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Lighting the way

Eva Green, Eve Hewson and Himesh Patel speak to DQ about filming The Luminaries, a tale of love, murder, magic and revenge set in 1860s New Zealand at the height of the gold rush.

It’s a quirk of production schedules that the first scenes viewers see are sometimes the last to be filmed. Such was the case on luxurious BBC and NZTV period drama The Luminaries, but for co-stars Eve Hewson and Hamish Patel, it was a high-pressure situation.

The six-part series opens as Anna Wetherell, nearing the end of a voyage to start a new life in 1860s New Zealand, meets Emery Staines, who has plans to make his fortune during the country’s booming gold rush. There’s an instant connection between the two that informs the plot of the series, but if viewers didn’t buy their blossoming relationship, would they care what happened next?

Eva Green as Lydia with Martin Csokas as her lover Francis Carver

When we first meet them, “they’re mysteries. We don’t know anything about them,” Hewson tells DQ of the show’s central pair. “But what’s important about that first scene is we don’t know anything about these people, but we know we want them to be together, just because there is something between them and it’s such a beautifully written scene. It was really fun to play and, oddly, it was the last scene we shot together.

“We did everything else and then the last thing we did was the scene where we met. Hopefully it works. The thing with Anna and Emery is they both feel like they know each other even though they’ve never met. And it’s that feeling that drives them to try to find each other again.”

Patel continues: “We were really banking on that scene working. We were saying ‘If it doesn’t work, why do we care about these two people getting together?’ We had to make sure that we got the chemistry right. And I think we did. I hope we did.”

An epic adventure mystery, the Luminaries blends elements of a classic Western period drama with love, magic, murder and revenge. Set against New Zealand’s stunning landscapes, Anna immediately finds a romantic connection with Emery, but scheming fortune teller Lydia Wells (Eva Green) leaves a trap that means the young lovers are unable to reunite.

Eve Hewson believes her character, Anna, is not as naive as she appears

Deceived and betrayed, Anna’s fortune begins to fall and she is drawn into a blackmail plot involving opium, gold, shipwreck, fraud and false identity, which leaves her accused of murder and fighting for her life.

But Anna and Emery are ‘astral twins,’ which means they were born at exactly the same time and ultimately share a single destiny. When Emery disappears, Anna is left without an alibi for a murder she did not commit and the noose begins to tighten around her neck.

Produced by Working Title Television and Southern Light Films for BBC1 in the UK, in association with TVNZ, distributor Fremantle and Silver Reel, the cast is led by Eve Hewson (The Knick) as Anna, Himesh Patel (Yesterday) as Emery and Eva Green as Lydia. The series is written by Eleanor Catton, based on her own Booker Prize-winning novel, with Claire McCarthy directing.

After disembarking from the ship that brings her to New Zealand, Anna reveals her intentions to find gold and make her own fortune, although it’s clear there are other reasons behind her round-the-world journey to start a new life. “I really don’t think she’s as naive as you might think,” Hewson says. “I think she was running from something in England and she wanted to escape or start a new life, or run away. The idea of a young woman getting on a ship was a big deal back then so you’d have to have a very good reason why you’d leave, because you probably would never go back home. There’s a lot of things going on with her backstory that’s not what it seems in the show.”

Himesh Patel sees a “romantic drive” in Emery

Similarly, Emery’s naïvety sees him used by his new ‘friends’ and his own ambitions immediately sidetracked by his attraction to Anna. “He is letting his heart lead him because he has a really romantic drive that is quite stubborn,” Patel explains. “That’s what he’s desperately trying to hold on to, even though he’s getting tossed about by the waves, sometimes literally. I hope people enjoy how the story unfolds because he is tested quite a lot, as all the characters are. But he’s got a resolve and a romantic outlook that is so at odds with everything that happens in the story and that happens to him. It’s about whether he can hold on to that belief.”

Known for television roles in Penny Dreadful and Camelot, Green tells DQ she likes playing multi-dimensional characters, “usually strong women,” where first appearances can hide secrets or cracks underneath their facades. Lydia, whose very job is a performance, fits the bill perfectly.

“She’s such a very strong, ballsy character, very driven, very daring, and she’s a lot of fun to play because she’s always game,” Green says. “It’s quite jubilating to play her. She’s also a feminist ahead of her time. She’s a very cool character. She’s quite like the baddie at the beginning but there are a few layers. And what brings humanity is actually her love for Francis Carver [played by Martin Csokas]. That actually redeems her. She’s not just the baddie.

The 19th century mud was very real on set

“At first, Lydia’s intention is to use Anna. But Anna turns out to be a force to be reckoned with. Lydia vows revenge and Anna becomes her enemy. But it’s quite a complicated relationship between the two women because you really feel they could have been friends.”

Lydia’s love for Carver stands out, not least because he isn’t her husband, Crosbie Wells (Ewen Leslie). But maybe it’s all part of her game. “She’s completely blinded by her ambition and greed, doing anything to get her gold – and it’s not her gold, she stole it from her husband,” notes Green, who says she was reminded by her character of Lady Macbeth. “She’s quite a cuckoo in that way. But it’s such a tough world. She is a survivor. She feels there are no rules, she’s above the law and she can have whatever she desires no matter what the cost. She’s so driven and her hubristic nature will ultimately be her downfall.”

Catton says she spent five years writing The Luminaries and then seven years adapting it for the screen, revealing she had discarded more than 200 drafts of the first episode alone. Had she not done so, Anna might have been a minor character. But through that process, she became the audience’s perspective in this new world.

“Eleanor told me that once they decided they were going to go through Anna’s eyes everything kind of clicked into place,” Hewson says. “And when I read the script, I was like, ‘This is just fantastic.’”

The Luminaries writer Eleanor Catton (left) with director Claire McCarthy

“I read the script and then started reading the novel and was waiting for the two to converge at some point,” Patel adds. “But then as I got more of the scripts and realised the way Eleanor was adapting her own story, it was really fascinating and so brilliant. Eventually, fans of the novel will realise where our stories converge.”

The six-month shoot took place largely on a farm outside Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island, where the frontier town of Hokitika was recreated in breathtaking 360º detail. Filming also took place on nearby Bethells Beach, and on South Island, where director McCarthy could capture its iconic scenery.

“We got to set on day one and it was like this town had been there the whole time,” Hewson recalls. “It was really amazing work from the production designers and I just loved getting to work every day. It was at the bottom of a hill. You could see the sea on one side and you could see Auckland in the distance. It just felt like we went down this hill in our own little time machine and got to live in that world.

“I felt like I was going back in time,” Green says. “We were in costume and it was actually very hot as well. It was very muddy, for real. We were back in Hokitika. We shot on the amazing Bethells Beach, with those caves. It was just amazing. That’s the luxury of being an actor, that you can discover amazing places. I feel blessed.”

Claire McCarthy runs through a scene with Eva Green

Filming certainly took its toll on Hewson, who says her character goes to a “very dark place. It gets really messy and horrible what she goes through,” the actor says. “That was really challenging for me, just because there’s a lot of painful subject matter and physically it was very draining to be that emotional all the time. I remember just feeling exhausted. As an actor, you want to do those parts but it’s also hard to do them. You have to go home and watch an episode of Friends.”

At a time when the world is still battling the coronavirus pandemic, the trio says The Luminaries is perfect escapist television for viewers looking to get caught up in a love story and a murder mystery.

“It’s exotic and it’s quite unknown,” Green says of the world of The Luminaries. “But also it’s a very hard environment. To be a woman in that environment was extremely hard and you needed to be super strong.”

“I genuinely think we need great stories right now to take us out of the narrative that we’re living in for a minute,” Hewson adds. “I hope that people find it as compelling as I think it is.”

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HBO, FX dominate Emmy noms

Games of Thrones and The People vs OJ Simpson picked up a lot of Emmy nominations this week – but can they convert them into awards?

Game of Thrones
HBO’s Game of Thrones picked up 23 nominations

The 2016 Emmy Award nominees were announced this week. All told, nearly 50 scripted series (excluding comedies) picked up at least one nomination, although only a handful are likely to convert those nominations into awards when the winners are announced on September 16 at the Microsoft Theater in LA.

A few years ago, winning an Emmy would have been seen as a nice endorsement of a show but little more. These days, however, it has taken on added significance for a couple of reasons.

The first is that the quality of TV drama has risen so rapidly. Winning an Emmy now really is an impressive achievement, and in some categories is not really that different to winning an Oscar. The second is that it is increasingly difficult to gauge the success of a show purely on the basis of its ratings (in the case of SVoD shows, there are no ratings).

FX's The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

So racking up Emmys is a way of alerting the industry to the quality of a show, something that probably converts into business at Mipcom, the first major programming market to follow the Emmy ceremony.

So which shows caught the eye in this year’s nominations? Well, it’s no real surprise to see HBO’s Game of Thrones is out in front with 23 nominations. Such is the quality and ambition of the show that the only thing likely to stop it winning awards this year is that it secured a record-breaking 12 Emmys last year, from 24 nominations.

Awards judges, sometimes deliberately, sometimes subconsciously, have a tendency to steer away from previous winners to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of acclaim.

At this stage, the biggest threat to HBO’s hit series comes from the FX camp, with The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story securing 22 nominations and Fargo securing 18.

House of Cards
Netflix’s long-running House of Cards was nominated in 13 categories

Netflix’s House of Cards secured 13 nominations but the biggest snub of the year went to the subscription VoD platform’s other flagship show Orange Is The New Black, with just one nomination.

The Night Manager was a huge hit on BBC1 in the UK but a modest performer on AMC in the US. However, the Emmys have rectified that situation slightly by granting the show 12 nominations.

After these shows, there is a huddle of titles securing multiple nominations, including Downton Abbey (10); All The Way and American Horror Story: Hotel (both eight); Better Call Saul and Roots (both seven); Mr Robot, Penny Dreadful and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (all six); The Americans and Ray Donovan (both five); American Crime, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The Good Wife, Homeland, The Knick and The Man in the High Castle (all four); and Empire, Gotham, Luther, Masters of Sex, Narcos and Vikings (all three).

BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC
BBC1 hit The Night Manager was only a modest performer on AMC

Of course, some categories are more prestigious than others. So it’s interesting to note that USA Network’s Mr Robot made its way on to both the Outstanding Drama series category and the Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category (Sam Esmail).

The same is true for The Americans, which has been nominated for Emmys before but not usually in the most prestigious categories. Perhaps this is a sign that 2016 is the show’s year to come out on top. Worth noting also is that it is another FX series – evidence of a cable channel firing on all cylinders creatively.

The Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series category throws up another couple of interesting points. One is that it has included Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro’s UnREAL, which airs on Lifetime.

This is quite an achievement given that the show didn’t really feature anywhere else in the Emmys list. The other is that two of the nominations are for writers of shows that are ending: Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey and Robert and Michelle King’s The Good Wife. That might be enough to swing votes their way.

The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom
The Americans has its first Outstanding Drama nom

The Outstanding Limited Series category is a face-off between American Crime, Fargo, The Night Manager, The People vs OJ Simpson and Roots. Once again we can see a decent level of diversity here both in front of and behind the camera. American Crime’s inclusion is a welcome nod for an ABC series that has been welcomed by critics but not done too well in the ratings.

As is evident from the above listings, the only serious non-US competition for Emmys comes from the Brits. The Night Manager and Downton Abbey are the UK’s frontrunners to win Emmys, but there were also decent showings from Penny Dreadful, Luther and Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.

With War & Peace picking up a music nomination, the BBC secured a total of 22, which is more than most. It’s also worth noting that Showtime’s US adaptation of Shameless picked up two comedy nominations.

Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO's All The Way
Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon B Johnson in HBO’s All The Way

Looking more broadly at the scripted comedy categories, there were three top performers: HBO’s Veep with 17 noms, HBO’s Silicon Valley with 11 and Amazon’s Transparent with 10. Overall, the Emmys were pretty good for the major SVoD platforms, with established shows like House of Cards and Transparent the strongest performers.

Despite Man In The High Castle attracting four, it looks like Amazon came out just behind Netflix, which secured a smattering of nominations for its Marvel-based shows, Narcos, Bloodline and Sense8.

Cable channel AMC picked up a total of five nominations related to its Walking Dead universe and will take pleasure in the success of The Night Manager (which it aired) – but overall the network can expect a quiet year at the Emmys.

Other shows to score at least one flavour of Emmy nomination included 11.22.63, Bates Motel, Black Sails, Horace & Pete, Minority Report, Outlander and Vinyl.

The Oscars would do well to take note of the fact that the Lead Actor in a Limited Series category includes three black actors out of six, though on this occasion Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr and the superb Courtney B Vance may find that Bryan Cranston’s impressive performance in HBO’s Lyndon B Johnson biopic All The Way proves hard for the Emmy judges to overlook. Black actress Kerry Washington also impressed in Confirmation and Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) and Taraji P Henson (Empire) achieved nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama.

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