It has been eight long years since Attack the Block invaded theaters, and its fans have waited for Joe Cornish‘s next film ever since. I was as surprised as anyone when it was announced that Cornish would direct a children’s film about the Knights of the Roundtable as his long-delayed sophomore project, and when the trailers for The Kid Who Would Be King finally arrived last fall, I was more than a little skeptical. However, I felt strongly that Cornish deserved the benefit of the doubt thanks to his first film, and to be completely honest, I asked to see his latest film planning to profile one of its younger cast members. After all, the last time Cornish directed a movie, he inadvertently discovered the new lead of the Star Wars franchise in John Boyega. This time around, Cornish cast Andy Serkis‘ talented son, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, as his young lead. Serkis plays Alex, who along with his loyal best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), is bullied at school by Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). This quartet eventually bands together à la Arthur, Bedivere, Lancelot and Kay, and while all four young actors are quite good together, it’s English actor Angus Imrie who stands out as Young Merlin. Imrie practically leaps off the screen and I was so smitten with his scene-stealing performance that I simply had to name him Collider’s Up-and-Comer of the Month.
It’s hard to take your eyes off Imrie’s spritely, puckish turn as the shape-shifting wizard. He’s got long limbs and a neck like a giraffe, and he uses that physicality to his advantage. Patrick Stewart plays the older version of Merlin and brings his trademark gravitas to the role, but Imrie is no slouch in that regard. In sharing the iconic character with Stewart, he rises to the occasion. I’m certainly not alone in that opinion. Collider’s own Matt Goldberg called The Kid Who Would Be King “a lovely spin on King Arthur for the Brexit age” and wrote that Imrie gave “a scene-stealing performance,” while The Playlist’s Kevin Jagernauth deemed the film an “inspiring, instant classic” and said Imrie delivers a “hilarious, star-making and charming turn.”
Imrie grew up in a family of performers, as his mother is acclaimed actress Celia Imrie, a theater legend who played Fighter Pilot Bravo 5 in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and his father is the late Benjamin Whitrow, who earned a BAFTA TV nomination for his turn as Mr. Bennet in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and last appeared onscreen in The Darkest Hour. You could say he was destined for a career in front of the camera, but that would discount the years of hard work that Imrie has put into his craft. Regardless of where you fall on The Kid Who Would Be King overall, there’s no denying what Imrie brings to the table as Young Merlin. He breathes new life into an ancient character, and even though Merlin is a little silly, the actor makes both the audience and his fellow characters take him completely seriously. I expect him to land U.S. representation shortly after the film hits theaters, and suspect that Imrie has a very bright future ahead of him. Enjoy our chat. I know I did…
Collider: What sparked your passion for acting and made you want to follow your parents into this crazy business?
Angus Imrie: Well, the thing is, when I was growing up and fell in love with acting, I never really associated it with what my parents did, because what they do is a job and everything, and it was on film sets. It was very different from when I found the love for performing in stuff at school, and it was really just doing stuff for an audience and getting that immediate response, where you think, “oh my God, so many people think I’m alright at this” that was so exciting. It was only later on that I suddenly went, “well, I suppose we share a passion” and it became something that was really wonderful to be able to share with my parents. But it was only after having discovered it independently.
So tell me how you were cast as Young Merlin and how Joe discovered you for the role. Did you have to read with Louis and Dean and the others?
Imrie: I did. I was at drama school at the time, and a little bit of the script came through and I immediately thought that the character was something I really relished the idea of playing. I only had a little bit [of the script], but I managed to fashion a school uniform together. I remember raiding parts of the drama school’s costume department to get some decent shoes, and I rolled up some trousers so that I kind of looked like a wizard who has just come from the ether and managed to find some bits of school uniform, and I turned up in that so that I could try to find something of the character.
I remember we had done the scene in the chicken shop -‘- that was the first audition scene. And Joe gave me a packet of crisps and he said, eat these as fast as you can whilst you do the scene.” Of course, by that point, I’d done it a couple of times, and all he cared about was eating the crisps. That was the last thing, and I remember going home feeling terrible. He said “you can keep the crisps,” which I suppose might’ve been a good sign. And then after that, there were a couple of other times where I got together with the rest of the cast, which was so brilliant because I could really see them being put together perfectly and see how it all made sense for them to be cast. They’re very much a foursome, and Merlin is the outsider, so it was amazing to sort of be slightly on the outside and see that Dean, Rhianna, Tom, and Louis were all so perfect as a [group of] four.
Louis came on quite late in the audition process, and Joe asked me to do some improvisation with him. We had never met, and suddenly we were doing this improv scene, and I don’t think he’d even read the script, but we were almost trying to talk to him as Alex, because really, he was the new king to lead Britain and he drew Excalibur out of the stone and everything. And that was just brilliant, because he was phenomenal straight away, despite the fact that he didn’t really know as much as some of the other people in the room and by that point, I’d read the whole script. He was immediately on board and he was fantastic.
Had you already seen Attack the Block before you were cast? Were you aware of the magnitude of being cast in Joe Cornish’s follow-up to that beloved movie?
Imrie: I had no idea. No idea. It was only once I’d been cast that I watched Attack the Block, and I watched it several times after that because I thought it was so brilliant. Which actually, I think, was probably a good thing, because I might’ve been a bit more nervous going in. As it happened, I just fell in love with the script, and I thought that the way that the whole arc of the story is told was so brilliant. I remember reading it in a cafe on my phone as I was about to go in for a costume fitting for another job, and just not being able to leave the cafe. I think I ended up being late for my next appointment because I just had to keep reading the script. So actually, that was quite nice that I was less informed about Joe’s other work but then fell in love with it having been cast.
One thing that really stuck out for was your height and physicality, which are only emphasized since you’re surrounded by children. Can you talk about using your size to your advantage on camera, and also where Merlin’s elaborate hand gestures came from. Were those movements something you developed with Joe, or did he have that in mind already?
Imrie: I think the important thing for Merlin is that, in so many ways, and particularly in his body, he’s a fish out of water. He’s not in with the norms of contemporary society. We had this narrative that he pops up at certain moments in history when he’s really needed. But he can kind of disappear into the ether, and then he can reappear through Stonehenge. So he’s kind of an amalgamation of all sorts of different eras, but the main thing is that he’s of the elements, so he’s really connected to the earth and the air and fire and water, and that’s how he performs his magic, by bringing them all together in the right alchemy. Therefore, his physical language and the way that he moves has to be very free. He doesn’t give a damn about anything that people think about how he moves or anything, so I was determined to make sure I used my whole body and my height for that, and be proud of it, rather than any kind of contemporary shrinking of it, if that makes sense.
And the hand gestures they came up with… my brilliant hand movement coach Jennifer White and I, we developed them together. And Joe would pop in every now and then, and we might’ve been working on them for the whole day, and he’d say ‘No, no, no, that’s rubbish, it’s gotta be more like this’ and do some kind of weird impression, and then we’d have to go back and rework the entire thing. But he was right to be so specific, because he wanted it to be kind of inelegant and have that snap-crackle-pop element to it with noises, but it also had to be very, very specific, and hopefully every spell would be specific to what Merlin is doing, so you couldn’t have metal duplicationers open the portal. They’re very much married to the specific thing he’s trying to achieve. It was a mixture of us — me and Jen — working at length together, and then Joe coming in and lampooning it all, saying, “yup, that one’s good, we can work on that.”
We’ve seen The Sword and the Stone and the legends of Arthur and Merlin many times before on screen, but never quite like this. What’s the biggest difference between this film and all of those other takes?
Imrie: I think putting it in a modern context is just a stroke of genius. I think that it’s such a magnificent tale, and the image of the Knights of the Roundtable is something that will always be a powerful image. The story of Arthur, the legend of Arthur… there’s a reason that these stories get retold. But to put it in a modern context suddenly makes the audience put themselves in the shoes of Alex, or the other characters, and long for the possibility of that legend happening to them. I think that the great secret [of this film] is it can be funny, because you have the marrying of the old and the new, but you also have that thing where an audience go could, ‘my God, this could happen to me!’ and a legend that seemed so long ago is suddenly brought into your own life as a viewer.
Patrick Stewart plays the older Merlin, so while you don’t really get to share any scenes with him, you’re still sharing the character with him. Did you pick up any tips from watching him work, or have any funny interactions with him?
Imrie: Definitely. It was such a privilege to share a part with him. He’s an absolute gentleman, and just the most superb actor. When occasionally we’d sneeze and then I’d have to pop out of the scene and he’d take over, and then I’d just stay behind the lens to watch him work. It was fun to be able to watch each other work and try, in little ways, to emulate one another, and trust that that was happening anyway. When we first met, we stood together physically, and we don’t look alike in many respects, but somehow through the process of filming [when he turns into Merlin] it suddenly made total sense and I think our performances were kind of able to meet in some ways.
He’s just an endlessly fascinating man, and constantly reading, and having interesting things to say about all kinds of subjects. He’s just such a gracious gentleman. He came on later and we’d been working on the scenes for a while, so Joe invited him to come and see what we’d been working on, and he came into the studio where we were shooting and sat down in a chair, and we performed it like a piece of theater to him. It was like he was at a matinee. And that was quite scary to have to perform the character we were both sharing to Patrick Stewart. But he was very gracious and really, really lovely.
Are there any actors you admire, or whose careers you’d like to emulate?
Imrie: There are several. Mark Rylance is one of my great heroes. He’s been a fantastic theater actor for many years, and probably not as well known as he is now after working with Steven Spielberg, but I’ve seen him in the theater several times and I think he’s absolutely superb.
Any directors you’re eager to work with?
Imrie: There are lots, but the one I suppose springs to mind in film is Paul Thomas Anderson. His films are mysterious and strange and I love the way that they all seem to have a strange twist at the end that kind of subverts your whole understanding of the film up until to that point. I love their pacing, and I think the way that he takes very different subject matters and projects each time is really inspiring for a director.
What has been the biggest pinch-me moment of your career thus far?
Imrie: There was a day on the shoot of Kid where we were doing the big face-off with Morgana on the rooftop of the school, and Rebecca Ferguson and Patrick were there, and they had their encounter, and I remember being part of that trio, we were all working together with Joe in rehearsals, and Patrick was in a leather jacket and Rebecca had just started to put on some of her prosthetics, and I just couldn’t believe that I was one of those three at this climax of the film. I really loved that moment, it just got me very excited for the day that was to come.
What can we expect from your role in the Starz series The Spanish Princess?
Imrie: I play Prince Arthur. The Spanish Princess is great because it’s based in part on the Philippa Gregory novels, and they are really interesting because they tell history from a woman’s perspective, a perspective that isn’t normally seen or read about. It’s generally from the King’s perspective or whatever. It’s about Catherine of Aragon and how she first came over to England and was betrothed to Prince Arthur when they were both infants, really. Since they were both children. And she married Prince Arthur first, and then he died and then the rest, of course, is when she then married Henry the 8th and the whole history of that, which is more well-known, came about. But before that, it was a uniting of two huge Catholic powers — Spain and England at the time — and it was so important for both countries that this alliance was made, but when Prince Arthur died, suddenly she’s left a widow in England, not knowing what to do. So it tells her story, really, but first of all, my character Prince Arthur and how she married him and whether or nor they consummated their marriage, which is a big thing later on. It should be really good, I hope. If people look it up in the history books they’ll find out that I died, but don’t look it up if you don’t want a spoiler.
What was your favorite film of last year?
Imrie: The one that springs out is Paddington 2. I absolutely loved that film, and I hadn’t seen the first one. It was one of the things I went to see in cinema, and I just had the best time ever. I saw the first one after and I think this was better.
I noticed you don’t currently have any U.S. representation, so is signing with a U.S. agent or manager in your plans?
Imrie: It may well be. Let’s see what happens with the film. We’ll keep our fingers crossed and see what happens.
What’s next for you, Angus?
Imrie: I’ve got some things in the pipeline but they haven’t been confirmed yet so I can’t really talk about them, but one of the other things I just did was the second series of Fleabag, from Phoebe Waller-Bridge the lady who wrote Killing Eve. It’s her sitcom in the U.K. and I’m really excited about that.