Nick Mohammed On Filming Renegade Nell By Himself – And Getting Sick During Stunts
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Nick Mohammed On Filming Renegade Nell By Himself – And Getting Sick During Stunts

The Ted Lasso alumnus is back and looking... spritely

Nick Mohammed shot to living room fame with Apple TV’s Ted Lasso in 2020, although prior to that you may have seen him in his self-penned Sky One show, Intelligence. He’s back – and remarkably spritely (in both disposition and literally) – as Billy Blind, a magical spirit advising on-the-run Nell Jackson in Disney+’s Renegade Nell. We caught up with him over video ahead of the release (out 29 March, disneyplus.com).

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Interview: Nick Mohammed

The poster for Disney Plus's Ballad of Renegade Nell

Ensemble cast of Renegade Nell (c) Robert Viglasky/Disney+ © 2022

How are you? 

Good, thank you – very well, can’t complain.

Are you in full-on junket mode at the moment? 

It’s in full swing. We did a day yesterday, and then we’ve got today plus a screening tonight. So it should be fun. And then we’re off to the US to do a bit of press. I’m back on Easter Sunday.

You should get a bit of the long weekend then!

I’ll get a bit, and I’ll take some time off after that – the kids are on some Easter holidays.

Do you think you might watch some of the episodes together over Easter?  

They’re a little bit too young still, I think. I mean, my eldest is eight so he could probably watch it. But he might still be a bit scared of some of the bits, so we might just leave it a year. And then introduce him to it.

So fair. Okay, talk to me about the show. Give me the SparkNotes summary for Renegade Nell?

So the SparkNotes summary… There’s lots going on in Renegade Nell. I’ll try and keep it brief.

So principally, it’s about Nell, played by the brilliant Louisa. She’s come back from fighting in the war, it’s the late 1700s, and she is wrongly accused of murder. And so she goes on the run, effectively becoming a highway woman – all while caring for her sisters.

Read our interview with Louisa Harland on filming Renegade Nell

But then it becomes clear that she maybe has some sort of supernatural ability, supernatural strength, which is sort of where my character, Billy Blind, comes in. And it turns out that he, this sprite, is almost a part of her, acting as a conduit for her to have these incredible abilities.

And with this, they realise that actually, they have a much greater purpose than righting just these domestic wrongs, uncovering a plot to overthrow the Queen of England.

Whoa. 

In a nutshell, yeah. It’s such a unique show – obviously,  because it’s by Sally Wainwright, who is an absolute genius. And even though it is a departure for her in some elements – because it’s quite swashbuckling and there’s the fantasy element – it’s still grounded in themes like social justice, following a very strong heroine, and exploring a family community. It has a real sort of strong sense of right and wrong. Thematically, it still feels like a ‘Sally Wainwright show’. It’s been a joy to be part of it.

Nick Mohammed as Billy Blind in Renegade Nell

Nick Mohammed as Billy Blind in Renegade Nell (c) Robert Viglasky/Disney+ © 2022

I can imagine. And Billy Blind is such a fun character – talk to me about finding Billy – first of all, what even is Billy? 

There was a lot of chat before I came on board as to what form Billy would take. There was talk of him maybe being a baby for a while!

Billy’s origin is in folklore, the kind of stories that people believed in at the time. I think he’s based on a story of an infant that used to sleep under girls’ pillows to protect them. So he’s a protector.

So from there, they [the show’s creators] went around the houses for a while about what form he should take. By the time I was on board, they’d settled on him being a sprite as far as a visual look. He’s not really gendered – we definitely didn’t want to be like, ‘this is how Nell has got these powers, it’s a man helping her’ – but just… A sprite.

He’s a really good egg. I feel you’ve played a lot of those in your career – good eggs – I wonder if you found in Billy any parallels between characters you’ve played before, like Nate Shelley or Mr Swallow [a character of Nick’s own creation]? 

I mean, to be fair, it’s funny, because the voice for Billy blind isn’t dissimilar to the Mr. Swallow voice. But in attitude they’re very different. Mr. Swallow, certainly when I go for it live, is egotistical, self-centred, just sort of acts as if he’s always being heckled, always having a go at everyone. Whereas Billy… Occasionally at the start there’s a bit of a chippiness when they’re not quite getting on, but as the series goes on, they become more of a united front.

It was funny doing that sort of Mr Swallow voice but with that attitude, because the former never has that mindset, he’s never thinking of anyone. Billy, though, we wanted him to feel three-dimensional and warm, loving and caring. But the voices are very similar.

Nate also has his own journey, he does get a bit wayward but does ultimately come back to the light. Maybe they are all good eggs.

How do you find giving light to these darker moments playing these characters? 

I think if you’re playing a villain, you have to remember that they don’t think that they’re the villain – they still think you’re right. I think to try and lend any truth to any performance, you’ve got to try to reach for the authentic. And, you know, Billy is a sprite who flies around the screen.

Talk to me, then, about being literally that big and small on screen – were you on set with everyone else or was there a lot of green screen? 

It was fully green screen – I was never with anyone ever! I never did any scenes with Louisa, which is such a shame. But it was a direct clash with the end of season three of Ted Lasso, so they did all my scenes at the very end.

I was quite lucky in a sense that I could see a lot of the stuff they had already shot. And, you know, I could match performances. It was all very technical green screen, involving a lot of wires, and robots – one would mimic Louisa’s shoulder for me to sit on. I’ve never done anything like it before. It was fascinating to see how that VFX and stunt work comes together to combine. It’s actually really nice to watch back now with Louisa because we know that the dynamic is completely fabricated. We were like, ‘Oh god, I hope we’re able to make this work’. But it did.

How was building that sense of camaraderie in your own head, then? Was it a very isolated set? 

Well, the directors were brilliant. Ben [Taylor], Amanda [Brotchie] who did the second block, and then MJ Delaney who did the third. MJ and Amada had such sensitive notes in terms of the relationship between Louisa and Billy for this latter part of the show. So it never felt like being truly isolated. And I was very lucky to have footage, to see Louisa’s performance – whereas Louisa had, like, a stick with eyes on for me. Occasionally I’d voice note Louisa when she was filming a scene so she had something to go off performance wise, but… A stick with eyes.

Talk to me further about the historical world you occupied during the filming – a bit of a contrast to the technical filming, perhaps? 

Well, for me, it was completely created through through VFX. There was a mission control of VFX people who could pretty much show you live how it would roughly look once you’re in, but it’s very rough.

The big thing for me was that the dialogue is so sensitive to the period. There were certain words you couldn’t riff on – you know, you couldn’t say ‘okay’ because ‘okay’ didn’t exist at that time. I remember occasionally I’d say it and they’d be like, ‘you can’t say that’.

But mostly I was pretty sheltered from the history bits of it, as opposed to when they were shooting. There were some amazing locations. I think they actually chose some locations on the grounds of certain trees being the right period!

So much attention to detail! Are there any moments you look back on particularly fondly? 

Even though I wasn’t filming with the other cast, I’d seen a rough cut of episode one by the time I was shooting. And it was incredible. The ensemble is phenomenal. It actually made me quite nervous because it was mine to get wrong or to mess up.

There was a thrill in it being so technically challenging because it became a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, to get it to work on camera.

And everyday was a bit of a joy because I got to be on wires and stilts and do flips and all kinds of things you’d never get to do otherwise. I mean, they had this robo arm that could mimic any movement that Louisa had done – but scaled up – so that if I was sat on her shoulder and moved, I’d feel it, it was like a buckeroo, the kind of thing that’d move wildly out of control. I walked across the barrel of her gun in one episode, and it had been made into this moving platform. That was like being on a rollercoaster ride.

So you were actually wired up, flying around and doing flips? Did you have to train much for that? 

Yeah. We had an amazing stunt director, James Emery.

At first I overdid it with stunt training and was sick – I think I thought I was going to be better at it than I was.

You were sick?! 

Yeah, I remember we were working out how Billy would exit. You know, would he vanish into a spark, or would he spin like a firework? Or would he crunch into a ball? So we’re trying all these different things… And the thing about pretending to fly is that your body doesn’t know what’s going on, because you’ll never experience that in any other world – you don’t get thrown around. A rollercoaster is a completely different type of sensation. Your body just at some point, doing it lots and lots of times, is just going to be sick.

That’s unfortunate, but very, very funny. Was it anything like, would you imagine, being in space? 

Oh no – that’d be zero gravity. You can always feel the pressure of the harness, and then you can also feel gravity. And at the same time, you have to act like your body isn’t feeling that. You can’t arch down, or give away that you’re on wires. I definitely did takes where I watched it back and it looked like Peter Pan in a pantomime – you know, bad.

Do you want to do more of it now? 

Oh god, yeah. It’s really fun. You get to do stuff you’d never get to do in a relatively safe environment, with stunt people who are a phenomenal bunch who reassure you and encourage you and will only allow you to do it if they’re confident in you. It’s such a fun thing to get to do. I would love to do more of it.

QUICK FIRE

Last thing you watched? 

Ah, yesterday I watched Dragon’s Den.

Nice. What are you reading? 

A book called The Warlock Effect by Jeremy Dyson, and Andy Nyman both of whom I’m lucky enough to know and it’s about a magician who becomes a spy in postwar Britain because of his skill set I believe they’re adapting it for television.

What did you want to be as a kid? 

Magician.

That tracks. What was the first magic trick you learn?

One of the easy ones probably like a little cups and balls thing. Something probably quite straightforward. I always liked card tricks, too.

Band and singer you always have a repeat.

Oh, I listen to a lot of orchestral classical music. But if I was to listen to a band on repeat probably Keane.

Finally, what’s the key moment you can’t wait for audiences to see now?

I mean, there’s so much in it. There are so many fantastic action sequences. And I mean, the opening, the opening of the pilot episode is phenomenal. But also not to give anything away – the last scene between Billy and Nell is a really good one. Emotional.

WATCH

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

Images courtesy of Disney+