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Legion’s Rachel Keller on crafting a romance in a reality-warping landscape

Photo: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images; Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Photo: Paul Archuleta/Getty Images; Graphic: Nick Wanserski

If the various promos and trailers haven’t already clued you in, Noah Hawley’s Legion is going to be kind of a mind fuck, and not just because it’s an “X-Men show” that only skirts its connection to Charles Xavier and his gifted youngsters. The eight-episode series, which premieres February 8 on FX, questions reality from the point of view of someone with tenuous ties to it. David Haller (Dan Stevens) spent the better part of his adolescence plagued by inner and exterior voices, and that struggle’s coming to a head. He’ll have some help from Syd Barrett, a sweet yet prickly fellow patient whose unique characteristics have left her isolated. Syd’s portrayer, Rachel Keller, spoke with The A.V. Club at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, where we sought the Fargo alum’s help in mapping Hawley’s and Haller’s minds.

The A.V. Club: Syd Barrett plays a significant role in this story, but you didn’t have a comics backstory to work from. Why do you think it was important to include this new character?

Rachel Keller: In a lot of ways, this isn’t a realization of a pre-existing comic book; it’s an adaptation based on a character. So I think what that affords you is a lot of a freedom to say, “Who is in this person’s life? Who does he need to meet? Who are the people that populate his universe, his world?” I think that gave Noah a real freedom there. Syd came as a loving, hopeful, naive voice for David as he’s doing his self-discovery. As you look back into your past and look at those things about yourself that you’ve been told and maybe believe, how does that translate when you’re falling in love with someone? How does that work with someone you’re falling in love with when they have such boundaries that you can’t touch them? That gets my imagination running. How do they build a relationship? What does that friendship look like? How do you stay with someone that is maybe not so well right now? So I think that’s what Syd is affording this story.

AVC: It’s interesting that you bring up the kind of emotional boundaries that this relationship is a metaphor for, because physical contact is a real concern for reasons we’ll learn later. Syd and David are so young; it comes across as almost a fear of losing yourself in a relationship.

RK: Well, you’ve really hit it. I think it extends further than just the physical thing. I had a summer once where I spent a lot of time with my friend Charlotte, and Charlotte talks with very long vowels. I remember that fall, my dad was saying, “You know, you’re sounding a lot like Charlotte, and I want my daughter back.” Something kind of quippy, like he was offended or something that I wasn’t sounding more like I came from their family. I know that for me—as a young woman who’s working on expressing myself, especially in a world that doesn’t promote that so much for young women—how do we not then pick up on each other’s kind of tendencies, talking, cadences, emotional baggage? How do you not walk into a room and feel someone else? That was the exciting part of the first conversation I had with Noah about the piece. How does this actually manifest for her? When she gets close to anyone, what does that mean? Physically close to anyone, or maybe even emotionally close to someone? Maybe [David] gets a little bit better every time they get closer, and maybe she feels a little less herself every time they get closer. What is that like? How do they balance that kind of relationship?

AVC: It’s even more important for the characters to find a way to ground themselves, because the story isn’t. The show really goes out of its way to make it clear that there’s no solid ground. Viewers don’t really have any idea what’s going on, but you totally get these characters.

RK: That’s lovely. I’m so pleased, because I feel like when you strip away time and place and linear story, you could perhaps disorient an audience away from the piece. But if you connect it to the idea of a mutant, a young person who’s discovering something about themselves that’s special and unique, especially under the guidance [of] some really great mentors, I think that’s a really great relationship that we explore. We’re looking a lot at the love story between David and Syd, but look at the relationship between David and Melanie [Jean Smart]. That’s curious to me. How do relationships build when people are really doing work?

As I get older, I’ve had a completely different relationship with my parents. That’s a great example of people who have been one thing to you for so long, and then suddenly you move out, and it’s like they’ve put in their 18 years, and they have to get back to their lives of their own self-discovery. At a certain point, we all kind of rise and come to the same level and just openly ask those questions about each other. Connecting the story to that, it doesn’t matter the time and place. It doesn’t matter if they have iPads and retro clothing on. It just becomes a textured universe for us to tell the story through.

Photo: Chris Large/FX Network

AVC: Noah Hawley took care to avoid dating the show in any way, to not include any markers of the time period. But your character’s name is a nod to a founding member of Pink Floyd. So there are some bread crumbs?

RK: That happens when you have really specific inspiration, really specific resources. For the creation of Syd, Brigitte Bardot was a huge visual inspiration for us: her black clothing, her hairdo, her headbands. So I listened to a lot of her music, watched a lot of her interviews. Not that it was who my character was, but it’s something Noah kept bringing up, so I felt that as an employee, it’s important to go, “Okay, where’s that coming from?” And then they go explore that a little bit, and maybe let me listen to a little bit of Pink Floyd and let me connect with this world in any way that I possibly can. Ultimately, you get there, and you see this gorgeous set that’s like Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, stylized specific, but also a very clean and sharp kind of world. You can’t help but click into that and let that inform the scene and just trust it to help you tell the story, because it’s such a visual. Dan was saying, and I completely agree, you throw up your thing, you throw your paint to the wall, and you let these people who you trust so much, you hand it over. As I do ADR [automated dialogue replacement]—I just did ADR yesterday for episode six—the more I see it, the more I am moved and impressed. It’s been elevated again and again and again through the sound, through the editing, through the music. It’s moving. It’s a special thing.

AVC: Syd’s abilities aren’t as showy as super-strength or flight, but she’s reluctant to use her power. David has a similar struggle. What do you think Noah Hawley’s trying to say about that?

RK: That’s a really interesting question. Like I was saying before, I know that for women especially, there’s a difficult thing where there aren’t a lot of spaces for us to fully express ourselves. There’s a certain level of, we can’t be too loud, or too opinionated, or too much like yourself. “In fact, take this medication so that you are not too much like yourself.” So then if someone else is like, “Actually, be yourself,” I think it sometimes can take a lifetime to actually fully express what that is.

You really only see her use her power, like, twice in the whole first season. Both times, it happens really differently. In the first episode, you see it happen sort of accidentally. He comes, and he kisses her, and she’s saying no, and it happens, and there they are. Even though she kind of wants it. It’s the catalyst, right? It’s the tipping point. And then you see it later on in the series one more time in a really different way, but to be honest, I’m very curious to see how her ability to express that power will keep unfolding.

AVC: It’s something that they could have teased out. When he first asks, “Will you be my girlfriend?” I thought that she was going to get up and walk right out of the room. They have almost a negotiation where she sets the boundaries, because they’re unable to express themselves physically.

RK: Well, that’s another rule, right? We’re taking away time, we’re taking away place, we’re also taking away touch, but we’re still having a love story. For an actor, what a curious place to begin. For me, it felt even more real sometimes, because it was based on a friendship between these two people. I’ve met people before where I’m like, “I know nothing about you, but I know you. I feel like we’re connected.” And then the details come later on. Where’d you grow up? How many siblings do you have? So exploring a romance of the mind, which is a theme that comes up later on in the series, was exciting to me, and how messy and complicated and awkward and also magical that can be.

AVC: Going back to what you mentioned earlier about this show, people are being kept from just being themselves. Traditionally, the X-Men mutants have been stand-ins for outsiders, as a kind of political commentary: “You’re different, so there’s something wrong with you.” Those attacks are different in Legion. You’ve got doctors telling the characters there’s something wrong, so they believe it.

RK: What’s sad about that is that sometimes they are just misinformed from their lives. I think it’s not about blaming anyone; it’s not about using a mental illness as any kind of gimmick. I think it’s using it as a real starting point, and the truth of what it is to do that self-work, which is maybe something that we all do, whether we have a diagnosed mental illness or not.

AVC: What are you most looking forward to this season?

RK: As I’ve been doing ADR work and seeing how it’s all coming together, the thing that I am most surprised at is how different each chapter feels. This has a different director for every episode, and I can feel their hands in there. Hiro Murai from Atlanta did episode six, and that was a really different experience than working with Tim Mielants, who did Peaky Blinders, who did episode five. Working with Larysa Kondracki on episode four. Michael Uppendahl, who’s from Fargo, on episodes two and three. Noah on episode one. I love that they’re like little chapters. This one feels a little noir, this one feels thriller, this one’s like a music video. This one’s a love story, kind of a romantic comedy. Really, it has everything. I think that if people are open and willing to let yourself surrender to the story of it, you’re in for a real big treat as it all unfolds.