HEAT VISION

'Servant' Star Nell Tiger Free on Season 2's "180" and "Terrifying" Last Day on 'Too Old to Die Young'

Nell Tiger Free
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images
The actor looks back at working with both M. Night Shyamalan and Nicolas Winding Refn, and also reflects on her time on 'Game of Thrones.'

Since wrapping her fateful turn as Cersei and Jamie Lannister’s daughter, Myrcella Baratheon, on Game of Thrones season five, Nell Tiger Free has quickly become one of Hollywood’s most exciting young actors thanks to her collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan on Servant and Nicolas Winding Refn on Too Old to Die Young. The Shyamalan-led Apple TV+ series — which plays with various genres including psychological horror, family drama and dark comedy — just released its season two premiere, “Doll,” and the episode ignites the Turner family’s search for Free’s mysterious nanny character, Leanne Grayson. Despite her character’s unknown whereabouts, Free is opening up about what viewers can expect from Leanne in season two.

“She is starting to almost assimilate lots of different traits from these three characters that she’s been surrounded by. She’s also finding her own voice and her own way,” Free tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She’s deciding not only what type of person she is, but also what she is and whether she’s going to accept that, and assume that role, or reject it and be something completely different. She’s just a young woman who’s finding her feet and finding her voice. And she’s beginning to understand how to not only ask for what she wants, but also how to take it. So she’s definitely taking a real 180 towards the end of the season.”

When an actor plays an enigmatic character on television, the series creator will often tell them the bigger picture so their performance can leave a trail of breadcrumbs along the way. However, in the case of Servant and Leanne, Free is just as in the dark as the audience is, except for a single mantra that Shyamalan once provided her.

“Night pulled me aside at the very beginning of shooting and told me one thought I should always be thinking,” Free recalls. “He told me to think as if I’m coming from one place and just act every scene as if that is the truth. So I have my truth that I’ve been told to act from, but everybody’s been told their own, so we don’t really know which one is real.”

Free is also looking back at the many challenges of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Too Old to Die Young, which aired five months prior to Servant season one.

Too Old to Die Young was a very intense experience for everybody involved,” Free explains. “It was taxing, for sure, because it was heavy material, and it was my first foray into the adult world of film and television. Even though I was playing a 16-year-old, it was the first time I was playing an adult role, and that took a toll on me.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Free also discusses the difficulty of playing her Servant character’s reticence, her “terrifying” last day on Too Old to Die Young, and the day she caught fire on the Servant set.

Servant has always been tethered to one location, the Turner home, but for obvious reasons, season two feels a bit different now that I’m also limited to my own home. Do you feel similarly when you watch the series now?

Yes and no. I guess it works well considering we can all relate to that suffocating feeling of being stuck in one house. But, as a form of escapism, maybe not because you’re just kind of escaping to being stuck in another house. (Laughs.) So it’s pretty topical, but it’s not a big world with fire, dragons and ice. So there’s less escapism in that way, but it’s definitely relatable for all of us stuck in our homes.

Your character, Leanne, is shrouded in mystery to say the least. Did Night tell you her long-term arc when you were first cast so you could play the role accordingly and not be in the dark like the audience?

Well, I’m relatively in the dark, but Night pulled me aside at the very beginning of shooting and told me one thought I should always be thinking. And no matter whether it’s right or whether it’s how the other characters view me, or even her final reveal, he told me to think as if I’m coming from one place and just act every scene as if that is the truth. So I have my truth that I’ve been told to act from, but everybody’s been told their own, so we don’t really know which one is real. (Laughs.)

Leanne seems like she’s more vocal in season two. Her shell seems like it’s cracked open a little bit more. Do you chalk that up to her now knowing the Turners’ many flaws and no longer revering them?

Leanne is a creature that studies people, and she’s in this toxic environment of this family, who are all losing their minds in one way or another. So she is sort of shedding her old cloak of invisibility, if you will. (Laughs.) She is starting to almost assimilate lots of different traits from these three characters that she’s been surrounded by. She’s also finding her own voice and her own way. She’s deciding not only what type of person she is, but also what she is and whether she’s going to accept that, and assume that role, or reject it and be something completely different. She’s just a young woman who’s finding her feet and finding her voice. And she’s beginning to understand how to not only ask for what she wants, but also how to take it. So she’s definitely taking a real 180 towards the end of the season.

A number of actors have told me that it’s easier to play talkative characters than it is to play taciturn characters like Leanne. Have you enjoyed the challenge of having to communicate to an audience without an overabundance of words?

Yeah, I would have to agree with that. Personally, I find it more difficult to play the quiet, serene observer, and, yeah, it’s hard when you don’t have words to say and you have to communicate everything with just your face and a look. There’s a lot of pressure to get that one look and that one face correct. You have to convey a thousand different things, and while it’s definitely been a big challenge for me, it’s one that I’ve welcomed. I luckily have such great actors around me. Toby [Kebbell], Lauren [Ambrose] and Rupert [Grint] are all so established and so good at what they do, and I learn a lot from watching them. I also have Night, who brilliantly manages to get even the tiniest nuances out of people. So I was just approaching her delicately, but hopefully not making her one-dimensional. I’m trying to keep her an engaging character who just doesn’t say much.

The food on the show is a character in and of itself. Do you and your castmates ever eat those amazing dishes at the end of the day? Or are you eager for anything else after working with that food all day?

(Laughs.) Well, luckily, we have an on-set chef called Drew [Ditomo], who cooks all of the food in the show. And Toby [Kebbell], who is an amazing, amazing chef, is really throwing himself into his role of a chef. They have a test kitchen on the stages, and they cook everything for real that we use in the show. Everything you see us eat on the show, we’re actually eating it, and it’s actually been prepared very carefully by top chefs. So we’re lucky in that respect, but I do not eat meat. I’m vegetarian. Drew always says he loves the fact that I’m a vegetarian because he gets to come up with fun alternatives that look like meat. So it’s a fun challenge for him, and we do eat everything that is on set, for sure. (Laughs.) Not the haggis, though. We didn’t eat that. (Laughs.)

There’s an episode in season two involving you and a cake. I truly hope you didn’t have to do too many takes of that particular scene.

I did a few. (Laughs.)

I’m sorry.

It’s okay. (Laughs.) Yeah, that was a rough day for me for lots of reasons. Yeah, eating that cake with my bare hands, that was tough for me, especially because I have OCD when it comes to food. I have to cut everything up into particular shapes and sizes, and eat it all in a certain order. So I’m a nightmare to take out for dinner. (Laughs.) So that was kind of my worst nightmare, having to do that. And, that day, my dress caught on fire at work, so I also went up in flames while shooting that scene! (Laughs.) So it was a heavy day.

Did you skip breakfast that day?

To be honest, I’m not really a breakfast person. I don’t really eat too early in the morning, but I am a late-night eater. But, yeah, on a day like that, I was careful not to fill up too much at lunch. It was the last thing we shot at the end of the day, so I was scarce with what I ate for lunch that day in preparation for that scene. (Laughs.)

Leanne is a big fan of tomato soup. Are you a fan as well?

She is, and you know what, I’m a big fan of tomato soup as well. I’m happy to have toast and tomato soup for dinner. I actually made myself tomato soup and toast for dinner the other night. I put it on my Instagram story, and everyone was like, “Oh my god! She actually eats it!” It’s like, “Well, yeah, it’s a pretty common thing. Quite a lot of people eat it.” (Laughs.) I’m just lucky that Leanne’s favorite dish isn’t leeks because I’m terrified of leeks. I hate them. So thank God tomato soup was her signature dish.

Did you have much experience as a babysitter or nanny prior to this show? In other words, could you handle a baby already?

No. (Laughs.) I think I’d babysat once, maybe twice. I was not one of those kids who grew up babysitting. To be honest with you, I was absolutely terrified that I had to handle the babies. Babies scare me, man. Babies are so fragile and little, and I was so scared I was going to drop them. I’m so gangly and uncoordinated that I trip over my own feet when I’m standing up. (Laughs.) So, yeah, that was definitely scary for me, but I was surprised at how quickly I became comfortable with them. The little babies that we shot with were the cutest. So, now, I’m way more comfortable around babies than I was before. Obviously, Rupert has his gorgeous baby now. So I got to hang out with her a lot, but I was still nervous to hold her. (Laughs.)

Is the doll as creepy as one might expect?

Yeah, man. We’ve said it a hundred times, but those dolls are so creepy. They’re dead behind the eyes and they look so real. Obviously, the whole show is pretty darkly, dimly lit, so in the dark, I sometimes think I can see their eyes glowing. I swear to God. Yeah, not a fan of those babies. (Laughs.)

Since you’ve worked with two auteurs in Night and Nicolas Winding Refn, can you recognize any similarities between them?

No, there are no similarities between those two men. They work incredibly differently. Their whole process is incredibly different, and the things that they produce are totally different. It was so great to meet Night and work with him. He’s such a kind, patient human being, and he really, really does see all the detail in people. He’s so talkative and friendly. He’s just an amazing person to be around, so meeting Night and working with Night was a real luxury for me. Too Old to Die Young was a very intense experience for everybody involved. It was taxing, for sure, because it was heavy material, and it was my first foray into the adult world of film and television. Even though I was playing a 16-year-old, it was the first time I was playing an adult role, and that took a toll on me. It was very difficult for me, and it was such a long shoot as well. But, no, Nic — and every director I’ve ever worked with — have all been completely different. They all have completely different working styles. But those two are very different. I don’t know if I could draw any parallels between them other than they both do great work.

[The next four questions/answers contain spoilers for Too Old to Die Young.]

Regarding Too Old to Die Young, Janey’s death still messes with me from time to time. It was especially brutal because it was so quick and unexpected, which is how real-life violence typically plays out. What was that day like for you?

So that day was a mix of a bunch of different emotions for me. There was almost a sense of… I don’t want to say relief, but there was a little bit just because it was such a long and taxing shoot. And not that it wasn’t an amazing experience; it was. It’s just when you’re in a world that is that immersive, it can take a slight toll on you, especially with subject matter that’s so dark. So there was a sense of accomplishment and achievement because it was actually my last day that we shot that. I had to go back and do one reshoot, but that was actually, on the schedule, my last day shooting. So there was that sense of happiness and sadness that I was saying goodbye to Janey, because I really did love that character. There’s something really quite intense about staring down the barrel of a gun, even though you know [it’s not real]. It was a real gun, but you hope to God that there’s not an accident and that it doesn’t actually shoot you. So I was terrified, having that gun in my face, and there’s something about it that’s really unnerving. That sensation has always stayed with me, but, yeah, shooting those final moments of Janey was intense. Me and Miles [Teller] really had a laugh that day. We laughed more on that day than we did for the rest of the whole shoot. (Laughs.) So that day was a mixed bag.

How many times did you have to relive that scene on the day?

A few. (Laughs.) I can’t even remember. Over 10 times. Maybe 10 to 12. A lot of times.

Goodness gracious.

(Laughs.) I got used to it by the end of it, but the first time it was in front of me and the trigger was pulled, there was a loud noise. So, yeah, it was really quite terrifying, actually. I kept jumping out of the way, so it took us a while to get me to stay there, stand still and do the scene. (Laughs.) But I managed it, thank goodness.

Did Janey's death hit you harder than Myrcella's [Game of Thrones] since you spent more time with Janey?

I wouldn’t say so. Myrcella was the first character I played that died, and you never forget your first death! (Laughs.) It’s always hard when a character you play dies. You spend so long living with this character and learning them. I feel a connection to every role I play, but I think it’s actually harder for my mum to see my characters die than it is for me. She refused to watch my death scene in Too Old to Die Young.

[This concludes the spoiler section for Too Old to Die Young.]

Compared to Too Old to Die Young, does Servant work much quicker despite some rather long shots?

We work quite quickly on Servant. It depends on the director. It depends on the day. It depends on the scene. But Night and some of our other directors are very good at seeing exactly what they want, what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed. And then they get it done. We try and bring you high-quality work, but, yeah, it totally depends on the director. Everybody’s different, but we do work decidedly faster on Servant.

I remember seeing a video of you singing some incredibly high notes in your kitchen, much to the frustration of your family and/or friends. Do you think you can go higher than the “Songbird Supreme,” Mariah Carey?

I think me practicing my whistle tones is what will slowly drive my mother insane. (Laughs.) And I definitely cannot go higher than queen Mariah! I think I sound a little bit more like I’m trying to communicate with dogs.

Do you have a music-related side project at the moment? Presuming it's your dream, have you already auditioned for a number of roles that would allow you to act and sing?

Yes, I’m actually in a band! Me and two of my dear friends, Joe and Dylan, started a band a few months ago, and we’ll hopefully have an EP ready by spring. We’re really excited about it. And I have auditioned for a few musical roles. So I would love to be able to combine the two someday.

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Servant season two is now streaming every Friday on Apple TV+.

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