Donnelly is starring in Werewolf by Night opposite opposite Gael Garcia Bernal, a real left turn for Marvel. It is a Halloween special in black and white, and is a loving tribute to the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s.
It’s all thanks to the show’s casting director Sarah Finn, who caught Donnelly’s performance on Broadway in 2019. “When theatre is good it can have such a profound impact. Three years after seeing me in The Ferryman, Sarah was thinking of me for the role,” the Northern Irish actress says. “A lot of people will remember you more from a theatre production than any film or TV show. You stay in people’s mind longer.”
When it came to Werewolf by Night, she quickly bonded with director Michael Giacchino over their shared love of those old monster movies. “I grew up with those,” Donnelly says. “My elder sister was a goth, and watched them every day. Dracula mainly and Frankenstein. She was really into Hammer Horror as well.”
She plays Elsa Bloodstone, who first appeared in Marvel comics two decades ago, an all-action, no-nonsense heroine, as handy with a wisecrack as with a sword. After Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recently said this world of monsters “will ultimately become quite important to the future of the MCU”, the expectation is that at some point soon she will step out of this standalone story and rub shoulders with the franchise’s current superheroes.
Donnelly says, “I would have done this even if it was decided it’s a standalone. But if you get involved in the universe, of course you want to go on and do the team ups.”
The show is part of Marvel’s ‘Phase Four’ of films and shows, and it marks a new era in other ways. As with many female superheroes, in the comics, Elsa was often drawn in skimpy, figure-hugging outfits.
“As far as I can gather, especially with the Phase Four stuff and how it seems to be progressing, particularly for women, involves not having these stupid expectations. Most characters are not in skin-tight catsuits.” Elsa is clad instead in “a leather jacket and jeans!”
Donnelly doesn’t have a Twitter account and had decided to stay away from the fan reaction in a franchise where responses can be passionate, and not always in a good way. “Whether good or bad, I think it’s best not having a clue what they think,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to get on set with those voices in my head.”
Previously, Donnelly has been on stage with Hugh Jackman, who has played one of cinema’s most iconic superheroes – but she didn’t tap him up for tips. “That didn’t occur to me because I don’t think of him as Wolverine. I think of him as Hugh… I forget that’s what he did.”
That play, The River, was written by Butterworth, who is her partner. She met him during the auditions – “it would not be allowed these days” she laughs – and it opened at the Royal Court in 2012 before transferring to Broadway, where Jackman joined. It marked the follow up to Butterworth’s much-lauded Jerusalem.
The writer followed that up with The Ferryman in 2017. “The play blew me away when I first read it,” she says. Set in County Armagh during the Troubles, it was partly inspired by the murder of Donnelly’s uncle.
“It added to the sense I was doing something that was once in a lifetime, genuinely important, all of the things you want to do when you set out to become an actor… I was aware I was part of something very special.”
The show won four Evening Standard Theatre awards, four Tonys and two Oliviers, one for Donnelly for best actress. The weight of the subject took its toll, though. “We had conversations towards the end of the run on Broadway. We all said, ‘I don’t feel like I have any more emotion left. I don’t’ feel there’s joy or sorrow, just this strange flatness.”
There’s a term for the feeling: blunted affect. “The body has said, ‘No more of that adrenaline’… and you just stop feeling. You go on stage and think, ‘How am I going to get this out today?’ You take a while to shake it off after.” The problem of a great part? “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says.
Donnelly started young, dancing Irish ballet with Patricia Mulholland from the age of six – and the veteran teacher said she was “made for the stage”. After that acting, she says, “felt inevitable.”
She grew up in Belfast and describes the Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls, as “so accurate, it’s not a comedy to me.” For her the arts was a means of escape.
The political situation was “too much growing up. It took over everything. You couldn’t go to certain places in your school uniform. You had to be ready to give a different surname if asked in a particular area. When that’s seeped into your being when you’re a kid, getting out felt like a massive relief from all that. So politics interests me very little in that sense.” She adds, “I found my salvation doing performance and theatre.”
After drama school, she appeared in a number of TV shows including Sugar Rush, Casualty and the Bill. In 2013 she was in The Fall with Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan – “Women would say, ‘Oh my God, you’re so lucky, you got to be killed by Jamie Dornan” – then came Scottish historical drama Outlander, which had a huge following and was the first time fans would stop her in the street.
Then, she landed the lead in The Nevers, a science fiction show about a gang of Victorian women with unusual abilities – again because the show’s creator Joss Whedon had seen her in The Ferryman.
Halfway through filming the first series, though, Whedon left the show following allegations of misconduct – such as belittling and threatening behaviour – from actors on previous shoots. “It affected us all hugely,” Donnelly says. “There’s still not enough water under that bridge. At some point I’d like to talk about the entire thing.
“To say it was a seismic shift would be accurate. We had no sense of any of that. We were doing a job we all adored… After The Ferryman and the heaviness of that it was great to get into something completely different.
“When Joss stepped down it was a massive shock. We were protected from knowing. Then it was like this person who created and oversaw every single element is now gone and we have to find a way to move on. It was very, very strange.”
They still had six episodes to film, with Philippa Goslett taking over as showrunner. The first six were released last year, with the second half of the season expected to air in December. What started as an eight-month job turned into three years, what with Whedon’s departure and the pandemic. By the end, Donnelly, who has two children with Butterworth, needed a break.
She saw Werewolf by Night as a delightful palate cleanser; now she says she’s reading scripts and working out if she can do some theatre in 2023.
When I ask if it’s a revival or new work, she smiles, “We might be talking new.” Chancing my arm, could it be a new play with Butterworth? The smile returns, “We shall see.”
It’s clear that she loves working with her partner. “There’s something to me about the poetry and the rhythm of his writing that just makes sense, it’s a language I can speak. So far it has worked very nicely,” she says before laughing. “We haven’t had any of those bust ups. I would never dream of giving a writing note, and he learned early on to stop giving me acting notes.”
Werewolf by Night is on Disney+