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‘Renegade Nell’ Star Louisa Harland on Wearing Both Breeches and Ballgowns as the Lead in Disney+ Fantasy Series: ‘She’s Gender Non-Conforming to the Times’

With swordfights, corsets, a sprinkle of magic and an array of truly magnificent hats (including one worn by a poodle), new Disney+ original series “Renegade Nell” has more than a touch in common with that other swashbuckling Disney staple “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Both are set at the turn of the 17th to 18th centuries and, as with “Pirates,” the period details in “Renegade Nell” abound. In Nov. 2022, just as the show moved into the final phase of production, Variety was invited to visit Ealing Studios in West London where the wood-panelled Stuart-era sets were studded with quill pens and wax seals while an imposing portrait of Joely Richardson — in costume as the extravagantly-outfitted and wigged baddie Lady Eularia Moggerhangar — hung on the wall.

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Rather than the louche Captain Jack Sparrow, the hero of “Renegade Nell” is plucky Nell Jackson, played by “Derry Girls” alum Louisa Harland, who dons both breeches and ballgowns to play a highway woman with superhuman strength. On a break between takes, Harland, wearing a leather tailcoat, steps outside to get some fresh air. “I love the fact that she’s not romantically driven,” she tells Variety of her character. “She’s gender non-conforming to the times. She uses male disguises to get further ahead in life.”

To prepare for the role, Harland, who says she “can’t even ride a bike,” undertook a six-week crash course in horse-riding alongside other castmembers, including Frank Dillane, who plays Charles Devereux. “That was frightening,” Dillane says of learning to steer horses. “They’re big animals. I always feel like the horse should be riding me.”

Joely Richardson in “Renegade Nell” (Courtesy of Disney+)
Joely Richardson in “Renegade Nell” (Courtesy of Disney+)

As well as horses, Harland’s mammalian co-stars also include pigs, donkeys and the aforementioned poodle, a nine-year-old pup called Tutti who plays Lady Eularia’s pet. “It’s honestly just the most delightful thing,” Harland says of her canine colleague.

While “Renegade Nell” flouts both elements of the age-old convention about not working with animals or children (Nell has two young sisters in the show, played by Bo Bragason and Florence Keen), it was the climate that turned out to be most tricky to navigate.

Much of the series was filmed on location in the U.K. during a period of inclement weather that encompassed both lightning storms and heatwaves. With Harland gallivanting about in period clothes, the latter was particularly difficult. “I had ice packs put into parts of my shoes and stuff like that,” she recalls. “One of those 40 degrees Celsius [104 Farenheit] days we had — I was wearing a fake moustache and leather gloves. I was nearly sick from the heat.”

Even on a regular day, the outfits are hard work. Back inside the studio, Richardson flops onto the sofa in her dressing room after an intense block of filming, a mass of white curls still piled up on her head. “I’m incredibly privileged to be able to wear these amazing creations and they’re unbelievably detailed,” she says. “But sometimes, especially in the summer when there was the heatwave, because there’s all these [petticoats] it can be like an endurance test.”

“Black Mirror” alum Tanya Lodge is the hair and make-up designer on “Renegade Nell,” while the costumes come courtesy of Tom Pye, who previously worked on “Gentleman Jack.” Together, the duo have been responsible for transforming the cast and 300 or so background actors into 17th century ladies and gents. “Because it’s such a rare period to be done, I could only get a tiny amount of costumes from the U.K.,” Pye says of the struggle to find pieces accurate to 1705. “I went around the whole of Europe [looking for items].”

Lady Eularia’s outfits are the most anachronistic, Pye says, given they were inspired by a mid-noughties Lady Gaga. It was an aesthetic Richardson was happy to lean into. “The character description for Lady Euloria was ‘crazed Lady Gaga,’ so I was just like, can we just go big with the colors? She’s an extrovert, she’s not a pared-down character. I don’t want anything tasteful. It’s loud. She is loud.”

Then there were the corsets, which Richardson admits were “difficult.” She last donned a proper corset for 2001 film “The Affair of the Necklace” in which Richardson played Marie Antoinette opposite Hilary Swank. Was Pye at least charitable enough to let them out after lunch? “No!” the costume designer says. “Because it’s cut absolutely to their [bodies]. It’s hardcore.”

Even the male castmembers weren’t spared. “There is a corseted moment, which was tight,” Dillane reveals of his character. “But other than that, it was fine. The wigs are quite itchy and makeup can be uncomfortable. But it’s so much fun dressing up.”

More importantly, underneath all the costumes and the pixie dust, “Renegade Nell” carries a message too, with Nell fighting both patriarchy and classism. The show also grapples with slavery and racism in the character of Rasselas, played by Enyi Okoronkwo (“The Lazarus Project”).

“I think her main objective is to create a better world for her sisters, if possible,” Harland says of Nell. “She wants to try and make a change. I admire her. She’s just invincible, is what she feels like.” It’s perhaps no surprise that “Renegade Nell” is the brainchild of Sally Wainwright, the creator of female-led shows “Happy Valley” and “Gentleman Jack” (Lookout Point produced the series).

Dillane agrees that while the series is “a really fun family adventure” it also offers a fresh take on period drama. “It’s nice to be part of a show that has a female-driven lead, especially since Louise is so brilliant and the character is so strong and powerful,” he says.

“It’s really good to see her beat the shit out of some cruel men.”

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