In its final season, FX’s Legion isn’t pulling any punches. To prove it, the X-Men show finally introduced one of the franchise’s most iconic characters in Season 3 Episode 3: Charles Xavier, otherwise known as Professor X. And although the father of the X-Men has been through many iterations, the Charles Xavier we met on Legion was–unsurprisingly–unlike any version of the character that’s come before.
Legion has always been era-agnostic–although the show has a general 1960s aesthetic, its technology is often far beyond what was possible then. With the introduction of time travel in Season 3, Legion’s timeline has become even more muddled. The show places Charles Xavier some time after an era that resembles World War II, but is never referred to in detail as such–an ambiguity that Legion creator and showrunner Noah Hawley said is deliberate.
“When we meet Professor X in this season, he has been a soldier in a war–a war that probably feels a bit like World War II, I guess I would say, though we never commit to what it is,” Hawley told journalists during a recent visit to Legion’s set in Los Angeles. “So there’s something about the timing of it that may not necessarily fit in with the canon.”
But even more significant than the change in setting is the change in actor: Legion’s Professor X is played by Harry Lloyd, perhaps best known for his role as Daenerys Targaryen’s abusive brother Viserys in Season 1 of HBO’s Game of Thrones. On a gut level, the two characters–Viserys Targaryen and Charles Xavier–couldn’t be more different. But the Xavier we met in Legion Season 3, Episode 3 was not the sage, fatherly Professor X portrayed by Patrick Stewart, or James McAvoy’s warm, easygoing version. Lloyd’s Charles is a bit more unhinged–David and Switch find him earlier in his journey, and like every character on Legion, Charles has good and bad qualities.
“One of my favorite things about Legion is that, having watched the X-Men films and seen McAvoy and Stewart on the screen–live-action portrayals of him–and the comics, [you see] things they all had in common,” Lloyd told journalists during the set visit. “But then you look at Legion, and you kind of–it gives you permission to kind of throw that all away, to a certain extent.”
Lloyd said he was offered the part of Professor X back in December 2018, but he didn’t immediately grasp exactly who he’d be playing. “The breakdown was: His name is Charles, he’s a war veteran that believes the good of humanity. I was like, hmmm, sounds about right,” Lloyd said. Later, while chatting with Hawley about the part, the showrunner casually dropped the name “Charles Xavier.”
“And I pretended that I knew,” Lloyd said. “Of course, I didn’t–I hadn’t pieced it together. But then, obviously, that made it even more exciting.”
He said working on Legion is collaborative, playful, and crazy, with plans and scripts sometimes changing on a dime when a bolt of inspiration strikes. Naturally, Legion’s Professor X couldn’t be the same version we’re used to.
“It’s such an irreverent, ridiculous show, and it’s surreal, so I didn’t feel that I had to be in debt to do the straitlaced Charles that we know,” Lloyd said. “The story that we’re telling doesn’t really allow for him to be always in control and very pope-like. He’s actually a young man, and he’s been thrown into his own story before he’s ready because of what’s happening in the future with David. So he’s actually quite lost for most of it. To play someone who is normally quite grounded and thoughtful and deliberate in his actions, to see him before he gets there, to see him as a young man, confused and doubtful and exploring his own powers…that’s been really fun.”
Episode 3 didn’t just introduce us to Professor X–we also met Gabrielle Haller, his wife and David’s mother. When Charles realizes that there’s someone out there with powers similar to his–Amahl Farouk, who will come to be known as the Shadow King, as Legion viewers well know–he leaves Gabrielle and baby David behind, abandoning them to what is ultimately a terrible fate.
“True to the comic style, you see them meet in the hospital, and then they fall in love, and they actually have a really beautiful love story,” Stephanie Corneliussen, who plays Gabrielle, told journalists during the set visit. “It’s very easy to fall in love with Harry Lloyd, I’ll say that much.”
“Professor X is a super important character for the whole universe, whether or not you’re kind of playing with your own alternate version. I mean, it’s Professor X!”
Corneliussen said Legion’s version of Gabrielle is very different from what’s in the source material, which shaped her goals for the character. “In the comic, you see this very strong side of Gabrielle Haller. She’s a powerhouse, she works for the embassy, she’s a lawyer, she’s in human rights,” the actress said. “Here you actually get to see the real, frail version of her, and when I read that that was what we were going at, for me, it was just important to make her a real person…For Marvel and for fans of Legion, I thought it was my job to try and give her real life.”
Corneliussen said they didn’t take the inclusion of these beloved characters lightly. “I feel like Noah [Hawley] made a point of going to depth with carving out these two characters,” she said. “Obviously, Professor X is a super important character for the whole universe, whether or not you’re kind of playing with your own alternate version. I mean, it’s Professor X! And I think they’re actually being done justice, for what it is. It’s a fun season, you know what I mean?”
For his part, Hawley said he was excited by the idea of showing Charles as a younger man than we’re used to seeing.
“I think my goal is to look at Charles Xavier as a father, and a new father at that–someone who falls in love under circumstances that echo his son’s love story, of meeting his love after the war in a sanitarium, and helping her get back to a healthy place,” the showrunner said. “And so the context of the story of Charles Xavier is really through that. It’s very early in his development of discovering his own powers and what he can do with it, and discovering that there are other people out there like him.”
Lauren Shuler Donner, who in addition to being executive producer on all three seasons of Legion has produced all the X-Men movies under Fox, told journalists she’s especially aware of how important the character is to fans. Doing Professor X in a way that fans don’t recognize–or worse, don’t like–could potentially be disastrous.
“I’m cognizant of his legacy,” Donner said. “Personally it’s kind of a thrill for me, because I remember the day on ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ when we had both Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy in the scene that Charles was in, and everybody was thrilled–not just James and Patrick. So, to me, it keeps the legacy going. It is within the canon to show a younger Charles, a young, naïve, just-finding-his-powers Charles. So I think it sort of finishes a story, a Charles Xavier story, at the right time, in that Fox is now moving to Disney and there’ll be a whole new iteration. So [these] universes have synced in a wonderful coincidence.”
Like Father, Like Son
Legion is, of course, centered not around Charles Xavier, but on his son, Dan Stevens’ David Haller. The two characters have plenty in common–not just their strong psychic powers, but also their tendency to act selfishly when presented with hard choices. David never knew his father, but he blames him for his lifelong problems–and not without reason. During the set visit, Stevens teased some of the duo’s future scenes.
“Those scenes that I have with him, you know, David playing opposite his father at a very similar age–it’s trippy stuff, and it’s a nice resolution to that relationship, I think,” Stevens said. “There’s a lot of confusion and hurt, obviously, in that direction, and so, yeah–there’s a few episodes towards the end where we see that sort of harmony and a discussion of that whole thing, which is really lovely.”
“Whenever Legion shows up, things get really weird, really quickly, and a lot of worlds are turned upside-down–sometimes literally.”
Legion has never really felt like an X-Men show. Tonally, aesthetically, and in every other way, it’s very different from the live-action X-Men movies that most fans are used to. Stevens said it’s nice to have Professor X in Legion’s final season, as the beloved character anchors the series to the main franchise in a way that hasn’t been done before.
“The bubble of Legion, I mean even in the comics, is quite tangential to a lot of the main X-Men narrative, and whenever Legion shows up, things get really weird, really quickly, and like, a lot of worlds are turned upside-down–sometimes literally. And we have always been quite comfortable in this sort of odd pocket, in a way,” Stevens said. “But it is nice to finally, in this three-season structure, to have this–I guess a string that ties our crazy balloon to the main raft of the X-men stories. I think that will be satisfying for people who know and love X-men and Legion.
“There are quite a few people who have watched this show who have no knowledge of the Marvel of it all, and hopefully that will make them curious, you know–might cause them to go and watch some other X-Men-y type things,” Stevens continued. “But yeah, I guess having surprised so many people with this sort of unique look and style of the show, to bring it back to that universe is quite fun.”
The fun promises to continue as Legion’s third and final season airs Mondays on FX.