The Nevers' Olivia Williams and Pip Torrens on Playing Aristocrats Among Superheroes

Olivia Williams as Lavinia Bidlow.
Olivia Williams as Lavinia Bidlow.
Photo: Keith Bernstein/HBO

HBO’s new sci-fi fantasy series The Nevers focuses on a group of (mostly) women suddenly imbued with superpowers in Victorian London. But circling around the main characters are several frenemies and outright foes—including a pair of slippery aristocrats played by Olivia Williams and Pip Torrens.

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Lavinia Bidlow (Williams) is ostensibly on the side of the “Touched,” the show’s gifted contingent, many of whom live in an orphanage funded by Lavinia’s considerable fortune. But as the first few episodes show, she’s not being completely transparent with the women under her care about her motivations. She also has some stuffy boundaries when it comes to her dealings with them; there’s one scene in particular where she summons several Touched to her palatial estate to demonstrate their “Turns” to her guests, essentially turning their powers into party tricks while discouraging them from doing any social mingling. It’s...problematic, but Lavinia doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

“I think Lavinia is sort of operating under this idea that her vast wealth needs to be put to helping the poor and the outcast,” Williams told io9 at a recent Nevers press roundtable. “But what doesn’t quite fit with this world picture is that this is an incredibly gifted group of people and they’re coming not from the aristocracy. It’s not inherited brilliance, which is what the patriarchy relies on; these are ordinary, working-class people who have extraordinary gifts, like Penance and her inventiveness. And so [Lavinia’s] helping these people but she’s also in a sense harnessing them, and I think it cuts across those assumptions in that way. But both she and [Torrens’ character, Lord Massen] find it extremely uncomfortable that brilliance is coming from ordinary people, when aristocrats are meant to be extraordinary.”

Pip Torrens as Lord Massen, casually holding a bomb.
Pip Torrens as Lord Massen, casually holding a bomb.
Photo: Keith Bernstein/HBO

Lord Massen is more of an obvious antagonist; in the first episode, we see that the magical event that created the Touched, three years prior to The Nevers’ main timeline, apparently claimed the life of someone dear to him. But while that personal tragedy adds some dimension to his distrust of the Touched, he’s also dealing with some deep-seated prejudice that’s more motivated by his position among London’s elite.

“I think one of the reasons I liked the character [of Lord Massen] was he wasn’t a straightforward aristocrat, although he’s someone who, if asked, would clearly regard the class system as an essential part of the social model,” Torrens explained. “He’s a man who’s come from a military career, he’s an industrialist, he’s an arms manufacturer himself, which is highly significant. But he’s also a peer of the realm, so he’s got it every way really. The class system’s highly beneficial for him and he would therefore probably argue that it is essential for the orderly maintenance of society.”

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Torrens pointed out, however, that Massen isn’t as one-note as he initially seems. “What’s fascinating about the script is the way they disassemble the patriarchal notions of class and caste and gender, all kinds of categories to show what unites us is much stronger than what divides us,” the actor said. “You’re not completely clear that that is the overriding theme of things until you’ve committed to the show. But it’s part of the joy of committing to the show, that it’s ultimately a very universal and compassionate theme that’s going to deliver us all from the class system that we’re embedded in, in this case.”

Further, “I think for Massen, the notion of morality is entirely academic. He’s interested in the status quo remaining just that. The thing that possibly awakens a moral sense in him is the knowledge that this has come close to home, this phenomenon,” Torrens said. “So he doesn’t have much of a moral sense, but he has a sense of, I think, compassion on some level—and I think we’re going to see that more and more with his particular secrets being let out of the bag.”

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Another aristocrat we meet on The Nevers is Lavinia’s younger brother, Augustus, also known as “Augie” (played by Tom Riley). Augie has his own share of pressing secrets, and Williams hinted that we’ll be learning more about the tricky dynamic between the siblings as the show progresses. “Lavinia is the elder child, by a long way. By the rules of primogeniture and patriarchy, he should have inherited the fortune, but she has been given control of the money and control of Augie,” William said. “He seems like a sort of slightly harmless idiot and Lavinia is extremely protective of him. She seems to be protecting him from marrying the wrong person for reasons of class. But the question is, is Lavinia protecting Augie from the world...or protecting the world from Augie? [That’s] all I will give you on that one.”

The Nevers first episode aired last night on HBO.

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io9 News Editor, here since 2016. Previously SF Bay Guardian newspaper (RIP), SFSU (MA, Cinema Studies), member of the SF Bay Area Film Critics Circle, big fan of horror, metal, and verrry small dogs.

DISCUSSION

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Brainlock can NOT FKG reply on kinja

there’s one scene in particular where she summons several Touched to her palatial estate to demonstrate their “Turns” to her guests, essentially turning their powers into party tricks while discouraging them from doing any social mingling. It’s...problematic, but Lavinia doesn’t see anything wrong with it.

Did you see the first handful of episodes? Because that sounds like the scene you’re describing at the THEATRE, where her group meets Massen before the performance of Faust. Aside from not letting the ladies show off, they simply describe their talents/turns to him.

Also, the subplot about the Hellfire Club I mean, Hugo Swann’s “secret sex club”, which has a similar name I can NOT find online at the moment! GGRRRRR!!!! anyway, it’s obviously ripping off the X-Men’s aristocratic foes which Chris Claremont “borrowed” the name from the actual Hellfire Club that Ben Franklin once partook in. I know there was a BDSM club named that in NYC up to the 1980s, and Claremont has denied he was a member, BUT.....

and do NOT tell me that Nick Frost’s “Beggar King” was not some Callisto/Shadow King/Kingpin mash, because he totally is.

Anywho....my take was this was Misfits (local astronomic event grants powers to those caught outside) set in Victorian England, toss in a bit of Jules Verne and Sherlock, and Whedon’s patented pro-feminism spins and BAM! you’ve got The Nevers. I’m honestly expecting a guest spot by Joe Gilgun, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, or even Shaun Dooley (Bearded Touched theatre goer??)