Rachel Keller came to the fore in the TV version of Fargo as Simone Gerhardt, where she must have impressed showrunner Noah Hawley because he’s asked her back to star as Syd Barrett in his new show, Legion. Very loosely based on the X-Men comic character, Legion puts a whole new spin on the superhero genre, with the central mutants believing their powers are not not powers but mental illness.
Keller stars along Dan Stevens as David Heller (aka, Legion) and Jean Smart (Melanie) their eventual mentor.
Legion premieres in the UK on FOX on 9 February – read our very spoiler-lite preview here.
After watching the first episode of Legion, is it okay to be totally confused and not know what’s going on?
Yes! It’s cool to start a story and say, “The things you think are going to be the most important things aren’t actually going to be the most important things.” That’s a cool starting point.
How would you sum up the show?
It’s a surrealist drama centred around young people and their self-empowerment.
Okay… we thought it was a superhero show!
Sometimes you remember that it”s also a superhero show! I feel like Noah [Hawley], the creator, is interested in the story and lifting the superhero genre to see if there is a foundation compelling enough to still bring people in. What we are given then, with the genre, is this beautiful prism to look at in a magical way, right? You’re given these powers and abilities, but it’s a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously in that way.
What can you tell us about your character, Syd Barrett? Even after watching episode one, we can’t tell what’s real about her character and what isn’t…
That’s cool. We begin the series with Syd in a mental hospital, and she’s been diagnosed with an anti-social anxiety disorder… maybe. [Laughs] She believes something about herself; but there is a part of herself that is questioning that she can’t just be sick and medicated. “What else is there about me?” So when she meets David, there is a spark, a connection, and they’re able to go on that journey together. That self-work can be really challenging. Asking those really deep questions about yourself can be hard, awkward, messy, layered and sometimes really magical. That’s the journey she goes on.
Was there any pressure associated with working on a Marvel show? It’s such a big company…
At the end of the day it’s Lauren Shuler Donner, who’s a lovely, smart woman, who was on set with us, and all the producers on set were incredibly supportive, encouraging and supportive of Noah. So we had a major support, and another creative sounding board for us. This is a group of people who admire the Marvel world, in particular the X-Men world – I love those movies! But we asked, where can we stretch it a little bit? What’s in that room? What’s down that corridor? Marvel were game so I didn’t feel pressure from them, I feel pressure from myself! [Laughs]
What are you most looking forward to about the Legion premiere?
I’m excited to share it. It was a very subjective show, and the process of it was really individual. Sometimes it would match up – Jean Smart and I would be on the same page one day, and the next we’re like, “What are you doing? What’s happening?” So it was an individual kind of experience. I’m really looking forward to talking to my family about it. We throw paint to the wall and give up as much material as we can to the hands of masterful editors and colourists and sound people and composers… and because we’re doing this series with a Stanley Kubrick/Wes Anderson/Terrence Malick/Terence Stamp kind of vibe, it’s a collage. It just kind of looks like a collage so therefore it has to be elevated.
Was it frustrating not being able to talk about Legion while filming?
I’m lucky because I can’t handle social media, I get frustrated and I start crying, it’s bad. [Laughs] I just want to read a book! So the people I talk to are my friends and family, people you can be totally open with and say, “This is all wild!” But mostly it was about sharing the experience of what it was like to make it. My role on Fargo, I was in two days a week. This was five days a week, for 16-hour days. I’d never done anything like that before, never.
Did you feel the weight on your shoulders?
I felt sore in my legs. [Laughs] You get there and you’re tired, but there’s literally nowhere else I’d rather be. I’m good at the health regimen you get into – Dan [Stevens], Aubrey [Plaza] and Jean are all really healthy. We all became good friends.
What was it like to work with Noah Hawley and Jean Smart again, after having previously worked on Fargo together?
Well, Jean is a magician, she is a true class act, gorgeously focused and elegant actress. I’m willing to do it again if she is – let’s cycle through! I’ll be her granddaughter; mentee; I’ll be her daughter; her mother – I’ll do it! And Noah is one of the most creative and intelligent people that I know, but also one of the most calm. He’s like a lake that doesn’t get ruffled very much. You have this innate trust in this man who speaks slowly and economically and is so willing to take these risks… aloofly. He’s like, “Let’s have a Bollywood sequence in there.” Okay, sure! It’s a joy, in the true sense.
Will there be more musical numbers in the series?
Yeah! They change a little bit, though. Dan learned the banjo at one point. I sang a Talking Heads song at one point, “Road To Nowhere”. It’s in a sneaky place. They distorted my voice a little bit. See if you can spot it!
This story talks a lot about celebrating individuality and uniqueness. It’s an appealing message, isn’t it?
I think I learned the trueness of that statement when we went to Comic-Con last year. You see a room full of people who… you sort of know they feel a little different in their everyday lives, but here they are decked out in their favourite characters’ costumes, coming up and asking unapologetic questions experts! I left there with an understanding of who we are making this series for. I feel like it extends further than people who go to Comic-Con; maybe young women who feel like there isn’t a space for them to be expressive. For me, this is that character: she’s bold, fierce, independent and a hopeless romantic, naïve in love and really working hard at expressing herself. It’s a celebration. It’s also a show that deals with mental illness in a way that isn’t a gimmick, I don’t think we’re making any comment on it – maybe a comment on how we deal with those people. But we also don’t take ourselves too seriously. Where’s the levity, the brightness, the colour, the fun, the whimsy, the dance?
Talking of uniqueness, have you always celebrated yours?
That is something I work on every day. There have been times in my life where I’ve felt it more strongly, felt more confident, but there are times you need reminding of it. That is why I’ve chosen to be a storyteller because that way I feel like I can express myself.
What do you watch on television?
I’ve been watching The Dick Van Dyke Show a lot – I like physical comedy. I’ll go on a big Lars Von Trier bend, or a Stanley Kubrick bend – particularly around this show! But I take big breaks from watching anything because sometimes I feel too critical. I have to remind myself of the magic and stop peeking behind the curtain. I loved the nostalgia of Stranger Things this year, that was a charming little treat. The People Vs OJ Simpson was riveting, amazing acting, and I just saw Tom Hardy’s Taboo – it was excellent. I’m a big fan of his.
Do you like to mainline TV show boxsets in a weekend?
I like a good binge, but I’m like a two-or-three episode kind of person, otherwise it begins to wash over me and I feel like I’m doing myself and the work a disservice. This is something that Noah feels strongly about, and this is why he wants Legion to be a chapter per week. So you have time to digest it and think about it, and talk about it with your coworkers, instead of simply seeing it all and having an opinion. Everything’s moving so quickly right now, we’re not letting each other be patient with an experience. I watched Fargo every Monday night with my grandmother, because I live with her in Los Angeles, and that was fun.
There is another famous Syd Barrett – from Pink Floyd. Was that intentional?
Yes, what a lovely little Easter egg for me! I wasn’t really familiar with Pink Floyd but I know that the soundtrack of Dark Side Of The Moon was a big inspiration for Jeff Russo, our composer, and Noah. Doing research on Syd Barrett, understanding how young, troubled and talented he was, was almost as helpful as research on the Legion comic books. It felt like a really nice sideways way in to knowing who this character was from Noah’s brain.
Did you read the comics?
I read some of them, briefly, but for me it was more about the pictures, actually. We weren’t following the narrative of the story. I would keep coming back to the drawings of the Legion comic book with the colours, the emotion, his hair! And the intensity of it; that was a nice way to tap into the distorted reality.
But your character doesn’t exist in the comics…
Right! So you’re given such freedom there! What Noah did was say, “I like this troubled young guy, that’s put him somewhere else. Let’s bring David Haller out and see who surrounds him, what’s his world like.”
When is Legion set? It’s hard to tell how to frame it, time-wise.
The vehicles are kind of strange, the suits are a little bizarre… It’s retro. Let’s look at it this way, when you take out time, and say, “It doesn’t really matter what time this is in.” Or you take out place, and say, “I don’t wanna know where this is taking place.” You’re afforded a chance to say, “Something more important is happening here.” Time and place aside.
Your character has a “no touching” rule; we see her kiss David through a windscreen, for example. Will there be other creative ways in which these characters physically interact?
Yes, and in ways that you would never, ever imagine! Syd has a strict boundary. Not only does she switch places when she has physical, skin-to-skin contact, the closer that she gets to anyone – especially to someone with a lot of emotion, a lot of love – does she lose a bit of herself? Does she feel less of herself? Or does she feel empowered? It’s a unique relationship we explore. You will see more.
We’ve already seen a bit of this in the comics, of course, with Rogue…
In the first episode, when they switch places and she f**ks shit up because she has David’s powers and doesn’t know how to handle them, I guess in that way she kind of absorbs someone’s power. And later in the season you see her use it. At the moment it’s all accidental and it’s really scary for her and for him, but later on she realises, “I don’t know how to do this but I’m gonna try.” Which is interesting to me. Which is why we need a second season! I know you journalists here can’t help with that, but I’m saying it anyway! [Laughs]
What was it like to film the incredible action sequence at the end of the first episode?
It was awesome! We tried to do it in all one shot, but we ended up having to stitch it together a little bit. There is an imminent threat, a war, going on. When you have these powers, people can use that to their advantage, so there’s that outside pressure that’s helping us guide the work David needs us to do. It was really fun.
Will there be more like this?
Not one that’s similar to the others! There’s one at the bottom of a lake, things like that. I had to crawl through an air duct for an afternoon. I bruise like a peach and I was covered in them! It’s lucky that my costume covered them up.
Who are your favourite Marvel characters?
I like Wolverine a lot; he’s a really cool character. I like Mystique and Rogue, too. I love the first X-Men movie, that’s my favourite one for sure.