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Naveen Andrews considers Sense8 ‘a direct fuck you’ to global fascism

We talked to the former Lost star about ambiguous characters, working with Lana Wachowski, and ignoring the fan theories about his character

Photography by James Bareham

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On Friday, May 5th, when Netflix releases the second season of its original series Sense8, viewers will finally start getting a clearer idea of what’s going on with Naveen Andrews’ central character, Jonas. The show, about a “cluster” of “sensates” — eight psychically connected spiritual siblings capable of sharing skills and experiences — is the latest project from Lana and Lilly Wachowski, writer-directors of Bound, the Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas, and Jupiter Ascending. The Wachowskis, both trans women who’ve drawn on themes of metamorphosis, transcendence, and resurrection throughout their shared career, have turned Sense8 into another story about human evolution and transformation.

The show’s central characters are all from different countries and struggling with radically different issues. But they all experience joy and grief in the same human ways, and as the second season continues the story, they’ve learned to support and communicate with each other across world-spanning distances. That’s necessary as they’ve become more aware of the forces trying to control, contain, or destroy them.

But Andrews, a London-born actor who starred in The English Patient and Lost, plays an outsider, a sensate whose cluster is dead and whose loyalties are unclear and frequently questioned. His character, who serves as a mentor and guide to the protagonists, has drawn a great deal of speculation from series fans. Much like his fan-favorite character in Lost, former Iraqi Republican Guard torturer Sayid Jarrah, Jonas has been a sort of quiet mystery. I recently sat down with Andrews in New York City to talk about why the show is important to him, how he came to the role, and what it was like working more directly with Lana Wachowski on the second season, as Lilly took a leave of absence to deal with her transition.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I understand that your audition for Sense8 wound up being hours of talking with Lana and Lilly Wachowski about your life. What did they want to know? What was important to their process?

I think what’s important to Lana is, she needs to know who she’s going to be working with, to put it very simply. But really know. As opposed to a facsimile that somebody might come in and present because they’re coming in for a job, obviously. If you can communicate with her, and let her know where you’re coming from, I suppose, where you’re at, if we’re using arcane language. Maybe that’s a generational divide — we were all born in the late 20th century, and that’s why we use terms like “Where it’s at.” But yes, it was like two and a half hours of my life, which at the time, was slightly disconcerting, because I thought, “Am I talking my way out of this job? How important is this, really?” But apparently it was. I think they just want to get to know you, as a human being.

Did they learn anything that went into your character?

Yes, there’s definitely certain aspects of Jonas that Lana drew on from me. And she let me know that at the time. About relationships I might have had when I was very young, 16 or 17, and how important they were, how they informed me as an adult, I suppose.

As a writer, was she interested in your input into the character?

Oh absolutely, but only to an extent, because you have to be ready to change at any point, at any place in the world, on the day. You have to remain open to that, because nothing is fixed.

For the central group of sensates, Sense8 is about shared emotions and experience around the world. But Jonas is an outsider to the group. He’s older, and the last of his cluster, so he’s separated in so many ways from the core experiences of the show. Given that, what’s the show about for you?

I was talking to Terrence [Mann, who plays the series’s antagonist, Mr. Whispers] and Daryl [Hannah] about this! Our characters, in terms of how much we work, are literally parachuted in and then taken out again, miraculously so. And that’s the dynamic of our work schedule. We drop in on Berlin and then leave. When you said Jonas was an outsider, it seems at least the way the writing’s been developing, and in this season in particular, he’s an outsider for a reason. He seems to have been compromised in some way, and we still don’t know the nature of that compromise… infuriatingly so! So for him, the show is about how he’s been thwarted. We just don’t know how yet.

Do you have any sense of where the character will go in the long term, like what his true motivations are, or are you discovering that script by script?

It’s something I’m discovering script by script.

As an actor, how do you put together a character when you don’t know his true motivations or intentions?

“We are complex; we’re not just one thing or another at any given time. Hopefully.”

Well, I have to say, I’ve had some experience with this before. [Laughs] With Lost, some members of the cast would literally open the script and find out that they were dead. I mean, that’s quite sad, really. I think what you can return to is what one draws from the experience of living one’s own life. We are complex; we’re not just one thing or another at any given time. Hopefully. Obviously there are some people who just are who they are, unfortunately. And they occupy positions of power. But let’s leave that, I digress. Just any human being is this wonderful conglomeration of experiences and behaviors, if you like — some of them healthy, some of them not so healthy.

Jonas has been such a center for fan theories, for people picking him apart line by line. How do you feel about that level of scrutiny?

I’m glad there’s interest, obviously, but it has nothing to do with me. I don’t read it. I try to remain unaware of it, because my job is to just render the work. But I’m glad it’s there.

How has this season been different for you with Lana working as a solo director?

That’s a good question, because we thought maybe Lilly might be working with her via phone calls, emails, that sort of thing. We wondered if they were communicating. And we don’t know, is the short answer to that. It’s the first time Lana approached a project without her sibling, and I thought she did brilliantly, considering, because obviously she relies on Lilly for a lot of support. But we don’t know whether Lilly might return.

For practical purposes… it used to be, Lana would give you a note, and then Lilly would move in and give you a note, and it would be the opposite. [Laughs] And then I’d say to Lana, “Which one is it?” And she’d say, “Do what she said!” The only difference is, now it’s just a little more straightforward.

What’s Lana told you as a director that’s been most useful to you?

I think what’s unique about Lana is that she draws on the emotional mood of a room, which,of course, can change at any given moment. She seems to be viscerally connected to the camera. Like, she’s literarily behind [Steadicam operator] Daniele [Massaccesi] — who shot The English Patient, so it’s weird for me, seeing him there again — and she has her hands on his back, and she’s steering him toward you, and then pulling him back, and then pushing him in again. And she’s talking to you the whole time this is happening, yeah? And I’ve never had that before, like “Repeat the line!” “Say that again!” “Now with a different inflection, because you’re thinking about something else!” “Now say this line as Whispers, and see what it means!” It’s tremendously exciting, because you discover things about the part that you’ve never even considered.

How much of that is on-set experimentation, and how much does she already have in her head, about which angles she wants and how she wants the final picture to look?

It can vary. Almost exactly 50 of one, 50 of the other. Obviously certain things are set. And it depends on our time restrictions, where we are. But then even that can go out the window. I remember us being in The Hague, and being there all day, doing take after take after take. It’s really down to how she feels about it, whether she’s into it or not on a given day.

Because of the way the show is edited, you sometimes have to play a single conversation over the course of months, in different cities. How do you maintain continuity or mood? Do you watch playback of yourself, or are there other technological aids?

“I just startle when I see myself on-screen.”

You can have playback if you ask for it. I do remember certain things being played back for us. But I try not to watch anything I’ve done on-screen, so I do my best to avoid that, unless there’s a technical reason, where I have to literally see where I put a prop, or where I was sitting, and how. I just startle when I see myself on-screen. It’s like the pictures your parents took of you when you were 12, and you can see yourself literally shrinking from the camera because you didn’t want your picture taken. That’s how I feel, seeing myself on camera.

About maintaining continuity… whether it has to do with the bonding experiences we had in San Francisco before we started shooting the first season, or whether it’s the nature of the work itself that you adapt to, I don’t know, but it seems that we’re able to slot in and support our cast members, regardless of where we are or how difficult the circumstances. That still seems to hold true, which I’m proud of, actually.

I’ve read that of all the places you’ve had to travel for the show, you were most excited about Chicago.

Yes, because I’d never been there before. I was expecting — if you live in Los Angeles, or a coastal city, the Midwest has a reputation. But I felt totally at home there. It had a feel to it that was very attractive, but I can’t put my finger on why! We were shooting on the South Side while all sorts of shit was going down over Labor Day weekend. I can’t remember how many people were killed that weekend. And yet I felt okay. I don’t know why that is. I can appreciate the Wachowskis’ link with it, but I’m from London. There’s no particular reason why I should feel so at home there.

You’ve spent so much of this series trying to play emotionally intense scenes while completely immobile, physically strapped to a table. How have you approached that?

Hard! It’s hard! I guess the key there is to remember the reality of your physical situation, and think about what that situation might do to a person. I certainly can’t be as animated as I might be. It’s like having everything stripped away, so there’s a kind of purity in that.

As season 2 dives deeper into the show’s mythology, and we learn more about Jonas, is there anything you’re particularly glad to have the audience see?

The scenes shot in San Francisco, the montage of his relationship with Daryl’s character, Angel. That was very important, because there was a softness and an innocence to Jonas that perhaps wasn’t immediately obvious. Also, I got to get off that table, to move and walk. [Laughs]

How did they describe the character to you initially? What’s really core to him as far as they’re concerned?

Lana described him as similar to Laurence Fishburne’s character in The Matrix. Not in an obvious way, but she saw him as a similar type. I remember Terrence describing being parachuted in for scenes — we bring exposition, we bring information to the tale, as it were. And there’s a certain way of doing that so it doesn’t sound obvious. If a character’s suddenly spouting information that’s supposed to bring you up to date, it can seem artificial or contrived.

What was important to you about Jonas, in terms of why you took this project?

I wanted to be involved — and still do — in something that’s totally unique, and is a direct “fuck you” to what seems to be happening all over the world now, in terms of fascism. This show is anti-fascist in the best sense. At the time I took the role, it hadn’t happened here yet. That was unthinkable. But the unthinkable has happened here. And it was already happening in Europe. What’s got worse is — at that time, it was largely Eastern Europe. Now it’s India as well. This show is just a way of having a voice against all that noise.

What does the show say to you about freedom in the face of fascism?

That it’s imperative to preserve it. It’s imperative to fight, I think. Even when the obstacles seem insurmountable, they’re not. Fascists are fallible, too.