The stars of one of the year’s most anticipated TV series, The Luminaries, tell Jordan Hamel about what drew them to their roles and their experience of filming in Aotearoa.
How do you an adapt an ocean? How do you harness something with such inevitable, knowing rhythms and put it on the screen? How do you show someone the craft that built a great cathedral without taking them inside? You call the architect, of course. You get them to tear it down beam by beam and rebuild it.
If you haven’t guessed that architect is Eleanor Catton and that cathedral is The Luminaries, the 2013 Man Booker-winning novel that every New Zealander has either read or claims to have next on their to-read list. The sprawling starscape of a story set on the West Coast at the height of the 1860s gold rush has been adapted by BBC and TVNZ into a limited series. Before you get up in arms about one of our sacred cows being sullied, don’t worry. Catton wrote the screenplay, which, alongside Claire McCarthy’s direction, turns Catton’s world-building inside out.
The series follows defiant young adventurer Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson), who has sailed from Britain to New Zealand to begin a new life. There she meets the radiant Emery Staines (Himesh Patel), an encounter that triggers a strange kind of magic that neither can explain. As they fall in love, driven together and apart by fateful coincidence, these star-crossed lovers begin to wonder: do we make our fortunes, or do our fortunes make us?
It’s an intricately woven story that uses Catton’s virtuosic writing to accentuate a specific and visceral time and place in Aotearoa’s history. The scenery and set design shine to no one’s surprise and you can’t help but think New Zealand is only going to become more of a haven for filming and production in the wake of everything that’s happening right now. I was lucky enough to chat to some of those actors about the beauty of filming in Aotearoa, horoscope readings on set and the worlds we elaborately build for ourselves.
Himesh Patel – Emery Staines
What attracted you to this project?
I felt like there was something I could bring to the character of Emery. There was a sort of hopeful nature to him that I found really compelling. In a story full of deceit and betrayal, Emery is very truthful. There’s also Eleanor’s brilliant writing. The way she adapted her own novel for the screen I thought was really clever, telling the story from different perspectives. Also getting to shoot in New Zealand was a big pull.
How long were you over here for?
Five months or so. It went really fast. We were mainly in Auckland, but I went to the Bay of Islands – Waitangi, and the Coromandel. I’d been to the South Island before which was brilliant. We spent the last few days filming in Hokitika which felt like a nice way to kind of wrap it all up.
You’ve done similar period projects before. Does that affect how you approach a role?
One of the great things about period pieces is getting to play in these worlds people so elaborately build. Normally I’ll do more research. So, for example, with The Aeronauts, there was a little bit of research to be done in terms of the scientific advances in that period.
With The Luminaries, the historical context is very real. The gold rush was fascinating to research, especially the amount of different nationalities who descended on New Zealand to be part of it. I did a lot of digging into the British empire and how the various nationalities and ethnicities would travel around the empire. It’s something that we don’t necessarily talk much about, especially in the UK, so it was nice to discover that backstory for myself.
The first episode pivots on your relationship with Anna (Eve Hewson). How do you build that chemistry?
Eve is so easy to work with and get on with. She’s fun and hardworking. We had to build that central relationship. If that scene in the beginning between us doesn’t work, then none of it really works, because you won’t care. It’s something that we talked a lot about with Eleanor and Claire.
Is there anything else from your experience that stands out for you?
Just being immersed in the history of New Zealand. Obviously filming there was brilliant, but to feel like we were there to tell a story about New Zealand, that’s something I found really compelling.
Eve Hewson – Anna Wetherell
What attracted you to this project?
The script was initially what attracted me to the project but after I discovered the book I knew I wanted to do it. Eleanor is such a talented writer and I really wanted to work with her.
What’s your favourite thing about the character of Anna?
I think Anna’s resilience is the most exciting thing about her. She never plays the victim, even when (spoiler) she’s on trial for murder.
What did you think of the script inverting the book and bringing the female characters to the forefront?
I had many conversations with Eleanor about Anna. I love that she chose to put Anna as the centrepiece for the show. It’s so different to the book but only Ellie could make that decision and make it work. We honoured the book as much as possible while also making new choices for the characters.
How was filming on location in New Zealand?
Absolutely beautiful. Some of the locations were so cinematic the actors didn’t have to work that hard because the shots were so compelling on their own. My favourite place to shoot was Bethells Beach; I’m a huge fan of The Piano and we paid homage to it in some scenes.
How do you immerse yourself in a world and time that’s historical but fantastical? Do you have to buy into the astrological and mystical elements?
The best thing to do is research as much as possible about the history and context of the time period. That’s always my first step. I had many questions about astrology because I didn’t know too much about it. But Ellie was keen to answer all of that. We ended up having lots of horoscope readings on set!
Eva Green – Lydia Wells
I was reading an interview where you mentioned that an ambition of yours is just to find a good script. What was it about this script?
I’d never heard of a gold rush in New Zealand. So I thought it was very exciting and I wanted to explore this. I read the first two episodes before I decided to get on board and I thought it was very well written. All the characters are strong and mine has a real arc. She is kind of a baddie at the beginning, but then you see cracks in her armour and she evolves, she’s a very strong, independent woman.
Is that what attracted you to Lydia? The evolution?
Yeah, she’s a survivor, she is very driven, very daring. She’s kind of a feminist ahead of her time. But she’s blinded by her ambition and greed and I think what kind of brings her humanity is a love for (Frances) Carver. I think that’s very important because otherwise she would be too, too bad.
She’s very magnetic, sort of the centrifugal force in the show.
It can be tricky sometimes because she has to be believable. It’s always a challenge for an actor to play a character like her without going over the top and being self-indulgent. She’s jubilating, I saw her as a kind of Lady Macbeth.
How was your time filming in New Zealand?
I was so excited to go there. I hadn’t been before. That’s the luxury of being an actor. You can travel to crazy, amazing places. The set was amazing. The set designer, Felicity Abbott, is a genius. We didn’t have that much money and she recreated the town as it was. It felt like I was jumping back in time and I ended up losing myself. Then on my time off I managed to explore a few places. I was spoiled.
I’m glad you got time to explore. Did you have a favourite place you went to?
I wish I had gone back to the very, very south. I just went to Nelson for a few hikes. It’s the silence, I felt like I was going back to the beginning of the world and you New Zealanders are very cool and laidback and very kind.
Thanks, we always love to hear that.
The first episode of The Luminaries screens tomorrow on TVNZ1 at 8.30pm and weekly thereafter. All six episodes of the miniseries drop tonight on TVNZ on Demand.