Charles Bukowski, the Los Angeles based writer and poet, once wrote: “You have to die a few times before you can really live.” This idea, life after death rather than before, exists throughout Buddhist idealogies and especially resonates in Stephanie Corneliussen’s case. The Denmark-born actress who portrays the emotionally complex Gabrielle Xavier on FX’s Legion, knows this affirmation all too well. In fact, if it wasn't for a few deaths, she wouldn’t be acting on one of television’s most watched shows, or even living in America. Instead, if everything originally went in her favor, she would be...practicing ballet?
“The day I entered the (Supermodel of Scandinavian) contest, I had just been cut from a program that was taking me to the Royal Theater of ballet in Copenhagen,” Stephanie explains on a recent phone conversation. “You get physicals and it was very obvious from that age I was going to be six feet tall, which isn’t great for a ballerina. It was April 7th, and I was very upset. My dad was like it’s okay, so he decided to take me shopping. (At the mall) they were having a supermodel contest.”
You probably can guess what happened next. Stephanie won the contest, transitioned into a lifestyle as a model, then, at the age of 22, found herself stepping off an airplane at LAX, with the same Hollywood dream as many before her.
“And then I went from there, I knew what I wanted,” says Stephanie. “It’s weird, people ask what did you to do get it, and I think it was a great mix of luck, talent, and tenacity. It could have easily gone the either way.”
After landing a few minor gigs, she soon got cast in a career churning role on the USA drama, conspiracy thriller Mr. Robot, playing opposite future Best Actor Academy Award Winner Rami Malek. She portrayed Joanna Wellick, a goal-driven, almost sociopathic, badass who soon emerged as one of the show’s central characters. Yet, in a cruel twist of fate, Stephanie received an unexpected phone call a few weeks into the filming of Season Three.
“I don’t really know what happened, and when I had that phone call I was shocked.”
The call informed her Joanna would be written off the show. The bullet which had chased her since her arrival finally caught up. It’s an ending her character deserved, but Stephanie believed it happened prematurely. The role which kickstarted her career ended, another death for Stephanie.
Though fear not, for Stephanie rose once again, much like the Phoenix. In one of her finest hours as an actress, she brought Professor X’s wife to life with extraordinary vulnerability, highlighting the character’s mental illness. Stephanie spoke with Flaunt about the pain she experienced when she lost Joanna Wellick, the acting inspiration behind Gabrielle Xavier, and fighting the good fight as a vegan.
Your first major role came in Mr. Robot, acting as Joanna Wellick, a powerful, fearless character who some people describe as having major Lady Macbeth similarities. How did it feel portraying a character who blurred the line between good and evil with a singularity pursuit towards her goals?
I love Joanna because obviously, she’s a part of me, but there were times when I got a little worried she was a very influential character at that time. People were very into her, celebrating her. But there are people like her, she’s scary. If you can implement that tenacity, that singular tunnel vision into what you want to acheieve, when that is all you can do, I think you become a very dangerous person.
Unfortunately, we see this in society, in politics. People who forget to look at the bigger picture, the casualties of their position. We have children sitting in cages right now because people won’t budge on certain issues. Joanna was a stone cold killer, which is perfect for fictional stories that air once a week but does not fit into our society.
Did you see any similarities between Joanna and yourself?
No (laughing) I wish I had some of that tenacity in my life, but that’s not who I am.
Joanna died at the beginning of Season Three. Did you feel any sadness knowing a character you brought to life for so many years would be killed? I imagine it would be akin to losing a beloved pet, or even more intense.
It’s not as bad as losing a pet but it was terrible. The way she was living her life, there has to be consequences. For Joanna in this instance, the consequences were fatal. The decision of her meeting dire, fatal consequences, I’m okay with. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about this, but I do now. The way that she was killed off and the way I was written out of the show, I don’t feel about still.
For Joanna I feel like it was such a waste of arch, people were really invested in her story to only have her killed off in the first episode of the (third season). It was very odd...I’m not exactly sure why it happened. I never got an actual explanation of what happened with her and I was dealing with it not only as Joanna but as Stephanie. I only found out about my character getting killed off a couple of weeks before we were shooting, which is not normal. I honestly to this day don’t really know what happened. It was anything personal, I assume. I’m the person who would take responsibility if I fucked up, but it all happened pretty abruptly. I boxed her up and put her in the back of my head for a while.
You had to get past it?
Yeah, it was weird. I lost her really suddenly.
Did you have any say with the character?
In the end, it was Sam’s show. I’ve spoken with some of the writers who were upset to see her go. I don’t really know what happened, and when I had that phone call I was shocked. I don’t really know what happened, there was no closure.
We can’t have this interview without mentioning Rami Malek, or should I say, Academy-Award winner Rami Malek. Tell us about working alongside Rami. Were you surprised at all that he won?
Not at all, Rami has been in this business for a long time. He deserved this, he burns for this. Not only do I think his talents deserve to get him recognition, but him as a person and everything he put into his career makes him very deserving. He loves this, I think the fans should know. As much as it means to them, it means to him.
You’re joining Legion in its third and final season. Your character, Gabrielle Xavier, is known in the X-Men universe as Professor X’s former wife. Professor X is one of the most powerful mutants on the planet, so there must have been something intriguing about her. Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell Flaunt readers a little about your character’s arc and what your bringing to this landmark character in the comic book series?
You’re seeing a different side from her than what’s in the comic book. She’s still strong-willed, she’s experienced trauma, but she is incredibly smart and great at self-analyzing. She knows how to deal with it, however, one of the sides you see of her is her struggle with mental illness.
My family’s struggled with mental illness, and I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression and it’s a very important thing we don’t talk about enough, or at all in society. Everyone would benefit from talking about it more because then they would understand what is going on with their loved ones. That’s what you’re seeing from Gabrielle. She is struggling with something within here which is very very real, and I have it as a huge honor and privilege to get to portray that on television today as a woman with a child.
As you saw in episode three, it was all about Gabrielle and the person she is.
It’s cool Legion focused on the mental illness aspect of her, they could have easily just have glossed over it.
Totally, to me, it felt like therapy. My grandmother passed in November and it was something which really took a part of me. But getting to portray Gabrielle was therapy, we became close. She was my therapist and my character. I don’t think there is a single tear in that show which isn’t real.
Legion is, of course, a show about extraordinary humans who carry inside them the mutant gene, which gives them superhuman abilities unique to the individual. If this genetic makeup existed in real life (whose to say it doesn’t), and you possessed the mutant gene, what would be your preferred superability?
I always think about this question as to whether I would use it for myself or others. Probably time travel, but at the same time, there is much solace in knowing that there is stuff you can’t change.
We are a fashion-based publication, so we must talk about your fashion! Any favorite designers?
I love Stella McCartney. She is one of those designers who introduced sustainable and ethical fashion into her line. It’s fun, funky. It’s smart fashion.
Let’s talk about your diet. You’re a vegan who is also a major animal rights advocate. How long have you incorporated veganism into your diet?
I’ve been living a vegan lifestyle very seriously since 2015. There was information out there I was purposely avoiding because I knew knowing would change everything. Listen, read the materials, see the nasty videos and be prepared that it would change your life.
It seems like a shift is occurring in the food industry with more and more restaurants introducing vegan-friendly options onto their menu (such as Carl’s Jr. with Beyond Meat and Burger King with the Impossible Burger). What are your thoughts on this change? Do you think the world is finally waking up to animal-free eating?
Absolutely, it’s immense progress and i encourage it to continue. The information is out there now if you chose to see it, but you can’t unsee it. We are having a serious conversation about environmental effects and climate change.
Is there any specific literature or film which changed your mind?
Yeah, Earthlings. That shit will fuck you up.
Besides Legion, are there any upcoming projects you would like to share with our readers?
I can’t talk about it (laughing) but they should be on the watch.