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‘Legion’ Star Dan Stevens on Being ‘Confidently Weird,’ as the World’s Most Powerful Mutant

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You’ve never seen a superhero story like Legion. Imagine One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest filtered though Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Noah Hawley, creator of FX’s Fargo, helms this retelling of one of Marvel’s strangest mutants. Legion is the son of Professor X and can warp reality with a thought. The only problem is, he doesn’t always know what reality is.

We spoke with Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey), who plays David Haller — aka Legion — about balancing a sense of play with the seriousness of depicting mental illness, and just how much reality-testing an audience can take.

How did you get involved with Legion? Did you know Noah Hawley? Did you know the character from the comics?
It was a mixture of all those things. I had seen Fargo and thought it was brilliant. I had met with Noah in L.A.; we had lunch together, I think. I had read his first novel, Conspiracy of Tall Men, and really enjoyed the voice and the sense of humor. I don’t know, there was something in the voice of the writer. We had a great lunch, and I don’t think Legion was explicitly mentioned and that was that, really. I just thought, “Well, what a nice guy. Hopefully, we’ll get to work together.”

And then Legion emerged, and I guess I was on the list. So I sat down with him again, and he pitched me this idea of this crazy world that he wanted to create. He mentioned a couple of the people he wanted to bring along for the ride, and I was really, really excited. It sounded like just my kind of crazy.

The knowing or not knowing what reality is seems like it would be hard to play. Did you get scripts all at once, so you knew what was what from the get-go?
No, I didn’t. I wish that I had. Well, maybe I don’t. I think, at the time, I wished I had more scripts. But looking back, I think — especially in that pilot — David doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not. If I had known — if I had had a definitive answer, I would have played it differently, somehow. Just the knowing would have been there in my brain. And, actually, part of the fun is abandoning yourself to the doubt.

I think people who suffer with these kinds of delusions will testify that there’s a reality to all of it, and that’s what makes them terrifying. If you’re aware that something is a delusion, if you’re aware that something you’re seeing is not real, it ceases to be a full delusion. Obviously, it’s disturbing, but you’re cognizant of that. So, David takes every reality as possibly real, possibly not real. Which makes it a fun place to be in performance.

That can be hard to watch for an extended period of time. How do you maintain that worldview?
I think it becomes clearer what is and isn’t real and who ends up at the controls of David’s psyche becomes a little more delineated. And therefore, certain things take on slightly different meaning — if that’s not too obscure and abstract. [Laughs.]

It becomes more apparent to the viewer. I think it becomes more apparent to David, maybe. He’s certainly somebody who, in that first hour — two hours, really — has his whole world view challenged. And that’s not a bad thing for the first two hours of an eight-hour piece. You want to throw a lot of big questions up there and then spend the next few hours seeing if you can’t answer a few of them. And that, to me, makes an enjoyably novel or an enjoyable series. Something with length and with depth.

How much research did you do into mental illness?
I think — a bit like mental illness really — it’s been ill-defined over the ages. It’s an interesting character that pops up every decade or so. I kind of like those characters; that certain writers within comics will say “Ah, y’know what? I’m gonna have a crack at that.” Some people are drawn to writing a run of Black Panther or writing a run of Legion. And just what his particular space in the Marvel universe can do, the kind of chaos it can create, I think is very intriguing to those writers. So those elements definitely came to the fore. In the comics, he talks about multiple personalities; sometimes it’s delusion, schizophrenia, autistic at times. All of these are, I would argue, misdiagnoses. But that not to say that he doesn’t exhibit some of those traits, some of those diagnoses.

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It’s such an interesting world once you start looking into it, and you realize how little we actually understand about the mind and about mental illness, really, and our treatment of it. It certainly has been, historically, pretty barbaric. In our particular story, Noah chose paranoid schizophrenia — [David] definitely exhibits some of those characteristics. And I did talk to some who suffer from it, and psychiatrists as well, and got some incredible and very, very frank discussions with them. It was an amazing experience just to hear some of these stories. It’s such a misunderstood world.

Were you a comic book fan growing up?
My brother and I were very into the X-Men. I was very into reading those. Not to the extent that I kept any of them.

I worked with Reggie Hudlin earlier this year, who wrote a run of Black Panther not so long ago. He got me back into looking at them in a slightly different way, which fed vey neatly into Legion. Looking back at the different appearances of Legion and a lot of those X-Men comics — and looking at the ideas at play and the sense of wonder and awe that you get and that I remember getting as a kid — that was something that became very, very important to me again. I was, like, “Oh, yeah!” It’s a really exciting space to play around in and to really throw around some big, big cosmic ideas in a very playful, silly space sometimes. Putting those two things together is what really excites me in general, but it’s very nice to find a forum for it in Legion.

The tone of the show is what really struck me. It’s so different from anything superhero-related out there.
It’s definitely the spirit of the comic, as much as the exact frames, that inspired us, I think. There’s a sense of humor to comic books, always. There’s a slight tongue-in-cheek about some things that, in a purely literary format, might be too big or too dry. Suddenly, you deploy them in this universe, and they become really playful. And I think Legion has a great mischief to him that really appeals as well. To be a little cheeky with some of those concepts: That’s where I get excited.

Do you have a favorite moment from this season, something you’re looking forward to seeing an audience’s reaction to?
I look forward to seeing people’s reaction to the pilot, actually. Just seeing whether this world… what people get out of it, really. There’s something really beautifully strange about it; sort of confidently weird. I don’t know. There’s a lot of dancing and a lot of music, which is fun.

That moment that they break out into a dance was amazing!
It’s got room for that, and why not?

That and Aubrey Plaza are my two favorite things.
Lenny, she’s a great, great creation. Aubrey’s Lenny and Rachel Keller’s Syd almost become this good and bad angel in David’s consciousness. There’s just so much fun to be had with that. Every scene with the both of those provided another sort to twist and turn and a deepening of the story. It was great.

Legion premieres Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 10 p.m. on FX.

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