Appearing on Zoom from her home in North London Amy Manson appears to be the antithesis of the serial killer she plays in The Nevers, launching in the UK on Sky and Now TV this month [17th].
Smiling, in a pink sweatshirt bearing the words Property of the Hotel Chelsea (she’s been reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids), Manson stars as one of the leads in the eagerly anticipated HBO sci-fi series, and has also been working on Spencer opposite Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, directed by cult Chilean (Jackie) director Pablo Larrain. Also due for release is the pre-covid She Will, a film set around Aviemore in Manson’s native Scotland.
“Maladie is a rebel with a cause, intent on causing anarchy,” says the Scottish actor, talking about her role in the supernatural sci-fi mystery, one she found her most satisfying and challenging to date.
“Her methods are madness but I don't think she's mad. I think she is on this kind of pilgrimage to tear down the patriarchy and hold a mirror up to society and to people who abused her. She is intent on revenge and will do anything to succeed in her mission.”
“The abuse she underwent within the asylum turned her into a different human being from the woman who didn’t have a say. She discovered her power was pain and the more she had inflicted on her, the greater her power and she evolved into this almost manic woman.”
A well-known face from TV, Manson’s credits include Princess Merida in the fairytale drama Once Upon A Time, Desperate Romantics opposite Aidan Turner, BBC’s Being Human and The White Princess with her friend Jodie Comer.
In film Manson has been flying the saltire with Scott Graham's Run which was filmed in Fraserburgh, not too far from her childhood home of Portlethen in Aberdeenshire, Brian Walsh's Beats, Not Another Happy Ending with Karen Gillan, T2 Trainspotting and Edie with Sheila Hancock, while on stage she has twice won The Critics' Award for Theatre in Scotland for National Theatre of Scotland’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author and Royal Lyceum Edinburgh’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
So, clearly a versatile actor, and up for the physical and emotional challenge of The Nevers. A 12-part series set in 1899, any assumptions this is going to be a straightforward Victorian period drama are dispelled by the early appearance of a spaceship hovering over London’s cobbled streets. After this supernatural event people, mainly women, manifest special powers or ‘turns’, such as speaking multiple languages, having healing hands or catching glimpses of the future.
And Manson’s Maladie? Her special power is the ability to absorb and inflict pain, which post-asylum she channels into serial killing, specialising in dispatching psychoanalysts, no doubt as payback for her time in incarceration.
Playing the violent and unpredictable character who believes she’s the second coming of Christ was a gift for Manson, but not without its challenges.
“She was a difficult one. I spent months trying to figure out who she was and why she spoke the way she did, and for that to make absolute truth to myself for me to play her, to be able to flip on a dime her train of thought, for it not to become a banner of ‘this is how an abused woman ends up or reacts’, that this is a choice.”
“Maladie had a choice: she could have taken laudanum and lost her life in that sense, but she didn't, she chose to seek revenge. I kind of admire her in a way and kept coming back to that because that was the only way I felt I could play her.”
In order to get into Maladie’s mind frame Manson spent a lot of time researching psychiatric experiments and how mental health was treated in the past, and in particular watched documentaries about US female serial killer Aileen Wuornos, including her last speech to a journalist before she was executed.
“It’s wild eyes and this crazy kind of manic, like a bubbling point of tension, then she lets go. And I think Maladie is always in that state, it's a big ball of feeling. Also, she's suppressing so much. She can control every pain except the pain of love and that enrages her.”
Intense stuff, but there’s as much humour and light as dark in The Nevers, in the form of psychic packing a punch Amalia True (Laura Donnelly) and her sidekick, ingenious steampunk inventor Penance (Anne Skelly). The pair are on the trail of Maladie, the ‘female Jack the Ripper’, as well as other members of The Touched in a bid to give them support, along with their friend, the upper-class libertine Hugo (played by a cheerfully louche James Norton), whose interest is more about getting them to attend his orgies.
If Manson had to choose a ‘turn’ or special power, what would it be?
To be able to pack within a second,” she says quickly. “I seem to be living out of a suitcase.”
When the first lockdown lifted Manson was able to travel to Germany to film Spencer with Kristen Stewart, where castle interiors around Frankfurt, Berlin and Munster, doubled as Sandringham, before returning to Norfolk to film exteriors.
Following the story of Princess Diana’s 1991 Christmas with the Royals when she decides to end her marriage to Prince Charles, Spencer is directed by Pablo Larrain and written by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders). Starring Stewart as Diana, the cast includes Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins, with Manson playing another wronged royal wife in the form of Anne Boleyn, executed by Henry the VIII.
“Spencer delves into Diana’s mental state, and at Sandringham she’s reading The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, who comes back as an apparition,” says Manson. “I don’t think people give Anne Boleyn enough credit. She was a stalwart and took the opportunities that were offered to her for her family. She was hyper intelligent too, speaking many languages; English, Dutch, French, and Italian.
“Pablo (Larraine) has an eye for light and shade, and it's got to be harrowing. Kristen Stewart is phenomenal, just had blinkers on, was very in the moment, very present. She really pushed herself places, and it was nice to feel such moments of connection, playing two women who understand each other and the parallels of their universes hundreds of years apart, that they’re women caged, women without a voice.”
With the theme of mental health raising its head in her work again, it’s no surprise to hear that Manson has an interest in raising awareness on the importance of taking care of our minds - she cycled across Scotland to raise money for the mental health charity Heads Together. She also spent the first lockdown living in a pod and volunteering at Badaguish Respite Care Centre for the families of people with mental health difficulties, located in Aviemore.
“I wanted to do something constructive with my time, and I've got two legs to get me out and to be able to help. I spent the time varnishing pods - there are about 22, and there's larger accommodation which we have to sand and do the same, and lawnmowing… There were two of us and it’s a huge space. I was already in Scotland and the guy who got me on board was a friend of my cousin, who I had cycled across Scotland with. He knew I was off work and said I know you love The Highlands and the outdoors, do you fancy coming and living in a pod and helping out?”
Try and stop her. Not only does she miss Scotland, but the importance of mental health hits close to home for Manson.
“My cousin's mother committed suicide about 13 years ago. You just don't expect it, you don't know who's going through what at any given time. The effect that that's had is profound but my cousin has turned that into a positive and every year we try and do something to raise awareness. I think that's what it’s about, and I'm glad we're in a time now where we can talk about our mental states and not be an anomaly anymore. If I've got a platform then it's nice to be able to talk like this about it.”
Working in the industry she does, Manson is well placed to talk about the strategies she has learnt for coping with the rejection that goes with the job.
“I have to compartmentalize, put it to the side and not think about it. I'm very good at just switching off, although in the past what I did wrong was to switch myself off from family and friends when I had a project. I was spending a lot of time alone with my own headspace and not sharing my worries or issues. In hindsight I should have opened up and connected more with friends and family. Of course I wasn’t with them because of the job, and I'm just not very good on the telephone!” she laughs.
Now 35 Manson grew up first on a farm in Portlethen then in Westhill and Torphins in Deeside and fell in love with acting at Saturday performing arts sessions at Stagecoach in Aberdeen as a teenager.
“I was intrigued to find out who I was on a deeper level, I guess, understand my emotions and why I felt certain ways. It wasn't a show off performance side, it was definitely something about figuring out who I was as a woman.”
Manson’s talent hadn’t gone unnoticed and she was encouraged to consider acting as a vocation and apply for drama school.
“One of the teachers, Yvonne Wheeler, just believed in me and I think you can do anything if you believe and have someone believing in you too. She went over speeches with me for the audition and I remember saying, ‘I don't know if I can do this’. She was like, ‘get your ass down to London!’”
So 17-year old Manson did, accompanied by her mum who was on hand to lend a shoulder to cry on if it didn’t work out.
“I found out later my mother said to my boyfriend at the time, ‘I don't know why she's bothering, she’s not going to get in, 4,000 applicants, what is she thinking?’, and then came down to London with me,” Manson laughs.
“But I ended up getting in on the day of the audition. It was the best day of my life and still is.”
For Manson it was like finding the golden ticket in a bar of chocolate.
“There was a romanticism about it, because normally you have your first audition, go away, then back for second then third rounds, but for me it all happened on the same day because the head of the course wanted to see some of the applicants. I did a speech from Romeo and Juliet and something from The Steamie and he asked me to stop and sit down and asked why I wanted to do this and where that emotion came from. Then he said ‘I want you in my school. I just broke down and that was it. My life changed on the day.”
Meanwhile, Manson’s mother was taking her first trip along Oxford Street waiting for the call to go and swoop up her disappointed daughter.
“She was in Marks and Spencers when I phoned her. I was a bubbling wreck and she was like, ‘darling, it's okay. I knew this would happen. It's not about you, I’m coming to get you, I’m leaving my stuff’ then she showed up saying, ‘I'm sorry darling,’ and I was like, “No, I got in!”
If getting into the Central School of Speech and Drama was a dream come and landing her first role in the horror film Pumpkinhead while still there, Manson has her share of rejections, but has learnt over the years to cope.
“I think it’s part of the process of longevity within the business. I know now that rejections aren't about me and my self worth. It's not who I am. I understand that this is a job.
“Keeping fit is a big thing for me, for my mental state. What makes me happy is being outdoors, getting away for weekends, losing myself in Scotland, turning my phone off - all these things are part of the routine I have to keep me sane.”
Earlier on in her career, performing on stage in Edinburgh, Manson would take to her bike after performances, whizzing down the Royal Mile and around the city streets to offload.
“The exertion of what you're giving on stage is just so high. These are all heightened emotions, states people feel maybe once in a lifetime that you’re pushing yourself through daily, twice on a Wednesday. After it almost feels numb, so I would just get on my bike. I need my own quiet time to process and get back into my body because I've been so in my head for hours, to feel that grounding and remind myself who I am, Amy Manson playing a role. I’m not this role, I’m not the psychopath Maladie.”
Certainly Maladie the serial killer isn’t a character you could take home with you, especially since Manson is signed up for five series of The Nevers.
“She’s just so weird and complicated; we can just keep picking apart the layers, why she does what she does, that's the intrigue. Maladie’s the underdog and she’s the one we should all be rooting for.”
Manson’s love of keeping fit came in handy too for the physicality of The Nevers with its fight scenes and full-on action.
“Maladie’s just a wildcat, ready to pounce at any moment. Put the dialogue on top of that and there’s a lot going on.”
Despite landing yet another role with a supernatural, emotional edge, Manson feels she’s the opposite in temperament.
“I’ve played a lot of heightened emotions but my friends would say that's the antithesis of who I am as a person. I think I’m a happy person, happy every day, kind of like my dad. I just get on with it, keep life simple, I think that's the best way.”
Also due out this year for Manson is She Will, a film shot in Aviemore a couple of years ago.
“It was amazing to film there. The weather was stunning, with snow in the hills. We should utilize Scotland more in film and TV.”
Starring Manson with Rupert Everett and Alice Krige, it focuses on a group on a retreat, where all is not what it seems.
“There's a witchy element,” says Manson. “It's dark but actually a lot of fun with a lot of dark humor, especially from Rupert Everett.”
For the future, with more of The Nevers to film and Spencer and She Will to be released, Manson’s busy, but given any time off, heads north.
“I'm missing home more the older I get so I'd love a place up somewhere like Aviemore. That would be the dream, just out on the bike and loch swimming. I'd say all my off time I come back.”
So a leading role that’s filmed in Scotland? Watch this space - after all Manson has a talent for making things happen.
The Nevers launches in the UK as a boxset on Sky and NOW TV on 17 May.