While Legion is proving to be a clear hit for FX and creator Noah Hawley, that doesn't mean audiences quite have a handle on what exactly is going on with the characters or the narrative yet. By the end of the pilot, David Haller (Dan Stevens) is spirited away rather dramatically by a group of super-powered humans who take him to what seems like a safer environment than the bunker he was being held in. But is he also empowered? Or is he a delusional schizophrenic, as the world's labeled him his whole life?
One of the members of that emancipating pack who will help David figure out all the mysteries of his brain is Ptonomy Wallace, played by Jeremie Harris. Described as a "memory artist" in the second episode, Ptonomy is a mutant who possesses a photographic memory and can walk others back into their own mind for clarity or resolution. As Melanie Bird's (Jean Smart) right-hand specialist, Wallace is going to be front and center in the battle to help define, and contain, David's powers.
In a recent interview over some tea, Harris sat down with us to talk about Ptonomy's origins, working on a superhero show where psychology is king and where his character is heading.
How did this role come across your desk?
It came through as just "Untiled Noah Hawley/Marvel TV FX Project." I didn't know anything about the character. I read the pilot, but my character wasn't really in it very much. So I just had the [audition] sides. But I was really excited because of Noah, Marvel and FX. It's a group of people who I really respect their work.
Was it clear from the start that Noah was going at this in a very different way from most superhero series?
Just from reading the pilot, I knew that this was going to be very different from what you usually see from comic book or superhero adaptations in television. [Ptonomy] seemed like an interesting guy and I knew it was going to go somewhere. All of Noah's characters, even in Fargo, there's no small characters. They all have backstories and lives that you figure out eventually as the series goes on. It's like a slow burn.
What was your initial instinct on how to play Ptonomy?
My first interpretation was I can see the humor here, and that's what I went with. From there, I watched some Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man stuff for inspiration. I feel like this guy has that kind of deadpan, semi-snarky, I'm really smart [vibe]. I kept reminding myself when I was reading it and thinking about it: where is the humor? Where is it funny versus playing it dead straight. I don't know if I did that because it's a Noah Hawley project, or that was what I got from [the page], which is a testament to his writing.
When you were cast, what kind of character notes did Noah give you?
The main thing that we talked about initially is the idea of someone who is a memory artist, like my character is. It seems like such an amazing thing, to know "Where did I leave my keys or phone?" But he wanted me to really think about it on a deeper level, and how hectic or complicated that can be for someone who has the ability, and capacity, to remember so much. He just wanted me to think about it and then he leaves you to have your own interpretation and vibe.
Your character isn't from the X-Men canon, so that must have been freeing for you in building him from scratch?
Yes. Since this is a character that is completely new, I can make him my own. Hopefully, people will fall in love with his abilities and powers. And I'm creating him with the help of Noah and director Michael Uppendahl, who was very helpful too. So I don't feel the pressure of digging into the X-Men.
As the series progresses, Ptonomy is like the detective of the piece, peeling back memories to get to the truth inside someone's head. Is that how you saw him too?
Yes, it works well because you, as the actor, are in the detective process wondering where this is going to go. Noah's such a smart writer and creative guy that you don't really know. As a character, I think you're thinking about what is the most effective way for me to work with this person, like Dan's character, to achieve this goal. It's what keeps you active and moving forward.
At Melanie's secret compound, Ptonomy works with her closely, but with David's arrival, might there be some issues that arise from her intense focus on someone new?
Yeah, there is that energy there of who is this new, younger guy and what's his deal? Ptonomy has the idea of what's this really about? In so many ways, the assuredness that Ptonomy has is due to Melanie. I think he trusts her, sometimes with a grain of salt, but he follows her lead because she's done so much for him. So I think there is a part of him that's still figuring it out. He's confident in his own abilities, so he's wondering about this guy we are giving so much attention.
Could there be some jealousy?
Maybe there's a tinge of jealousy, like who is this shiny penny? I'm still shiny, so don't forget about me. I think it's part of it, and continues to evolve and expand.
Will we get to see any of Ptonomy's history or backstory in the first season?
We do. We get to see how he came to the process of where he is mentally. Not how he ended up [at the compound], but more of the psychology of why he is the way he is, and how the idea of remembering everything can be a burden in some ways. There are so many things that we, as regular people, have experienced that maybe our minds have blocked or protected us from. But Ptonomy has everything up there, so we do get to see the things that have previously happened in his life that have brought him to where he is now.
The show is really forging such a unique path with its treatment of mental illness and how it's portrayed and explored via each character who has their own particular issue. It's meaty stuff to dig into for an actor.
My favorite part of working on the show is that it's a very psychological show. It's fun as an actor to explore that and have such a rich text to work with to delve into the psychology of people. It's exciting to do that in addition to having powers. Noah wants to touch on the fact that these are beings with feelings and emotions and it's not as simple as we are superheroes who are bullet-proof.
What characters can you tease have an impact on Ptonomy as the season progresses?
I have some good stuff with Syd (Rachel Keller) and Melanie. We're a little crew, but I have some really great moments with Syd in episodes coming up. I'm excited.
Legion airs on Wednesdays at 10PM on FX.