Renegade Nell cast praise 'genius' Sally Wainwright for 'clever' examination of classism

Louisa Harland and her co-stars speak to Yahoo UK about the Disney+ series

Watch the Renegade Nell cast discuss Sally Wainwright's writing:

The cast of Renegade Nell hailed the "genius" of show creator and writer Sally Wainwright when reflecting on the thoughtful way she examines difficult themes in the Disney+ fantasy series with Yahoo UK.

Renegade Nell follows Nell Jackson (Louisa Harland), a woman forced to go into hiding with her family when she is framed for murder, and who becomes a highwaywoman whilst fighting to clear her name. Nell has a distinct sense of right and wrong and is keen to stand up for the little guy, so it's helpful that she has superhuman strength thanks to a magical spirit named Billy Blind (Nick Mohammed).

Even with these fantastical elements, though, the story explores classism and sexism in ways that will resonate with viewers regardless of its period drama setting, which is something the cast were especially impressed with.

"I'm such a big fan of Sally," Harland says of the creator of Happy Valley. "I mean, who isn't? I was so excited to see this combination of Sally, she writes such truthful, flawed characters who are relatable and then [creates] this magical world surrounding it, it's just amazing."

Renegade Nell (Disney+)
Renegade Nell tells the story of a women fighting to clear her name after being framed for murder, and explores subjects like classism and sexism through Sally Wainwright's writing. (Disney+)

The actor adds: "Class is really at the heart of the show, and also how Sally delved into the press side of things and how she takes on that... it's just so clever."

Mohammed concurred with his co-star, saying: "Even though obviously there's fantastical elements to it and it's a period piece, it feels relevant and contemporary and that is Sally, she's a genius. It's amazing."

"Everything felt like a comment, but it never felt preachy or it never felt forced," he goes on. "Yet somehow it feels real, every kind of point that's made feel like it resonates now and that there is an analogue for stuff that's going on in the world now that you can be like, 'that is what that is about'. There's a very strong sense of right and wrong, I think, for the whole show."

Renegade Nell (Disney+)
Louisa Harland, who plays Nell Jackson, called Sally Wainwright's writing 'clever', and adds: 'Class is really at the heart of the show'. (Disney+)

The subject of class is examined on multiple fronts, there's Nell and her family's circumstances but there's also the way members of the upper class —like Thomas Blancheford (Jake Dunn), his sister Sofia (Alice Kremelberg) and the Earl of Poynton Robert Hennessey (Adrian Lester)— treat, or simply don't see, those of lower class. Rasselas (Ényì Okoronkwo), who befriends Nell and her sisters, also represents a frank glimpse at class through the British slave trade.

Reflecting on Sofia and Thomas's privilege in the series, Kremelberg says: "I found it really fascinating that in our house it was very cold. We're in a bubble and we don't fully see the privilege that we have at all times, and then you flash to Nell's family and it's vibrant and alive, and they have a lot less."

This visual representation of class was a deliberate choice, with Ben Taylor, who directed the show's first two episodes, reflecting on bringing Wainwright's writing to life onscreen: "There are several themes that run throughout it, but I think the foundations of the show are about a class struggle in a very particular period of of Britain.

"I think in terms of my job setting up, it was about creating a clear and interesting, beautiful vision of the haves and have nots. So Tottenham and the workers in Tottenham, the difference in their costumes, their hair and makeup and their set design compared to the opulence of Poynton and the posh world of London. [It] was just an incredible opportunity."

Strong women

Renegade Nell (Disney+)
Renegade Nell also explores the struggle women face to be recognised for their talents, with Sally Wainwright creating fascinating characters on the good and bad side to explore this theme. (Disney+)

Another theme in the series centres on women, how they can be seen as lesser to men but also how they can fight against sexism and triumph. Nell and Sofia represent this on both sides of the show's moral compass, while Joely Richardson's press magnate Lady Eularia Moggerhangar is another strong woman who meets Nell on her journey.

Taylor says Wainwright often "makes a joke" that "she's clearly less interested in the male leads", adding: "She was incapacitating them after episode one, but even they come back and have their moment. I think just looking at Nell and Sofia as the leads from the good side and the bad side, they were just delicious."

Speaking of her character, Kremelberg said she thought Sofia was "unlike anything I've ever read before" in a script, adding: "The writing is so brilliant, and the characters are so complex, and it's so exciting that layers of the onion keep getting peeled off, and getting to play that is really exciting. I think Sofia looks at Nell as kind of a challenge to meet."

Wainwright's "great writing" was also praised by Lester, who commended how she writes "fierce women, strong, just not willing to take the rules that the world has laid out for them — they're after their own thing, they're gonna get their own thing in the same way that they see other people doing it in the world around them. So I thought it was really good writing, great characters."

Renegade Nell (Disney+)
Enyi Okoronkwo (left) said Sally Wainwright's story 'feels very modern', saying: 'You get a deeper understanding and empathy with the state of the patriarchal structures then, and how it might reflect now.' (Disney+)

Okoronkwo concurred with this sentiment, adding that it is "the key into" Wainwright's work: "She doesn't go through the nostalgia of etiquette in period drama and really goes to the heart of the characters.

"So that's how it feels very modern, and with that you get a deeper understanding and the empathy with the state of the patriarchal structures then and how it might reflect now. I feel like that's that's her way, and that was really good —as an actor— to see and humanise these characters and not having to jump back in time to meet them. So hopefully that's how the audience feels as well."

Richardson called Okoronkwo's remarks "spot on", as she adds: "What you said about going straight to the heart of the character, I think that is absolutely Sally Wainwright. I just think she's so clever with her dialogue, she's just so funny. It's just got that edge."

Embracing flawed characters

Renegade Nell (Disney+)
Other intriguing characters in the series are, of course, the villains that Nell faces, including Alice Kremelberg's Sofia who, like Nell, struggles to be taken seriously as a woman. (Disney+)

What the cast enjoyed most about Renegade Nell, though, was the complex, flawed characters they were able to bring to life onscreen. Even Nell, Harland admits, is far from perfect, but that's exactly what endears her to the audience.

"Nell is so protective of her sisters and she just wants to create a better life for her and her sisters. She's flawed and real," Harland says, and when asked if she'd like to see her character be a role model for young girls and women she adds: "I hope so, I would love that to be the case."

Frank Dillaine's Charles Devereaux is another complex character who comes across Nell over the course of the series, who proved an interesting challenge for the actor because he had to make viewers unsure of his motives and intentions, but also add a comedic spin to the character: "I find it really tricky to map punchlines or setups, his moral compass is so off it became quite difficult to carve out scenes. [He has] absurd ideals, or absurd ends that he's after [that] are quite unrealistic in many ways to [what's] normal."

In a similar sense, other intriguing characters in the series are the villains that Nell faces, namely Robert, the Earl of Poynton, Sofia, and Thomas.

"We're not the bad characters, [we're] misunderstood," Lester says of the trio, going on to joke: "We haven't had enough hugs as children."

Renegade Nell (Disney+)
Adrian Lester's Robert Hennessy is another main villain, who the actor said was 'interesting' because he thinks what he's doing is good. (Disney+)

Of his character, he adds: "He's a very interesting character and I like the fact that his particular brand of bad behaviour, or evil, is focused on something that he thinks is good. He thinks he's a champion about to do something good for the whole country. It's just the way he does it which is very, very questionable."

Dunn says Lester gave him helpful advice on how to approach his character, saying he should look at "who [he] wants to be" when approaching his villainous intentions. The actor adds: "Thomas wants to be the villain in his own life, and he comes from insecurity and feeling stifled in his home... then there's a rupture by maybe episode two or three where the guilt starts to eat [at] him.

"But it was more about playing up a kind of facade at the beginning and then stripping it back if we could, but also I had no idea what I was doing!"

Renegade Nell (Disney+)
Jake Dunn (pictured), who plays Thomas, said he liked how his character 'wants to be the villain in his own life' but struggles with the guilt that brings. (Disney+)

Kremelberg says it was "really fascinating" to play a character like Sofia, who slowly comes into her villainy over the course of the season. She admits: "I feel like from the beginning she wants to say so much and and be in control, and and have equal power as even her dad and just doesn't, and can't at that point.

"She hasn't found her footing and then everything that happens at the end of episode one into the rest of the season she's really just so in love with what she's learning, and finally finding some power, to maybe a bit of an extreme. But, really, it was so much fun to be able to live that and I hope we get to do some more [seasons] finding the layers of these cool people."

Renegade Nell premieres on Disney+ in full on Friday, 29 March.

Watch the trailer for Renegade Nell: