Photographer: Heidi Tappis Hair: Kelly Peach Make-up: Charlotte Prevel Styling: Dani and Emma
In 2019, M. Night Shyamalan brought to Apple TV Plus Servant, a supernatural thriller all about family. Set in Philadelphia, a couple is mourning an unspeakable tragedy (and dealing with a resulting marriage rift) when Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), their new nanny, comes to live with them. Cue the sinister incidents, unrelenting cult members and contentious power dynamics.
Servant premiered its fourth and final season on Jan. 13. As the story of the Turner family household makes its way to a close, Nell Tiger free opened up about the shocking first episode of season 4, Leanne’s evolution and how Servant prepared her for The First Omen.
Let’s unpack Leanne. How do you approach your portrayal?
In season one, Leanne's speaking voice is actually a lot higher than what we have in season four. And that was something me and Night spoke about was just pitching her down ever so slowly so that she started feeling young and innocent and naive and then when we end, the depth of her voice is lower and she's more feely and cool and calm. And then whenever we see her with Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose), there are times that she goes back to that young girl again just like from a physical standpoint, the actual sound doesn't always change. And that went along with other reasons and the way that she carries herself in a room to the way that she dresses and wears her hair. The development of her is episodic. She kept shifting and changing until she lived in this much darker space than when we first met her.
How has Leanne evolved over the course of four seasons?
Season 1 Leanne is worlds away from season 4 Leanne. If they met each other, I don't think they’d recognize one another. And the thing is is that Leanne, I think, has only really started to recognize the shift in herself now in season 4. In season 1 and even through 3, she was fighting her power, fighting the fact that she's being overtaken by the dark thoughts and the dark things. And I think that catalyst is Dorothy. Dorothy doesn't feel that love for her anymore and that's the only thing keeping her from feeling those demons. When that love starts to drift away a little bit, the darkness is just oozing out of her and she can't have the good things and she's gonna grow inside of the bad ones.
Leanne has, for lack of a better term, a special relationship with Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose). Do you two do a lot of prep work together before filming or do you try to stay away from overanalyzing to keep a more natural tension on screen?
Me and Lauren will lean on each other when we find a theme difficult or if one or the other one of us isn't quite getting it or we're not feeling like we're 100% understanding it or in the right rhythm. Me and Lauren tend to gravitate towards each other to help figure each other out. I couldn't have gone through the show without Lauren. She was my mentor and I watched her and studied her and she, I just think, is a genius. So I needed her. I desperately needed her. I was 19 and I just looked up to her massively, and still do. So anytime I was confused or freaked out or nervous, I would just run to Lauren and go, “Lauren, help me!” She was my rock. And she's also hilarious.
At the end of the first episode of the new season, Dorothy just rolls past Leanne and doesn’t really acknowledge all the effort she put into Dorothy’s big welcome home after her accident. What’s going through Leanne’s head in that moment?
She's just spent the entire day fighting her enemies and trying to protect herself and is exhausted and has come close to death and the only thing that is gonna make any of that worth it is just a smile from Dorothy, any sort of acknowledgment from Dorothy. Leanne cares more about the fact that the cake has been burned than the fact that she just stabbed a man in the throat with a pen because she wants everything to be perfect for Dorothy. Dorothy rolls in and doesn't even give her eye contact. I think her heart breaks. I think that's where she loses almost that last little piece of hope and her heart just breaks.
Before that, the rest of the episode is quite the roller coaster. Is Dorothy even on Leanne’s mind throughout that chaos?
My personal feeling is that Dorothy tends to always take the top spot in Leanne's mind. I think if the cult members were coming to Dorothy, Leanne would throw herself in the firing line and that's maybe the same with all the members of the household. At that point in the season, Leanne’s greatest love is her family, and she'll do anything to protect them. She'll kill for them. And in her head, that's the greatest form of love and expression. In other people's eyes, that’s a girl who's lost her mind. I think it's pretty heroic.
How would you describe the finale?
It's final. That's the best way to say it.
How has playing Leanne had an impact on you?
I don't know if I would have been ready to do The Omen [prequel] if I hadn't done four years of Servant. It was like school for me. I spent five years total from beginning to end in that world surrounded by people who are at the highest level. I came in as this 19 year old and watched them all and listened to them all. And with Lauren, she helped me find my voice as a young woman. She helped me be strong. And without her, I don't know if I would be as strong willed as I am now and I learned my boundaries, and she really helped me to define those. And Toby and Rupert are just like my brothers. I learned from all of them and they prepared me for the big wide world that’s out there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Heidi Tappis