Only a handful of episodes remain in the first half of HBO’s period fantasy The Nevers and it looks like the show plans to end, not with a whisper, but with a gunpowder-fueled, opium-spewing, orgy-hosting bang.
And stars James Norton and Tom Riley are likely to be right in the middle of it. Norton plays the promiscuous, pansexual nobleman Hugo Swann, who has been busy building an underground nightclub filled with adult entertainment courtesy of the Touched — Londonites who were gifted with extraordinary abilities after a mysterious event threatened the societal hierarchy three years prior. Riley’s stutteringly-shy Augie Bidlow is another nobleman, pulled into Swann’s schemes thanks to their schoolboy friendship, who’s hiding secrets of his own. Though the women front most of the action, both of these characters have major roles to play in an oncoming battle that may decide the fate of the Touched — and of the world.
We chatted with Norton and Riley about where their characters might be headed, the logistics of building a burlesque club underground, and whether either of them is placing bets on rumors that Norton might be in the running to be the next James Bond.
The show picks up three years after this mysterious event. How much did you know about your characters and where they were headed when you came on board?
James Norton: Why we all, I guess, jumped on board was because our characters were immediately intriguing and there’s a lot going on. For me personally, there were so many questions asked about [Hugo’s] history, his past with his father and brother, and his friendship with Augie. There was an enormous amount there to go on and at the same time, we took a lot of pleasure in going away and filling in the gaps — making this even richer and delving deeper. We still don’t know really where we’re all going to end up, so a lot of it is speculation and that keeps you guessing.
So you’re as in the dark as we are, then?
Tom Riley: We have a vague idea of our individual journeys and an even vaguer idea of the universal journey, but you never know where things are going to go and how things going to change. And obviously, with the season being split — we haven’t even seen the scripts for the next six [episodes]. So we’re going to be as in the dark as the viewer by the time they get to the wild finale of this first half. Things are about to go bonkers in episodes five and six.
Is there a decision that will be made by either of these men in the next two episodes that will really change things — for them personally or in a larger context for the show?
TR: From the beginning, Augie is going through the most fundamental moment of change in his entire life because he is ‘touched’ unlike most of his class and most of his gender. For whatever reason, he has been blessed and cursed with this power. He is going through a moment of huge personal growth but who knows which direction that will lead him?
JN: With Hugo, he’s set up as very contradictory and I hope the audience will be split really down the middle. I hope that lots of people will be sort of seduced by him. And then I think others will be offended by him and that’s kind of what we hope, that’s the intention is that he is both dangerous and delightful, and I think you could either way with him. You can go really dark and also you could sort of explore his humanity. I kind of hope we do both throughout. I think that he will consistently be a big pot of contradiction.
Hugo is engaged with the touched in a way that doesn’t represent his social standing. Most of the people in his world are very threatened by the touched. He’s actually one of the very few who’s recognized that not only are they a benefit to society, but they also can be used for his own selfish gain. So he does engage with them, he gives them a sanctuary. That decision is going to be a very big turning point in his life, for better or for worse.
This show does a lot of world-building. Like, literally, you’ve built an underground network of caves for this latest episode. Were those underground orgy scenes as weird to film as they sound like they’d be?
TR: [laughs] I get to play the guy who literally walks through the whole place going, ‘Oh! Oh no!’ I didn’t have to be as comfortable in that sort of insane world that we built in this [network] of caves in the South of England. The hundreds of extra circus performers? I mean, it was not a normal day at work.
JN: It was really fun. There was this insane number of very talented burlesque dancers, circus performers, people swinging from ropes and ceilings, like contortion artists. That was kind of a pleasure to be amongst because these people are just so skilled. Actually, this is a really weird thing to say, but I have had a few orgy scenes in my career. One thing which always strikes me is how bad the smell is. Like when you get a mass of naked bodies, it really pongs. But this was a very well-ventilated cave.
Hugo is pansexual and he’s very open with his sexuality, which feels different for a period piece. Was it important to get that right on-screen?
JN: I think it’s important for the audience and what he represents in a modern context. I don’t think that Hugo himself necessarily recognizes the kind of moral conversation around that — his own sexuality and the choices which he makes in regard to the people who he sleeps with. But obviously, whether he likes it or not, he is a representative for the modern progressive world where boundaries have been broken down and we are far more accepting of people and their needs and desires. That’s what was lovely about the conflict of this character, he was both incredibly traditional and very much part of the establishment and in some ways, a really dark and sort of questionable man. And in other ways, he is a symbol for progress and for inclusivity and acceptance and all the good things. So I mean, we recognized the importance of that and the conversation which that brings about. Whether Hugo does is another question.
TR: I thought you said something really interesting about the way Hugo behaves and Hugo’s sexuality. He takes it almost for granted because of the privilege that he comes from. Other people in society wouldn’t necessarily get away with what he gets away with, they would be locked up for it. But because Hugo comes with a certain amount of privilege, he gets away with everything. Which I think is another interesting thing to examine.
JN: Yes, you’re right. Comparing Hugo to Frank — obviously, they’ve had a relationship – Frank is a police officer who was probably arresting gay men and women and putting them in jail and knowing that if he was caught, he would also be a victim of that same discrimination. You could give Hugo an undeserved amount of respect and integrity for the bravery which he presents and the choices he makes. But actually, it’s simply due to the fact that he has a trust fund to bail him out whenever it needs.
Where are you ranking in the “Next James Bond” debate as of now, James? And Tom, have you placed any bets yet?
TR: Oh, I’ve already put my money on it. [To James] I hope this isn’t crazy, but I’ve actually put 100,000 pounds on you doing this.
So if this doesn’t pan out, you could be homeless.
TR: Exactly, it’s like, my house depends on this one.
JN: [laughs] What can I say without digging a hole …? I know I can say something safely. [To Tom] You’re an idiot and you need to go and see someone about your gambling issues. It’s ridiculous.