Meet Laura Donnelly, TV’s Toughest New Heroine

Laura plays Amalia True in The Nevers, a feminist, supernatural period drama out now...

Laura Donnelly

by Guy Pewsey |
Updated on

In Sky's blockbuster new supernatural series The Nevers, Northern Irish actor Laura Donnelly punches, kicks and drinks her way through Victorian London as Amalia True. Fierce, reckless but loyal, she’s a welcome new TV heroine, and Laura’s performance positions her on the world stage as a face to keep an eye on. And yet, she took some convincing.

‘I got a one-line description about women who get some special abilities, and I just thought, “That’s not really my thing,” you know?’ Laura explains via Zoom. ‘But then I went in for a meeting and I was in there for so long, and I got told the whole story, with all the spoilers, and I realised that this isn’t a superhero story. It’s a human one, with so many layers, and such a huge world that is to be built up.’

Amalia True is one of a population, unknown in number, who have been suddenly bestowed with superhuman abilities. She can see snippets of the future and is a skilled fighter. Her gift brings its problems, but it’s a fun role: she fights, she drinks and she does stunts, with Laura’s childhood gymnastics training coming in pretty handy. It’s karmic casting. It feels like she was due some light relief; Laura’s previous career high was built on trauma. Her performance on stage in The Ferryman, written by her partner Jez Butterworth and directed by the Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, was an acting masterclass that earned her a Tony nomination and an Olivier. She played a woman in love with a man she could not have, wrestling with her pain as an old family tragedy reared its head. The story was as close to home as you could possibly imagine: it was inspired by Laura’s own family, and an uncle with links to the IRA who disappeared in 1981. His body was found years later, in a bog in County Louth.

‘Theatre has a long internal effect,’ she explains. ‘When I’m doing a play night after night, I carry the emotion with me: your body doesn’t know that you’ve made this pain up. Having to repeat that every night, sometimes twice a day, it really takes its toll.’ Amalia may have darkness in her, but she’s easier to leave at the door when work ends. ‘I have to compartmentalise, or I’d be mad by the end of the day,’ she laughs. ‘And my kids need me: I come home and they don’t care what I’ve been up to. I have to read them stories and put them to bed.’ Laura’s two children with Jez are the reason she’s speaking from a plush hotel suite, rather than from her kitchen table. ‘They’d be running around in the background,’ she shrugs. ‘I’d have no control.’

The Nevers – which airs on HBO in the US – works hard to dispense with Madonna/whore tropes, so prevalent in depictions of Victorian times and created by men. The male gaze is absent. We see a woman’s breasts, yes, but moments later a naked James Norton gets out of bed and balances the scales. There are interesting male characters, but the women lead. And as the main character in a progressive show, Laura could be about to take her place among the A-list. She’s slightly in denial.

‘I would say, being massively and wilfully naive about it, I go into a project thinking, “I’m a proper actor, I’m not a celebrity,”’ she says. ‘If paparazzi suddenly wanted to stop me, they would find themselves bored very quickly. But if people are stopping you in the street, then it’s because they’ve really connected with your work: that I would be very proud of. If the flip side of that is being a little bothered, then so be it.’

She pauses, then adds, ‘But I guess, ask me in two years’ time!’

How do I watch The Nevers?

The Nevers is on Sky Atlantic and NOW, now: the first six episodes are available as a boxset. The second half of the series' arrival is TBC.

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