Legion may be the latest comic-based series from the Marvel hit factory — an X-Men universe tale for FX starring Downton Abbey actor Dan Stevens playing the powerful omega-mutant son of Professor X — but this won’t remind you of any other Marvel title. As envisioned by Fargo writer-producer Noah Hawley, Legion is something completely new in Marvel-verse — a brain-bending story of a mental patient who falls in love with a girl who refuses to be touched (Rachel Keller) and struggles to determine what’s real. Below we spoke to Hawley about his new series, which premieres Feb. 8.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did Legion first get on your radar?
Noah Hawley:It came to me at that early stage when nobody had an idea. Right after the first season of Fargo, Gina Balian at FX asked me if this was a world I was interested in. Peter Rice, who oversees television at Fox, was the executive who worked on the first movie, and I met with [X-Men producers] Lauren Donner and Simon Kinberg. My goal was to find a great show in there that I wanted to make. In a lot of ways, it was more about me than the comics. There are hundreds of characters and stories worth telling. I just wanted to find one that I wanted to tell with characters from this world.
There have been so many superhero shows and movies. What do you tend to like, or not, as a viewer?
What attracted me to this genre — and to genre stories in general — is the sense of wonder and inventiveness and the creativity. Say with Battlestar Galactica where the cylons were driven by a belief in god — that was a profoundly eye-opening idea and allowed that show to look at religion in a completely different way. There’s an inventiveness when you can use the genre elements to heighten certain themes of character crisis. Not that Fargo is grounded 100 percent in reality — unless you’re a big believer in UFOs — but I wanted to make something playful, where at least once an hour your mind was blown a little bit. If you can give an audience that, it’s something really rare. And at the same time, I wanted to make it a grounded character drama where the stakes and the struggle is real. Obviously, I wasn’t looking to do something easy.
Speaking of the tightrope, Marvel has a reputation for being very hands on. You very much have your own vision. What was that relationship like and was there anything in particular that was debated during the development of the show?
There’s no drama there, really, to talk about. It was a very positive relationship. Obviously, this show is a dramatic departure from their other shows. They’re controlling a roll-out of a series of characters on Netflix that are interconnected. So there’s a game-plan there for all of those pieces. This is a satellite that they didn’t generate and wasn’t trying to fit in and was something the network wanted. So [Marvel TV chief] Jeph Loeb offered me guidance. He has an objective eye on the fan base and how these stories tend to be received and gave me things to think about, either incorporating characters from the comic or creating them on my own — which I tended to do more than not. It was a helpful gauge. This is not a world that I’m used to telling stories in.
What’s something specific he said in terms of being helpful?
We went to Comic-Con and he told me this is very emotional for the fans. It was a surprisingly emotional experience for myself. You have a large fan base and a lot of them feel like outsiders. A lot of them feel like these stories are for people like them who don’t fit in and find a purpose and find a home. That’s very powerful for them and we have a responsibility as storytellers to give them that sense. I took that to heart and I think there’s an underlying idea of tolerance and identity baked into X-Men in general. David and other characters have been defined by society as one way — they’re sick, they’re mentally ill. And then slowly they realize they have these abilities. But 20 years have gone by and that sense of identity is hard baked. When you’re told at a young age there’s something wrong with you then you grow up thinking there’s something wrong with you, and a lot of what the show is about is un-baking that. What they thought was an illness is actually a strength. The show found itself being about battling the enemy within more than without, which I think sets it apart from many stories in this genre.
Can you give us any sense of the mutant powers you’re working with in the first season?
David has psychic abilities — telepathy and telekinesis among other things. He’s an omega mutant, he’s very powerful. Syd who’s played by Rachel Keller doesn’t like to be touched. If she touches your skin she trades places with you, her mind goes into your body and the other way around. We have an actor, Jeremie Harris, who plays a character named Ptonomy. He’s a memory artist. He remembers everything, and has the ability to take people back into their own memories, and helps David get into his mind. And there are other characters with other powers, but those are the main ones.
Is Jean Smart’s character a mutant as well?
Telling stories of people with mental health problems is challenging because an audience can get frustrated by the character’s situation. Are you concerned that you’re giving viewers a steep hill to climb?
I’m not concerned about it because I have Dan Stevens. The minute I got Dan I stopped worrying about it. I was worried about it — not necessarily the mental illness part of it, but anytime you have a character who’s inwardly focused, who’s struggling with themselves, for awhile the audience has this “just move on and get over yourself” instinct and that’s tough to overcome. And I knew I stacked the deck because we meet this guy who’s institutionalized and having a hard time. But then he meets this girl and he falls in love and he wants to get better. He wants to be healthy and he wants to be with her and we want that too. It’s very positive to root for. So even though you may not be exactly sure of what’s real, you want them to be real, you want that love story to be real. You always have to worry if your characters don’t want something if they’re not striving toward something, that sense of hope is so critical for an audience to be able to grab onto it. We all want to be happy or healthy in the long run.
Stevens was a great choice because he can play the ultra-normal leading man so easily that by giving him these other qualities he’s able to balance it out.
He’s great. I was amazed he was available, honestly, his range is incredible. I feel like not only is a great romantic lead, he’s very vulnerable and also very strong. He’s always looking for a solution to a problem and you can feel that on his face. And he’s not afraid of the genre-ness of it, he came in and threw himself into all of it.
Stylistically, it was interesting because watching Fargo reminds you of the Coen Bros. but watching this reminded me of British filmmakers like Danny Boyle.
When I wrote the script I assumed it was set in present day and in our world, and I think the network assumed that too. Then when it came time to make it I thought about it more as a fable on some level and I realized I wanted to make something subjective. Which is to say this whole show is not the world, it’s David’s experience of the world. He’s piecing his world together from nostalgia and memory and the world becomes that. I found myself watching A Clockwork Orange and Quadrophenia and a lot of ’60s British films. Yet there are elements that are futuristic too. You’ll notice there’s only one car in the whole first hour, and not many in the whole season, because cars really date something. Costume wise Clockwork had a specific look to it that I wanted to play with. I wanted to create a world that had its own rules, and that was about putting you into David’s head and seeing things that are there or aren’t there. You wonder: Who is this guy if everything he’s thought about himself is wrong?
You get asked this in every Legion interview, but wondering if there’s anything new to be said on whether the show will have any cross-over elements with other properties in the X-Men or Marvel universe.
I’m firm believer the show has to stand on its own two feet. For a crossover to be possible we have to earn that right through the quality of our storytelling and hopefully our popularity. David’s origin story hasn’t changed, so we haven’t changed that connection to the X-Men universe.
Are there any tropes of the genre you specifically want to avoid? Like, “There will be no capes”?
No, I don’t care. There may be capes. There might not be flying capes. There might be like a count or Visigoth with a cape … I did want to be very careful about sending a message that all conflict can only be resolved through battle. There is a sense in a lot of these stories that everything always builds to a big fight. And certainly, if you’re doing a story about outsiders and empathy, I didn’t want to be drawn into the gravitational pull of that white hat vs black hat. I wanted to find a story that was just as exciting and interesting but doesn’t send the message that in the end that “might makes right.” That was very much on my mind while making this who.
You do realize that “building everything to a big fight” is Marvel’s storytelling model for every movie they make.
I guess I’m a subversive.