and talk about the characters with Laura. I think that Amalia and Penance really reveal a lot about each other by just knowing each other and being in each other's lives and getting to react off each other. It's lovely enough to discover your character through a male love interest, but it's wonderful to discover yourself through friendship, which often happens in life.
Whedon likes to write in metaphors. Was there anything particular he wanted you to use as subtext for your portrayal?
Skelly: I really feel like a big thing about my character is an essence of hope. And how hard that is to stick to. It's not an easy thing to laugh at hard times, and it's not an easy thing to have hope, I suppose. Or faith. We can see it in Penance's face too. I'm really glad that we have [executive producer] Philippa (Goslett) to continue on the show, because she understands that and she's enthusiastic about that. She really gets that tone so that can continue on, and all that lovely stuff that's been created for us in the first place can continue on and continue the legacy.
The physicality and clothing choices of your characters are visually defining. Talk about establishing that.
Donnelly: From my point of view, in approaching Amalia, the physicality was very, very important. I can't say too much about what we find out as we go along in these first six episodes. But to say that a lot gets explained and many, many answers that the audience will have really do get wrapped up and explained very well by the end of Episode 6 is very true. I think it will become more obvious why I had to approach things physically a certain way and why I had to make choices that I did. And that's probably all I can say about that aside from there definitely were very clear choices that I made there.
Skelly: I might take your question a bit more literally. Chrissie Blundell, who was head of hair and makeup, she colored my hair a coppery-golden color. And we made her hair curly. I know it sounds slightly superficial, but I love the idea of like, these golden thoughts spiraling out her head. And her cute little tussled buns contrast with the weighted machinery and dangerous inventions that she's working with. My character is the softer of the duo and she is the one with the gentle touch in crazy situations. But she is also immensely capable of dealing with all this dangerous machinery. Penance is a whirlwind of these swirling thoughts and ideas in her head but she is weighted down by these heavy metal inventions. I think that's a really lovely thing to work with, and to highlight the softness that can be incredibly capable in a very hard world.
Donnelly: There are so many details like that, and details that will merit it, and then be watched back over once you've [seen] the first six episodes. I'd love to think that people would watch all of these episodes several times over because the details paid attention to by Michelle (Clapton), our costume designer, by Chrissie, our hair and makeup designer, and really all of the crew. There have been decisions made based on things that we know that will only make sense later on. Just the sheer level of thought that has gone into everything; nothing is by accident.
The cast is large so who amongst them will have a lot of impact in revealing more about your characters?
Donnelly: It's not a super spoiler, but the more it goes on, the more we learn about Amalia's connection to Maladie (Amy Manson). That's a big part of Amalia's backstory and understanding the dynamic between them and where they were and how they've got to this point, will explain a lot about both of them, and what they have been through together.
Skelly: I feel like I can loosely say there will be some new characters introduced from Penance's world from little talks I've heard in [episodes] 7 to 12. Of the characters that we already see, I love all the people that we have in our orphanage. I'm incredibly excited that the depth that is going to be there for all these amazing actors. They're going to be expanded upon in a really, really lovely way. And I can't wait for everyone to see the world be colored in a lot more. We have all these incredible characters, and we have all these incredible actors in those roles, and I'm just so excited to really see how well their stories unfold from what I know of them.
What episode are you most excited for audiences to see?
Donnelly: Episode 6. It's an incredible episode on the page and doing it was incredible. You find out so much. There's so much explanation, I can't believe that our writers managed to tell it in a beautifully well-paced, sensitive, nuanced way.
Skelly: And it's told in such a new way, as well. I haven't seen it done before, so I'm just so excited about that. And Episode 5 will probably reveal more of Amalia and Penance's relationship. A very new interaction takes place between them. And I love that because they have about a three years, down-the-line friendship. It's incredibly close, incredibly integrated, and they trust each other more than anyone in the world. I'm really excited to see all the different ways that friendship can be tested, or represented, or deepened. And I think Episode 5 can do some of that.
Lastly, Laura, your character on Outlander is still very much part of the book narratives. Is there a chance you could show up once more in a future season?
Donnelly: I saw that they got their [Season 7] pick-up! And there are several elements to it. I haven't had any conversations with the producers and I don't know if they will get in contact. Jenny [Fraser] is like a great grandmother by the time they go back. [Laughs.] And I'm not sure playing a great grandmother is where my heart lies.
But they do make "old" very attractive on that show.
Donnelly: Well, Caitriona and Sam can carry that. [Laughs.] I wasn't quite so glamorous in our old age. But no, the main thing obviously is availability. I'm shooting this for the rest of the year as we finish the first season. And it does take up so much of my time. And it's so all-consuming. The fact that I have two little kids and I love doing theater all come before another screen job will. I don't want to get anybody's hopes up.