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[The following interview contains spoilers for Servant, Too Old to Die Young and Game of Thrones.]
M. Night Shyamalan‘s Servant has flirted with the supernatural for two and a half seasons as Nell Tiger Free‘s Leanne Grayson appears to have an unexplained yet evolving power. Free’s titular character has seemingly brought Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner’s (Toby Kebbell) deceased baby, Jericho, back to life, and she’s even revived Dorothy’s brother, Julian (Rupert Grint), after a fatal overdose. But despite Leanne’s apparent miracles, the Turners mostly downplay their mysterious nanny’s continued warnings regarding the danger they all face from her former cult. But unlike her character, Free understands the Turner family’s hesitance to listen to Leanne’s fears.
“People are so skeptical, aren’t they?” Free tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s less about believing in Leanne’s judgment and more about accepting that the supernatural is among you. And not that anybody in that house is sane, but for a person who’s been presented with one reality their entire life to all of a sudden being given this question mark over their entire reality, it’s like you or I recognizing that the supernatural does exist, that magic and all these things exist. The supernatural questions everything that anybody believes in, so I think they’re hesitant to accept the fact that there are things they simply cannot rationalize, explain or control.”
At just 15, Free shot a rather climactic death scene in the season five finale of Game of Thrones, as her character, Myrcella Baratheon, the incestuous daughter of Cersei and Jamie Lannister, was assassinated by Ellaria Sand and the Sand Snakes. While Free felt the pressure surrounding her impactful scene, she credits Jamie Lannister actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau for his support during it.
“I was 15 when I shot that, and there was a lot of pressure. You’re dying on Game of Thrones, and you’ve got to do a good job of it,” Free recalls. “I was very, very new to the acting world, and it was my first big role as a young woman. But Nikolaj was such a nice guy. He was so lovely to me when we were shooting that. I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was a relatively comfortable scene to shoot.”
In a conversation with THR, Free also discusses her friendship with Shyamalan’s daughter, Ishana Night Shyamalan, who’s also a writer-director for Servant. Then she explains why episode five’s block party was so meaningful to the cast and crew.
Gosh, every time I see you, I automatically think of Janey at the beach in Too Old to Die Young. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.
(Laughs.) Pew! I know.
So once you finished Servant season two after the long interruption, it looks like you had very little time off before season three started. Were they trying to keep the original, pre-pandemic schedule intact?
I don’t even know what the original schedule was! The pandemic happened right in the middle of season two, and we were meant to come back after two weeks. But that turned into six, seven or eight months until we finished the last part of [season two]. And when we went back to do season three, it was the whole thing in one big block, which was quite a jump for us. So we went back pretty quickly, but to be honest, it all sort of blurs into one.
In season two, Leanne started to come out of her shell as she’d smile and talk a bit more.
She had lines! (Laughs.)
She even started having “relations” with Julian (Rupert Grint).
And now, in season three, she’s still on that track despite this looming threat that’s hanging over her. So how do you view her evolution at this point?
I feel like she evolves episodically. From episode to episode, she gets a little bit stronger because something taints her innocence a little bit. Right now, she’s at this pivotal moment where she’s almost drunk with power. When we find her in season three, she’s paranoid, agoraphobic and nervous. You don’t know which way it’s going to go, whether she’s going to crumble or whether she’s going to find her footing. But it’s quite apparent which one starts to happen quite quickly, and this thing inside of her just keeps getting stronger and stronger. At the end of season two, she says, “I can feel the dark thing in me getting bigger,” and she’s absolutely right. It is. It’s growing, and it’s almost coming out of her fingers at this point. So it’s really exciting.
Are you still in the dark about the overall destination for her?
Yes, I am very much still in the dark, and it’s probably for the best because I’d accidentally tell you what happens. So I still do not know.
I’m a bit frustrated with the Turners. They’ve watched Leanne pull off numerous miracles like bringing Jericho back twice and saving Julian’s life with a fist and a kiss, and yet, they still downplay her concerns about the danger they face from her cult. So why aren’t they trusting her judgment at this point?
(Laughs.) “With a fist and kiss,” I’m sorry, but that was pretty funny. So why can’t they trust her judgment? Because she’s a creepy cult kid!
But she’s performed miracles!
I know, but people are so skeptical, aren’t they? It’s less about believing in Leanne’s judgment and more about accepting that the supernatural is among you. And not that anybody in that house is sane, but for a person who’s been presented with one reality their entire life to all of a sudden being given this question mark over their entire reality, it’s like you or I recognizing that the supernatural does exist, that magic and all these things exist. So it’s trying to cope with that, and people do try to rationalize the things that they can’t explain. It’s like when you wake up in the middle of the night and your brain turns the clothes in the corner of your room into a face. Everything has to be organized, and you have to have a pattern to things. But the supernatural questions everything that anybody believes in, so I think they’re hesitant to accept the fact that there are things they simply cannot rationalize, explain or control. (Free exhales.) That was a long one!
Let’s be honest: They’re acting like true Americans.
(Laughs.) I mean, yeah.
So how does working with Ishana [Night Shyamalan] compare to M. Night Shyamalan? Is it one of those cases where the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree?
Yes, Ishana’s vision is immaculate. She’s a fucking genius, and I think she’s going to have the most incredible career. She is so commanding, and she does not shy away from any challenge or any opportunity for a creative outlet. She’s just really, really special, and that’s apparent in her episodes. Her episodes are so strong and so is her writing. She’s also one of my best friends. (Laughs.) She’s incredibly smart and talented, and she’s going to have the most incredible career. So I’m excited to watch that happen for her.
So was the dandelion soup pretty good despite the hair in it?
Yes! Dandelion soup is delicious. Chef Drew [DiTomo], our chef on the show, whipped up the dandelion soup, and he came to my room at lunch and said, “Try this. If you don’t like it, I’ll remake it.” So he gave me a little spoonful of it, and I was like, “Oh my God, can I have some for lunch?” And he was like, “No, because then you’ll spoil it for the scene.” So then I tried to get him to give me some to take home because it was so good. And it was actually dandelion soup; it wasn’t green soup that we pretended was dandelion. Chef Drew has made a dandelion soup. Every dish on the show is completely authentic, and the boys are amazing chefs. Toby is phenomenal as well.
Is it comparable to anything?
Well, Leanne said that it tastes like spring, but I don’t know what spring would taste like. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s salty and sour. I’m not making it sound good, but it’s really, really nice. I don’t know where you’d find it, but I’ll get Chef Drew to send you some.
In episode four, you do some ballet in the Turners’ gym/dance studio, which I don’t think we’ve seen before.
Were you already familiar with that routine?
No, I’m a terrible dancer. Anybody who knows me will tell you that. To be able to dance in episode four, it really took choreography and lessons to get me to a point where I was even comfortable with putting it on camera. I want to get everything right on this show, and if something just isn’t a string to my bow, you can’t fake being a good dancer. Either you are or you aren’t. So there was some serious boot camp for me to be able to do that, and hopefully it looks OK. Dear God … (Laughs.)
And that was one of Saleka Night Shyamalan’s songs playing over the scene, right?
Yeah, it is! It is one of Saleka’s songs. [Writer’s Note: This interview was conducted well prior to the release of Saleka’s new single, “One More Night.”]
Episode five is named “Tiger,” and Leanne’s face is half painted like a tiger. Have the writers admitted that they were basically toying with you?
Because my middle name is Tiger?
You know what? I don’t even think they thought about it. I actually don’t.
I know, I know, right? I don’t think it even came into their minds, but maybe it did. It was always the plan that Leanne would have half of a Tiger’s face while doing these crazy, ridiculous stunts. I was in these overalls, committing a lot of crimes, but maybe they are fucking with me. (Laughs.) They probably are. They like to do that.
Since we’re on the subject of your name, is there a dramatic story behind the name Tiger?
Not really, man. I was born on my granddad’s birthday, and his name was Neil. So Nell is the female version of that. And Tiger was originally meant to be my first name, but because I was born on my granddad’s birthday, it got moved to the middle. And Free is just my dad’s last name.
Overall, that block party in episode five was probably no easy feat during a pandemic. Did it seem like quite the process from your vantage point?
Yeah, it was. Health and safety really did have their work cut out for them. We had so many day players and so many background [artists]. We had tightrope walkers, gymnasts, face painters and a guy riding a unicycle, who nearly killed one of our camera operators. It was crazy. (Laughs.) He was fine, though. But it was honestly really nice to be around a bunch of people. It was regulated, so we knew it was safe. This big crowd of people got to be together and dance together. So it was lovely, to be honest.
Last year, your dress accidentally caught on fire. Were there any hazards this season?
(Laughs.) Yeah, definitely. I started getting migraines on set, but that’s not really a hazard. That’s just me not sleeping enough. Getting set on fire last year was probably the biggest hazard that we’ve had, but one of the window frames fell on my head, so that was fun. I was a little dizzy for a minute, but then I was fine. We’re always tripping and falling over in that house. It’s so higgledy-piggledy, but nothing too notable.
I hope I have the strength to transcribe “higgledy-piggledy.”
(Laughs.) Just don’t! Pretend I didn’t say it. Use a way more interesting synonym than higgledy-piggledy, and I’ll take full credit for it.
I’m one of only nine people interested in this, but how do you handle the FaceTime scenes usually?
Sometimes, we’ll call the other actor. If they’re at home or on set somewhere, we’ll actually dial them in, but we won’t have their face, which is put in afterwards. So we’ll be able to hear each other, but we can’t see each other. It really just depends on the shot and the angle, but sometimes, we can get away with actually FaceTiming one another. And sometimes, it has to be haphazardly put together.
So last year, we talked about your Too Old to Die Young death scene in detail, but we didn’t talk too much about your other famous death [as Myrcella Baratheon] on Game of Thrones. I imagine that was more difficult than people realize because you hadn’t worked with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau very much, and then you had to reveal that Myrcella already knew that “Uncle Jamie” was actually her father. You also had to capture this emotion that would not only fuel the reaction to her sudden death but also Cersei’s (Lena Headey) future revenge storyline. On the day, could you feel how significant that scene was to the overall story?
Yeah, there was a lot of gravitas in that episode. I was 15 when I shot that, and there was a lot of pressure. You’re dying on Game of Thrones, and you’ve got to do a good job of it. I was very, very new to the acting world, and it was my first big role as a young woman. I’d done stuff before, but as a younger girl. There was this pressure because Nikolaj was very acclaimed and incredibly well-known on the show. So there was a lot of pressure; there’s pressure in every moment. But Nikolaj was such a nice guy. He was so lovely to me when we were shooting that. But to be honest with you, I don’t want to say it was easy, but it was a relatively comfortable scene to shoot. I’d been preparing for it, and it actually went pretty smoothly.
Lastly, what’s the latest with your band?
We have two singles out at the moment. We’ve only done two gigs, but we’re slowly trying to build it up and keep going.
Servant season three is now streaming on Apple TV+. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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