Servant's Nell Tiger Free Talks Heroes And Villains And Working With M. Night Shyamalan [Exclusive Interview]

There's probably a version of "Servant" where the focus remained squarely on Lauren Ambrose's Dorothy Turner and Toby Kebbell's Sean, turning this horror-heavy AppleTV+ series into one much more directly about grief, processing trauma, and moving forward after unspeakable loss of the Turner's young baby, Jericho. But with the early addition of Nell Tiger Free's mysterious nanny, a once-straightforward tale became infinitely more complex ... and maybe supernatural.

Perhaps most well-known for playing Myrcella Baratheon in "Game of Thrones," Free has truly come into her own as the occasionally sympathetic, occasionally sinister Leanne on "Servant." Having played the character for four seasons now, it should come as no surprise that the actor has taken a tremendous amount of ownership over the character. Careful to play her as the hero of her own narrative — even if it's not quite as simple as that in the big picture — yet without ever losing sight of her darker edge, it was quickly made clear that the series overall would live or die on the strength of the performance, just as much as the quality of the writing. After all, who could possibly be more important than the figure who may or may not have taken a "reborn doll" and turned it into a living, breathing infant?

In early December, I sat down over Zoom to talk to Free about all things Leanne. Throughout the course of our conversation, we touched on topics stemming from why "Servant" is an exception to one of her rules, her character's unexpected (and perhaps ill-advised) romance with Rupert Grint's sallow Julien, one of her more memorable notes to director/showrunner/executive producer M. Night Shyamalan, whether there are any villains or heroes in this story, and much more.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'I think that they're such unlikely lovers'

Are you one of those actors who's able to watch your own performances and actually enjoy it as a viewer? That's my way of asking whether you've watched "Servant" throughout these four seasons or not [laughs].

There's very little of stuff that I have done that I have watched all the way through. "Servant" is an exception to that. I have seen every episode, and that is largely down to the fact that I love my castmates very much and I want to see their work, and I want to see this beautiful crew and all of the effort that they put into this show. And I want to show my support and watch it.

It is difficult to avoid me in the show. I do tend to pop up quite a lot, so I have to sit through that [laughs]. I'm very self-critical; I will beat myself up after every day at work, and watching myself is no different. But I think I need to grow up and actually learn to appreciate the work and sort of rid myself of any vanity, or any self-criticism, and just enjoy it for what it was, which was a lot of hard work, and hopefully a good story. But it is difficult to detach and just watch it as if it were anything else, because you're like, "Oh, I remember that day. It was really cold." [Laughs]

I've loved how Leanne and Julian have become this unexpected pairing over the series. I can't imagine predicting that from the first season onwards. When you first joined the show, what did you think? Do you ever envision Leanne and Julian becoming so intertwined?

No, I didn't envision myself in Rupert's arms [laughs]. I really didn't know where they were going to go. I mean, I knew that there was most likely going to be some sort of romantic relationship between me and one of the characters. My original guess was actually Dorothy. I thought that it would maybe go down that way. We all were actually talking about it when we first joined the show, because we knew that something was going to happen, but it was just with whom. And it being Rupert, I think, being Julian was a very interesting, cool choice. I think that they're such unlikely lovers. You would never put them together, personality-wise. And I think they give each other this weird comfort, this weird solace. It's like two broken people just existing in their own darkness together. And there's a strange levity in that. Hurt people attract hurt people.

There you go. Well said.

I read it on a postcard somewhere [laughs].

'You pick up on the psyche of who you're trying to be'

On a related note, I love talking to actors about the times where they had some sort of direct contribution to the characters that they're embodying. Can you remember any moment, any character detail, line of dialogue, anything throughout the years that you personally contributed to Leanne?

Oh wow, that's a good — I'm just thinking of that episode of "Friends" where Joey is like, "Yeah, I write loads of my own lines." And then he gets killed off in an elevator shaft [laughs]. I'm always so conscious to ever say anything about that. But I guess ["Servant"] is over, so I did all of my own work. No, joking [laughs].

I mean, all of us had little moments where we had our own influences in the character. When you've lived so long with a character, that naturally is going to happen. You'll see something written down and you'll do that annoying actor thing where you're like, "Well, I don't feel she would say it that way." And sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong.

But actually, there was an episode that I was doing with M. Night where I had to come out of a closet and there's an intruder in the house. And he was like, "What would you do in this moment? What would be your instincts if there was someone in your house?" And I would be like, "Well, I would take off my high heels. I would take off my shoes, because they'd be able to hear me." And he was like, "Brilliant. Take off your shoes." And it's like, even those little things that don't feel like such a win, because you're like, "Ah, I did something." [Laughs] But I mean, that was true. If there was an intruder in my house, I wouldn't be wearing stilettos. So it is just little things like that where you pick up on the psyche of who you're trying to be.

'I don't think that there is a clear villain, or a clear hero whatsoever'

It feels like viewers have been on this rollercoaster with Leanne through all four seasons. First, she was this big mystery that we couldn't really figure out, and then she became a sympathetic figure. I guess being chased by a crazy cult will do that. And now we're at an impasse again at the end of season 3 in the beginning of season 4, where she's kind of at odds with Dorothy. She's kind of an antagonistic force now. Looking back, which angle of Leanne have you enjoyed performing the most?

You know what? I think I would have to say season 1 Leanne will always hold such a special place in my heart, because I was discovering her and that was really special for me. And then I think season 4 Leanne. I think the bookends of the seasons have been my favorite to play.

I love how so far in season 4, Leanne's more confident in herself, she has more of a grip on her powers, whether they're supernatural or otherwise. But again, that's also bringing her into direct conflict with Dorothy. I know, obviously, you're slightly biased, but what's your personal perception of Leanne? Do you think of her as the hero of her own story?

I think we probably all, in some respect, hope that we are the hero of our own stories. I don't know whether she's the hero of this story. I don't know whether there is a hero in this story, which is — we're veering away slightly from the horror tropes. There's no one lone survivor sipping a cup of tea by the ambulance. It's not like that. There's no clear antagonist, I don't think. I mean, well, I would say maybe I am the clear antagonist, but I don't think that there is a clear villain, or a clear hero whatsoever. I am biased, so I personally think that Leanne is the hero of her story, but not necessarily of the Turner family's, whatsoever.

'That's one of the biggest issues that we play with in this show'

It's been pointed out that this is a show where if the characters just sat down and talked through their issues and were honest with each other, it probably would've ended back in season 1. Not that would've been any fun, but still. Do you ever feel that same frustration, maybe reading the scripts, just "Why don't these characters talk to each other?" or anything like that?

Yeah, I feel that frustration in my daily life where I'm like, "Why are we not talking to each other?" I think 99% of people's personal problems would be solved if they just sat down and had an honest conversation. And that's one of the biggest issues that we play with in this show, which is dishonesty versus honesty, preserving someone's feelings in the moment or in the long run. I'm a very honest person when it comes to the way that I feel and the way that I think about things — sometimes maybe too honest. And it just deeply frustrates me when someone can't reciprocate that.

So I think I'm naturally, when I'm reading this, I'm thinking if they all just sat down in a circle and had a chat, everything could be okay. But you would still be left with the trauma, you would still be left with the pain. It's just, at least, everyone was on the same page. I mean, we all know that's the right thing. We all know that's what they should have done.

But then I wouldn't have been employed for four years. So I'm happy with the way that it went [laughs].

In the time since you wrapped up season 4, you've joined "The First Omen" prequel. Are you interested in becoming the next kind of Scream Queen, with that kind of a horror focus in your career? Where are you thinking of going next?

[Laughs] No, I have no interest in being any sort of horror monarch. I'm just happy to tell stories that I think are cool. And I think "Servant" was really cool. And I think that "The First Omen" is really, really cool. There's all these bigger questions and bigger issues that we're tackling in both of those pieces of film. And yeah, I'm just deeply grateful to be employed [laughs]. I'd happily do a rom-com. I would happily do a musical. I would do anything as long as I thought that the script was good. And that's kind of my only criteria. I've got no preference.

"Servant" season 4 premieres January 13, 2023 on AppleTV+.