'Station Eleven' Producers on Casting Mackenzie Davis, Himesh Patel and Lori Petty (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
Adapted from the novel by Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven follows the lives of people trying to survive and rebuild decades after society was wiped out by a deadly flu. “It’s a show about a small group of interconnected people before, during, and after a pandemic,” showrunner Patrick Somerville tells ET about the limited HBO Max series, which features a sprawling ensemble, including Caitlin FitzGerald, David Cross, Deborah Cox, Enrico Colantoni, Himesh Patel, Gael García Bernal, Lori Petty and Mackenzie Davis.
While many of the actors fill out the story with their quirky and interesting characters, Davis, alongside Matilda Lawler, drive the decades-spanning dystopian drama as Kirsten, a young Shakespearean actress and survivor who finds herself among a troupe of actors and musicians known as the Traveling Symphony 20 years after the pandemic. Later, she encounters a man who claims to be the prophet and uncovers unexpected connections between some of the survivors.
When it comes to casting those two performers, Somerville says “it was such a gift.” Especially because when production resumed on Station Eleven after the lockdown forced them to shut down, the former Halt and Catch Fire star and Lawler were able to work together on a later episode before finishing out the series.
“That’s the intersection of the two performers that creates the spine of the whole show,” Somerville says. “And they got to work on an incredibly, intense, emotional episode together to kick off our Canadian production.”
And because they had already filmed episodes 1 and 3 in Chicago before Davis was on set, she could watch what Lawler initially brought to the character. “Then, when we all came back together, I felt like they were both calibrating their performances. They sort of synchronized,” the showrunner continues, adding that they developed a hearsay between them.
Executive producer Jessica Rhoades adds “that was the beautiful thing” about bringing them together on set. “We had Matilda’s Kirsten next to Mackenzie’s Kirsten and they were miming each other and just playing on camera. And I think they just found each other,” she says.
While the two actors briefly cross paths on screen, Lawler spends most of her time opposite Patel, who was most recently seen in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Yesterday. Poised for a breakout here as Jeevan, a stranger who encounters Kirsten at the beginning of the pandemic and takes her in to stay with him and his brother Frank (Nabhaan Rizwan), Rhoades says that “Himesh is incapable of an untrue moment.”
No matter the scene, “whether it’s an aside, whether it’s a joke, whether it’s a deeply human, traumatic moment, he’s actually incapable of delivering something inauthentic,” she gushes.
“You always feel safe with him, too,” Somerville adds. “I'm always glad when Kirsten is with him. I’m never worried about her when they’re together. And that I think comes out of his spirit and as much as the character. And that was critical for our whole story.”
While his confidence waivers at times, Jeevan never once lets Kirsten stray too far, even right after they meet under unusual circumstances and she finds herself unable to get home to her parents on her own. “I would want my kid to go with him if that was the situation,” the showrunner says, speaking to what Patel brings to the role.
When it comes to the role of The Conductor, who takes in Kirsten as part of the Symphony much later on, Somerville says they had a list of “incredible performers to start with when we sat down to cast the role.”
While “a lot of them were just intriguing, very high level actors,” it wasn’t until they received a self-tape from Petty, a popular early ‘90s actress who has had something of a resurgence thanks to her recurring role on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, that they felt they found the right person for the part.
“This tape she sent in was unbelievable. She just absolutely crushed her reading. She had no contact, she had no notes. She just read alone in her house and sent it in. And it was too good to ignore,” Somerville says, noting that he had been a long admirer of her film work, which includes A League of Their Own, Free Willy, Point Break and most notably, Tank Girl, the 1995 dystopian cult classic. “Around that time, her talent was undeniable,” he adds.
So, when Petty came to read with Davis, “that’s when the Tank Girl of it all became really powerful to me,” he says. “Just the idea that she starred in a movie that did exactly the opposite of what we were trying to do, but at the same time, she was sort of ground breaking in terms of a strong female lead character and depicting someone who is a little bit irreverent in that space.”
“So, Tank Girl had very positive vibes for me. It just was kismet that on the show and whenever you start seeing great performances and great backstory -- not the conductor's backstory, but Lori's backstory -- in harmony with what we needed you, we learned to go with it. And Lori delivered.”
Of course, Davis, Lawler, Patel and Petty are not alone in delivering standout performances here. The entire ensemble delivers, with most performers -- especially FitzGerald, Danielle Deadwyler and David Wilmot in key roles -- getting a real opportunity to shine over the course of the 10-episode series, as it jumps back and forth through time with its message of hope and healing.
The first three episodes of Station Eleven are now streaming on HBO Max. Each week, two new episodes will debut leading up to the final episode on Jan. 13, 2022.