Speaking on the phone with Harry Lloyd from his home in (old) London was a wonderful experience. Lloyd stars in the first flagship series for the Peacock streaming service, Brave New World, which also features Jessica Brown Findlay as Lenina, Hannah John-Kamen as Helm, and Alden Ehrenreich as John the Savage, along with many more familiar faces. As the lead of the show, Lloyd toes the tricky line of playing a character that should have it all, that should be extremely happy, but just…isn’t. The show is beyond incredible-looking, and the world of New London that has been created for this series is monumental and has to be seen to be believed.
Lloyd previously starred on a show you may have heard of called Game of Thrones, which was also a massive achievement, playing the sadly departed Viserys Targaryen, creepy brother of Daenerys. And oh yeah, he’s also the great-great-great grandson of Charles Dickens (which he references in such an interesting fashion), and a tremendous performer to boot.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our interview with the truly fascinating Harry Lloyd of Brave New World.
*This interview originally ran on July 16, 2020*
Brief Take: This is one of the most impressive looking shows. What was it like to live in this world?
Harry Lloyd: Well I really enjoyed the time that I did get to live in it for sure. They built these most enormous sets with speed unseen before surely. There was paint drying in Bernard’s apartment I remember when I first got there. And they filled up the studio – all four sound stages – within like two weeks or something. It was mad. And then you’ve got Industrial Light & Magic painting this incredible city designed by a competition-winning architect in Hong Kong.
I remember that the first scene in that episode in which I am waiting for Lenina, I had an A.D. show me an iPad: the iPad is showing you what the camera is seeing down the hall as she’s coming towards me. In the background, on the iPad, I can already see New London, in the digital universe that Industrial Light & Magic have done. Live! And then my A.D. goes away and Lenina walks away into the office. And I’m like: [laughs] “Brave New WORLD! What is THAT?!”.
BT: What do you think that the incredible first scene is meant to represent?
HL: Well it shows you straight into a very…almost every day infringement – the stakes are not super high. This is a scene in which a colleague is brought into a superior’s office for some sort of disciplinary meeting, and yet, as they’re talking you see she’s getting in trouble because she’s been monogamous with someone for a couple of months and [chuckles] that’s unacceptable. So you have a new normal. And it is extraordinary that you tune in and this is the first thing that you get.
But in terms of that unhappiness, this first scene, it’s not until a bit later in the episode when we see Bernard’s own unhappiness, which he has now been holding onto for a little while, but we definitely tap into Lenina’s straight away. But they don’t have a word for the question mark of unhappiness, the thing that is human, to want to explore the pain there, which is forbidden in this society (and that’s at the heart of the rebellion, if there is one). And Bernard is part of that too and you don’t know why, really, to begin with, why he has fallen off the wagon. But yeah, that is what it explores.
BT: Bernard has the good Soma, the best drugs, so why then should he be so unhappy?
HL: Yeah. This is the problem with Bernard, which is: “Why am I unhappy?”. One of the slogans of the society, is “Everyone is happy…unless they choose not to be”. And why would you choose ‘unhappy’? But Bernard is not choosing unhappy, he doesn’t want to be unhappy. He’s just prone to solipsism, he doesn’t enjoy all the casual sex.
There’s a scene after the orgy scene at the end of the first episode, which I think was the hardest one that Jessie (Jessica Brown Findlay) and I had, at the end of that first block. It was these people finding words for the first time to this question mark and being able to share it and both understand it mutually. It was really tricky, but I think that this is at the heart of things.
BT: Do you feel you were destined in a way to star in a show based on a classic book of literature?
HL: No, frankly. [laughs] I don’t feel like it’s my destiny to be involved in literary adaptations. But, I do understand why I have done a few. I did have a bookish upbringing, I studied literature at Oxford University.. That was my way into acting. I started with the words. And I had this great-great-great-grandfather who wrote some extraordinary books, of which I was aware from an early age, so I got to explore them on my own for a little bit. Which I think was the main benefit I see from that, as proud as I am of my natural heritage.
But this adaptation, it’s such an interesting relationship it has with the book because it honours the society and the precepts and the central problems and philosophy of this world. And there are some things that it strips away, some of the anachronistic things. But the main difference is the plot, which is not character or emotionally-driven in the book, which is more an examination. It’s an essay. And everyone has a range of unhappy endings, if they even had a beginning, in the book.
Bernard is hypocritical and somewhat cruel and jealous, and in this one as well, he’s a weak man. But we have to plant some extra seeds because hopefully we are taking these characters beyond the book in later seasons.
BT: How much do you think that recent events have made the series even more timely and more relevant?
HL: Well I think that anything that talks the truth about society and governance is always relevant . But in general right now in this time, we’re just hyper-sensitive to that, and we do want answers to those questions: “How do we govern ourselves? It is…for fuck’s sake, this is not working.” So I think that people are desperate for it, and I’m not going to say that this is the answer [laughs] by any means, this is an extreme example of how you achieve stability. But if anything, we pose the question: “Well, what are we willing to sacrifice for happiness? What level of freedom are we willing to give up?”.
Also, the idea of not having any personal fear or anxiety, you know what, sometimes I really found it a fucking tempting idea while filming, despite the lack of freedom, so… for that reason, yeah, it’s also kinda relevant, I suppose!
BT: What is it about the relationship with Jessica Brown Findlay and with you that translates so well on screen?
HL: Oh I’m…first of all, I’m so glad! And second of all, yeah, Jessie’s super professional and I knew her a little bit before, like 2000 and…12 or something, we were a bunch of British BAFTA actors to watch. They had like 30 people from the industry, like composers, editors and actors.. and they flew us to L.A., and they had this BAFTA dinner honouring young rising stars, and we had the most bizarre evening. [laughs] The Hollywood royalty was there because William and Kate were guests of honour, on their first tour of California. So it was like the Oscars, and at my table was James Gandolfini, Tom Hanks, Stephen Fry, and it was me and people like Jessie scattered in between these [laughs] titans, literally, like this list was ridiculous. And then afterward, Jessie and I and a couple of them that were there, we became friends based on this most extraordinary night. I hadn’t seen her for a while and so it was wicked when I found out that she got the part and I had the part. It takes off a lot of pressure from that first bit of getting to know the person. Because you’re going to be working together for 15 hours a day for a long time! And she’s great! She’s so easy to work with and always open to new ideas and I really respect her as an actor, and it’s lots of fun.
BT: It’s really interesting to watch Hannah John-Kamen‘s scenes in particular because she looks like she is having the most fun time.
HL: Yeah. Hannah does a great, great job at it. I think that she chews it up the scenery. (Wilhelmina) Helm (Watson) is the only artist really in New London. She’s an Alpha Plus. She understands the system, but almost like Mustafa Mond (Nina Sosanya), she’s slighty removed, something beyond. With Helm, it’s more in an artistic way – she’s interested in freedom and giving people feelings. Even though feelings are kind of prohibited. But for her, feelings are flying and falling down a waterfall and having an orgy. And so I think that for her, her relationship with John (The Savage, Alden Ehrenreich), is something that gives her access to a new kind of feeling, it’s really interesting.
BT: The wedding scene in particular is brilliant, what was it like playing that?
HL: Yeah, the wedding was the most amazing thing, even in the script it was like: “This whole act is a single shot”, and you read that, and you’re like: “Alright, okay, what are you going to do?”. And you turn the pages and you’re like: “Okay, it’s this fake marriage that the Savages are putting on for the New Londoners to show them what they do, and it ends with a fake gunfight because the Savages [laughs] are so jealous and crazy. But someone’s switched the bullets, so Sheelah and people come in, and it turns into a crazy spraying down of innocent people, including the crowd. Lenina and Bernard escape and we follow them and on and on…” And I was like: “Are you kidding me?!” And we did it on the 25th take, at the end of the day, as the sun was just in the process of disappearing for the night, and it could not have been better. And the blood went right, and all the squibs went right, and everyone got their lines right. And the camera did it and we all did it. Ah! But I wondered: “Are they going to chop it up?”. They had another camera running just in case it went too long or wouldn’t hold as a single take sequence. But it did hold and they showed the whole ‘play’ bit from Bernard and Lenina’s point-of-view. Yeah, and it’s stuff like that, you just don’t expect it. And you don’t think that tv can do stuff like that, it’s very cinematic. But the visuals, like the story, can very suddenly go sideways, you don’t know where it’s going, it doesn’t fit into a three inch box, so the characters are free to be able to go and explore.
BT: We’ve never seen a show like this before. How does that feel for you?
HL: It’s a wonderful thing and I had this fantastic time. I did think that something so big and epic and important, not least because it’s this flagship show and it’s based on this beloved book, that it would be a very serious job, but it was so much fun. I was having such a wonderful time, like even the serious stuff. And you’re depicting orgies, you’re not doing a battle. It’s very surreal. But it’s high budget and high glamour. And huge enormous sets that you don’t think that you’ll get ever again. But every week there was a new one so I used to sneak off set and peak into some of the ones they were building. Ah! It was magic.
BT: You present extremely different in every role, how do you achieve this and how do you do this with Bernard
HL: Well, first of all, I’m happy that you would think that, and I think that this is kind of why I wanted to do it in the first place. So I wouldn’t have to be anyone. I could be anyone. The problem of getting to play a character… I used to think that: “Well, I’m going to do that walk, or pinch my butt cheek that way and have a walk little slanted to the left” and build these characters mechanically and write notes and stuff. But as I get older, and also just having a baby, the time and the pressure… [laughs] I think that if they’re different, it’s because I don’t really think about character any more. I think that character is what an audience puts together, they get given the set and the costume and the dialogue and this performance and they turn it into a guy named Bernard. Who doesn’t exist, and they care about him and they’re invested. And I play a part in that and I fill in a few ingredients. I saw a wonderful script – a fantastic canvas – so my job is to stretch it as far and in as many different directions as it can go, and see what it’s capable of.
If I do these characters differently, I guess it’s because I go a little bit floppy as I get into it and just be as sensitive as I can be to the variety of things these words could do. And it’s a safe haven, when you’re on a set or when you’re onstage in a theatre. You’re untouchable. If anyone in the world calls you, they can’t get you. Nothing’s more important than what you have to do when the cameras rolling or the curtain’s up. But it is the safety of a bubble. I recognize that.
BT: How much did Game of Thrones feel like a game changer at the time?
HL: Yeah, I mean it did feel like something different. The thing with Game of Thrones is that even before the world of tv was filled with world-building tv shows, this was a high-end mega-budget kind of movie-looking show, that hadn’t been on tv before, really, at least in my mind. So when I read it, again, I’m like: “But how are we going to film it? This is extraordinary!“. And then you arrive on set and you’re like: “Oh crap. They’re going to fucking build it”. And then you see it all put together, and the wonderful thing about Game of Thrones that I will always remember is that I’d never worked on something on that scale, but I’ve never at that time worked on tv with such detail. People were very much at the top of their game in all departments and that’s a rare feeling of: “If this is not good, well then fuck it, I don’t know what is”. And I love it. I’m impressed by every department. And I’m inspired to be riding with them, and with that, the great thing about acting is that even if a job doesn’t transport your career, or if it does, or even if you decide you don’t want to be an actor any more, an experience like that will actually, well, make you care less about what other people think. Because I think that you recognize that, well, this is how you would like to work. For better or worse, I took six months off my life to shoot 15 scenes and I wouldn’t have it any other way. And it was a strange and wonderful summer. I did the most extraordinary thing. Then I watched it back and I’m super proud of it. The fact that it’s a worldwide phenomenon is great but it’s kind of secondary to me to the power that it gave me, the confidence, because I saw how it could be done and you want to work on something like that again.
And I saw it in something like Brave New World, in which you’re like: “Yeah. Okay, the bar has been set high”, and you’re absolutely topping it. And “are you actually going to build that? Oh, wow, you’re going to do it. Are those scenes going to run that way? And are you going to use that take rather than that take?”. At every level of Brave New World, I saw people just trying to make it acutely better and not generic. And even down to the point of the takes they pick in the edit. I’d remember, ‘That’s the one I kind of fucked, it went sideways..’ They always went for that one. And it makes the scene go this way. And it makes it a little bit muddy and ‘I don’t know how I feel about that’, but the story still rages on and you’re left with these emotionally ambiguous question mark feelings about many of the characters, definitely Bernard, in the same way he’s experiencing this uncertain, inexpressible, emotional reaction, too. Cutting it like that allowed it to be much more condensed and richer, I think – I’m really impressed by the edit.
BT: How do you feel as a viewer?
HL: You know what? I don’t always enjoy watching the stuff I’m in. [laughs] Especially the first time. The first time I think is about you recognizing what it is not. It’s not that thing in your head. And the second time, if you do, sometimes you see it for what it is. But for this one, I would have to say for the first time, I saw it for what it was on the first viewing I think.
Because it was impossible for me to picture it. When I read the script, I was like: “Ah! I’m just curious to know how you make that?”. So I loved seeing how it looked and seeing the colours and its perfect sunlight and perpetual sunset. It all looked like an advert. But also a little bit bland, and then you realize that all of this scenery is being augmented by each individual’s optic interface, their Google contact lens thing, so it should be quite bland. I really thought that the visuals were such a huge part of the story and I loved them.
BT: What is something that you’ve enjoyed watching recently?
HL: Okay, my lockdown viewing, well, it’s been mostly erratic. Bear in mind that I have a baby, so first of all I have been watching a lot of In the Night Garden… and Peppa Pig. [laughs] My secret Dad trick during the lockdown has been saying I have to do something upstairs or “I have work to do”, and sometimes I would sneak off and I managed to get through the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary on Netflix, which I think is just about to expire, and that was just wonderful. It is an incredible piece of filmmaking and I learned so much just about the whole ten years of American history. And it was an achievement to watch the whole thing in little chunks of stolen time, or late at night!
Yeah, in terms of TV drama, shit, what did I watch, recently? There are a lot of American shows that my wife and I have on that you see constantly like wallpaper at different times throughout the house.
BT: You show up in some top-notch projects. Who have been some performers with whom we have enjoyed working?
HL: Starting with Manhattan, I’ve been starting to do ‘high-end’ American tv, I suppose. I did two seasons of that and two seasons of Counterpart. And after the second Counterpart season and Legion, I then started shooting the Brave New World season. These kinds of scripts attract all kinds of really, the people with whom you want to work, they’re just craftsmen who are interested in this stuff and know how to play. I turned up on the Manhattan set and had all of these actors from New York, like Christopher Dedham, Michael Chernus, Rachel Brosnahan, John Benjamin Hickey. And they were craftsmen and they were great at what they were doing. Olivia Williams was actually in both Manhattan and in Counterpart and I barely had any scenes with her the whole time, even though she was the other Brit! But she is the same. And was also my fellow English stowaway in these fancy American shows so we became thick as thieves.
But even though not a ton of people have seen any of those shows, I wouldn’t change a thing. Those are the kinds of filming projects I’ve mainly been doing lately and I’ve loved working on them.
Brave New World premieres this Sunday, September 13 at 9pm ET/PT on Showcase. The entire show is now available on Peacock.