Ann Skelly shares her latest role in HBO series The Nevers
Irish actress Ann Skelly is known for her roles in shows such as Red Rock, Little Women and The Vikings. Having been nominated for best actress for Kissing Candice at the Irish Film and Television Awards, this rising star certainly has much to offer. We chat to Ann about her latest lead role as the heretically progressive inventor and touched woman Penance Adair in the HBO series The Nevers.
What enticed you about The Nevers and how much did you know about the script when you auditioned for the role?
I didn't really know much about The Nevers when I auditioned. Even the character names they gave us in the audition were fake, so we didn't even know our real character names and they didn't use any of the scenes that were actually from the show. The audition was a kind of made-up amalgamation of scenes, and I don't believe the scripts were printable either. It was all kind of secretive in that way, though, yes, it seemed quite simple from the outset. I remember my agent sent me the brief of what the show was, and I just thought it sounded grand, no big deal. But then it mentioned HBO and that made me sweat. When I got the part, it was just a notice to tell me about the show and what a beast it was. I was taken aback and I'm kind of glad that I didn't know too much about it because I think that would have made me just mess up too much in the audition.
Did you need to undertake any research on what it would have been like living in Victorian London to prepare for the role?
Yes. I've done period stuff in the past, but it's been in our period in Ireland, which is quite different because it isn't the same class system. I think England is quite unique in that way and I was trying to figure that out. I mean, the thing with the scripts is that it's all there for you. Therefore, you don't need to do that much research.
They've got an amazing history researcher. I don't know what the official name is, but she's just on the ball. Even so, I did want to have an idea. Because of my ancestors and Irish history, I found Penance being Irish, and living in an English society at the time when we were colonised by them, important to me. It's not huge in the show, but a sense of self and how she operates within Victorian society as an Irish immigrant was important for my character, as it was during a time when Irish immigrants would have been looked down upon like savages. A lot of the time, Irish people were referred to as things like that using really horrible words.
I also looked at different essays. There's one brilliant one about what it was like to be an Irish woman working in Victorian London. It was really helpful in providing context on how you would be viewed because my character is so empowered and she's quite ahead of her time. It was written down in the description that, even though she was an Irish Catholic woman, she was progressive in her own right. How my character powered through having her own moral freedom within a religious constriction, as well as a certain class system that didn't really want her there, felt important to me. Even though it's not mentioned yet, it kind of informs me a lot of her strength, I suppose.
We all have a favourite character. One of mine is Primrose. Can you share a little more on this?
Yeah, well actually Anna Devlin, who plays Primrose Chattoway, is a lot older than the character she plays. I don't know what age Primrose is. Perhaps she’s 14-ish or a bit younger. I think Anna Devin is 20 now, but she's a lot more mature than that. She's just very intelligent and quiet. She's a lot less naive and more worldly than Primrose. It’s quite interesting with her because her voice is so different to her character, but then she just nails the part of Primrose so perfectly. She's one of my favourite characters too.
As you mentioned, there are some characters you'd love to know more about. We're only halfway through the first season and I've already had conversations with the writer’s room and our showrunner Philippa Goslett. We’re all so excited about exploring the other characters who haven't been at the centre of the first six episodes.
In the series, your character is the best friend of the enigmatic ring leader Amalia True. How did Penance and Amalia meet and what is the basis of their friendship, as they do have completely different personalities?
I'd love to know myself, but I'm not there. However, there was a scene written on how they met. I don't know if it's changed since, but in episode six, we get to see Amalia pre-Penance when Penance’s name is mentioned to Amalia. I also like the idea that Amalia might have been surprised by Penance and her actual progression and her energy, enthusiasm, or something that Penance has. I don't know what it is between them, what drew them to each other, and why they seem to have connected in the way they have. I have no idea. I think they do bring out good things in each other and that's important in relationships. There's something to them, something similar in them, even though they're completely different, which is quite unique.
There's a mutual respect there for sure, which is important for them both. You're right, they do have a similar way about them but they may not know it because Penance is very much about the journey and getting it right along the way, whereas Amalia is very much goal focused. She has a mission and a task she needs to do, so there's something to that.
What is Penance’s role in St. Romaulda’s orphanage?
Penance’s role, as I would call it, is that parent who you'd go to after the other stricter parent has said ‘no’. So, I would say that Penance is someone who is very inclusive in the orphanage like her workshop. There is a doorway that's built for Primrose so she can hang out if she wants to and she can access easily without ducking. There are also little spaces for the girls.
That's how it was always sold to me. It's a place where anyone could hang out and help if they wanted to, so I think what Penance has in mind is that it's an active space for everyone to participate in. She’s the listening ear, the one who makes you feel less of a monster if that's how you feel. She tries to make others realise their gifts or love themselves a bit, she's a great example herself. She wants people to realise their potential because she has been gifted this incredible ‘turn’. I believe it would break her heart that others are hindered by their own or are sometimes in danger because of their turn. Penance is so delighted by her gift that she wants to spread that kind of feeling amongst the others. She is also very much Amalia’s right hand and she's the person who Amalia trusts most in the world.
Amalia is definitely a bit of the brains like me and Laura. We were always pitched that the relationship between them was very much Sundance and Butch and Sundance; one is more of the action taker and the other is more of the brains behind it, so there's a bit of that to them too.
What would you say to encourage viewers who aren't sci-fi fans to watch The Nevers?
Ah, well, that's interesting because I'm not a huge sci-fi fan myself. And so, I wasn't hugely drawn to the tagline when I auditioned for it in the first place. But the show is about so much more. It's not a period show exactly either. It isn’t that kind of inaccessible world; the sci-fi just makes it more accessible. For example, in episode six, we see what the show could have been like before. Well, I think what we know from the past, or Victorian times, is that a woman’s life was very limited and I'm feeling that the sci-fi element broadens that horizon of our ancestors and it gives them more of a chance to have a self-fulfilling fate or journey. It just makes sense. What I mean is, I feel like sci-fi expands and broadens a woman’s life in that time and so it just makes it more interesting and it refreshes it.
So the show isn't about sci-fi, CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), action, or fantasy. There's an entire philosophical question behind it all and it's a very existential show worth watching. And there's some incredible performances with amazing actor – some of the best on TV and stage. They are just real masters and giving incredible performances, so that alone is worth it.
It’s just a fascinating medley of incredible types of actors and types of characters too. It’s also really odd that we all have chemistry and it can be a cohesive world. There are people who haven't even acted before on screen, so we have newcomers, which is amazing, such as Vinnie Heaven, who plays Nimble in episode four, and Olivia Williams, an incredible star who has been in theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then we've got, Pip Torrens and he’s just in bloody everything, you know!
Women during the Victorian era didn’t have a lot of freedom; they were very much stay-at-home wives and deemed passive in nature, contrary to the female characters in The Nevers who display assertive intellectual and leadership qualities. With this in mind, what do you think the author is trying to communicate in this story? Also, what would you say are the main issues for ‘the Touched’?
Forgive me if I answer this banjaxed, but I think some of the main issues for the Touched are oppression and an increasing fear and ignorance surrounding their condition, and they're confused themselves.
I feel like three years ago when this event happened, the life of the Touched changed and they became very different individuals as a result. This event happened to those who felt without legitimate power in the first place, already ostracised from society and this just makes them even more of a target.
So even if you're “touched”, even if your turn isn't visible and you display it in some way, your target reveals you to be othered. I suppose they are figuring out why they are the way they are and feeling that they never should have happened because they don't understand how to use what they have and there isn’t a place for the Touched in society.
The world is not created for them. It's not there to facilitate them in any way, and so since they don't fit in a box, the only option is to be outside of the box and they don't get a say and there's nothing of value to them, which is not the case.
Then there's everyone else who really struggles with their turns, and I think that's true to life. We all have our differences. For example, I’m becoming more and more aware of ableism in our society when I'm taking the tube, or walking down a street and realising there’s no access for anyone who uses a wheelchair or would find it hard to walk. Life is so exclusionary. It's so sad. It's so frustrating.
You would expect it's shocking and it took this show for me to fully understand that or to be put into a situation like that to have some kind of cathartic experience of what it would mean to be othered. The world's hard enough. No one asked to be born but the world really is not made for anyone else besides a certain kind of person, and why is it that way?
I'm really loving my entire perception of what I find normal to be changed and the show does that for me.
Do we see the start of feminism in the show?
The start of feminism and the suffragette movement is all building up. There's something in the air and It’s amazing how these women act with all the practical inefficiencies of their time.
Some of these women have had devoicing experiences and that can be quite traumatic. I don't know how that level of emotional oppression can consistently happen to someone and they come out not internalising some of it.
It's a lot of fun to play a woman in those times, particularly with the sci-fi element, and to find a way to be empowered through all of that. It’s a very empowering show to work on as an actor, especially as I have barely worked alongside women, let alone an entire orphanage of them.
Being a part of the world watching it back and seeing the response as well has been quite interesting because I started to figure out the show's place in the idea of feminism too, which has been a very interesting experience as a whole.
I had to look at what feminism meant because it kept being put under an umbrella, a blanket.
It got me nervous when the idea of a feminist or feminism sticker was applied. The actors experience what it means to be empowered by working on a show like this. You could say anything on set and it would make you feel so empowered.
What do you like about your character?
I love that she displays how useful her turn can be, how much this difference and otherness empowers her and gives her a way into the world that she would have been excluded from in the first place.
She’s an Irish immigrant woman; no one's going to be handing her the role of CEO at Tesla anytime soon, so she has her own little workshop. She can make her dreams, she has her place to dream, and to implement these dreams.
No one from the Touched has the same power or turn and we know Penance has the ability to see electricity. What can you tell us about Penance’s power? As an inventor, what is Penance’s favourite invention and why?
Penance sees energy and so she is, by nature, resourceful — even without the turn. However, when she does this turn of seeing energy, she can enable it or usefully construct mechanisms around it. Her favourite invention, gosh. I feel like every new one is her favourite thing. The amplifier, for example, wasn't even invented before she invented it at that moment.
That's why she gets so deflated when Amalia says: ‘Oh, yeah, that's the amplifier.’ So, I think every new thing is her favourite. Although, maybe the car could be her favourite. There's a moment in episode one where it comes out of the carriage and Penance hasn't really practiced much with it and isn't sure if it's will work, and it comes true. Thank goodness. What a terrible scene that would be if it just exploded!
My favourite invention is the little bear that plays creepy music and explodes gas out of its head. It's in episode four before Lucy (Elizabeth Berrington) gets found out. It was so tiny, but it's actually one of my favourite things because it's just absolutely mental looking and it lets you into her head a bit more.
Was The Nevers filmed anywhere else other than London, as I did notice the new Wimbledon theatre, and Trinity Church square in Southwark? However, the large manor house and the orphanage did make me wonder where they were filmed.
Yes, we filmed in Kent. At some point, we filmed about an hour outside of London. Although, I can’t recall what the place is called. We filmed there for the orphanage scenes and had a fake street built but we did film a lot in London. For the manor houses, we went outside because that’s where the big sprawling estates are. You just can't get them anywhere else, can you?
How does your character feel about murderous Maladie?
Well, I'm very conflicted because murder is not my character's favourite thing in the world. However, I think there is a sympathy for her after Amalia tells her what has happened, that Maladie wasn't always like this and explains the type of person she was before. I think it's heart-breaking that there's a person inside deemed a monster because of her trauma and experience before all of this. Maladie is someone who was extremely traumatised and this is how she is getting through it and exists in the world now. That is where her heart breaks for her, but I also think that Penance has a little nibbling feeling inside of her brain. Her little brain worms are acting up, telling her there’s someone in there and there's something we could do.
In episode six, we discover more about the Galanthi and we are thrown into what the Neververse looks like many years in the future. Is this something that we will see more of as the series progresses and what can you tell us about this?
I’m not sure what the writers have planned in regard to more glimpses into the future and Stripe/Amalia’s backstory. Although I do think we’ll mostly stick with the core cast we’re coming to know and love; there’s so much to explore, at least for the rest of season one. That said, I love that the show has crossed time dimensions a bit and rolled up the future and present through Amalia.
Is there any particular actor you would love to join the set of The Nevers in the future and why?
There are loads I’d love to work with. I think Song Kang-Ho would be brilliant and could more than compliment that sense of epicness our world has but also bring a necessary realism in the performance – without sacrificing any electricity. I’ve seen him in Bong Joon-Ho’s films and I’m always really drawn to him. I think he’s brilliant.
How can fans connect with you on social media?
I only have one social media page, which is Instagram (@Anngskelly). I kind of made it for work because I really like it when actors post things behind the scenes or can cluster their interviews in one place. So I thought that would be nice to do, although I find it so exhausting.
I used to read the message requests and I don't now because it's kind of a scary place. You just take on everyone's opinion and thoughts, the compliments and all the worst things that you get through. It's just very stressful. Also, I don't like the idea of people having access to you as a person because that's very unnatural and it’s quite scary.
What do you do in your spare time when you are not acting, do you have any specific hobbies?
Nothing in particular and nothing of note. I like to read a lot and listen to history podcasts. I find that reading in between jobs, particularly fiction, is a great way to keep the grooves of what it feels to be in another head alive and well. It keeps the imagination going.
How did Covid impact on the filming of the series and have there been any physical challenges in making such a huge show during a global pandemic?
We filmed in July 2019 for six weeks, the pilot took a hiatus, we came back in January 2020, and halfway through episode five in March 2020 we shut down like everyone else. We eventually came back to finish episodes five and six around September until November, which was quite tense because we really didn’t want another delay and we’d hear about others sets having to shut down for two weeks because of an outbreak here or there. But we made it with very few people getting Covid, thankfully. It was a real testament to how HBO made the sets so safe. Other productions would come to see how our production was doing things. I felt like work, with all these people around, was one of the safest places to be in. The crew had masks clamped to their face so tight that some of them got cuts on the bridge of their noses, we got tested at least three times a week, and there was a huge investment into safety measures. We were meant to be filming on location in episode five, but they built an entire square and streets to make it safer and more contained.
What is the best piece of advice you've had on your acting journey so far?
Something Anthony Hopkins said to someone I worked with: ‘Learn your lines, show up on time and let the gods do the rest.’
The Nevers is out now on Sky Atlantic
Interview by Connor Mantle
Photography Philipp Raheem
Ph Assistant Barroce Adiko
Fashion and Set Design Jheanelle Feanny
Set styled using 70s House Manchester, Cheetah & cushions available at Dogwood Lifestyle
Fashion Ass Paula Salinas
Hair by Jon Chapman using Oribe & Dyson Hair. Custom wig courtesy of Styles by Fola
MUA Lucy Halperin at The Wall Group using Tom Ford Beauty & REN Clean Skincare
Location and special thanks to Indra Studios