The Nevers’ Ann Skelly: ‘We’re like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in corsets’
The Wexford actor is co-starring with Belfast woman Laura Donnelly in the new HBO series
Laura Donnelly as Amalia True and Ann Skelly as Penance Adair in The Nevers
Television is going through a golden age, but the goldrush has brought on a number of consequences. One of the more welcome aspects is the accelerated merging of genres – in the way that RTÉ’s Dead Still married macabre comedy with a period piece and, more recently, Sky’s Intergalactic overlaid sci-fi with a prison break drama. It’s in this fruitful landscape that we welcome The Nevers: a female-fronted HBO series that mixes fantasy sci-fi with a historical drama.
Leading the cast are Belfast woman Laura Donnelly (who won an Olivier Award for The Ferryman) and Co Wexford woman Ann Skelly. They’re the unofficial leaders of “the Touched”, a group of outcasts, mostly women, who find themselves with abnormal powers after an extraterrestrial entity in the sky expends its energy over London in the Victorian age. These abilities ostracise them from society, as decreed by Empire-loving Englishmen in suits.
“At the heart of the story, there’s mine and Laura’s characters, Amalia and Penance. They have a kind of a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid dynamic, but in corsets,” says Ann Skelly, over Zoom. “They have this sanctuary for all the people who find themselves with these abilities, and their job is to gather and protect them. Also, there’s a larger mission at hand, which we’re going to find out more about as the episodes go on. By episode six, a lot of questions will be answered, so all the mystery will be semi-solved.”
Laura has this amazing, tailored-to-perfection costume. Penance has a softer and looser look
Her character of Penance, an inventor whose special power is that she can see electricity, was written as Irish “from no region in particular, so I just kept my accent.
“What I love about Penance is that because she’s a woman, because of her class, and because of her immigrant status, no one’s going to be handing out any jobs like CEO of Electricity Inc or wherever. She’s one of the few who actually loves her power. It facilitates her inventions, whereas a lot of the Touched are hindered by their abilities and embarrassed by them, or it’s dangerous.”
The show is given a steampunk aesthetic, in part thanks to costume designer Michelle Clapton, responsible for Game of Thrones and The Crown; there are also shades of the New Romantic look of the 1980s as typified by Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. When it came to the two leads, “Michelle wanted Laura and I to look slightly separate from the rest, slightly more modern,” explains Skelly. “Laura has this amazing, tailored-to-perfection costume. Penance has a softer and looser look – she could have come from the workshop, with earthy browns and light blues that feel part of her personality.”
Though still a fresh-faced 24-year-old, Skelly is no stranger to major productions, having earned her stripes in Red Rock, The Vikings and Rebellion, and played the title role in Kissing Candice. That depth of experience was needed, as the course of The Nevers’ path did not run smoothly. Early on into filming, The Nevers’ creator and director Joss Whedon (the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Avengers and Justice League) was the subject of an investigation into workplace harassment based on a large number of accusations that spanned his career. It swiftly led to his exit from The Nevers, as well as the other projects he had in the making. The production also succumbed to Covid. Its path ran like this: it began filming its pilot in 2019, restarted once it was given the green light, swapped showrunners halfway through, shut down due to Covid, and started up again; it’s a small miracle that its release date is nigh.
It nearly felt like a holiday at the beginning, with Laura and I not quite believing that we were on a big HBO show
While conversation about Whedon is off the table, Skelly does admit that the interruptions had an impact on the cast and crew. “Of course it does. It takes us out of the flow and the swing a bit, but I feel like it all looks very cohesive,” she says. “It didn’t take us long to get back into it. After a couple of interruptions now, we just slip back in. We have six episodes left to film, and what will be weird is actually filming all the episodes through and not stopping for months.”
Of the atmosphere on set, she explains that “with this, it’s it does feel like it’s a quite intimate and collaborative experience, which is so odd because I was so intimidated coming on to this”.
Was it like that from the start? “Yeah, it was. It nearly felt like a holiday at the beginning, with Laura and I not quite believing that we were on a big HBO show. HBO was my end goal.”
With a strong mind and soft countenance, rather like Saoirse Ronan before her, Skelly seems like the sort who’ll always prefer to stay outside the industry’s gravitational pull. Were I to meet her for a pint in post-Covid times, she’d probably have much more to say on the subject. But for now she’s a bastion of professionalism, offering a depth of insight while not adding fuel to the fire of the off-screen drama.
Even when discussing the mixed reviews of the show, which on the whole noted its promise but felt it messy in structure, she isn’t afraid to tackle the subject, and does so diplomatically.
“I don’t care too much what intellectual pieces people want to write about it. It’s entertainment, and it’s supposed to be fun,” she says. “If people say it’s messy, it’s generally to do with a whole plot point that will be revealed later. I know that from the viewing numbers [in the States, where it’s already aired], and from all the comments that it’s 90 per cent extremely positive.”
I felt school wasn’t about the learning experience. It was about the Victorian institutions and the systems that are still in place
Growing up in towns across Wexford, the daughter of artists, Skelly’s only real ambition was to become an actor; there was no plan B. She recounts the evenings where she would pretend to be asleep while her cinephile dad watched movies that were above her age range: films like La Vie en Rose, and The Beach.
Supporting Skelly’s passion for acting, her mother found her weekend classes in Bow Street in Dublin. It led to an audition for a role in Sing Street with casting director Louise Kiely. While she didn’t get that, when the role for schoolgirl Rachel Reid in Red Rock came up, Skelly got the call, and the job.
“Who at 17 gets to go into a long-running TV series, and get that much screen time, and get all those hours behind you?” Skelly reflects. “That was my drama school, that was my intensive training camp for everything that was to come. We’d film 10 to 14 scenes a day, so it was a fast-paced experience. I find it actually difficult not to work under such intense pressure. Like with The Nevers, you can spend a whole day on a scene, and they want input from the actors. That to me is incredible.”
So sure was Skelly of her calling that she abandoned her Leaving Cert to commit to Red Rock. But, she explains, formal education was never for her.
“Everything was so focused on marks, and I knew I wasn’t going to college anyway,” she says. “I felt school wasn’t about the learning experience. It was about the Victorian institutions and the systems that are still in place.
“But I enjoyed languages, and we’d all be curious people at home. I did a social anthropology course over lockdown, simply because I’m interested in it. But it’s not for any end goal or purpose, it’s just genuine interest.”
I’m hoping that we’ve all had enough of celebrity culture. I feel we got pretty tired of famous people telling us to enjoy the time from their mansion in Beverly Hills
If she were the minister for education, how would she reform schools?
“I’d take religion out of it, and I’d definitely offer more languages to learn. Anything around the humanities is important – anything that teaches people compassion and empathy, and makes them more aware of the world around them. Sometimes we see a lot of strong opinions, but with a lot of ignorance buzzing around the place, and that’s how you end up with the big think pieces on the internet. But I don’t know how society would really function with me in charge, to be honest.”
Instead, Skelly’s sticking firmly to TV, with the other six episodes of The Nevers filming between June and October. The predominance of the show, especially given Whedon’s former status in global Comic-Cons, suggest that the spotlight of fame is sure to shine on her. But she says her focus will stay on the job rather than the allure of celebrity.
“If anything good was to come of the pandemic, it’s hopefully a sense of perspective, so I’m hoping that we’ve all had enough of celebrity culture,” she says. “I feel we got pretty tired of famous people telling us to enjoy the time from their mansion in Beverly Hills or whatever.
“In any case, I don’t even feel like I’ve met that many people in the past year in the first place, to even have a larger perspective [of her profile]. Anyway. I’ll just shield behind Laura – she’s the star.”
If Skelly’s singular vision comes good, it won’t stay that way for long.
All episodes of The Nevers will be available from May 17th on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NowTV