Legion’s Rachel Keller Talks Experimental Theater, Fargo, and the Unique Weirdness of Noah Hawley

By
Rachel Keller.

The surreal FX show Legion wants to put viewers inside the head of its main character, tortured mutant David Haller. Doing so takes the form of disorienting visuals and timelines, but the show also succeeds in making us feel like David because of his paramour, Syd Barrett. Played by relative newcomer Rachel Keller, Syd is a fellow mutant who cannot be touched, for fear that her powers might cause her to switch bodies with the toucher. Syd lives a life of isolation in plain sight, unable to be close to others.

But she’s also profoundly tough and far more worldly than Legion’s troubled hero, constantly bringing jolts of sarcastic electricity to the ensemble. That’ll be no surprise to fans of showrunner Noah Hawley’s other FX project, Fargo — Keller starred as wayward teen Simone Gerhardt in season two, and stole nearly all of her scenes. Vulture caught up with Keller on the Legion set in Vancouver as she was filming the season finale (don’t worry, no spoilers!) and chatted about her experimental-theater background, the collective delusion that is filming a CGI scene, and how Hawley has become her “quiet mentor.”

Other people in the cast and crew told me that Noah Hawley is the only one who fully has a handle on Legion. When you auditioned, what did you know about your character?
Not a ton. Noah asked me to come and read for the piece and I thought he was bringing me under obligation, because I might have been like the only 20-something girl he knew. [Laughs.] It would’ve maybe looked bad had he not had me come read for it.

Because you’d worked with him on Fargo?
I suppose. It was hard to believe that I would fit into this universe. It was a strange project. When I auditioned for Fargo, there was something about it that I was hungry for because of how right it felt for me. This was quite different.

What made Legion feel like it wasn’t necessarily a good fit?
Well, it didn’t not feel like a good fit. There was just so much less information about it, so it was difficult to know, Oh, I belong in this universe. I didn’t know exactly where I would place myself. But you get your imagination and curiosity engines running. When I’m auditioning for something, if it’s not me, I really hope the part doesn’t go to me. You know what I mean? I don’t want to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. If it’s me, wonderful. If it’s not me, there’s space for all of us.

Did you do chemistry tests with Dan Stevens?
No.

That’s risky.
Well, Noah is the chemistry test, right? He has a vibe as a filmmaker, which is important now with how much creative control showrunners can have. I think Noah’s been a real trailblazer. He has a lot of trust for his collaborators. I think he chooses them carefully. If he’s vetted people, then I trust him. He had us meet. Dan and I hung out before it all began, in Los Angeles. I had one of the best first meetings.

What’d you talk about? Was it mostly the show?
No, there wasn’t much to talk about with the show. We talked a bit about Fargo and my experience working with Noah. In the beginning, I felt a little like I was the gatekeeper to Noah’s mind or something.

For the other actors?
Right. They would look to me to go, “Is this how it is?” or “What does he mean?” There were moments where I was like, “Yes, I’ll try to tell you what he means,” but I quickly learned that we were all in the same boat. There’s no unlocking Noah and there’s always more learning as we go.

Do you think that’s deliberate? That he wants you to discover rather than have answers given to you?
I do. If I have any frustration or confusion, now I feel like I understand that it’s Noah. Noah’s been a mentor for me, a quiet mentor, which for me feels like the best kind. I’m hesitant when people tell me what to do or what to say. The only way that it’s been similar [to Fargo] is that, at the end of Fargo, and at the end here, I felt like things have started to click that haven’t been clicking along the way.

As in, the story?
Sure, story-wise. But also the artistry of it, the style of it. Some things are starting to make sense, and I feel like the process of not knowing a lot makes it so that trying to make sense of it gets put on the back burner. That becomes not as important. The number one thing with Noah is that the thing that you think will be most important is quickly discarded for more interesting questions.

What was different about Noah’s approach to Legion?
Well, every aspect of the show feels different than what Fargo felt like. This is from the ground up. This is building a world, and the rules of this world are so free to have us create and collaborate from within. Fargo was more about the relationships between the people in a family. This has been a technical journey for a lot of us in a really exciting, engaging way. It feels like a dance every time with the camerapeople. I’ve never spoken to the camerapeople more than on this project.

What do you talk about with the camerapeople?
They’re like the other scene partners. They’re moving with us. I have to lean this way for them to lean that way to then get back into the shot, or people are turning into other people so we have to pause action, bring someone out, bring someone back in. It becomes a conversation. It has to become a conversation. Otherwise, we’re at a disadvantage.

Given how disorienting the show is, do you ever find yourself confused about what’s happening in a scene you’re doing?
Yeah, you end up going back to the basics for yourself. I think that can fill you with a sense of needing to understand certain things, or it can relieve some pressure and help you lean into the whimsy and the fun and the magic of it all by just being someone who walks into the world and is curious about it. It was so exciting. I’ve studied theater, I’ve studied the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman and really experimental performance art pieces, and in a way, this [show] feels like an avant-garde superhero TV show.

It’s certainly closer than any other superhero thing.
Yeah. For me, if I look at the root of what a comic book is, or the root of what a mutant is, or any of these superhero things, it becomes surreal. It becomes expressionism. So when I feel like a scene is leaning that way, it’s thrilling. I mean, chills. Like I’m part of something big and special.

Along those lines, how did you approach the CGI-heavy scenes?
This is a piece that feels like it will live in the edit room, more than we can make sense of it. There’s space for each character to have a different experience, a personalized experience. You hope that we’re all on the same page, in terms of tone and quality, and yet, you also hope that there’s a personalized, individual experience, especially with these powers, these abilities that these people have. You hope that we’re all living as truthfully as we can under these conditions.

Speaking of powers, in what way is Syd’s power an extension of who she is? How does it shape her character?
That’s been something the character has taught me along the way. I learn a lot about that from the other actors and how they interact with Syd, how they work with me physically, because my ability involves touch and not being able to touch anyone. What’s exciting is that sometimes, we forget about it. Which I love. I love that we have to remind people, “Let’s try that again, but let’s try a version where you don’t touch me.” It feels like a practice in boundaries. It’s the practice that Syd has — or maybe that I have — of asserting myself and asking for what I need and making those boundaries clear to the people. Even if you love them, making sure that someone is reminded, “I love you, but you can’t touch me like that.” That’s been empowering.

Bill’s character, Cary, had a moment where he had to reach for something behind me. He took extra space, extra energy. I didn’t do anything. I stood perfectly still. He generously gave me — gave Syd — this space, and endowed me with respect. It made sense. This was episode two or three and it informed a lot for me. I feel like someone who isn’t touched isn’t gonna hide in the corner all of the time. It’s more about scanning the space for a safe room. Most of the time we’re not pointing at it. They’re not shaming her for it. They’re not even exploring it or exploiting it in any way.

Dan told me he researched schizophrenia to prepare for his role as David. Did you do anything like that for Syd?
I looked at autism, and at the phobia of being touched. I actually found that research to be not so helpful for me. You can’t play having a mental disability. You have to play whatever that person’s truth is without any judgement. I didn’t really do a ton of research in that area. It didn’t inspire me as much as other things did.

Since you learn more about the characters and the world with each new script, do you ever wish you could go back and reshoot earlier episodes knowing what you know now?
Yeah. We could all do it all again and have just as much fun and add more layers and more nuance. It’s a group of really curious people full of really good questions and a lot of love and generosity. You walk away from scenes going, “Are you sure you don’t want me to shoot anything else? Can you put me in camera a little bit more?” We all have to hand it off to each other at certain points. It builds trust simply because you have to. You just gotta trust the editors, trust Noah, trust the other actors. Building that is about getting out of your own way. It’s when Rachel is able to get out of her own way and can be present. That’s when it’s electric.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Legion’s Rachel Keller Talks Hawley and Experimental Theater