Charlie Rowe as Neverland's Peter Pan
Getting older — it is one of the bittersweet advantages of being human. What if, however, you could choose never to grow up, just like the fictional character of Peter Pan?
Created by the late Scottish playwright and author J.M. Barrie, this loveable yet mischievous young boy can fly and magically refuses to grow up. As leader of his gang of Lost Boys, Peter spends his endless childhood enjoying adventures on the small island of Neverland. Every so often, he ventures into the outside world to play with other children.
This classic tale has been told countless times over the years onstage as well as in feature films and on TV, but exactly how did Peter find Neverland? This question and many others will be answered in Syfy’s Peter Pan prequel Neverland.
Airing Sunday, December 4 and Monday, December 5 at 9:00 p.m. EST/PST, this four-hour miniseries was written and directed by Nick Willing (Tin Man, Alice) and stars Rhys Ifans, Anna Friel, Charlie Rowe, Bob Hoskins, Charles Dance, Raoul Trujillo, Q’Orianka Kilcher, Cas Anvar, and features the voice of Keira Knightley as Tinker Bell.
Two weeks ago, I and several other journalists spent some time on the phone with Nick Willing along with Neverland actors Rhys Ifans, Anna Friel, and Charlie Rowe, who happily gave us a glimpse into this playground of magic, mystery, and occasional mayhem. The following is an edited version of our Q & A. Enjoy!
Anna, when you were growing up, were you a fan of Peter Pan? If so, did you ever imagine that you’d one day be playing Wendy or perhaps Tinker Bell? How surprised are you that you’re playing the pirate captain?
ANNA FRIEL: Yes, I grew up with the story. I’ve seen many versions of it and now that I have a six-year old daughter, I encourage that much more. I love this new take on the story and the introduction of a new character. Wendy was never my favorite and other than her, there were never any female roles to be offered in this wonderful story, so I’m very grateful to Nick for creating Elizabeth Bonny for me.
Rhys, you’re quite a swordsman in this production. Did you have to learn the swordplay for the part or had you picked it up already?
RHYS IFANS: I'd kind of done it many years ago at school and I wasn’t a great swordsman, but I can at least look the part. It was really exciting to fight Anna’s and Charlie’s characters. Initially it took some time for me to pick it up again, and as the shoot went on, rehearsal time became less and less and less. So it’s more of a dance than actual combat.
I’d like ask you, too,Rhys, were you a fan of Peter Pan growing up and had you thought about ever playing the character?
RHYS IFANS: Not so much the novel but I was familiar with the variations of the story over the years, be it in films or on the stage. I think everyone in the Western world has been touched by Peter Pan in some way in their life, and it was a thrill to have a lot explained as Nick Willing has so eloquently done in this production.
Nick, what made you decide to write a prequel rather than do a remake or whatever? How did you come up with the idea?
NICK WILLING: I was interested in the genesis and how it is that a boy doesn’t want to grow up and how he ends up in a place called Neverland where there are pirates, fairies and Indians. When I read Peter Pan I loved it so much that my imagination ran wild and I kind of wanted to know more of the facts of the story and I thought that would make quite an intriguing movie.
And then for the rest of you, how did you become involved in the project?
ANNA FRIEL: Charlie, you go first. It’s your story.
CHARLIE ROWE: Well I worked with Nick a long time ago on my very first job when I was nine, so the minute I heard that he had written Neverland and was also directing it, I just wanted to get involved. Originally I was going up for the role of Fox, Peter’s best friend, but when I read for the part I wasn’t too keen on it. The next day Nick called me and was like, “I want you to go for Peter." That was just absolutely amazing. I eventually got the part and I’m so glad I did. Thank you very much, Nick.
NICK WILLING: I knew Charlie was good, but because I’d worked with him before, I thought, “I can’t work with him again. There must be some other kid out there.” I must have seen 400 kids and then right at the end, Charlie read for the part of Fox and I thought, “Wait, that’s Peter Pan.” I should have just gone with my first instinct, you know?
ANNA FRIEL: I loved the script. It’s one of the best things I’d ever read. I loved the whole fantastical element of it as well as the idea of playing a baddie, and a female baddie, no less. I had a conversation with Nick on the phone and he spoke so eloquently about the story and what he intended to do with it and how he could make that world become true. He also told me that it would be one of the most fun shoots I ever did, and it ended up being just that.
RHYS IFANS: I’d like to reiterate what Anna said. I hadn’t met Nick. I was sitting in a bar in a beautiful village in Spain and I received this script and read it in one sitting. That’s kind of my measuring stick for any script. If you don’t put it down, it’s worth considering, and then Nick pretty much said the same thing to me, that it would be a joyous telling of a beautiful story and a story that explains another story that we were all familiar with. And just from a personal level, Nick’s version of my character goes a long way into describing the Hook we see in the novel as far as painting his psychosis and his arrival at the embodiment of evil.
Nick, you have so many incredible cast members. Can you talk about the casting process and also if you wrote the script with any specific actors in mind?
NICK WILLING: I have to admit that from the beginning I really wanted Rhys for the part of Hook. He’s incredibly powerful and imposing onscreen but at the same time shows a certain vulnerability, and I thought it would be cool if Hook could seem vulnerable as a villain.
Funnily enough it was the same with Anna, too. I know it sounds weird, but when I cast a movie, I always think who would be the best person and I just try and go for them. If I get them, then that’s fantastic. I’ve always been very lucky with this.
Obviously I’d seen Bob Hoskins in [director] Steven Spielberg’s version of Peter Pan [the 1991 feature film Hook], and to me he was the embodiment of Smee. I couldn’t get him out of my head when I was writing the script and always imagined that he’d be perfect for the part. Bob said, “Yes,” so I kind of got three hits. Then with Charlie, well, I’ve already told that story. It turned out to be perfect.
So we were very, very lucky or at least I was very lucky to get all the people I kind of dreamt of. One of the things about making this film was that it was quite a collaborative process in all. It was very much a team and working with these actors was perhaps one of the better experiences that I’ve ever had.
Rhys, Anna, and Charlie, can you talk a little bit about the challenges of putting your mark on characters that people are so familiar with.
CHARLIE ROWE: Well, it was my first proper big part and I was more scared about actually being any good at acting. However, I was lucky on-set to have Rhys and Anna, who really taught me a great deal. I’m very grateful for that. I felt that I went into doing the show as just a little kid, really, a little child actor, and I think I’ve come out as an actor; or I’d like to think so anyway.
Also, being around Nick all the time, I realized that he was actually the character of Peter that he’d written about. So I’d just look at how he was behaving and replicated that.
ANNA FRIEL: Nick really set the tone on-set. Also, he wanted individual and unique performances because it was part of the [Peter Pan] story that we’d never seen before, particularly my character. She was brand new, and it’s always hard to play a character that people may not like and to then maybe play it badly. We had a great rehearsal process, though, and Rhys and I played around a lot with the different characteristics and how our two characters came together as well as why Hook was intrigued by this incredibly powerful woman who used her prowess and femininity to get what she wanted.
RHYS IFANS: Just to pick up on what Charlie said as well as what both Anna and I have said and I’m sure Nick would agree, that I wasn’t working with a boy. I was working with a professional actor from the very beginning to the end. I can put my hand to my heart and say that Charlie is one of the most professional, eloquent young men who I’ve ever worked with, and it was nothing but a pleasure.
CHARLIE ROWE: Thank you very much.
RHYS IFANS: You’re welcome, Charlie. And not only did you see the character that he plays, but also the huge change in that character as the story unfolds. He gets all these new sorts of emotions and struggles with the morality that Hook and Bonney present him with. I think it’s a really mature performance. So between him, Anna and Nick, I felt in the safest I’ve ever felt on a set.
Nick, how long have you’ve actually been working on Neverland? Also, why you did you decide to do it for television and not a feature film, as it appears to have the type of production values that you might expect in a movie.
NICK WILLING: Well, one of the things about doing it for television, and particularly for the Syfy network, is that they allow me to take great risks as well as experiment and try new things. They’re also are brave enough to go into dark areas which is sometimes more difficult to do for the big screen.
If this was a big movie I’d probably wrestle with 50 - 100 executives just when it came to writing the script, let alone making the movie. One of the things that I felt in making this movie is an enormous amount of freedom, and that freedom comes from working with the Syfy network in particular, but also working in television. Currently, television in America is a medium that I feel is taking the greatest risks and trying new things. So that’s one of the reasons I did it for TV.
As far as how long I’ve been thinking about this project, well, in a way it started when I first read the book [Peter Pan]. However, it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve had the confidence to take on such a massive thing. I mean, it’s a very famous and loved book, and so it’s only since I’ve become a bit older and made films [for Syfy] like Tin Man and Alice that I have had the courage and confidence to take on something of this magnitude.
Nick, do you have a favorite aspect of the original Peter Pan book that you were able to explain the origin of in this miniseries?
NICK WILLING: I was particularly taken by the relationship between Peter and Hook and how it came about. That was the thing that in this film with Rhys’s and Charlie’s characters as well as Anna’s, who’s an enormous part of that, too. One of the reasons I wanted to create a character like the pirate queen is that she may be tough, slightly crazy, nasty, and extremely dangerous, but you still want her. She’s irresistible. It was quite a difficult part to cast, but Anna is absolutely perfect in that role.
Anna, Rhys and Charlie, in your own words can you explain who your characters are and what their roles are in this particular adaptation?
RHYS IFANS: Well, I would say that Hook is a damaged man who is liberated by badness.
ANNA FRIEL: And Bonney is a very bad woman who’s liberated by Hook.
CHARLIE ROWE: I think Peter’s just a boy who wants to live and I suppose be incredible. He wants to be Hook and that’s why going to Neverland is so interesting because of the whole aspect of not being able to grow up.
Anna, what were some of the challenges involved with playing a female pirate captain that is so watchable and likeable but still has kind of a tough edge and isn’t going to take crap from anybody?
ANNA FRIEL: Oh, I love that you said watchable and likeable. That’s good. I suppose I did my job if you think that.
I’d say physically the hardest thing was getting into really tight leather trousers every day and those corsets. Then there was learning to use a sword while being wrapped up in that tight corset. We also had to hang from harnesses, but at least I didn’t have to fly. That must have been the hardest thing for Charlie. Honestly, though, I don’t look back at these scenes and think of anything as being hard. I just found it fantastic fun. I have nothing but fond memories.
As far as the character, I feel like remaining likeable wasn’t my aim. It wasn’t really something that I had to do. It was just a matter of becoming Bonney and finding actions that made us feel that she came from the 1700s.
I’d like to find out from each one of you what’s your most favorite and least favorite thing about working in the fantasy genre?
ANNA FRIEL: In this case, the most exciting thing for me was having a real ship to work on..
CHARLIE ROWE: I think my favorite aspect of it is the fact that you can just create magical things as well as mesmerizing and unforgettable creatures and worlds and beautiful, beautiful things. But I suppose my least favorite is just the color green.
ANNA FRIEL: Yeah.
NICK WILLING: That’s very funny.
ANNA FRIEL: We started off in a real environment, on a real ship. We were able to suspend all disbelief much more easily when we came to work and on so much green screen. Nick also really cleverly gave us fantastic visuals of what we would be seeing and looking at. So it was kind of like being a child in the most fantastic dress up box you could ever imagine or wish to have and it was all about play, which is what we [actors] do.
RHYS IFANS: For me, too, it was just the whole transported feeling of making the film. We shot it in Ireland, so we felt kind of far away from everything. We felt pleasantly isolated and left alone, so we were able to indulge and bring to life this absolute visual banquet that Nick created.
When you read the novel, it very much happens in a household, a bedroom and living room. That’s the kind of emotional HQ. And just to go back to what Nick said before about television, it offers you more time to explore. If this was a 90-minute movie feature, we wouldn’t have been able to explore half the psychological dynamics that Nick has been able to in a four-hour TV epic. So it was just a thrill from start to finish.
NICK WILLING: I’ve particularly enjoyed working on this film. I had more fun than I’ve ever had working on a movie. I’ve done a few fantasy films and the honest answer to what it is that I love most about the nature of fantasy movies is imagining new worlds and the wonder of walking into some of these extraordinary places.
That’s what kind of keeps me going. On the other hand, the thing I hate most is how expensive that is as well as how difficult it often is to achieve and how sometimes it has to be done on a green screen and so forth. But the end result, if it works out, is what fills us with the most pleasure. You can’t do that with any other medium. Fantasy is the only thing which allows you to invent, create and imagine worlds that are not fully there.
Please note, all photos above by Patrick Redmond and copyright of Syfy.