[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for The Nevers, Season 1, Episode 6, “True.”]
When I pressed play on the screener for the Part 1 finale of HBO’s The Nevers, I immediately felt sure that I was watching the wrong show. That’s because Episode 6, “True,” opened in a world very far away from the show’s established Victorian setting, instead transporting the audience to a ruined London one hundred years in our future. There, a small team of commandos, including a jaded warrior named Stripe (Claudia Black), dropping into a largely unexplained conflict with opposing human forces as well as a confrontation with an alien presence that ends up transporting Stripe backwards in time into the body of the woman we’ve known as Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) this whole time.
It’s a wild creative swing, and if you felt confused by that opening, know that Donnelly felt equally baffled originally. “You should’ve seen us reading the scripts, we were like, ‘Oh, they’ve sent us the wrong script,'” she told Collider in this one-on-one interview.
Below, we discuss not just her reaction to the opening sequence, but how much she was originally told about “Amalia’s” secret, what it was like collaborating with Black on their respective performances, how much more she knows about what’s to come, and why she’s glad that Amalia wasn’t really an alien — or a superhero.
Collider: I’ll be completely honest, one of my questions written down here is “explain please.” But to start off with, talk to me a little bit about how you got brought into the show and what you were told initially.
LAURA DONNELLY: Yeah. Well, I got pretty much the whole story that you’ve just watched, because obviously, it was relevant to playing Amalia. I couldn’t play her not knowing all of that. So, I kind of got pitched right from the start, this whole world that we were building and where Amalia had come from and who she really was, and all about the Galanthe and all about Stripe and all of that stuff, which was what drew me to it, of course. Because, suddenly knowing that I was going to get to play this woman with all of these secrets and layers and the person she’s trying to be — the person she really is and all the things in between, that’s just such fascinating material for an actor.
Knowing, as well, that it was going to speak to the world that we’re in and it isn’t just fantasy. It drew me much further in than what I had initially understood the show to be whenever I first heard about it in a one-liner, you know?
I love that aspect of the show, that you get drip-fed that idea, that you start off thinking that you’re watching one thing and things just don’t quite add up and over the course of the five episodes previously, you’re getting the impression that maybe you’re not getting the whole picture. And then, [Episode 6] happens and you realize you definitely weren’t.
Did you have any interaction with Claudia Black?
DONNELLY: Yeah, I did. We got together a little bit just for her to find out a bit about what I had been doing over the previous five episodes and the little bits of information that she needed. But I needed more information from her, because she’s playing my past, than she needed from me — because she’s playing a character that she didn’t need to know about the future of it too much.
So I really wanted to be led by her and however she wanted to portray Stripe, because I didn’t want her to try and fit into some version of who Amalia is, because I wanted Amalia to be very different — Amalia to have learned how to be Amalia. So, I really just was led by her in that sense. And then, it was a question of me trying to primarily get a handle on not just the accent that she was doing, but her vocal quality and try and make the voice sound as similar as possible.
But, the strange thing about that, she was amazing because she taped all of my lines for me and I had lots to go on in that way, but we shot it out of sequence, of course. Which meant that I actually filmed all of my Stripe in Amalia’s body stuff before Claudia had filmed all her Stripe stuff. So I kind of had to predict what she was going to do as well. So that meant actually going back over lots of old Claudia Black material in other shows that she’s done. Especially in shows where she’s playing an American and especially in Sci-Fi shows, luckily Claudia’s done a lot of that, just to pick up her physicality and her mannerisms and the cadences in her voice and things like that, because I wanted to try and get as close to it as possible, but I didn’t have the real thing to go on.
So was all of that for Episode 6 though, or was this something that you were able to do prior to filming that one?
DONNELLY: No, that was all for Episode 6. Luckily we’d actually had the COVID break just before we filmed episode six. So, I had a good build-up to prep. Because actually, before we got shut down for COVID, I had about a week off coming up and that’s when I was going to do my Stripe prep. I just ran out of time. I’d been so busy and I was like, “Okay, I’ll take that week. And then I’ll do it.” Then of course, when I did get stuck into it, it turned out to be so much more work than I had naively thought it was going to be. So I lucked out getting the massive COVID break. It allowed me the time I needed.
So you knew she was cast as Stripe prior to that. That’s great.
DONNELLY: Yeah, she had. I can’t remember exactly when she was cast, but I certainly knew of her casting in the final few weeks or the final month that we were filming before we got shut down for COVID. So, in March, the February, March time, I knew that she was cast. Obviously, she was due to come over from Australia and settle in and begin filming and then suddenly everything stopped.
In terms of onboarding you into Amalia’s past, what was key for you? What were the details that you really needed in order to figure out how to best play the character?
DONNELLY: For when Stripe arrives in Amalia’s body, I’d had a lot of that backstory since I began. So it’s something that had been in the background of what I was doing from Episode 1. It was about making Amalia slightly anachronistic, but not in any way that was going to stand out too far for an audience in which it would be very jarring for them. But I did want there to be moments where people would just raise an eyebrow and wonder whether it was just me being bad at acting in a Victorian era, or, you know. For example, there are little moments dropped in there, things that Amalia says that do imply that that might be the case. It was something that was kind of, like I say, in the background of the character, the entire time I was filming the whole first episode.
Then for the filming the scenes where Stripe comes into Amalia’s body, at that point, the key really was the physicality and the vocal style of Claudia in order to just create something entirely different from the Amalia that we’ve got to know and make her seem even more out of time and out of step and just somebody who is suddenly dropped into something where she’s completely oblivious to what’s going on really, and has to try and find her way through.
So, I’ll be forever grateful to our producers and writers that I was let in on that whole thing right from the beginning. Because, by the time we got there, I really felt like I knew Stripe anyway. I knew her story. So like I said, it was really a physical and vocal thing after that.
That’s actually really interesting, the idea of even without knowing who was going to play her in the flash-forward, you had a sense of what was going on there.
DONNELLY: Yeah, totally. Because it’s just things like when Amalia thinks to her past, what is she thinking of specifically? There are moments as an actor that you try to anchor on. Sometimes there’re secrets that I hold that don’t even necessarily apply to the character themselves, not something that’s in the writing, but something that maybe I’ve anchored the character to so that I have something real. Like when Amalia’s thinking of her history, what are those moments?
For example, I didn’t know the scene with Knitter. That’s one of the details that I know when I was filming episode one, but the moment that Mary’s song first is heard, and I get a recognition of something familiar, even though I don’t know exactly what it is she’s saying, I suddenly know I’m being touched by something.
So I had to create versions in my head of what I thought Stripe might miss from her past. Things I could really just emotionally put the weight on. There was a lot of creating things, like I said, that aren’t necessarily true for the character, aren’t true in the reality of the show, but that were my version of things that she would miss. The music she would miss, the people she would miss. Stuff like that.
You knew going in that the character had this backstory as Stripe. Do you think of Amalia as Stripe? Do you think of Amalia as a combination of Stripe and other facets of who Amalia was before Stripe took over?
DONNELLY: Yeah, when I think of a name, I think of Amalia. And I do think of her as the version that we’ve seen through the first five [episodes]. But that, in my head from the beginning, was already linked in with somebody who has had this incredible past, future. So that is knitted in with that.
What I really enjoy about it too, is that, what happens in the second half of the episode is that we see her learning how to become a friend and learning how to develop relationships. In building that, what was key for you?
DONNELLY: Definitely the relationship with Ann playing Penance. That was a really big part of it. Because I think that it’s not part of what Amalia would have expected, had she expected anything when she was dumped in the Victorian age. She would not have expected to find this incredibly deep connection with another person.
So I think that that is really key to everything she does and how she moves forward in that world. Penance informs so much of who Amalia is because she provides her with an understanding and I think a forgiveness that Amalia doesn’t provide herself. That gives Amalia a huge amount of strength, I think. And so really, that relationship was a huge key to who Amalia is now, as opposed to who she was as Stripe, the moment that she was dumped in this moment.
I love the line about how, “I hope she drinks.”
DONNELLY: Yeah, absolutely. Where she’s just thinking, “Oh God, who am I going to be landed with?” Then she turns out to be wonderful.
I kind of had the same experience with the casting actually. I remember reading that Penance was going to be Irish and obviously I’m Irish, but I’m playing British. And I was thinking, “Oh God, am I going to spend the next several years opposite some girl who can’t do a bloody Irish accent and just having to listen to this terrible Irish accent?” And then Ann Skelly walked in and it was all fine and it was better than I ever could have imagined. So yeah, I had a similar kind of feeling actually.
Is Ann Irish as well?
DONNELLY: She is, yeah. The accent that you hear Ann doing in the show is her own accent.
That’s fascinating. If only because, I think it was Robert Pattinson who was saying that he never does his own accent whenever he’s acting because he feels odd about it.
DONNELLY: Well, because he’s Robert Pattinson, he probably gets a choice in that matter, whereas most of us get told what accent we’re going to do. I do love using other accents. I think that there is always a key into some other way of being that isn’t just you being yourself, which is really helpful. In the same way as any character trait that is something very different from your own. It just allows you a little window into somebody new. So I do always find it really helpful.
And the other thing as well, is that a lot of the time, people when they’re writing, they don’t appreciate that dialect is different obviously, in each accent. And so, you’ve got to write for that dialect, which a really lovely thing about how our writers did adapt to Ann, because they began really writing with her own phrases and her own dialect in there. Because, trying to act in a part written for an English person, but in an Irish accent, is actually really difficult because it doesn’t sound like sentence structure and words that we actually use.
With Stripe having a Canadian accent, was that something that was just baked in and you had to go with it, or was there any discussion about where she should be from?
DONNELLY: There was a little bit of a discussion and I think it came down to the writers just wanting to have something that was a little more ambiguous than the associations I think that we might make with specific West Coast or East Coast accents in America, because we’re not dealing with a world that we know of. We’re dealing with a world 100 years down the line and therefore we don’t want those associations, because those associations wouldn’t necessarily exist in 2121. So that was really their decision. And then the accent, I was very much led by Claudia. What she formed as her accent, alongside our dialect coach, Sally. Then I just copied.
So, you were told upfront everything about Stripe — how much more were you told? How much more do you know about we have in store?
DONNELLY: I got basically told up until about Episode 6, not the details. But it was everything of this world and where that had all come from. So I’m pretty much in the dark about what happens going forward. I have a few vague ideas and it is also the case because we have a new showrunner, Philippa Goslett, and she’s doing her own entire thing with it. So it’s whatever Philippa comes up with.
We’ve had some chats and I’ve been able to hear the ideas of what’s coming up and stuff, particularly based on the emotional arcs of my character primarily. I’ve heard little bits about some of the other characters. But yeah, that’s in Philippa’s hands now. It’s whatever she feels she wants to do with it.
It’s nice not knowing everything now. It was really fun to have that whole backstory to not play, to purposely not play and to try and keep subverted. But now, just being entirely in the dark and finding out episode to episode, what’s going to happen will be a new way of doing it. It’ll keep it really fresh, I think.
Exactly. It’s actually very funny, my managing editor knows I’m doing interviews about the show — but he’s a fan, so I’ve been keeping him in the dark about what’s going on, because he wants to have the surprise and he’s very sure you’re an alien.
DONNELLY: Yeah, yeah. That is a popular theory, I’m gathering. I like it, but I’m quite glad that I’m not an alien.
That wouldn’t have been a thing you would enjoy?
DONNELLY: No, I don’t think so. In anything that I choose to do, I’m really primarily drawn to what the human aspect of it is. The human connection of it. Which is why, like I say, whenever I read one line of what The Nevers was about, I was kind of like, “Oh, I don’t know.” Because I thought it was about superheroes. And I was like, “I don’t really want to be a superhero thing.” And then I realized that it absolutely wasn’t. That it’s very much about humanity and the human connection. That was what drew me in.
DONNELLY: So yeah, I’m not. If I’d have walked into that meeting and it was like, “So, Amalia truly is actually an alien,” I’m not sure I’d be here right now.
The Nevers Part 1 is streaming now on HBO Max.
The twisty whodunnit series is coming to Hulu this summer.
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