When you think of the Peter Pan story, you would expect most girls to identify with Wendy. But every now and again, you’ll find a rare exception to the rule.
Anna Friel was not a big fan of Wendy: “I’ve grown up with the story. I’ve seen it in many versions and watched all the films and having a six year old daughter, encouraged that much more cause she’s a musket fan. And I love the new take on this story and the introduction of a very new character. And Wendy was never my favorite and apart for her, there were never any female roles to be offered in this wonderful story so I was very grateful to Nick for creating one.” The role of which she speaks is Captain Elizabeth Bonny, commander of the dread pirate ship Jolly Roger. (see what I did, there?)
Friel (“Pushing Daisies” and … well, Land of the Lost, if she wants to claim it) is part of a star-studded cast in the new take on Peter Pan’s origins, Neverland, airing on Syfy December 4th and 5th.
Depending on how you look at it, Friel either has the easiest job of the principle cast, or she has the hardest. Captain Bonny was created out of whole cloth by writer/director Nick Willing. As a result, there’s no point of reference for Friel, as there are for co-stars Rhys Ifans and Charlie Rowe (Hook and Peter). So, when it came time to play a fearsome pirate, her biggest question for Willing was, “how am I going to be believable as small as I am that I’d run this ship surrounded by these huge, massive burly men. Who’s going to take me seriously?”
Researching online, she came across one Grace O’Malley – also known as Granuaile – one of the most notorious female pirates in Irish history. And the character may have been named for Anne Bonny, another famous female pirate. And that gave her a touchstone into the psyche of this new character, who’s very much into astrology. When Hook arrives in Neverland, it’s like Captain Bonny receives a visit from a god, and Friel says the pirate craves knowledge. That serves as the catalyst for her relationship with Hook. Her greed and insatiable thirst for knowledge and power is a big part of the character.
“Bonny is a very bad woman who’s liberated by Hook.”
Friel says the challenge was finding a balance between playing a villain and having the villain be watchable, but Willing “set the tone” and spent a lot of time in rehearsals with the cast, finding the characters and experimenting with the performances to find the right mix. In some ways easier to play an original character because of the absence of expectations. Where Ifans and Rowe have to face comparisons to other performers in the same roles, Friel has a wider latitude for her performance. Her character also has the most potential to be the character audiences won’t like because she’s new. And on top of that, she’s the villain.
“It’s always hard playing a character that people necessarily won’t like and that’s usually done – it’s a role and the job of Hook. And I think that the fact that Nick wrote a very complex Hook and gave him a back story, and where did his dark side come from? And to be influenced by a woman I thought was quite an interesting thing to look at.”
Neverland, being an origin story, covers new ground. It’s the back story that tells us how James Hook became captain of the Jolly Roger, how he and Peter Pan became mortal enemies, how Peter and the Lost Boys ended up who they are in the classic J.M. Barrie story. And a lot of it has to do with one Elizabeth Bonny. According to Willing, Captain Bonny is the “conduit” for the changes in the relationship between Hook and Peter. She “liberates” Hook from being a “repressed Edwardian gentleman”.
The ship itself is an actual physical set, and Friel says that made it easier to play dress-up, although the corsets, the “tight tight leather trousers” and the physicality of the role was the biggest hurdle for her. And even though she doesn’t fly, she was rigged into a harness for part of the production (to keep her from falling off the ship set?). But even with those challenges, Friel looks back on the entire experience as “fantastic fun”.
“I’ve just become fascinated with female pirates. I think it’s a more fantastic thing today. If I could go back in history and be anyone, I’d be a captain of a ship, thanks very much.”
NEVERLAND, produced by Sky Movies, will air on Syfy December 4th and 5th 9/8c. Starring Charlie Rowe, Rhys Ifans, Anna Friel, and Bob Hoskins, with Keira Knightley as the voice of Tinkerbell.