Amy Manson on The Nevers, headbutts, and toppling the patriarchy
“Have you ever been punched in the face so often?” is not a standard question you could ask in relation to a Victorian-era drama. But The Nevers isn’t your standard Victorian-era drama, not when actor Amy Manson is able to reply, “No - or ever given that many Glasgow kisses.” Fewer bonnets, more headbutts.
The Nevers has all the deprivation and opulence of Victorian London, along with a sprinkling of otherworldly powers which have affected some of the city’s inhabitants; these individuals, dubbed ‘The Touched’ have extraordinary powers or physical attributes. These abilities, or ‘turns’, both fascinate and repulse those without them; and there’s none more reviled in London than Maladie.
There are introductions and then there’s slitting the throat of the devil (not the actual devil) on stage in front of an audience - such is Maladie and Amy Manson’s entrance. This feared figure, responsible for a string of murders across the city, handed Manson an unforgettable way to enter the series. “That’s the best entrance I’m going to have in my life,” laughs Manson, who’s been living with Maladie for two years of pre-production and filming, desperate for audiences to meet this bonesaw tornado. “I had to read it a few times - my mind raced with possibilities. She was such a collaboration from costume and make-up to me, and there was a lot of talk about her purpose and objective.”
Mayhem would appear to be at the top of Maladie’s agenda at the start of HBO’s new fantasy series, which might be the channel’s next effort to kill off as many British and Irish actors as possible. Manson describes her as “on the warpath” at the series’ beginning, her character responsible for a series of murders which has caused the public to be wary of others who have been ‘touched’. There is, too, a fear of contagion, concern these strange afflictions might be transmissible (Maladie’s name is no fluke); an all-too familiar link for 21st century audiences who’ve only just been allowed back into theatres.
The theatre sequence was filmed over a five-day period and Manson says she was “let loose” during filming to give this woman an instant impact: “She wants the spectacle. She wants to show the world what she's become and she's going to savour every moment of her time on stage.” However, Maladie is no homicidal exhibitionist; well, she is, but as the series progresses, her story takes a turn. As does the entire series.
Maladie is a Cassandra figure, the one person in London who saw and remembers what was responsible for distributing these abilities. Everyone else’s minds have lost those few moments, the truth she speaks ignored by all. What’s even worse is she was in the process of being transported to an asylum when she witnessed this otherworldly event, her claims all the more isolated after she’s abandoned by her husband. All of those experiences coalesce and transform Sarah into Maladie while incarcerated. “She hated that she was that Victorian conformist woman and she's the antithesis of that now. She detested being that meek and unworthy, “ explains Manson. “What a feeling to actually feel. She was going to do everything she could to exist as the complete opposite in her most perturbed way possible.”
To prepare for the role, aside from fighting and headbutting training, Manson researched the history of Victorian asylums and found disturbing accounts of what some women like Sarah would have experienced. “I went down some rabbit holes. There are really devastating stories of gang rape and traumatic events.” All the research made a deep connection in Manson between herself and the character. “I had to understand that to take it within my body, to understand the vibrations of that character. Sometimes Maladie reached a stage where it bordered on needing to step away for a moment because it was getting too heavy,” says Manson. “That was about coming in from an angle of truth and that’s our job. It’s so rarely delved into because, more often than not, there’s not enough time when you start projects.”
There is something, however, even more feared than Maladie - the disproportionately high number of women now carrying these powers who might upset the status quo. In luxurious rooms, old white men debate the threat these women pose the Empire, the patriarchy fearful of losing their grip. When I ask if that might in any way, at all whatsoever be relevant to 2021, Manson laughs.
“The parallels are fierce. I hope as soon as possible within the show we’re able to witness the unity of these women and female empowerment through their respective gifts, although society has termed them to have almost disabilities. I hope that we see that and that there's love and affection there, and when we band together we can tear down the patriarchy. Which is what Maladie is trying to do.”
Out of curiosity, I ask if Manson has ever seen something which no-one else believed, much like Maladie. “I thought I saw my grandmother after she passed. My sister and I were in the house alone and I remember seeing this outline of my granny. She’d passed a few weeks before that. I ran through to my sister's room, put on all the lights, and kept them on all night. Apart from that, maybe Nessie.”
The Nevers is available on Sky Atlantic and Now