Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly on the Energy of ‘The Nevers’ and Defying Old Superhero Gender Norms

Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly have acted in numerous period pieces before, donning costumes and traveling to some other era. But they have never been in anything quite like HBO’s “The Nevers.” The latest TV creation of Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and director of “The Avengers,” it’s a superhero show disguised as a refined Victorian drama. The action is set in 1896 and London, where society is being rattled by a vague supernatural event that has a left particular, if growing, number of women with supernatural abilities. Called “The Turned,” these women are feared and at times shunned. Some have banded together to form a group under the direction of Amalia True (Donnelly) and Penance Adair (Skelly). Along with other Turned, they want to hone their abilities and basically protect society from emerging threats.

For now viewers will have to make do with the first six episodes of season one, since production was halted last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic and later on Whedon also left the series. But for Irish actors Donnelly and Skelly, the experience of once again putting on the threads and revisiting the language of the Victorian past came with some added fun. It’s like a steampunk experience where the Turned live like a family, but face supernatural foes amid the grime and grit of 1800s London. Donnelly and Skelly shared with Entertainment Voice about the making of “The Nevers.”

Laura, “The Nevers” taps into our current cultural love for superheroes, but it also defies the norm by being very women-centric. The “team” this time around are all women in Victorian London. What were your first thoughts when you read the material?

The first time I had heard about it was from our casting director and it did at first sound to me like some superhero series. At first I thought it wouldn’t be my thing. I mean I do enjoy watching those things but it wasn’t what I was looking to do. Then I went into a meeting with Joss and got the information on the whole world it’s based on. I got all the spoilers (laughs). He explained what’s truly going on with Amalia, what she deals with inside. So it was that, the human element that drew me to it. I saw an opportunity to play a complex, layered female character, which is a very rare thing. And when I saw I would be working with a great cast of fellow female actors I knew it would be a very special thing.

Ann you’ve been in shows before like “Vikings,” but this is a different kind of period piece. How did you immerse yourself in the world of “The Nevers”? 

It was shocking to see just how detailed they made this world. I’ve watched the last four episodes more than three times. Not for my own vanity, I promise (laughs). It’s because there’s just so much detail and I just love seeing little things that happen with all the characters, and picking up things going on with someone I didn’t play. I also dived into podcasts, there’s one I think called “Victorian Secrets,” which made that time so accessible. I’m not someone who does so well with dates and academics. I really just love hearing a story and inhabiting the world a bit. So anything that can do that is key. I even read some essays to get a feel for what those women were like. One thing the show does well is break down the attitude of the classic Victorian woman, but I wanted to bring justice to their humor and intelligence and resourcefulness. I also listened to C.S. Lewis’s books. 

Laura you’ve also been in period shows and features like “Outlander,” “Tolkien” and “Britannia.” How did “The Nevers” stand apart from those titles for you?

Well we’re obviously re-creating Victorian London 100% accurately for obvious reasons (laughs). But while it’s fantasy-based it also has an underlying story, which has to do with justice and equality and what happens when those who are used to not having any power do have it, and want to make their voices heard. It’s also about how the established powers react to that. So we wanted it to be relevant to our times and touch on issues we’re dealing with today. Sure, there were the usual things you need to deal with when making a period drama. Like being a corset all day takes some getting used to! But the characters are actually very modern and written in a modern style. So it didn’t require much about getting into the mindset. Amalia is already unique herself within the world of the story. 

You make a great point about how “The Nevers” isn’t just about the super powers. Comics and superheroes have a way of expressing truths about our times. In this case, women are proving superhero teams are not an all-guy’s game.

The kind of art that I’m interested in is what speaks to the collective human experience. It’s not about whether someone can shoot beams from their eyes. It was that other part that interested me more about this show. It does define the genre somewhat. We’re used to seeing female superheroes but it’s normally one woman in a team of men. It’s rarely an entire group of women together and on top of that, so beautifully written. It’s breaking boundaries with how we’re representing women on TV full stop. In “The Nevers,” they’re not just talking about men and getting married, which is what you usually see in a period drama. Unfortunately the only way we can play women in this genre without falling into those traps seems to be having them in this fantastical genre show. I’m just really glad I get the chance to do that. It’s not something that comes along very often, even in a modern drama.

Ann, you give a very lively performance and are surrounded by such a great cast. Because it’s an ensemble show it’s so important to get across that sense of camaraderie among the Turned. What was the vibe like on set?

The great thing about being part of the Penance and Amalia duo — because there are lots of characters and loads of little plots happening — is that we get to hop into everyone else’s world at times and see what they’re doing. It was just lovely. We all had big laughs on set. I was personally impressed by everyone — there’s that opera scene in the first episode with Amy Manson, who plays the antagonist Maladie, and just seeing her through her performance as she tried to get a reaction out of the crowd. I think we’re all biting at the bit to get back at it in a couple of months. We had so many hiatuses, mostly because of Covid, and so we’re all roaring to get back, including the crew — we loved the crew. Everyone is anxious to get back to what they were doing. It was one of the least hierarchical sets I’ve ever been on. 

Laura, this is your first show as the lead. 

Yeah, I’ve never played a series lead before and it was a responsibility I was really looking forward to taking on. It turned out to be as much fun as it was gonna be. We’ve never been able to combine so many different elements on screen. I also got to do lots of stunts and fighting while working with this amazing cast. I don’t exaggerate saying I never felt tired getting up at five in the morning to go on set. I was never exhausted, even if this was the hardest work I’ve ever done. 

Laura, share with us about what you have on the horizon?

I’m happy with “The Nevers” taking over my life for now (laughs). I’ve enjoyed it more than any other screen job. We’ve got to shoot the second half of the season and we don’t know what’s coming with that. We have a new showrunner, Philippa Goslett, who is currently, furiously writing scripts. So there’s so much mystery. We have some idea because we’ve had some discussions with Philippa. But it will be her thing, her tone and full of whatever directions she wants to take. So it might feel like a whole new job when we come back with the same great characters. But my plan is that I’d like to get back to theater afterwards, once theaters reopen of course. I do like to go from one to the other straight away.

And finally, Ann, after “The Nevers” what else do you have coming up?

I do have an Irish film I did, Irish independent, that’s coming out in America on VOD. But aside from that, right now only the first six episodes of the first season of “The Nevers” are coming out. So we’re trying to film the rest of the season this summer, hopefully, and maybe get them out by Christmas time. HBO has been very good to be fair, but there just isn’t time to get any auditions in and lots of projects are filming around May. I can’t wait to go back and do a full run at the show. So, I don’t know what the future holds. I can imagine loving to do indie films. “The Nevers” is such a huge, seismic thing and I like it (laughs).

The Nevers” season one premieres April 11 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.