Tag Archives: Dan Stevens

Legion’s latest recruit

Mr Robot star Stephanie Corneliussen joins the cast for the third and final season of X-Men drama Legion. She talks to DQ about Noah Hawley’s psychedelic FX series, its treatment of mental illness and her extensive preparation for playing Gabrielle Haller.

When the news came, it arrived via Twitter. “Noah Hawley is pleased to announce two guest castings for the final year of #LegionFX,” the message on FX drama Legion’s official account read. “Stephanie Corneliussen will play David Haller’s mother, Gabrielle, and Harry Lloyd will play his father, Professor X.”

Corneliussen enjoyed the chance to play a character with “real issues”

You can imagine why fans of the series went crazy. The show is based on the X-Men comics and characters that have spawned a number of action-packed feature films, with Professor X (Charles Xavier) – played invariably by Sir Patrick Stewart or James McAvoy – among the ensemble cast of characters brought together on the big screen. In the movies and the original comics, he is an extremely powerful telepath and the founder and leader of the X-Men, a band of humans born with mutant powers in a world rife with anti-mutant sentiment.

In the comics, he falls in love with Gabrielle Haller but they later separate without him knowing she is pregnant with his son, David, who becomes the mutant Legion, suffering from schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder and powers similar to his father’s.

For two seasons, Legion followed David’s struggle to understand his abilities as viewers followed his story through the character’s own distorted perspective, set in a hallucinogenic world created by showrunner Noah Hawley (Fargo) and taking its vibe from the 1960s and 1970s.

From childhood, David (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) shuffled from one psychiatric institution to the next until, in his early 30s, he met and fell in love with a beautiful and troubled fellow patient named Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller). After Syd and David shared a startling encounter, he was forced to confront the shocking reality that the voices he hears and the visions he sees are actually real.

With the help of Syd and a team of specialists who also possess extraordinary gifts, he unlocked a deeply suppressed truth: he had been haunted his entire life by a malevolent creature known as The Shadow King, who appeared in the form of David’s friend Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza), but was actually an ancient being named Amahl Farouk (Navid Negahban).

David’s friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) was not all she seemed

During an epic showdown, David managed to push Farouk out of his body and gain control of his mind. But with Farouk on the loose, the team formed an unlikely alliance with their former enemy, Clark DeBussy (Hamish Linklater), and his well-funded government organisation, Division 3. Unfortunately, the hunt for Farouk reawakened the dark voices in David’s head, and within them, a lust for power.

At odds with everyone he once considered a friend, and Syd tasked with bringing him down before he destroys the world, the third and final season sees David enlist the help of a young mutant named Switch (Lauren Tsai), whose secret ability is key to his plans to repair the damaged he caused.

That’s where Professor X and Gabrielle come in, as David meets them in some time-travelling twists that are entirely suited to the show’s mind-bending, distorted structure.

“There was a lot of excitement when Legion had found its Professor X, because he’s such a prominent character in the comic books. Gabrielle perhaps didn’t attract the same attention – but she will,” Corneliussen tells DQ. “Noah really did something quite amazing with this character. We had a lot of talks about her and how to shape her.”

Hawley has spoken in the past about how Legion is a study of mental illness, as David recovers from being at his lowest ebb, only to spiral into darkness once again. Season three will complete his story, which is one Gabrielle can also relate to as the character also suffers from mental health issues.

As an actor, Corneliussen has embraced the role of Gabrielle and put particular emphasis in her preparation on how her character is affected by her health.

“All roles deserve serious preparation but when you prepare for a role that has to do with a sensitive subject like this, it really deserves a certain level of respect,” she says. “It deserves due diligence and proper research, and because I am so fascinated by that within humans, our mind, I like portraying these characters to end the stigma around mental illness.”

Rachel Keller plays David’s troubled fellow patient Syd Barrett

The subject is a familiar one for the actor. In USA Network drama Mr Robot, Corneliussen played Joanna Wellick, a character who also had mental health issues.

“She had an anti-social personality and was living in this very controlled mania where she thought she could control people with taunts and that ultimately became her demise,” she says of the character, who she played across three seasons of the series. “She was living in a very happy symbiosis with her diagnosis, whereas Gabrielle is living in a very different reality and with a different relationship with her own mental struggles, in the form of depression, anxiety and trauma.

“It’s something I thought was very relevant, not only to what is going on in the world but also to myself in my late 20s, early 30s, when I started experiencing depression and anxiety. We just don’t talk about [our mental health] so it’s important to have shows like Legion that shine a focus on it.”

Corneliussen also relishes the opportunity to play a character with “real issues.” So often, “having real issues on TV is, ‘I don’t know how to pay the rent’ or ‘I don’t know how to get a boyfriend,’” she says. “You know what? That’s not society. That’s a bubble. It’s far more complex than that.”

In particular, the actor says Gabrielle is still affected by postpartum issues that stem back to David’s birth. As she’s not a mother herself, Corneliussen spoke online with people who had first-hand experience of similar problems to round out her understanding of the character and her performance on screen.

David (Dan Stevens) undergoes some time-travelling twists

Corneliussen is reluctant to say too much about Gabrielle’s arc in the series, only that she does appear in sequences that result from David playing with time. “My family were very confused when I said I was playing Dan Stevens’ mother,” she jokes. “We do travel back in time and there are a lot of things that Noah tapped into that are integral to the comic book story of Gabrielle.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met one person who has lived their life without regret, and it’s OK to regret choices that you’ve made. But it’s an issue when you start criminalising past choices and start beating yourself up about it. That’s when you can’t move on. But imagine having the opportunity to change it. That’s as vague as I can be!”

Corneliussen had the chance to audition for Legion when her manager spotted a casting call for a guest spot on the series, which comes from FX Productions and Marvel Television and is distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution. The Danish actor and model was in Copenhagen at the time, so she filmed an audition on her iPhone and sent it off.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to go to work than I have been on Legion,” she admits. “The crew were fantastic but with the cast in particular, who have been together for these years, I’ve never felt more welcome or more as an equal. Lauren Tsai, who joins in season three as well, and I were both newcomers, but we were so welcomed and there was no difference in how people were relating to us. We were invited to join and partake in everything. It was pretty beautiful. Amber Midthunder and Rachel Keller, in particular, were just really wonderful. It’s been an amazing experience.”

Season three was filmed on stage at Paramount Studios and on location around LA. Corneliussen says she was surprised how much the series relied on physical effects and an exemplary team of stunt performers, rather than the use of green screen. But she faced a tough time on set owing to the death of her grandmother just a month before shooting began, playing a character who is going through her own emotional turmoil.

“Having to turn it [my emotions] on because of what had just happened in my personal life was not difficult at all. However, having to turn it off again and going to a scene that has a lighter touch was a challenge,” the actor admits. “I haven’t had the experience of having had something very tumultuous going on in my personal life while working before.”

Legion exists in an hallucinogenic world within the X-Men universe

But having had the chance to work with showrunners such as Hawley and Mr Robot’s Sam Esmail, who are both the singular creative architects of their series, has been a boon for Corneliussen in her fledgling acting career, which also includes appearances in superhero drama DC’s Legends of Tomorrow and crime-mystery Deception.

“They really are frontrunners in what’s going on right now in TV,” she says, describing her experiences with them as akin to painting alongside Monet. “Both of them are very open to giving their actors creative freedom because they trust their actors and they allow us to take the material to places we would like to go. They’re always open to suggestions.

“But it’s a fine balance,” the actor adds. “You’re working with two geniuses and you want to respect that they have put a lot of thought and effort and their own creativity into what they’ve done. So I like to stay in my lane when I’m an actor. I write myself and I would like to be a director too one day. But right here and now, I’m booked as an actor and that is what I like to do. That’s my job title and that’s what I should stick to.”

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Building Legion

A Clockwork Orange provided some of the inspiration behind the look of FX’s latest original series, Legion. Production designer Michael Wylie tells DQ how he created this unique world.

Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian film A Clockwork Orange, the 1970s and the brutalist architecture movement of the mid-20th century might not appear to have much in common, but blend them together for a television show and you might come close to creating something that looks like Legion.

Michael Wylie

The new drama from Fargo creator Noah Hawley, it is based on the Marvel Comics by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz and is the first TV drama with a connection to the world of X-Men.

The story follows David, a schizophrenic whose strict daily routine inside a psychiatric hospital is upended by the arrival of a new patient, Syd, after which he begins to confront the possibility that the voices in his head and his visions might actually be real.

The cast is led by British actor Dan Stevens as David – the actor is unrecognisable from his stint as Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey – with Rachel Keller (Syd), Aubrey Plaza (Lenny) and Jean Smart (Melanie Bird).

But while the show stands out for its take on mental illness and its comic book origins, it is the look and design that really demand attention.

From the retro costumes, the futuristic, space-age sets, psychedelic lighting and its disorientating soundtrack, Legion is a work of art.

Much of that success is down to the efforts of production designer Michael Wylie, who has previously worked on Grimm, Masters of Sex and another Marvel property, Agent Carter.

“We had a blast doing it because it’s just fun,” he tells DQ. “When you get to do weird stuff, it can either be really hard or really fun, and thankfully it was really fun!”

Rachel Keller and friend in Legion

Wylie interviewed for the job in November 2015 and just weeks later, in January 2016, he was in Vancouver preparing the pilot, in which almost everything on screen was built by Wylie and his team.

He recalls that first meeting, sitting down with exec producers Hawley, John Cameron and Lauren Shuler Donner. Hawley, who is meticulous in his preparation, had already compiled and printed a book of images that conveyed the feeling he wanted for the show, which is produced by FX Productions and Marvel Television and distributed by Fox Networks Group Content Distribution.

Wylie had prepared something similar, and he was pleased to find that they had both picked out several of the same images.

A Clockwork Orange’s brutalist architecture directly inspired Wylie and Hawley

“Noah’s book was 20 pages of really cool imagery – a lot of 70s stuff, a lot of stills from A Clockwork Orange and there were a lot of interiors of brutalist buildings around the US and the really cool one in A Clockwork Orange,” Wylie recalls. “I had pulled a bunch of images I’d put on my iPad and I think we had four of the same exact pictures. It was a match made in heaven, I guess.”

Wylie had specifically avoided any of the comic book artwork or anything related to the established X-Men universe to ensure his own vision wasn’t contaminated by existing works. Instead, he took Hawley’s detailed pilot script and ran with it.

“It’s all in the script really,” he said of his starting point for the show. “It talks about an odd-looking psychiatric hospital and talks about brutalist buildings. But at that time, no-one knew Noah was shooting in Vancouver and the city has a ton of brutalist buildings.

“He just thought instead of trying to hide them, let’s try to embrace them. It’s kinda like you’re shooting LA for Boston and you run around trying to not shoot palm trees all day long. At the end of the day it would have been cheaper to film in Boston. So we decided to embrace it all.”

That the pilot’s 70s vibe – which largely comes from the colour and design of the psychiatric hospital and the characters’ clothing – has been such a talking point since its launch on FX in February was a surprise to Wylie, who admits the whole show has been designed to keep viewers off-balance, as though they are seeing events unfold through David’s eyes.

“We started to use a lot of colour that happened to give that feeling,” he explains. “There is a lot of yellow and it seems to be a hip colour, but the last time it was a hip colour was exactly in 1973. I think that’s why it feels kind of 70s, and I know some of the costumes are kind of 70s.

“That was all by design with Noah and [costume designer] Carol Case. They really wanted to confound the viewer as to where they are. Our ideal is to make the viewer feel as crazy as David feels. Things shouldn’t match and things shouldn’t be anything that a viewer could really look at as a point of reference. You always want the viewer to feel like they don’t know where they are; they shouldn’t recognise these rooms with big round windows, or that have giant goats in the middle of them. It’s all meant to keep the viewer on the back foot so they can have a subjective experience, just like David is.”

Dan Stevens moves away from his Downton image

In particular, the use of new technology was key to creating this environment. The whole appearance of the hospital set could be changed by manipulating the LED lighting on set, so every scene feels slightly different.

“It’s almost imperceptible how much you feel disorientated by a lot of things in the show, especially the soundtrack. You hear voices, there’s banging and there’s things to distract you that you would never normally do in a TV show,” Wylie notes. “You want to hear what the people are saying and you notice in the sound editing of the show, they just keep making loud noises. Normally a writer would be really precious about making sure you don’t do that so you can hear every word they’re saying, but I don’t think Noah wants you to hear every single word, or at least he wants you to be confused or hit your rewind button on your DVR a bunch of times.”

The hospital sets were also used to bewilder viewers. The pilot includes several long takes that follow characters around the facility, but in practice the set wasn’t that large. According to Wylie, “there’s some camera trickery there because the room is an octagon, so although the actors change direction, you feel as a viewer like they’re still walking in the same direction.

“We had limited space and limited time to build stuff so I worked really closely with Noah to achieve what he wanted. In the pilot there’s tons of overhead shots, so that’s a special kind of build and when you’re doing lots of overheads you really have to concentrate on the floors in places where normally you don’t care too much about. So during the [Bollywood-inspired] dance number in the day room at the psychiatric facility, that floor was specially made for the overhead shot of people dancing.”

Wylie recalls that in the past, huge sets would have been constructed, lit with dozens of lights above removable ceiling panels. However, sets today are much more like real locations. “They have ceilings, floors and windows and a lot of times they get lit through the windows we provide,” he says.

The architecture of Legion lends much to the show’s 70s vibe

“The big challenge for the art department now is we’re designing a lot of lighting because they can be part of the set. Everything’s gotten a lot simpler.”

World building isn’t anything new for a production designer; indeed, every new series begins life as a couple of sketches or models. But few dramas are as all-encompassing as Legion.

“I did a show called Pushing Daisies [Bryan Fuller’s quirky comedy drama for ABC in 2007], where we created a whole world for them to inhabit,” Wylie recalls. “So I’ve done these kinds of things before. A couple of years ago I did another Marvel show called Agent Carter, where we did 1940s New York City. I get to do a lot of shows where we create a lot and we’re not just shooting on location or turning the camera on to something that’s already existing.”

And with the increasing popularity of sci-fi/fantasy dramas that require their sets to have an other-worldly quality, Wylie believes this trend is pushing production design further into the spotlight than ever before.

“If you get 10 or 12 hours to tell a story on TV as opposed to an hour and 45 minutes in a movie theatre, so you’ve got to make it great and make a splash,” he continues. “I always say people sometimes disregard art direction as background, but when you’re telling stories like this, you can’t disregard the background because it’s part of the story.

“I don’t think people tune into TV to see what they see in everyday life, they tune in to see something much different from their real lives. I’m a big fan of going over the top, even when it’s not called for!”

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