From writer/director Nick Willing (Alice, Tin Man), Neverland – premiering on SyFy on December 4th and 5th – is an original prequel story to author J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. In 19th Century London, Peter (Charlie Rowe) and his young pickpocket pals are sent out by their mentor Jimmy Hook (Rhys Ifans) to steal a magical orb, which inadvertently transports them all to another world, called Neverland. This mysterious realm includes the power-mad Elizabeth Bonny (Anna Friel) and her band of 18th Century pirates, trapped and in search of the secret to the tree spirits’ magical mineral dust, in order to have the power to fly. As the fight to protect and save this strange and beautiful world escalates, Peter and his crew must face harsh realities, as they learn that never growing up might be preferable to growing up like the corrupt Hook.
During a recent interview to promote the SyFy debut of Neverland, co-stars Rhys Ifans and Anna Friel talked about how they came to be playing such captivating characters, how thrilling it was to be a part of this new backstory, showing the evolution of the Peter and Hook relationship, and what they enjoy most about working in the fantasy genre. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: How did you become involved with this project?
ANNA FRIEL: I just read the script and loved it. It was one of the best things I’d read. I loved the fantastical elements in it. I loved the idea of playing a baddie, and being a female baddie, and introducing a new character. I had a conversation with Nick, on the phone, and he spoke so eloquently about the story and what he intended to do with it, and how to work within in that budget, and how he could make that world become true. He told me that it would be one of the most fun shoots I ever did, and it ended up being that.
RHYS IFANS: I hadn’t met Nick. I was sitting in a bar, in a beautiful village in Spain, and I received this script and read it, in one go. That’s my measuring stick for any script. If you don’t put it down, it’s worth considering. And, Nick pretty much said the same to me, that it would be a joyous experience, telling a beautiful story that explains another story that we’re all familiar with. On a personal level for Hook, Nick’s version goes a long way into explaining the Hook we see in the novel, describing his pain and psychosis, and his arrival at the embodiment of evil.
Were you fans of Peter Pan, growing up?
FRIEL: Yeah, I grew up with the story. I’d seen it in many versions and watched all the films. Having a six-year-old daughter encouraged that much more ‘cause she’s a massive fan. I loved the new take on this story and the introduction of a very new character. Wendy was never my favorite, and apart from her, there were never any female roles to be offered, in this wonderful story. I was very grateful to (writer/director) Nick [Willing] for creating one.
IFANS: Not so much the novel, but I was familiar with the many variations and guises that the story has presented in, over the years, be it in film or on the stage. Everyone in the Western world has been touched by Peter Pan, in some way, in their life. It was a thrill to have a lot of it explained, as Nick has so eloquently done, in this film.
What were the biggest challenges in bringing these iconic characters to life while still making them your own?
FRIEL: Nick set the tone for it all, saying that he wanted individual and unique performances ‘cause it was a part of the story that we’d never heard before. My character was completely created and invented, and it’s always hard to accept a character that people will maybe not like, but Nick encouraged that and said, “Go as far as you want with that.” We had a great rehearsal process, in which Rhys and I played around a lot with their different characteristics and how those two came together and what led Hook to be intrigued by this incredibly powerful woman, who used her prowess and her femininity to get what she wanted.
Rhys, in taking on such an iconic character as Hook, what was your level of excitement, as opposed to your level of intimidation?
IFANS: The boots that you have to fill are literally big. There have been so many Hooks, and each and every one of them has worn big boots, but it wasn’t intimidating. Because it was a backstory, I just wanted to show what every other Hook throughout history had been thinking of, in subtext. I just played everyone’s subtext, and I hope they’re grateful for that. It was really hard work.
What was it like to work with Charlie Rowe and develop the relationship between Hook and Peter?
IFANS: I was not working with a boy. I was working with a professional actor, from the very beginning to the very end. I can put my hand on my heart and say that he is one of the most professional, eloquent young men that I’ve ever worked with, so that was a pleasure, from the off set. You see this huge change in the character he becomes. He develops and gets all these new adult emotions, and struggles with the morality that Hook and Bonny present him with. It’s a really, really mature performance. Between him, Anna and Nick, I felt in the safest hands I’ve ever been in.
Do you see the relationship between Hook and Peter, with the boy who wants to grow up and the man who doesn’t, as a universal and modern story?
IFANS: What Hook and Peter are presented with, when they arrive in Neverland, is the prospect of eternal life. In many ways, Hook is a lost boy, but a grown man. It was interesting to explore what the offer of eternal life does to a boy, and what the offer of eternal life does to a man. I think it makes a man greedy because a man is closer to death than a child. Eternity to a child offers goodness, and eternal life to a man is essentially corrupting because it involves a certain amount of vanity to embrace it.
FRIEL: No story had ever before explained why Hook despises Peter so much, and what fascinated me with this script is that you get the story before. Why does this man hate this boy so much? In this case, he doesn’t hate him, he’s just very torn. I think it’s a great arrival at the story we all know. That’s what I found most fascinating, and that’s what Nick cleverly did by giving the backstory of the past between them. Nick created that really beautifully.
IFANS: It’s something that works on very modern levels, with father-son relationships. Hook grew up in a very sexually repressed, Edwardian society, and a lot of what Captain Bonny offers him is total and utter sexual liberation. When you give that to a man, everything else falls by the wayside, including their sons.
Rhys, did you have to learn the swordplay for this role?
IFANS: I’d kind of done it many years ago, in grammar school. There were several injuries, so I wasn ’t the greatest swordsman. But, it was really exciting to fight Anna and Charlie [Rowe]. It’s quite a thrill. Initially, it took some time to pick it up again, but as the shoot went on, rehearsal times got less and less and less. It’s more of a dance than a combat.
Anna, with Neverland and with your previous TV show Pushing Daisies, you were given an opportunity to build a character, from the ground up. As an actor, is that preferable for you, or do you prefer to have a little history for a role?
FRIEL: When you’re given something new, it’s always exciting ‘cause you’re the first one to do it. You’re not having to live up to any expectations, or be compared to anyone who’s ever done it before. There are pros and cons of both of them. You can watch other Peter Pans and other Hooks, and try to do variations on them, which neither Rhys nor Charlie did. They completely did their own inventions of age-old characters and storytelling. For me, I always like a challenge. I like to have things that excite me. This was something new, and another box to be ticked. I’d never played a character like this before. It’s always hard playing a character that people won’t like, and that’s usually the role and job of Hook. The fact that Nick wrote a very complex Hook and gave him a backstory, and showed where his dark side came from, and to be influenced by a woman, was quite an interesting thing to look at.
What were some of the challenges in playing a female pirate captain and making her watchable and likable, while still having a tough edge that wasn’t going to take crap from anybody?
FRIEL: Getting into really tight leather trousers and corsets every day was the hardest thing. And, having to use a sword while wrapped up in a tight corset was a challenge. At least, I didn’t have to fly. That must have been the hardest thing for Charlie [Rowe]. I don’t look back at the experience and think of anything being hard. I just found it fantastic fun. Maybe keeping the massive hats on with the wind machines was hard. Other than that, I have nothing but really fond memories of it. Remaining likable wasn’t my aim. It wasn’t something I thought I had to do. It was just about becoming the character and finding an accent that felt like she came from the 1700’s. Also, my biggest question to Nick, when I accept the role, was, “How is it going to be believable that, as small as I am, I run this ship, surrounded by this huge, massive, burly men? Who’s going to take me seriously?” And Nick said, “Well, go online and research female captains and pirates.” I did and I came across a wonderful one, called Granuaile, who I’ve since become obsessed with, and it’s a story that we don’t know. At that time, so many years ago, there were certain women who ruled the seas.
Rhys, as an actor, do you enjoy doing period films more than modern-day projects?
IFANS: The joy of a period film is that you’re taken to another world. The costumes determine the way you move, and then consequently the way you breathe. And then, the way you breathe effects the way you think. All those things are more of a transformation, especially in this case and in Anonymous. It is joyous for any actor to enter other grounds of consciousness and thought. At the end of the day, we just all like dressing up and playing around.
What were your impressions of the final product of this film?
FRIEL: In absolute honesty, whenever you’re doing film for television and you look at the budget that you have, which is much more constricted than a movie budget, you think, “God, are they going to be able to do what they say they are?” When I sat down to watch this, I was absolutely blown away with the number of effects on a TV budget. They’ve done absolutely all they could. I think it’s spectacular, and it’s everything that we imagined, with all those photographs that Nick had on a big board when he said, “Don’t see green. This is what you’re going to see.” I watched it in various stages, when you could still see bits of green screen. When I finally saw the final version, not that long ago, I was really, really impressed. Everything that we’d been shown and told they would do, they did, and that doesn’t happen very often.
IFANS: When we did the green screen stuff, and there was quite a bit of it, the most thrilling part for me, each and every day, was coming on set, into this eternity of green, and having Nick describe to us, the world that we were entering. He described it like the best storyteller you’ve ever heard, and it was so inspiring to hear him create these worlds with words. We had some photographic help, but his excitement in describing these worlds was so addictive, in a way. That’s what every child does, when they play. A stick can become a snake or a sword, or whatever you want. It engages your imagination, in almost a theatrical way. So, I found it absolutely liberating and thrilling to work on a green screen. And then finally, when we got to see it, it was just a thrill beyond words.
FRIEL: Nick is very much an actor’s director. He was meticulous in his direction. There’s only so much that computer work can do. It starts off with the writing, the direction, and then the performances.
What do you guys enjoy most about working in the fantasy genre?
FRIEL: The most exciting was having a real ship to work on. I love that aspect of it. The fact that we are in a real environment on a real ship allowed us to suspend our disbelief much more easily, when it came to working on so much green screen. Nick also really cleverly gave us fantastic visuals of what we would be seeing and what we’d be looking at. It was like being a child with the most fantastic dressing up box that you could ever imagine or wish to have. It was all about play.
IFANS: For me, just the whole feeling of transporting was great. We shot the film in Ireland, so we felt far away from everything. We were pleasantly isolated and left alone, so we were able to indulge and invent this visual banquet that Nick’s created, and really indulge that and play in it. No one is going to have to leave the comfort of their own home to be transported to such a magical place, and that’s what the novel does. When you read the novel, it very much happens in a household, in a bedroom and in a living room. That’s the emotional HQ. Also, doing it with television offered us more time to explore. If this was a 90-minute movie feature, we wouldn’t have been able to explore half the psychological dynamics that Nick has been able to, in a three- hour epic for TV. It was just a thrill, from beginning to end.