Rochelle Neil is recounting her audition for “The Nevers,” HBO’s new hourlong fantasy series set in a steampunk Victorian London in the aftermath of a mysterious citywide communal vision that leaves some of the populace with superpowers.
“She’s got a priest tied up, and she’s torturing him and throwing fire,” Neil said. “She’s sort of going on this spiel about her childhood, and what happened to her by this priest in this ministry. And she ends up burning an effigy of the baby Jesus. I have no idea what side of my personality I seemed to have showed for [the producers] to go: ‘She’s really good at torturing!’”
As “Bonfire” Annie Carbey, Neil plays one of “The Touched” — those who, after the mass (maybe?) hallucination (maybe?), attain abilities not generally in the human playbook. Conveniently, if one needs a person, place, or thing torched quickly and efficiently, Bonfire Annie can summon and direct fire at will. This makes Neil’s role the ultimate scene stealer, the exclamation point on any action sequence — and she obviously had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.
The fire itself is a mix of practical and visual f/x, she said. While filming, she had LED lights strapped to the palms of her hands, which gave her a tangible way to act through the ostensible weight of throwing a fireball. Those lights also served as a way to illuminate Neil’s surroundings and her face, a visual element that then could be boosted in post-production.
As for the fireballs themselves, yep, there was an actual stuntperson on the receiving end who set themselves on fire and crashed into whatever set Bonfire Annie was laying waste to at the moment. But just having the stuntperson alone experience fire firsthand wasn’t enough for Neil.
So she took fire eating classes.
“They get you to practice with water first outside, and you [makes spewing sound,]” she said. “You have to move your head away quite quickly so you don’t set your mouth alight. And you have to drink milk afterwards, because you can’t even swallow a bit of the fire material. I don’t know. I was OK? I don’t think it will be my career choice.”
There is a certain kind of bravado that comes with knowing you can immolate anything in your path, and Neil worked with costume designer Michele Clapton to perfect Bonfire Annie’s non-gendered look.
“In Episode 1, I had my hair out, and when we came back [for Episode 2] I said I love the idea of her being a bit more androgynous, and a little bit less gender conforming,” Neil said. “I’m the only female in trousers. So I was like, ‘Let’s get rid of the hair. Let’s put on like a hat or something?’ And it just sort of happened organically. Michele picked up a hat that she had, and we put it on and we were like, ‘OK, well, we’re wearing the hat now.'” (Neil admitted that the bowler hat is carefully tipped to one side because she can only cock her left eyebrow.)
Photograph by HBO / Keith Bernstein
And while the fantastical elements of “The Nevers” are centerstage — I mean, by the time a giant appears on the scene, you don’t even blink — Neil wanted to center the grounded parts of her performance on the marginalized women who did inhabit London at the time. The show is intended, in part, as a tribute to resilience and vengeance, of hard-fought opportunities won and chances that couldn’t be lost because they were never offered.
“I’ve been going on a lot about this one book that I just fell in love with, ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold. It’s about the five women that were killed by Jack the Ripper, and it’s an intense study on what it was like to be a woman in the Victorian era,” she said. “It was just so fascinating, on such a minute level, just basic everyday life, interactions with other people, and what’s expected of you, what’s not expected of you….[Annie] doesn’t have to negotiate. That does give you, as a human, a sense of intense safety and intense power. The fact that, ultimately, she could just set you alight.”
“The Nevers” premieres Sunday, April 11 at 9 p.m. on HBO.