Interviews, Legion, TV

Legion Season 2: star Dan Stevens on understanding David Haller

If you caught Legion Season 1 last spring, you are probably obsessed with it like we are and have no doubt spent a year eagerly awaiting the next instalment. With Season 2 finally set to air this week (17 April at 9pm on FOX), actor Dan Stevens speaks about his character David Haller, the fan reaction to the show, background reading and more…

What do fans say when they approach you about the show? Are they confused about how much of the story unfolds inside the characters’ heads, and what it all means?

Dan Stevens: The most common response I’ve had is, “I’ve no idea what’s going on but I’m loving it.” I think it’s kind of like a great novel: 20 pages in, you don’t want the book to be like, “And everybody lived happily ever after.” If this is an 800-page undertaking that you’re going for, you want the writer to rope you in, take you around some paths and show you some weird stuff, then hopefully bring you out at the end with some kind of sensation. And I think with a continuing series, the trick is to keep that dance going, keep that play going. But I think people are allowed to enjoy their confusion. That’s something that we very much want to encourage.

Are you and the other actors still trying to figure out what it all means yourselves?

There’s no point in trying to be too in charge of your own narrative five episodes ahead when that’s not really your department. And actually, what the show demands is an incredible presence of mind so that in each individual moment we’re not, like, “Oh, now we’re in crazy mode, and now we’re in normal mode” – it’s just Legion. And it’s very playful, so it’s about keeping on your toes and not being too surprised by what comes along. But they take a lot of unpeeling, the scripts. And every time the next hour comes in, it will reconfigure what you’re thinking about the current hour that you’re working on. But it’s very neatly-shaped. I like the shape of Legion.

What was it about the show that drew you to it?

The quality of writing is always at the front of my mind; also, the quality of conceptual thinking for something on this scale. And that’s the thing I like about the weird corner of the Marvel universe that Legion occupies: there’s quite a transcendental sense to the space that it occupies. [It’s] the battle of good and evil, always, but our modern mythology is being very much placed in the hands of these superheroes, or whatever you want to call them, and we’re a play in that mythological basket. The Legion corner is a pretty weird one, but it’s a fun place to bat around some big ideas.

David Haller had a rough go of it in Season 1

Is the character of David, with all that’s going on inside his head, affecting your own daily life, even when the cameras stop rolling?

I’m sure it is. I couldn’t tell you how, but I find everything I do always affects me in some way. It certainly affects my reading: I find myself browsing different shelves in the bookshop as a result of working on this, just with the things I’m asked to explore and ideas I’m encouraged to invite.

So I’ve broadened my reading habits. I recently was looking at – and this was in a secondhand bookshop, because that’s where you find the good stuff – a small-press book called To Fathom Hell Or Soar Angelic. It was about the psychedelic treatment of psychiatric patients in the West Country in England, and it goes right back to [the writer Aldous] Huxley and his early explorations, and how that fell into modern psychiatry.

That’s a book I would never have had cause to pick up three years ago, so I have a revised appreciation of mental illness, which is always useful. It’s a whole world of reading and study that it’s opened up that I’d never looked at closely before.

How did this book inform your understanding of the world of Legion?

It seems to tie in very neatly with Legion that there’s documented evidence for a certain kind of mental illness that can be accessed through psychedelics, and where people have a collective experience – that there’s not just one crazy person, but they’re seeing something, they’re experiencing something. And so the idea of the astral plane that we get to play with, and the idea of minds meeting in a space and battling, or relationships playing out that are not just corporeal or confined to the limits of our individual interactions but actually taking place in this epic psychic playground – that’s very fertile ground for storytelling. And it was just so wild to find similar concepts in a book that had no knowledge or reason to engage with Legion. But I’m suddenly reading these things and going, “Wow, it’s real.”

What else have you been reading that relates to the show?

Something else fun I read the other day was from Brancusi, the sculptor. And he said – I’m going to paraphrase this – “They’re idiots who call my work abstract. Actually, what I’m getting at is the essence of things.” So yes, his sculptures look very unusual, and they’re not necessarily representative of something that we see right here. But he’s saying, “No, what I’m getting at is more truthful – it’s not a sculpture of this cup, it’s actually the essence of this cup.” I really liked that.

The show’s been warmly received all over the world. Has anything struck you about the fan reaction?

I did notice, in London, a lot of guys in their 30s coming up to me and wanting me to know how much they enjoyed it. Maybe I haven’t done many jobs that merit that kind of approach before, but that particular demographic seemed quite interesting to me. It was a show that older comic-book fans felt they could sit down and watch with their girlfriend and/or partner, and it would be a different kind of experience.

And I think that’s the thing about Legion, it feels more like an experience than a direct, linear narrative. It’s actually something that you sit down and you just enjoy for an hour, because that’s now what our consumption has kind of become. We have a choice – like, I’m going to sit down with Twin Peaks for an hour and lose my mind. And Legion, I think, has a similar kind of prescription. And so that was interesting to feel kind of that love.

Legion Season 2 premieres 17 April at 9pm on FOX. Get all the latest sci-fi news with every issue of SciFiNow.

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