Renegade Nell Star Louisa Harland On Swashbuckling Romps And Dressing As A Man

By Tessa Dunthorne

2 months ago

The Irish actor says she trained the accent over lockdown via her partner's cockney family

She played kooky funny-girl Orla McCool in Channel 4’s Derry Girls before joining Woody Harrelson and Andy Serkis on stage in dark comedy Ulster American. This latest TV show isn’t quite so amusing – although it’s certainly an exciting watch – as Louisa Harland takes the title lead in Disney+’s new fantasy romp, Renegade Nell. As war-widowed Nell takes on the upper classes of England in a miscarriage of justice, things take a magical turn as preternatural powers reveal themselves… We caught up with the star of the show over video, ahead of the release (out 29 March,

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Leading Lady: Louisa Harland On Becoming Nell, Doing Stunts And Picking Up The Accent Along The Way

Louisa Harland as Nell in The Ballad Of Renegade Nell

Louisa Harland as Nell in Renegade Nell (c) Robert Viglasky/Disney+ © 2022

How’ve you been Louisa?

Busy! I’m currently in rehearsals for A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. So I’m actually just currently in the kitchen while the rest of the cast is rehearsing in the other room.

Well thank you for giving me a moment of your time, I know it must be quite a rush!

No, not at all – it’s one of those things where I’m just happy to be employed.

So we’re here to talk about Renegade Nell. Sum up the series in a sentence.

In a sentence: a swashbuckling-adventure-romp. But in a couple more… It’s set in 1704, and it’s about a woman who returns from war and is wrongly accused of murder. She finds herself on the road with her sisters and does everything in her power to protect her family. That’s three sentences total for you.

You play the title character, Nell. Give us her SparkNotes summary: who is she? What makes her tick? 

She’s a woman for herself – and obviously that time, the 1700s, was not a great time for women. She’s restless, she wants to make something of herself but comes from a very working class background – her family are tenants of the local magistrate working in the local pub – and she wants more for herself and for her family. So she goes out and tries to do so.

With the magistrates, tenancies, etcetera – there’s a lot of pretty accurate history in the show. How did you begin prepping for the role, did you read a lot about the period?

I read so much, and a lot about Dick Turpin and the highwaymen of the time. There was this brilliant documentary on the BBC out when I’d just gotten the role, Britain’s Outlaws, and that really helped. I then read loads about boxing in the 1700s, because that’s such a massive part of the show and story… And then my partner and I worked on the accent.

That accent was pretty convincing. 

For two years over lockdown I lived with a cockney family – I never would have gotten the job if that hadn’t been the case! They taught me that it’s about a lot more than just the sayings: it’s the way in which you hold yourself – the way in which you look up, even. For the role, I needed to be able to improv and and completely, you know, think in her voice. So thank god I had those two years in lockdown with my partner’s family. Little did I know I’d been preparing for this role the whole time.

And there were a lot of fight scenes in the show – how was prepping that?

Overwhelming. I did three months with the most incredible – I really can’t stress that enough – stunt team: James Emery, the fight director; Abbi Collins, the stunt coordinator; and my stunt double Melissa Hulmer, who…  I mean, she grew up in a circus, she’s on the French Olympic bouldering team, she is basically not a real person!

I will say, they trained me incredibly well and worked my ass off. But if you ever see me do something incredibly cool – it isn’t me. They were keen on me doing pretty much all of the fight sequences myself, to be convincing. But they wouldn’t let me – even though I begged – fall off a carriage, for example. So that is the incredible Melissa who did that stuff with no wires, no padding, nothing. She can just do anything.

(L to R) Bo Bragason as Roxy Jackson, Florence Keen as George Jackson and Louisa Harland as Nell Jackson

(L to R) Bo Bragason as Roxy Jackson, Florence Keen as George Jackson and Louisa Harland as Nell Jackson (c) Robert Viglasky/Disney+ © 2022

Nell spends a lot of time in the show traversing different gender roles – talk to me about gender convention in the show.

Yeah. She wears men’s clothes to get ahead, as a form of protection when she’s out on the run and even before then, and to get respect, to go through life in the best way she can during a time that’s much more favourable to men. I don’t think she has any gender conflicting thoughts in her about how she sees herself: it’s just what she can do to get ahead in life, and dressing as a man is the easiest way to do so at the time.

Writer Sally Wrainwright plays with that idea in Gentleman Jack as well, doesn’t she?

Absolutely. And then, put into context of the time: drag is everywhere, if you look at nearly any Shakespearean play, there’s drag. I think I’d heard that the word ‘drag’ comes from the time: ‘dressed resembling a girl’. Gender cosplay was huge at the time.

Talking of plays… I read in a Guardian interview that Sally Wainwright originally wrote Renegade Nell as a play – before it was a screenplay. Did you have a sense of that when you worked on it? 

I love that! Let’s make this into a play. Or a musical. Now that would just go up.

I didn’t actually know that, though, Sally never told us this.

I did know that it was sitting in a drawer for around 15 years – she got very protective over it and didn’t want it ending up in the wrong hands. The story is such a mad world, and you know, about a girl in 1704 who travels around with a sprite [played by Nick Mohammed], and it could easily end up in the wrong hands. So she kept it away. But yeah, I think that could be crazy.

Read our interview with Nick about filming Renegade Nell

It has a sort of theatrical heightened reality, maybe.

Oh, it totally does. It’s so Shakespearean.

What was it like working with Sally and also with Ben Taylor [the director], across Nell

I’m such a fan of them both. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to play the lead here, too, because when you get to play the lead of something, you get to be in the rooms and have creative conversations about the whole show. So getting to have those conversations with Sally and with Ben was really amazing. I also got to be in the room for a lot of the auditions for other characters, which is something that I’ve never been able to do before. So a really fascinating journey to go through.

I couldn’t speak more highly of them both. Sally cares so much about the world, as does Ben. He’s also an incredible director – and as soon as we finished working together on Nell, he put me in his next film! So we really worked well together. I think he’s one of the best there is.

You sound very fond of the experience you had on the show. Were there any moments on set that sit in your memory now as particularly good? 

Everyday was amazing, and we had such amazing guests. Art Malik – the weeks that he was in were some of my favourites. Daniel Rigby, one of the best stage actors in the UK who is so brilliant on screen. Mark Heap! Adrian Lester. Incredible guest stars.

The only thing that was especially hard was the stamina ask, because it was such a long shoot, so physical and you could never turn your brain off. Doing an accent, playing a different period, doing stunts, riding a horse – I can’t even ride a bike – so learning all these new skill… It was knackering. But I never had a bad day on set.


What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I don’t know if you know the play, but it’s an incredibly long play. And I’m rereading and rereading it as we go on.

The last film you watched in cinema? 

Anatomy Of A Fall – it’s the film of the year for me.

And TV?

On television – truthful answer – RuPaul’s Drag Race season 16.

A favourite painting? 

I love a Hockney.

Is there a band or singer you have on repeat at the minute?

I always always listen to John Martin, that’s like my go to. You know when you rewatch shows when you’re feeling anxious, because it’s comforting? John Martin is that to me. But I’m also obsessed with J Hus’ new album and I’ve been listening to it on repeat since it came out six months ago.

And, finally, what do you hope people get out of watching the show? 

I hope the show is one that everybody can watch together – like the whole family. I think my two year old niece, although it would be maybe quite scary and dark sometimes, would absolutely love it. And my dad would equally love it as much.


You can see Louisa in action by streaming Renegade Nell on Disney+ from 29 March 2024.

Images courtesy of Disney+