So FX is putting on an X-Men TV show. Cool, right? It won’t have Wolverine, but Legion is a rad character with telekinetic powers he could use to save humans from trouble every week.
But — not so fast — Legion isn’t a that kind of superhero show.
Dan Stevens stars as David Haller, who comic book readers know as the mutant with an Eraserhead haircut. At the outset, he has neither the haircut nor the powers — or, at least, not the ability to do anything with them.
The show, from Fargo creator Noah Hawley, begins with David in an institution where doctors believe he has a mental illness. The more David travels through his own memories and dreams, the closer he gets to realizing he is not sick, but instead has powerful abilities.
Melanie (Jean Smart) is instrumental in recruiting David for mutant testing. Rachel Keller, Amber Midhunter, and Jeremie Harris play characters helping David through his memories. Aubrey Plaza plays Lenny, a woman who was in the institution with David, and Katie Aselton plays David’s sister, Amy.
Series executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner has been with the X-Men franchise since bringing the first film to the screen in 2000. She and cast members Keller, Midhunter, Harris, and Aselton spoke to Rotten Tomatoes about the series at the Fox and FX party for the Television Critics Association in January, and we caught up with Plaza by phone. (You can also read our interview with Stevens.)
Here are 10 totally mental things they told us to expect from Legion.
Forget what you think you know about Legion. He’ll still have the same powers, but how they manifest could lead to new surprises.
“The whole show is kind of a mystery because [of the] fractured storytelling, unreliable narrator, memories within memories,” Shuler Donner said. “So it’s all a mystery, but the powers will be what you expect them to be. When you first see the first episodes, he’s not in touch with his powers. It will be revealed as the season goes on.”
The mix of Legion’s styles is so vast that both Keller and Plaza compared it to performance art.
“If you were working on an experimental theater piece, you sort of let yourself surrender to the project and just go with it, whatever it is,” Keller said.
Plaza called it a hybrid of theater and film: “It felt almost at times like performance art or like we were shooting a Kubrick movie.”
That’s what Shuler Donner was thinking too, but she cited even more of cinema’s most distinctive voices.
It’s not random that Plaza is playing a character named Lenny. The role was originally written as a 50-year-old man.
“I thought it was really interesting that he would change the gender for me and allow me to take on that character and not change anything specifically to make Lenny a woman, which is what I said to him,” Plaza said. “I didn’t want him to change any of the dialogue. I said, ‘If you want me to the part then just leave the lines the same, and I’ll just scoot right in there and do my thing.’”
Since so much of Legion takes place inside David’s head, there are plenty of opportunities for surreal visuals. The cast’s favorite is a giant volume knob which appears in episode two.
“I have a picture by that knob,” Keller said. “I love that knob.”
Midhunter also took a picture of the knob. Another effect has David telekinetically turn his kitchen into a tornado of refrigerator and pantry debris. That was a mix of practical debris and visual effects.
“It’s a composite,” Shuler Donner said. “Most of it is computer generated, but there is some stuff in there. They blew it out. It’s many, many, many composites.”
Amy just wants her brother to get better. Once David starts exploring his own psyche, things get strange for Amy too.
“At the end of [episode] two that’s when things really turn,” Aselton said. “Things get real weird. I start dipping into the other world. I do end up in a bizarre stage. It’s so weird. It’s bizarre.”
Right in the first episode, Stevens and Keller do a Bollywood style dance number. Plaza gets a few moves in too. Shuler Donner said to expect more weird moments, but alas no more musical numbers.
“Yes, you can expect a lot of weirdness,” Shuler Donner said. “More dance numbers? No.”
In each level of David’s reality, Stevens’ costars have to present different performances of their roles.
“I think that when there are different levels of reality to be played, to make it feel different, that’s kind of necessary,” Midhunter said.
For David’s sister, that’s especially poignant.
“I think it’s interesting to think about our worlds and that you have your reality and I have my reality and she has her reality and she has her reality,” Aselton said. “I think what Legion does is really examine all of it.”
Harris said his performance follows David: “I kind of go where he goes, if that makes sense. I go where he goes or where his mind goes.”
Plaza has done drama before in films like Ned Rifle (pictured) and Joshy, so her range shouldn’t surprise anyone. Some of Lenny’s scenes are so macabre that you’d have to laugh anyway, but Plaza was not playing her as comic relief.
“I don’t think about it like that,” Plaza said. “I’m just interested in playing the character and playing the truth of the character. I’m not really approaching it in any kind of tonal way. I never tried to be funny so if people laugh at her, I guess it’s like anything else.”
Legion is really a show with no rules, so it can explore any artistic or psychological angle from week to week. The cast agreed that they did whatever Hawley asked, whether they understood it or not.
“I think the producers have been very open about the fact that we have a really different sort of superhero show,” Midhunter said. “It doesn’t fall into any sort of category of anything you’ve seen before. So I think just setting that as a rule has been very freeing for what we’re doing.”
Legion was full of surprises for Keller, even having worked with Hawley before on Fargo.
“I did not know what to expect, so I was surprised and shocked along the way at all times,” Keller said. “It sort of paralleled the journey our characters go on, but I was going with the ride of it all and just being present with the turns that we took.”
Plaza hopes Legion will open viewers’ minds to a new way to experience television.
“It’s a really psychedelic, trippy show,” she said. “I think the nonlinear narrative structure allows people’s minds to expand and view the show in a different way than they might view other shows.”
As if playing a role written for a man wasn’t fluid enough, Plaza revealed that she’s going to appear as physically different versions of Lenny. She has done prosthetic work, including letting the makeup artists take a plaster mold of her head, and will wear prosthetics to change Lenny’s appearance.
“I got to do a couple different looks on the show using prosthetics,” Plaza said. “I haven’t been able to play a character that goes through quite a transformation like this before.”
Head casts can take hours, and Plaza recalled listening to Pink Floyd music as she waited for the cast to dry.
“That was the first time I ever had a head cast done,” Plaza said. “They covered me up and put on some music. I just kind of rocked out for a little bit, zoned out.It’s fun to let your body be a canvas for these special effects artists.”
Legion premieres Wednesday, February 8 at 10 p.m. on FX. Also read our interview with series star Dan Stevens.