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Jamie Clayton and Freema Agyeman on isolation, loneliness, and geek culture in Sense8

The show’s hacktivist couple talk on-screen nudity, inspiration, philosophy, and music

Photography by James Bareham

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The second season of Netflix’s Sense8 went live on May 5th, and it jumps the series’s action forward in a major way. The central characters — eight psychically connected “sensates” from around the globe, capable of sharing skills and experiences — are taking aim at BPO, a shadowy organization that wants to capture and contain or destroy them. Two of the characters most central to that fight are trans hacktivist Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton) and her girlfriend Amanita (Doctor Who vet Freema Agyeman), who use computer skills to disable security systems and gather data from around the world.

Like the other seven sensates, Nomi spent Sense8’s first season coming to terms with her sudden new emotional connection to a group of outsiders, while simultaneously struggling with her own personal issues. Her primary storyline revolved around transphobia and found family, as her mother and sister violently rejected her, and she found the support she needed in Amanita, their hacker friend Bug, and the sensate cluster. The storyline drew particular attention because Clayton is trans herself, as are two of Sense8’s creators, Matrix series writer-directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski. But those personal issues are less of a focus in season 2, as the sensates increasingly learn to use their powers together, and Nomi and Amanita focus on evading the police and digging into BPO’s goals and undermining its activities. I recently sat down with Clayton and Agyeman in New York to talk about hacker stories, getting over on-screen insecurities, and the “group effort” of playing a character consistently around the world.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So many movies portray hackers and hacker culture in really ridiculous ways. How have the Wachowskis approached your characters and your storyline in terms of avoiding the big clichés about hackers? 

Freema Agyeman: Well, one of the strengths of the show is, they do look at so many contemporary issues, and of all the themes and genres, technology is very much up there. They are sci-fi kids, from comic book culture, so they have all that going on. They’re geeks. [Laughs] So they have a great understanding about that side of it. When we first got onto the set, all this paraphernalia was lying around, and we would pick things up and go, “What are we supposed to do? What do you do with this to make it work?” They’d have advisors on set to say, “What you want to do for this section to look legit is dah dah dah dah dah.” But I think their main point with technology in the show is just trying to get this paradox across of how reliant we are on machines, and how we are more connected than we ever have been, and apparently loneliness is on the rise right now. People are more isolated, even though we’re so connected. So they’re looking at hacking as symbolism. Maybe there are green wires sticking out of everything, but they’re not all legitimately designed to represent something.

Jamie Clayton: They’re not even real wires! [Laughs]

FA: They aren’t connected to anything! [Laughs] But we get choreography about what we’ll be doing with all this stuff.

“People are more isolated, even though we’re so connected.”

JC: That’s the funny part of the show, to make it look like I know what the hell I’m doing, and then having to repeat it for every single shot. Because sometimes I’ll be sitting in front of two or three computers, and holding a phone, and talking to Bug, who’s doing something else, and we have to choreograph this dance with all this equipment when I have no idea what any of it does. [Laughs]

FA: You give a good…

JC: Thanks, baby. I give good hack. [Laughs]

How did they address that symbolism with you, about how the sensates represent connectivity and communication? 

JC: I don’t know that I ever discussed that with them, did you?

FA: We’re looking at the literal ways we are connected in society, and looking at technology and how that unites and separates us. We’re asking, is there a universality of the human condition? There are all these differences between us, but are we fundamentally connected? So all of it’s an exploration. There isn’t really an answer, it’s just a continual exploration of what it means to be connected to other people. On Instagram, that’s the best version of you and your life that you’re putting out there. But if you’re connected psychically to somebody, you can’t hide the truth, you can’t put up this best image of yourself. So we find out, who are we as people really? Do we like who we are? Are we keeping things hidden that we are grateful will never see the light of day? So it’s bringing all of those things into conversation.

I ask in part because when Lana talks about her work, she tends to put it in heady, intellectual terms, looking at deconstructionism and semiotics and Jacques Derrida and Kant. Does she bring up that kind of philosophy when she’s talking to the cast?

FA: Oh yeah, she does, but we can only contribute so far, because we just kind of go, “Huh?” [Laughs] They’re incredibly erudite, and that’s fascinating. You can sit and learn so much from them. But we’re all individuals, we all have different strengths, and we all bring different things to the party. I don’t think you need to just be coming from that particularly intellectual standpoint in order to get the show and work with it.

JC: The only conversation I ever had with them about Nomi was, during season 1, everybody got an opportunity to go speak with them individually, just if we had any questions. I just wanted to know more about her family and her job, some background-type situations, so I had some things I could play with in my head about who she was. But we never really sat down and had a specific conversation about philosophy.

What about the politics of the show? Do they talk consciously about the messages of global diversity and acceptance?

FA: Well, it’s so much a piece about humanity. It is about getting people from the furthest corners of the globe and identifying these similarities between us. It’s so important in this time we live in now. With what’s going on in the news, everywhere you look, there’s reasons for us to pick a side and take a stand. Granted, we were working on this show before the current state of society, but it’s been going on for some time, this feeling of needing to belong to a certain group to make you feel more secure about yourself, when really, quite simply, we are stronger together. This show is looking at it literally — if you could access other people’s skills and abilities and personalities, how could that help you in different situations in your life? It’s a great forum for discussion. I see from it that there is such a thing as a universal human condition.

I recently interviewed Naveen Andrews about the show, and he said his initial audition was really a conversation about his life, just sitting down with the Wachowskis asking questions about his family and his background for hours. Did you go through something similar?

JC: No, my audition process was a standard audition. I got two scripts, I taped an audition, I sent it, and then I flew to Chicago with Brian [Smith, who plays Chicago cop Will Gorski]. We were the first two to audition. I did the scenes for them in person, and for [series casting agent] Carmen Cuba. Then a couple months later, after they did more rounds of auditions — they cast for Nomi internationally, they were looking all over the world — and then I did two rounds of chemistry tests with other actresses who were up for the role of Amanita. That was super fun. And that was with JMS [series co-creator J. Michael Straczynski] and the W’s and Carmen Cuba, so it was a big deal, it was intense. And then after two days of doing that, a week later, I got the role.

Did they want to draw on your personal experience to create your character?

JC: No. No, no, no, no. It has nothing to do with us. Not at all.

FA: My first audition, I was with a casting director in the UK, and we had a great time, playing around. I’d never been to an audition where there were props, and she was just grabbing books off a shelf, going, “Let’s just use this and that,” The second audition was the chemistry test, and the third was a Skype meeting with Lana and Lilly. I had just gotten really close to getting a pilot, but they messed me around with the paperwork and the visas. I got so close, and in the end, I didn’t get it, down to paperwork. So I came back with such a heavy heart. So I was so frank with the Wachowskis. They really have an ability to make you feel utterly relaxed in their company. They’re so interested in what you have to say and who you are as a human being that you forget any inhibitions you might have. You’re not really thinking about what you’re saying, because they just seem to be so into everything you’re saying. [Laughs]

So it was great. I frankly told them I’d just been rejected from something, so I was feeling pretty shitty, but on the plus side, if I had got it, I wouldn’t be sitting in this room, meeting my heroes. So we talked about career, and highs and lows, just going around it all, and it felt very holistic and organic. Like with an exam, when you walk out of auditions, you get a sense of how it went. Sometimes you’re not always right, you get the ones you think you flopped in, and vice versa. But I walked out of that feeling so nourished, and I thought, “Well, if I get it or not, that was a great encounter.” To have gone from that to being able to call them my friends, I feel like, “Bucket list: tick!” [Laughs]

What were your chemistry tests like?

“I had idolized the Wachowskis for many, many years.”

FA: Incredibly nerve-wracking, because I had idolized the Wachowskis for many, many years. They say “never meet your heroes,” so I was nervous and excited. And then you’re auditioning in another accent, and the language they write is so beautiful, so you want to stick to it, so there’s so much going on. I did a chemistry test with an actress in London while Jamie was chemistry-testing with other actresses all around the world. So we never actually got to chemistry-test together. But it’s a nice process, because you get to get on your feet. When you’re doing an audition, you sit in a chair, all of it just feels artificial. But to be able to stand up, move around the room, and act while you’re auditioning, the people watching you disappear. You can actually just perform.

What surprised you once you were actually working with them?

FA: They’re very sure about what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it. I suppose what shocked me was how organically they do work, as well. What you have to say, and your interpretation, are as valid as what they put on the page, and what their ideas are. I was surprised how they could do that simultaneously, how they could have such a strong framework, but room for maneuver within that.

Has that been your experience, too, Jamie, that the Wachowskis want your interpretation of your character?

JC: Um… next question! [Laughs

What have they said as directors that’s been most helpful to you?

FA: They’ve helped with my insecurities — “I have never done nudity before, I’ve never been in a sex scene before, I can’t,” all these negative things come into my head. I remember Lana telling me about this documentary she saw once. This was at one point when I was having a particular meltdown — I’d got bitten by mosquitoes so severely up and down my legs that the doctor thought I’d had an allergic reaction. We had this scene coming up where I had to be nude, and I was like, “Please, can I wear socks up to here?” Lana was like, “Yeah, if it makes you feel better you can,” but she also told me about this documentary about a two-way mirror, and you would stand in front of it and say what you saw, and simultaneously, there would be people on the other side of it saying what they saw. Inevitably, you would stand there going, “I don’t like my legs. I think my skin could be better,” and the people on the other side are going, “Look at that, when she smiles, how her eyes light up.” The things they’re looking at and the things we’re looking at are a world apart. So she just gave me a mirror. And I feel like I’ve turned such a big corner in my career and in my personal life and how I see myself.

It sounds so cliché, but they do believe everybody is beautiful and complex, and has so much to offer, and they’re just so celebratory of the human body. And I’ll tell you, by the end of it, I was like “I can do this!” I remember standing there naked on set talking to one of the sound guys, going, “And what about your weekend? Oh, what did you do?” And I forgot that I didn’t have clothes on. It didn’t matter. It’s empowering. I find their company and their thought processes and their art inspiring, and I’m a genuine fan of them and the show.

Music is so important to this show, and a lot of the story revolves around characters experiencing music together. How do they use music on the set?

JC: When we were filming in Positano [Italy], when it’s Kala’s birthday on the beach, they were playing music then, but I don’t know if it was the music that’s actually in the show. During another part of the birthday montage, Lana was playing the song that’s in the show, over a little wireless speaker for us on the set. And for one of the sex scenes, we had the same music for that that was in the show. Tom Tykwer composed a lot of the music for season 1, and it is a huge part of the show, but they’re not playing it for us, or talking to us about it while we’re shooting, or before we shoot.

FA: We always have music at the read-throughs. When we do the big table-reads, Lana would often start by playing the music to us, and it sets the tone so fabulously. Music is a universal language. You can connect to it. And it put everyone in the space we felt we needed to be in to start at the same point. Lana certainly introduced me to a lot of new music I’d never heard before.

Critics said, in the first season, different characters had different direction and tones for their storylines — Lito’s story plays like a telenovela, Will’s is a police procedural. That conceit seems to be gone this season, now that everybody’s working on the same problems instead of living their separate lives. Has the direction felt any different to you this season?

JC: It’s funny, I never heard anybody say they saw it that way. That’s cool! But no, this season only felt different in the sense that it was so much bigger, and we were going to so many more places. There were more cities, and it took more time. And Lana was writing and directing everything, she was doing everything, so in that sense, it was different. Because in season 1, we had Lana and Lilly and JMS, and in season 2, it was just Lana.

What was exciting for you this season? There’s so much action, there’s so much painful-looking physical drama.

JC: The most exciting thing I found when we sat down to do the initial table-reads was how much we were going to be delving into the origins of BPO and who Whispers was. So much of that story is told through these really beautiful flashbacks, and you get to really delve into what BPO is, and why they are what they are, and what they’re really trying to do. As an audience member, discovering that kind of stuff… it makes you root for the characters even more, because once you know what they’re fighting against, then it’s like, “Oh yeah, go get them!” So when I read that, I was like, “Oh, that’s going to be really dope.” And of course, Nomi and Amanita have such a huge part in that with the computer hacking. It’s such a huge part of everything. They get to do some really cool stuff for the other sensates, so I was like, “This is going to be good.”

How do you maintain a consistent character when you’re traveling around the world, doing individual scenes in stages that might be months apart?

FA: It’s very much a group effort. I mean, Lana is all over it. You can see her going into the zone for a second, when she’s shooting, and then she’ll suddenly say, “Oh, no, you actually need to come in from that side, because that’s where you were in Spain.” It’s all in her head, and she keeps track of it! The whole time we’ve been shooting, there was only one thing that had to be reshot due to a timing error, where someone should have looked one way, but they looked the other way at that point. It’s fascinating how she remembers that.

“You can see Lana going into the zone when she’s shooting.”

It can take a lot out of you, though, playing those big emotional scenes over and over in different places. If you have a big emotional crescendo, you can build yourself up for that day of shooting, exhaust yourself, and then start to rebuild. It’s done, you’ve purged it. But here, those scenes keep coming back. You’re doing it again in Korea, then you’re doing it again in Nairobi. It’s a full-on experience: mind, body, and soul.

Speaking for myself, I initially was so desperate to do this part because I love the Wachowskis and I loved the script. But I was terrified because of who this woman was — this larger-than-life, free-spirited, New Age urban hippie who was into everything. She’s just so free and open, and she’s so into her sexuality. It informs her whole lifestyle. I’d never played in a love relationship before. I’d never portrayed anyone in my whole career that’s been in a relationship. So I was really concerned about the authenticity of that coming across, let alone the fact that she’s representing a LGBTQ+ presence in mainstream television. That’s almost nonexistent on TV, and when it is there, it’s depicted as deviant, or flippant. So there was a lot to think about beforehand, and go, “I really want to do this right, I want to get it right.” But the character spoke to me. I got her joie de vivre so quickly. I was just like, “I can see this person, I wish I could be this person.” Maybe it’s the person inside all of us we wish we could be, just free and accepting of everybody and everything. So it came quite easily. Making that journey was pleasurable, actually.