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Amalia looks up at thermometers in The Nevers Photo: HBO / Keith Bernstein

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What is The Nevers really about?

Laura Donnelly, Ann Skelly, and the cast take a deep look at the new HBO series

What if X-Men took place in Victorian England? The premise of HBO’s slick new series The Nevers really is that simple. Three years after a mysterious event imbues most of the female population — along with a few choice men — with individual superpowers, Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) finds herself as a foster mother to a legion of disowned women, and a defender for metahuman survival. Near-future soothsaying abilities and support from her number two, the Forge-like super-tinkerer Penance (Ann Skelly), help her track down new additions to the found family. But the British Empire, hoping to eradicate the “Touched” population, and a band of violent rebels led by Maladie (Amy Manson), suck Amalia into a class war that magic may not solve.

“When I first read the pitch, it was like one line: ‘Victorian women get special powers and try and save the world,’” Donnelly tells Polygon. “And I kind of thought, ‘I don’t know, it doesn’t really sound like my thing.’ Then I went in for a meeting, and I got told the whole thing — like all the spoilers. I got told everything about Amalia and everything about the series, and I was completely hooked. I realized that it was so much more than what that one line was telling me.”

So what is The Nevers really about? In the premiere, it’s about answering that fanfic-y X-Men question. Though Donnelly teases a blossoming mystery, there’s a simple pleasure to watching Amalia and her orphanage for gifted youngsters survive the ever-changing world, and overcome problems-of-the-week through unique powers. Which isn’t too surprising: behind the series are a team of genuine entertainers who know their television. Created by Joss Whedon, The Nevers is produced by Bernadette Caulfield (Game of Thrones), Douglas Petrie (Daredevil), and veteran writer Jane Espenson, and the first batch of episodes counts playwright Madhuri Shekar and sci-fi writer Melissa Iqbal among the writing staff. And like previous series from the creative team, The Nevers delivers fight sequences and ominous foreshadowing along with a familial element that makes it quite sweet. For Skelly, the light step came as a shock.

“I can’t believe how little I’ve investigated what it means to be happy, or to what it means to be light,” she says. “For roles. I’ve always been in a dark headspace. [Turns out], lightness and humor is quite hard to do.”

Amalia wearing sunglasses in the lab in The Nevers
Penance works at the lab in The Nevers
Detective Mundi stands in the orphanage in The Nevers
Berrington and Kiran Sonia Sawar at the orphanage in The Nevers Photos: HBO / Keith Bernstein

(Top L) Donelly as Amalia (Top R) Skelly as Penance (Bottom L) Frank Mundi looking for clues (Bottom R) Berrington and Kiran Sonia Sawar at the orphanage

Broken into two halves, with a six-episode run kicking off on April 11 and part two arriving later this year, The Nevers opening act is also about building a brand new, believable sandbox. Actress Ella Smith, who plays Desirée Blodgett on the series, says stepping on to the lavish sets — a combination of real locations in England and enormous builds on the Pinewood studios stages outside London — was like “being in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” All of the cast members cited Penance’s laboratory as a marvel of production design, as most of the props in the menagerie of steampunk-ish doohickeys were fully functional. At least the ones that Skelly didn’t drop.

“I break every single prop I touch,” the actress admits. “As you can imagine, that does not come in handy.”

In the premiere, Amalia, Penance, and their new hyper-lingual discovery, Myrtle, outrun a gang of masked marauders in a new invention: a horseless carriage. To pull off the illusion of a high-speed, 19th-century chase, The Nevers stunt team buckled the trio into an operational speedster, and propelled it down what Skelly describes as “roller coaster tracks with a big green screen behind us.” For the accident prone actress, the sequence was both a thrill emblematic of the show’s efforts to shoot practically and an absolute horror show. “It’s too bad I don’t have a driver’s license, everyone else would have felt safer,” she says with a laugh. (She swears she did not break the car prop, but she did steer it into a curb.)

Myrtle and Penance ride in a car in The Nevers
The Touched orphanage girls sit in Penance’s lab
(L) Myrtle and Penance ride in the Neversmobile (R) The orphanage gang works in Penance’s lab
Photos: HBO / Keith Bernstein

The Nevers cast members found breakthroughs in the detailed backdrop. Elizabeth Berrington came to understand her character, the grieving orphanage elder Lucy Best, as a suspicious, broken soul after spending days watching exquisitely decked-out extras wander around the orphanage’s bustling common area. Donnelly and Skelly both praise the show’s costume department for fitting the cast with custom corsets that helped them run and punch, while still allowing them to disappear into the era. (Though designers swapping a steel bone for a plastic bone “if that particular part of your body is a funny place or a funny squeeze” was a thankful break from reality, Skelly says.) For Ben Chaplin, who plays the Touched-sympathizing Detective Frank Mundi, it was all about the mustache. “I just had to have the old Victorian weightlifter type ‘tache,” he says. His ultimate goal: Victorian Commissioner Gordon vibes.

Beyond the HBO-patented extravagance and comic-book set-pieces, the cast of The Nevers believes the show is about something deeper in the long run. In conversations with writer Philippa Goslett, who took over as showrunner after Whedon stepped down from the series last November, Skelly found a personal attachment to Penance’s displacement from the world, as both one of the Touched and an Irish woman.

“I’m very conscious of playing an Irish woman whose country is still very much ruled by England and by the crown,” she says. “It’s very present in my mind about what my Irish ancestors would have gone through, and why we’ve always had to leave Ireland. And I really love playing an Irish person, particularly an Irish woman who would have ended up in London, and what that would mean to not only be an immigrant, but also to be a member of one of the colonized countries.”

Manson says Maladie’s arc eventually confronts the split between the villain she’s become and the troubled woman, “Sarah,” she was before the transformative event. The commentary has everything to do with society’s consideration of mental health, back then and today. “Maladie is just like a parody of just everything she hated about her former self — she hated that she was meek, weak, feeble,” the actress says. “I feel that maybe Sarah just didn’t have that sort of voice being an average Victorian woman … no wonder these women were assigned to my mental institutions when they went mad with loneliness.”

Maladie dances on stage in The Nevers
Maladie dances on stage in extremely Maladie fashion
Photo: HBO / Keith Bernstein

Both Berrington and Smith see The Nevers as a show pushing back against the expectations of how women are to behave in the public eye. Amalia and her surrogate sisters are speaking up and searching for the truth — a pursuit that many in roles of authority, particularly the men of the British Empire, deem to be a threat to society. “These women are behaving in a way that serves them more and more, and that feels quite radical,” Smith says. “And it may be painted as bad behavior, but I think it’s the most exciting thing that we see when women use their voices and have their own agency in that way.”

Donnelly promises that, by the end of the first six episodes, viewers will know why Amalia’s driven to rally the Touched, and what connections she shares with Maladie and other key characters. But she believes the show will have a strong point to make about the major conversations of the moment.

“One of the main things that drew me to the project was the fact that I thought it spoke a lot to what women experience at the moment,” she says. “We’ve got the #MeToo movement, and in England, we’re having at the moment discussions based on some horrific recent events to do with women’s safety on the street. What is the responsibility of men in that? How much should they be part of that discussion? How are men educating each other and educating young men and boys? And why is it up to these people who suffer from being a minority or are an oppressed people? Why is it their responsibility to go out and make other people treat them better? It should be the responsibility of the people who already have the privilege and already have the power. That is, of course, an argument that is extremely relevant to other social issues that we’re dealing with, like Black Lives Matter, and anything to do with a group of people who are oppressed and do not have their voices heard. [So the show is] incredibly relevant to the conversations that we’re having today.”

The Nevers premieres on Sunday, April 11, and 9 p.m. EDT.