When, in the The Luminaries, young Anna Wetherell arrives in New Zealand during the height of the 1860s gold rush no one knows who she is, but they assume she is escaping from something. When, in late 2018, Eve Hewson arrived in New Zealand to play her in the BBC serialisation of Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Booker-winning novel, she was on the run too.
“I was at a point in my life where I really needed to escape, just like Anna,” says Hewson from her parents’ home in Dublin — her parents being U2’s Bono and the political activist Alison Stewart — where she has chosen to sit out Covid rather than solitarily in Brooklyn.
“I needed to go away on this job and have these six months to myself. I needed to work, and find who I was, because for a little while I didn’t really know if I wanted to continue acting. I had had some experiences in my life that made me think maybe it wasn’t for me.”
Obviously, I ask what experiences. She was living in New York, her career in television and the movies was beyond healthy and, having dated some years back the actor James Lafferty, she says she was “absolutely dead single”, a state that continues to “feel amazing”.
“I mean, I don’t want to totally get into it, but you reach a point, especially around 26, 27, where you start to rethink what you want. My life had been shaped by the [career] choices I had made before I went into college. So I was redefining who I was as an adult and rethinking some choices, and this job was really special. I got to rediscover my love of acting by taking some time for myself. I came back ready to take my career to the next level, feeling really capable and wanting to recommit.”
The Luminaries is a long literary novel about worldly vices that include greed, adultery and murder, and magical predestinations governed by the stars. The six-parter, which begins this month on BBC One, is such a free adaptation you might accuse the screenwriter of taking liberties — were the screenwriter not the novelist herself. Catton refocuses a predominantly male epic towards its female characters. Anna is promoted to a main player, alongside Lydia Wells, a brothel keeper played by Eva Green (Casino Royale, Penny Dreadful), and Anna’s love interest and astral twin Emery Staines, played by Himesh Patel from EastEnders and the movie Yesterday.
“I was at a point in my life where I really needed to escape.”
Hewson steals the show with an intense performance we may assume fed off her own struggles. In the wild west settlement of Hokitika, Anna goes through all kinds of hell as the established dwellers project their fantasies on her: damaged woman; flirt, daughter, whore, murderer. Hewson may know a little of what this is like. As she says, she grew up with people believing they knew who she was because they thought they knew her father. More to the point, in her career she has found a young actress can be a victim of a powerful male gaze.
“I’ve come across times, like we were talking about with Anna, where men project their ideas and their fantasies on to you as an actress. You have to absorb all of that and be a million different things in order to satisfy the people in power. When you’re playing the love interest you have to seduce people and they have to believe that you can seduce them. So it can be very confusing.”
On arriving in Auckland, Hewson’s immediate challenge, however, was to sort out The Luminaries’ confusing plot, chopped into two time schemes nine months apart. For each of her scenes — as is usual, filmed out of order — she had to establish where Anna was not just in the story, but in her head. “There was just a lot that I had to prepare for and keep on top of emotionally: when I was high on opium, when I was drunk … I actually made this storyboard map all along my kitchen wall.”
Episode four contains particularly harrowing scenes for Anna filmed in one room over two weeks. “For the first few days I was emotionally completely drained and I honestly felt I couldn’t do it. I really struggled, but it’s one of those things where you just have to keep going. You have to keep diving deeper into your soul to find the performance because you can’t give up on yourself. It definitely stretched me. It was a difficult few weeks, but it was rewarding and I’m absolutely recovered from it now.
“I remember Eva [Green] reaching out to me and saying, ‘I hear you’re doing amazing. You have to take care of yourself. You’ve got to go get a massage, watch a happy movie, be good to yourself.’ I had a wonderful support team, but it was always going to be a little dark in your head for a while. I think I turned to watching Madagascar at one point.”
Anna is employed by the manipulative Lydia as a sex worker. Hewson is in no doubt that having the author “Ellie” Catton present on location, and having, in Claire McCarthy, a woman director, also helped her to negotiate that narrative.
“A prostitute, unfortunately, is a very common character for a young actress to play. I think it’s been glamorised, sexualised, all of those things. There’s a lot that’s changed now, thank God, but to sign on to play a prostitute for six episodes, that’s tricky stuff for any young actress and I think having Claire and Ellie decide how we were going to tell that story was really important. They made a strong decision not to show Anna having sex with any of the clients. You don’t see her abused.”
“When you’re playing the love interest you have to seduce people and they have to believe that you can seduce them. So it can be very confusing.”
Some male-dominated productions have been happy experiences for her, although she will not name them. She does emphasise that Steven Soderbergh, who directed her first big TV role, as nurse Lucy Elkins in The Knick, was never less than sympathetic, despite a notorious scene in which, as Lucy, she had to simulate injecting a drug into Clive Owen’s character’s penis.
“When I first had the meeting with the [makers] they said, ‘OK, just so you know, Lucy is going to fall down the rabbit hole. Just be prepared for that.’ So they send me the ten scripts and I was absolutely terrified. I was terrified to do that scene. When I got to the set that day, it was honestly the opposite of what I thought it was going to be. It was relaxed, easy, we were joking around. By then I’d gotten to know them because we’d been shooting for a while. I remember just feeling really overjoyed that it was so painless. I’d been on other sets where you feel uncomfortable just standing there.”
It does not sound as if acting has proved to be quite what she imagined it would be when she embarked on her career aged 16. She had what she insists was a happy, low-key childhood in Ireland where “celebrity culture isn’t really a thing” and Bono’s daughter could take the train to school like everybody else.
“But I was an angsty teenager. My parents always said I was moody. I had a lot churning inside, but I was creative and I loved movies and I had this yearning to act. When I watched films, I so badly wanted to be on set. I felt like I could do it. The first time I read a script I knew exactly how I would play that character. It was an amazing feeling.”
Her parents initially discouraged her ambitions. “But, you know, I think it was good. I think it was the right thing. It just made me want it more, and work harder. I made the decision to go to Tisch [School of Arts in New York] to study drama and really learn the craft.”
“My parents always said I was moody. I had a lot churning inside, but I was creative and I loved movies and I had this yearning to act.”
When she went to New York, where her older sister was also studying, her parents moved for a year to a Central Park penthouse they bought from Steve Jobs. “I mean, maybe there’s a hint of co-dependency that you could smell there,” she jokes. “We all do love each other very deeply and we kind of travel as a pack. So when I went to college, they conveniently renovated the Dublin house at the same time, so they had to move to New York. But it was fun because I got to go home and have home-cooked meals and take my laundry.”
Her parents are proud of her choices now, as well they might be. In 2013 she played James Gandolfini’s daughter in his penultimate film, Enough Said, and two years later acted with Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies. There has been the odd clunker, such as Otto Bathurst’s 2018 Robin Hood in which she was Maid Marian, but that was more than compensated for the same year by her starring role in Rebecca Addelman’s small-budget romantic comedy Paper Year, a better film, for my money, than Noah Baumbach’s Oscar-nominated Marriage Story the year after.
Nor was The Luminaries all anguish. She speaks of the joy of becoming friends with Patel and of filming their characters’ initial, charged encounter, actually the last scene of the whole shoot. “It was kind of magical that we got to do this scene together out on a barge in the most beautiful landscape in New Zealand. I love Himesh as a human being. We knew we were going to say goodbye in a couple of days. There was something really moving about it.”
The day ended with a wrap party and rum on the beach. Hewson by then already had work lined up in the movie Tesla, about the early 20th-century inventor (out this summer). Before filming that was over, she landed a lead role in a forthcoming Netflix series, Behind Her Eyes, a love-triangle thriller in which she plays the wife of an unfaithful psychiatrist.
I ask whether stardom scares her, having seen the flak her father has attracted — he is trolled for everything from his piety to his tax arrangements. “Look, my dad is very good at it. He’s been doing it a long time and he does get a lot of criticism and I will defend him until the day that I die. I love that man and I’m very, very, proud of what he does with his life. It’s incredible. But, yes, it does scare me. I don’t think it would be easy, but whether I’m well known or not, it’s not what it’s about. I just really love acting.”
After the emotional highs and lows of The Luminaries, I suspect Eve Hewson at the age of 28 is quite ready for stardom. That’s fortunate. A star is exactly what her tumultuous escape to the other side of the world has probably made her.
The Luminaries starts on BBC One on Sunday, June 21, at nine p.m.