Ann Skelly got her first acting practice growing up in County Wexford, Ireland, “pretending to be asleep on the couch watching things my parents were watching,” trying to sneak “glimpses of The Fifth Element or La Vie En Rose or The Beach” without them noticing. It’s quite fitting, then, that she has found her biggest role to date in a series that has a distinct fever dream quality to it.
The Nevers, which debuted across the Atlantic on HBO Max last month and will soon air on Sky Atlantic, is a huge, sprawling, high concept thing. Think X-(Wo)men, but it make it steampunk - set in fin-de-siècle London, it follows a group of women who’ve been shunned by society after a strange supernatural event leaves them with unusual powers, or ‘turns.’ Known as the ‘touched,’ they’re the focus of moral panic (one aggressively side-burned Lord describes them as a “feminine plague”) and targeted in brutal attacks. As wide-eyed, quick-witted inventor Penance Adair, 24-year-old Skelly, who started her (paid) career as a teen on Irish crime drama Red Rock and has since appeared in BBC period drama Death and Nightingales and films like Kissing Candice and Rose Plays Julie, is one half of the show’s central double act; Penance is the best friend to the touched’s enigmatic ringleader Amalia True, played by Laura Donnelly.
Penance’s ‘turn’ is an ability to see potential energy, which she uses to dream up prototypes and gadgets, from an electric car that looks a bit like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to a hoop skirt that doubles up as a recording device (perfect for all your Victorian undercover journalism needs). Though the touched women are ostracised, they also have more agency and power than your average period drama heroines. “It’s not all ‘Oh no, who will I be wed to!’” Skelly laughs.
The show’s fantastical spin on the past felt like “reclaiming our own ancestors,” she adds. “I never felt so much for them before this part. It’s the relatability of these women, they’re a bit of craic, they’re making jokes, they’ve got hopes and dreams and they’re able to voice their frustrations in a community of other women.”
Learning that she was up for a part in an HBO series, the US broadcaster’s big reputation as the channel that’s brought us everything from Game of Thrones to The Sopranos nearly wrong-footed her. “I kind of went, ‘why did they tell me it’s an HBO show? They’re better off not telling me that kind of thing,’” she remembers. “I just thought, ‘it’s another thing I’m not going to ever hear about again…’” When she was called back for a chemistry test with Donnelly, she turned up “dressed the same colour as the curtains,” but everything else clicked. “It was a really odd experience - I’d been trying so hard, you’re put through the wringer on certain auditions for certain projects. But this was just the easiest thing in the world.”
The show marked her “first job working in London,” and while she certainly holds her own among the star-studded ensemble cast, she jokes that as someone who “always leaned more towards camera acting, just because I didn’t have a big pantomime or theatre [influence] in my life growing up,” she had “no notion” of some of her co-stars’ theatrical pedigree.
“There are all these icons of theatre, Laura being the Olivier award-winner that she is… that’s the most blasphemous thing about me, I have no knowledge of any plays. I didn’t know who Jez Butterworth [playwright, and her co-star Donnelly’s partner] was...” That didn’t hinder their off-screen friendship, though, which has shaped their characters’ screwball back-and-forth. “There are jokes between me and Laura that have ended up as a thing in the script itself,” she says. “There’s breathing room for that, even though there are tons of plots going on.”
If the audition process was simple, the show’s production has been, as Skelly puts it, hit by some “turbulence.” After filming the first episode in 2019, “the scripts needed to catch up with the filming process,” so the cast and crew took a break; then, not long after they resumed work, “Covid shut us all down,” she explains. They started up again in September, completing six episodes, before production went on another hiatus when showrunner Joss Whedon announced he would be leaving the show, citing “the physical challenges of making such a huge show during a global pandemic.”
A new showrunner, screenwriter Philippa Goslett, was hired at the start of this year, and is set to oversee the final half of series one, which will be filmed over the summer. “We have our cast Whatsapp group and we’ve been able to talk about it throughout and check in on each other, because it’s quite an exhausting thing,” Skelly explains. “When it’s gone on a lot longer than it was supposed to, your heart just keeps sinking and rising and sinking.”
In recent months, stars of Whedon’s former projects, including Justice League’s Gal Gadot and Ray Fisher, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Charisma Carpenter have accused him of creating a “toxic” and “unacceptable” working environment (Warner Bros launched an investigation into Fisher’s claims, and while Whedon denied the actor’s subsequent allegation that he digitally altered a cast member’s skin tone, he is yet to comment on statements from Carpenter and her Buffy co-stars, or from Gadot). Were Skelly and her castmates concerned that these off-screen allegations directed at the showrunner might eclipse The Nevers, or derail its message of empowerment? “It was a bit nerve-wracking,” she says. “It would have been quite ironic, I suppose, that a show full of women, a show that’s had female DoPs (directors of photography) and incredible women behind the camera could be overshadowed by biases against one person. I think we felt the show was strong enough itself to hopefully outlast [that].”
Filming the second batch of episodes will keep Skelly busy for the rest of the year, but before production resumes, she’s looking forward to travelling back to Ireland to visit her family for the first time in more than a year (she was meant to go back in November, but a missing passport and travel restrictions conspired against her).
She’s excited about working with Goslett, and has already had discussions with her about what’s next for her character - and about Penance’s backstory. “It’s been a very transparent, inclusive atmosphere from the top down to us slovenly actor types,” she laughs, adding that she’s shared “stories that have been in my family, from [her] great, great grannies,” with Goslett, helping her to shape potential plotlines. “It feels optimistic again - we’ve picked ourselves back up before,” she says. “I hope this will be a stint where we can actually just all put our heads down and work… We’re all just biting at the bit.”
The Nevers is on Sky Atlantic from May 17, 9pm