Dan Stevens is a long way from Downton Abbey, even if he's still inhabiting a television fortress of sorts.
The erstwhile Matthew Crawley is the star of a very different kind of show in FX's upcoming Legion, based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name. The show, masterminded by Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley, follows a man named David Haller (Stevens), who suffers from schizophrenia - and also happens to be an incredibly powerful mutant, whose remarkable abilities are only just beginning to manifest.
Legion, premiering early next year, was front and center during the show's New York Comic Con panel at the Hammerstein Ballroom on Sunday (Oct. 9), featuring several individuals involved with the show: cast members Bill Irwin, Katie Astleton, Amber Midthunder, Jeremie Harris, Aubry Plaza, Rachel Keller, and Dan Stevens; as well as Marvel TV head Jeph Loeb, longtime X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner, and creator Noah Hawley.
Before the panelists spoke, audience members were treated to a surprise screening of the first half of the series premiere. As with Fargo, Hawley's Legion plays out in non-linear fashion, hopping between different points in time - forward, backwards, and perhaps into other temporal arenas as well. Ingredients scattered throughout the episode include a chocolate cupcake with forbidden frosting, licorice ropes, discussion of a nightmarish creature called "The Devil with Yellow Eyes," swift romances, heartfelt kisses in window reflections, a potential murder mystery, and an impressive one-take through a very dangerous facility that escalates the show from psychological drama to full-blown X-Men series.
Once the footage ended, and panelists were invited to speak, the conversation was... tight-lipped, to put it mildly. The cast members were very coy and carefully worded about discussing the show's specifics, doing their best to keep as much close to the vest as possible. Rather than talking too much about character details and story points, the panelists instead discussed their inspiration for the show, and the core themes they're hoping to explore.
"X-Men was my book when I was growing up," Hawley said of his inspiration for the show, who heard about Legion after completing the first season of Fargo. At first, he was reluctant. "I had to feel like I understood what the show was. It had to be a strong character journey. I almost started without a character mind, thinking in general terms about what would be fun in this space, and found my way to David's character - a man who was either schizophrenic or had these powers and doesn't know what's real. In the show, you're in his head, so you don't necessarily know what's real, either."
"This is far from the X-Men movies, but still lives in that universe," added Donner. "The only way for X-Men to keep moving forward is to be original and to surprise. And this is a surprise. It is very, very different."
Loeb spoke to the core message of Legion, and how it reflects the longstanding X-Men tradition of outsiders exploring their uniqueness: "The core of every book is that the X-Men were different. Each of us, at some moment in our lives, and maybe even this moment, feel different. We live in a world right now where diversity and uniqueness and whether or not we fit in is something that's on our minds twenty-four hours a day. The X-Men have never been more relevant than they are right now. To have a voice like Noah and FX and this extraordinary cast... you're in for the most wonderful surprise ride that will make you laugh and make you cry and also at the same time make you hope that we're entering at a time where people are not going to turn you away because you're different, but will embrace you. That's our hope."
Stevens spoke about what drew him into Legion, starting with the talent involved, Hawley especially. Once he started diving into the comics and exploring the scope of Legion as a character and story, he felt it was apart from anything else as an acting exercise. "It's been a trip already," he said.
Plaza talked about her character Lenny, who would not consider herself anyone's sidekick. "I think they're friends," she deadpanned about Lenny's relationship with David. In the pilot, Lenny is seen listening to mysterious music on headphones - and the contents of that music might be pretty important, as Plaza would not reveal what it is she's listening to.
Bill Irwin plays a character who is not in the premiere - at least not in what was shown during the panel. Hawley said he specifically sought out Irwin, because of his playful approach to characters.
"What was important about getting Bill in the show to me was... we wanted to play," he said. "There's a spirit of play and inventiveness. People are at their most creative when they play. That's why children are so open and honest and real. I was drawn to the genre because of the pure creative wonder you can find, and that was my hope to bring to the show."
Hawley added about his vision of the show, and how he hopes it speaks to the current cultural landscape: "We live in a tumultuous time. Things are polarizing. There's a lot of intolerance. A lot of that starts inside us. The great thing about exploring this character is before he has an opinion about anyone else, he has to figure out his own shit. That's what we all have to do. This journey isn't necessarily racing toward a battle with an entity, so much as embracing the battle within."
Asked for clarity on where Legion fits within the X-Men film universe, Hawley said, "There's a certain degree to where that's to be determined. We're in David's subjective reality, so it's hard to tell. One thing that's attractive about X-Men is there are alternate timelines and universes. We start to realize we're seeing this world through multiple layers and mixed signals that Dan's character is getting. It would be a spoiler in a true sense to say [too much]. ... I'll say that we are true to the origins of this character, and just leave it at that."
"You can't tell this story without that element," Hawley later added when asked if Professor Xavier, Legion's father in the comics, would be acknowledged on the show. "I mean, there's a wheelchair in the first scene..."
As Marvel TV's head, Loeb said that his presence at the panel should be taken as a sign that "bridges are being made" between the Fox-owned Marvel characters and Marvel Studios, "but I don't want to make any promises that I'll have to explain the next time someone asks me."
"But it boils down to this," he continued. "Marvel heroes at their core are people who are damaged and are trying to figure out who they are in life. It doesn't matter whether or not they're X-Men, Tony Stark, Matt Murdock or Peter Parker. That's where it starts. We're much more interested in the person inside the mask than the mask. If you start at a place as strong as David's character is and you have a storyteller like Noah, then it's Marvel. In that way, it is all connected."
"What I enjoyed with Fargo is that for the first three hours it seemed unconnected from the movie, because it had to stand on its own feet," Hawley added. "I feel the same way about this show. We have to earn the right to be part of this universe. My hope is we create something so strong that the people in the movie studio call and say they would be foolish enough not to connect these things. But all I can do is control the show and make the best version possible."