From show creator Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), the FX drama series The Bastard Executioner tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a 14th century warrior whose life is forever changed when he must lay down his sword and lead the life of a journeyman executioner. Set in northern Wales, the medieval epic sees Wilkin searching for his greater purpose while being guided by the mystical healer Annora (Katey Sagal).
During this exclusive interview with Collider, Aussie actor Lee Jones talked about his ultra quick audition process, being a part of telling such an epic tale, taking things one scene at a time, making sure it all feels as real as possible, that a lot of the story arc is still a mystery to him, and whether any of the characters can be trusted. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Collider: How did you come to this project? Did you go through an audition process?
LEE JONES: I auditioned. I put down a tape in L.A., and then got flown to London for an audition. It was all very last minute and quick and crazy. I got off the plane, did the audition, and got the job the next day. I went straight into horse riding training, sword fighting training, got a wig made, and everything. And then, I had to come back for a few days, pack up my life, and go back to the UK to do the pilot.
What is your acting background, and had you been actively looking to do an American TV series?
JONES: I’m from Australia and I’ve done mainly theater. I went to drama school for three years in Australia. I’d been coming back and forth to L.A. for about two years, and I was chipping away with lots of auditions. This one found me, but I’ve been chipping away for a long time.
Well, if you were going to do a TV show, you certainly jumped all in with this one.
JONES: It’s definitely epic in scale, which is great. And with that, there’s a nice balance with being very true and real and human. It’s an actor’s dream, with the full spectrum of emotions and experience. It’s a whole new skill set with horse riding and the sword fighting. I’ve done a lot of classical text before, but Kurt [Sutter] has done an amazing job with creating the language of the time. It’s very particular to him. It’s just slightly heightened, but not unreal, so we can tap into it.
Had you been familiar with Kurt Sutter’s work and Sons of Anarchy?
JONES: I knew the success of Sons of Anarchy, but I hadn’t seen much of it, at all. Consequently, since then, I’ve been digging into that and it’s amazing.
With the success that Sons of Anarchy was, and with what that did for Charlie Hunnam’s career, does that make this seem daunting, at all?
JONES: I’m so busy doing this that I literally have to just take it one scene at a time. But of course, it was like being shot out of a canon, for sure, the way it happened so fast. Sometimes you can over prepare and get in your head about it. I’m just focusing on the job.
This story is set in a very different time period, but it still feels very universal and relatable. Is that something that was important to you?
JONES: They wanted it to feel as real as possible. It is a different accent that I’m using in the show because I’m Australian and the character is English. But the most important thing is that it sounds like me and it feels like me. It is predominantly about that human element. He’s a man who is a very spiritual man. He’s trying to escape violence and trying to escape a dark past, and a lot of people can relate to that.
When you delve into a time period like this, does it make you very appreciative of the time period that you live in now?
JONES: Oh, of course! Every day was life and death. It’s great filming in Wales, actually, because there is so much history in the landscape there that you feel like you are living in that world, in a way. Being away from home and doing the job is helpful.
Were you fully prepared for just how physically and emotionally demanding this would be?
JONES: I knew what I was getting myself into, for sure. I played Frankenstein’s monster for seven months, and that was a very dark, tortured place to be in, so I know what it’s like to live with something this dark and how much work it takes.
Have you had conversations with Kurt Sutter about what this full arc and journey will be, or do you just work with each script as it comes?
JONES: I go with the flow, but I do know some things that are going to develop. We’re growing together, all of the cast, and Kurt is listening to what we do and shaping things off of that. A lot of it is still a mystery to me, in terms of where it’s going.
When you have a background in theater, where you know the full story that you’re telling on stage, did you have to adjust to not really knowing what comes next?
JONES: I did. It’s been a good lesson in just staying present and trusting your instincts. It’s helpful because you don’t endgame. You just have to play what’s happening now. Also, there’s so much weight, in terms of the history of the characters that we’re carrying. There’s a lot of depth to explore.
What can you say about who Wilkin Brattle is when we meet him?
JONES: He was a knight of Edward I, and he had a divine awakening. He’s looking for a higher purpose and he’s trying to escape a violent life. We meet him when he’s living a simple farmer’s life. He’s looking for a higher purpose in life and finds that he has to go back into a violent life, in order to fulfill that and survive.
He goes through something really horrific and that’s such a horrible tragedy. How difficult were those scenes to film?
JONES: Oh, it hits you, especially when they’ve built an entire village and you see what happens to everything. It’s so real. That was very helpful. It was challenging, but those kinds of scenes are ultimately pretty fun to play. To go to that dark side is good fun.
After what happens to him, this guy is clearly very motivated by revenge. Can he get through this and come out the other side of it as a whole person? Have you thought about what an experience like this would do to someone and how you could even survive it?
JONES: He has to. At the end of the day, what he’s trying to do is survive and seek vengeance. But it is breaking him, in the meantime.
He struggles with becoming the executioner and starts to have visions. Will that continue to happen?
JONES: Perhaps, yeah. I guess, in that moment, he’s getting the strength to continue and do what he has to do. I think about it as almost like his version of prayer. He doesn’t know what to trust. He’s so wracked with guilt. There are all sorts of mind games going on.
There are two sides to this guy, with who he really is and who he’s pretending to be now. Will he continue to fight between the two, or will there be a point where who he’s pretending to be will have to become who he is?
JONES: He’s trying desperately to hold onto who he is. Whether he succeeds or not, I don’t know. I really don’t.
Is there anyone that he can really rely on and trust, in this new place that he finds himself in?
JONES: He has Annora, who is Katey Sagal’s character. She is guiding him in a very strong way to find that higher calling. I think she’s increasingly becoming somebody that he can trust. He starts out very, very suspicious of her. He’s skeptical because she’s Pagan and he’s Christian. But I think the fact that she sees what he sees, in a way, that allows for a development of trust.
What’s it been like to work with Katey Sagal?
JONES: It’s great. We’re all finding it together. It feels very much like an ensemble. When we’re working, it’s incredible. But, Katey is great. We really lock in when we’re working together. It’s nice.
What can you say about the relationship between Wilkin and Milus Corbett (Stephen Moyer)?
JONES: They get deeper and deeper into the lies that they’re both covering up. There’s a power struggle there. They could both do serious damage to each other, in this situation, but right now, Corbett has all the power. It’s a very dangerous situation.
The Bastard Executioner airs on Tuesday nights on FX, starting on September 15th.