Interview: Himesh Patel on new drama The Luminaries

The Luminaries is an epic adventure mystery based on the Man Booker prize-winning novel of the same name. Set on the wild West coast of New Zealand’s South Island at the height of the 1860s gold rush, The Luminaries tells an intricately woven, suspenseful tale of love, murder, magic, and revenge.

The story begins in 1865. Anna Wetherell (Eve Hewson) has travelled to New Zealand to forge a new life. On the last day of her voyage, a romantic first encounter with the radiant Emery Staines (Himesh Patel) fills her with great expectations for what lies ahead. But the scheming fortune-teller Lydia Wells (Eva Green) has other ideas for Anna, and lays a trap to ensure that the planned rendezvous between the young lovers never takes place.

Deceived, swindled, and betrayed, Anna’s fortunes begin to fall. She is drawn into an elaborate plot of blackmail, involving opium, gold, shipwreck, fraud, and false identity, which ultimately finds her framed for murder and fighting for her life.

But the bond between these star-crossed lovers is more than mere affinity. Anna and Emery are what is known as ‘astral twins’: they were born at the very same instant, and under the very same sky, which means that they share a single destiny.

When Emery vanishes without a trace, leaving Anna without an alibi for a murder she did not commit, the noose of the plot begins to tighten around her. Faced with the impossible, she must ask: do we make our fortunes, or does fortune make us?

Himesh Patel tells more…

What was it that drew you to The Luminaries?
The breadth of the story in terms of the characters that hail from all over the world. In telling a story of New Zealand, and the history of New Zealand, it tells a story of other parts of the world, because people came to New Zealand from across the globe. There is also a slight element of fantasy. It’s a very interesting mix of things.

Who is Emery Staines?
Emery Staines is from England. He’s sailed over to New Zealand and made a couple of stops along the way. So, by the time he gets to New Zealand he’s somewhat of an adventurer. Claire McCarthy, our director, described him to me as having a poet’s soul, which is something I’ve taken and carried with me.

When do we first meet Emery? And how does Anna Wetherell tie into his story?
We meet Emery as he arrives in New Zealand. He’s on the boat coming into the port when he meets Anna Wetherell. Something happens between them and he recognizes something – they recognize something in each other. They arrange to meet but circumstances get in the way and they don’t find each other for a long time. Emery is looking for Anna but a number of things happen along the way that force him in one direction and then another. Eventually, when he does find her again, so much has changed.

What is The Luminaries about?
The Luminaries is a story of adventure, of mystery, of desire in all its various forms. It fascinates me that the story is centred on two factions of desire: gold and love. You have the desire for wealth, the desire for richness and also this desire for belonging and love. Those threads run through the story for all of the characters and it takes place against the backdrop of the gold rush in New Zealand which is full of desire.

The Zodiac is a big part of Eleanor’s writing in both the novel and the screenplay. How does Emery Staines fit into the chart?
Emery, in the Zodiac, represents the sun and Anna represents the moon. They are in the centre of Eleanor’s chart for the story and all the other characters circle around them just as the planets circle around the sun. It’s completely fascinating how she’s orchestrated it all. There is obviously an orchestration to the way she’s telling the story that is meticulous. She’s got it all. It’s fascinating how she’s assigned things and how the traditional characteristics of planetary objects guide the arcs of the characters.

In the terms of that relationship with Emery and Carver, how do they spark off each other?
With Emery and Carver I think that there is a genuine connection. Marton and I talked about that. Carver is using him for his own needs, yes, but, in doing so there is actually some sort of connection between them. Carver and Emery genuinely get on. There’s a lot more in Eleanor’s writing of Carver, and Marton has brought that to life.

So with Emery and Carver, they recognize something in each other in the same way that Anna and Emery recognize something (although in a completely different way.) There is a similarity between the two of them but they’ve just gone in different directions. Carver sets Emery on his way, without maybe even realizing it, and drives him towards his fate in a positive way. Again, it’s very interesting when you start realising the way Eleanor (Catton) has orchestrated everything. It’s all about how one thing passes up on to another.

What do you think audiences will make of Emery Staines?
I like to think they will be rooting for Emery because he’s just trying to get the girl. He’s the good guy, he doesn’t necessarily always do the right thing, but he’s the good guy. He’s the light in the story, I think, and I hope that people will be drawn to that.

What do you think audiences will make of The Luminaries?
A good entertaining hour of television of course! But, beyond that, I hope an idea of what period drama can be in this day and age. It’s going to be very interesting to see how people react to it and I hope that people recognise that in what we’ve done, and I hope they enjoy Eleanor’s adaptation of her novel. It’s fascinating to see an author adapting their own very popular work so I’m looking forward to how people who’ve read the book react to it. I hope they will enjoy what we’ve done.

What has it been like to film this drama on location in New Zealand?
It’s been thrilling. Our production designer, Felicity Abbot and her team have been absolutely amazing in what they’ve done. Every time we’ve been to a new set it’s been breathtaking. From the studio, to all our interiors, and then Jonkers Farm where we built Hokitika which took my breath away when I first saw it.

We spent four long weeks at Jonkers Farm but in that last week, I was coming down to the set and I looked at it and I thought I’d been taking this for granted for a couple of weeks – it’s amazing what they’d done. They erected a town in the middle of a farm and it looked, for all intents and purposes, functional and real. There were horses and chickens running around and sheep in paddocks. It was a real thrill and it assists the process of performing in that world because you believe that you’re there. It’s a privilege to go to places like Jonkers Farm that otherwise you wouldn’t get to see and such a thrill to be able to work there every day. It’s a real privilege.

Eleanor Catton has talked about how much she loved seeing the actors bring her character’s to life. Was there opportunity to improvise?
Yes, we had a moment, when we shot Anna and Emery’s goodbye and we were looking for something to mark this moment of them parting – not forever – but it was bittersweet that they have to part. At the beginning of the story, Anna gives Emery her button and I just thought on set, what if he gives her the button back? And that was kind of a nice kind of moment, where we suddenly thought, “Oh, what about this?” And so, in a way the moment became about the handing back of something and the story kind of coming full circle. It was a nice moment of spontaneity.

What was it that drew you to Eleanor’s scripts?
There are so many interesting themes and elements to this story, and things that maybe go unsaid as well. This is mainly a story of the European explorers that came to New Zealand. But we also have Tauwhare, who’s a Maori character, and there’s also Sook and Mr Quee who are from China. There’s a whole backstory that Carver has with Sook and the Opium war. So there’s a historical truth underlying this story that is there but it’s presented mostly without comment. It’s there for people to see, people may or may not pick up on it, but I hope they do.

Are there themes within The Luminaries that audiences will relate to?
Absolutely. These are themes that we’ve been telling stories about for millennia, but especially now, in today’s political climate. Stories of greed, and moral tales of greed maybe will ring true, perhaps more true than they would any other time, because it is a story of capitalism gone wrong in some way. So yes, maybe they will.