The thread that connects the fantastical aspects of HBO’s new series The Nevers with the realities of modern life is woven delicately through and knotted tightly by Irish actress Laura Donnelly’s character Amalia True. The show centers around a group of Victorian-era women who have been touched with special gifts and unusual abilities, causing a rift in the hierarchy of society. The women face scrutiny and quite a bit of backlash from society for being deemed different. “It becomes clear that while it’s mostly women who have been affected by this pandemic practically, it is also affecting people in that society who don’t have any legitimate power,” says Donnelly. “The question of what happens when those who never had any power suddenly get it and how those who are used to having the power react is hugely relevant to all of the discussions that have been rightfully going on throughout the last few years.”
Because of COVID-19 and changes to the crew, The Nevers endured several hiatuses while filming the first six episodes over the last two years, giving Donnelly and her co-star Ann Skelly time to bond on- and offscreen. “It’s not unusual for women in real life to be able to get together and fight for a cause or fight to make change happen,” says Donnelly. “But it’s such an unusual thing to see it onscreen for women. That’s what women are brilliant at, particularly in the company of one another. And yet, we don’t get to watch it very often at all.”
Although The Nevers is rooted in the supernatural, being part of a story about giving power to the powerless with two women at the forefront resonated with Donnelly in a big way. “Even when you go into the realm of superheroes and that side of it, you never see two female superheroes fighting together. It’s usually one woman who is part of a team of men,” she says. “We’re so used to watching men pair up all the time and fight for What they believe is right in the world, and yet women are doing it in real life all the time…with many other things on their plates at the same time.” Following the departure of creator Joss Whedon, HBO tapped Philippa Goslett as showrunner, putting women in leading roles behind the camera as well. “The idea of having a woman leading this and telling these female stories is really exciting to me,” says Donnelly of Goslett.
Coming off of a three-year run starring in the hit play The Ferryman, written by her husband, Jez Butterworth, Donnelly admits she wasn’t initially eager to move to television until she read the script for the pilot. “It’s really important for me that any art I’m ever involved in, whether that is onscreen or in the theater, I’m only ever interested in dealing with the human experience,” she says. “That is 100 percent what this show is about, despite being set in a slightly fantastical situation. In anything that is set at a different time or in a different world than what we’re used to, it’s not going to hit home on a deeper level unless it resembles the experiences that we’re having.”
Her experience acting in The Ferryman certainly hit home. Set during The Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland, from where Donnelly hails, the play tells the story of a man taken by the IRA in 1981—based on the real-life disappearance of Donnelly’s uncle. “Getting to tell the story of my own people was a huge privilege and felt like a real responsibility. It’s the piece of work in my life that I have connected to most on all levels that there are: professionally, personally and spiritually,” she says. “It just felt like something that I was quite literally born to experience.”
The Nevers’ executive producer Ilene Landress and Whedon were wowed by Donnelly’s performance in the original production of The Ferryman and were thrilled to bring her on board. “It was obviously a very deep and personal role, but the nuance and gravity she was able to wield just felt electric, and we thank our lucky stars that she is now leading our troupe,” Landress says of Donnelly. Though Donnelly flawlessly brings her bold, theatrical prowess to the role, the actress admits that she yearns to exude more of her character’s fearlessness in real life. “I wish I had more of her bravery and her willingness to work and fight for what she believes needs to be done and the bravery that it takes to do that. What she faces every day, both internally and externally, is a lot. I could only hope to have that much integrity in my life.”
Despite being fictional, supernatural and set in the 19th century, The Nevers feels surprisingly progressive and topical. And with Donnelly wielding some of that magic, the possibilities are endless for her and the series.