In Marvel’s X-Men comic books and movies, certain humans are born with or develop mutant abilities — superpowers essentially, and a premise familiar to genre fans. Add to that formula Fargo series creator Noah Hawley, and the concept is suddenly not quite so simple.
It becomes Legion.
In the new FX series that premieres February 8, Dan Stevens plays David Haller, the mutant who comic book fans know will become Legion, but this show is not X-Men Origins: Legion.
Legion begins with David in an institution undergoing treatment for what have been diagnosed as mental disorders. As David begins regressing through his memories, he meets other characters claiming that they have the answers, but some are real and others are only in his head. Melanie (Jean Smart) tries to guide David through his own internal memories to unlock what she believes are mutant powers.
Stevens spoke with Rotten Tomatoes at the Fox and FX party for the Television Critics Association. The British actor became internationally famous on Downton Abbey as the estate’s heir and Lady Mary’s love interest Matthew Crawley, then starred in the cult film The Guest, the Liam Neeson drama A Walk Among the Tombstones, and family film Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. He next will appear as the titular beast in upcoming live-action Disney film Beauty and the Beast.
Find out how Stevens brought Legion to life for Hawley’s vision. (Also read our interview with executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner and Stevens’ Legion costars.)
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: Were you discovering David as every script came in?
Dan Stevens: It is a mysterious role. To an extent, yes. Some of it was shaped and formed in early conversations with Noah, the little information he gave me. Then it was up to me really to research, look back at the comics. We’re not adapting any of the comics directly, but there are certain elements of the various incarnations of Legion over the years that infuse the part. Physicality particularly. It was kind of a game of cat and mouse with Noah, really picking out the information that we needed to get going. There was also a lot of invention and imagination as well. It felt like a very alive production in that sense; that we were all figuring out between us what was going on and who’s who in David’s world.
RT: Do you have some superior knowledge to David because you know there are X-Men comics, you know there are X-Men movies, you know what mutants are?
Stevens: Yes, this is true, but I think other characters were given more information than I was about what was going on.
RT: Really? Who knew more than you?
Stevens: I don’t know.
RT: Jean Smart?
Stevens: Probably. Aubrey [Plaza], for example. Aubrey claims to know a lot more than me, but maybe she was just fucking with me. There was a lot of that going on. I think Noah deliberately kept me in the dark to begin with. I think for David, every single one of those realities for him is real. Any amount of knowledge would kind of give an indication as to which one is less real, and you start playing it in a different way. If you play this could be real right now, this particular scenario we find David in, and just living in that space where Oh, maybe this is the real one, however crazy it seems was a very fun way of plotting a script, each script that came in. They were wild.
RT: Is this at all what you expected when you signed on?
Stevens: Yeah, I think so. I suspected it would be really crazy, really cool and really fun, and he’d bring really nice people together. All of those things were true.
RT: Are all the surreal dream visuals, like the giant volume knob, all practical on the set?
Stevens: Yeah, the giant volume knob was the last thing I shot. It was an idea that we had. And the closeup on Jean’s mouth as she says, “giant knob.” Yeah, they made a real giant knob.
RT: Does Melanie actually have answers for David or just more questions?
Stevens: Well, she has answers but he doesn’t really understand them. I think it’s a unique experience for both of them. She hasn’t encountered anyone quite like David since her husband.
RT: You sort of played a superhero in The Guest. Was there any connection between The Guest and Legion?
Stevens: I couldn’t say really. That’s probably a question for Noah, but I’m fairly sure that I wouldn’t have been in the running for something like Legion without The Guest. I think the kind of mischievous darkness we found in that film has definitely infused a few other things I’ve done.
RT: But you weren’t thinking about The Guest when you dove into David?
Stevens: No, not really, but I guess no more than in all the roles you play are vaguely a part of you somewhere. Yeah, I think there’s tremendous darkness in David, and I think the potential for that, and Aubrey’s character Lenny — the involvement of that character definitely occupies a Guesty sort of mischievously dark place. I wouldn’t say any more than that.
RT: Have you at all mapped out what the powers or rules of the abstract logic are?
Stevens: I kind of have, but I’m not sure I could put it into words really. It’s more of a shape.
RT: Is Legion coming out at the exact right time where the real world is so surreal from moment to moment, we all kind of feel like David?
Stevens: I think that’s a very salient point. When you think we started filming this in February, the pilot, and we wrapped in November, the week of the election, we were working this over the crazy summer of ’16. I think [Hawley]’s got an interesting take on the comic book genre. It’s playful in the way that comic books are. They invite your engagement and your filling in the blanks.