The fantasy-adventure series Atlantis, currently airing on Saturday nights on BBC America, brings the iconic lost city to life, re-imagined for a new generation. When Jason (Jack Donnelly) sets out to find his father, his journey leads him to a strange, yet impossibly familiar land full of dangerous creatures, legendary heroes and palaces so vast it was said they were built by giants. While there, Jason is befriended by an overweight, overly-confident Hercules (Mark Addy) and the studious young Pythagoras (Robert Emms), comes face-to-face with the fearsome Minotaur, does battle with the dead, meets a sweet girl named Medusa (Jemima Rooper), and catches the eye of the beautiful Ariadne (Aiysha Hart), the princess of Atlantis whose family and royal standing restricts who she may love.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actress Jemima Rooper (who plays “Medusa”) and co-creators Johnny Capps and Howard Overman talked about what made them want to tackle the story of Atlantis, taking a revisionist approach to their storytelling, telling the origins of the characters from Greek mythology, the challenges of making this show on a limited TV budget, giving a real scale to the look of the show, and the biggest threats and villains this season. Rooper also talked about how the TV series Hex (for which Capps was also executive producer and which starred Michael Fassbender), was one of her most favorite jobs in her career. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
JOHNNY CAPPS: We love shows that are based around interesting mythologies. We all worked together on Merlin, and we loved that mythology. When Merlin was coming to an end, we were thinking about what other interesting mythologies there were to explore. Greek mythology was something that always fascinated me and Julian [Murphy], and we’d always talked about how you could realize that. Howard also liked that area. We thought it was very rich to explore, but we couldn’t really find a way of making it work. We thought long and hard about it, over a long time, and then we quite liked the idea of finding a precinct, as a land to set it in. We knew that Atlantis is a word that everybody recognizes and it brings emotional reactions because most people know what Atlantis is. We just thought we could set Greek myths in a world called Atlantis. That was our starting point, really. And then, it was all about creating characters and finding out what characters worked in that world. We wanted to reinterpret Greek mythology in a fresh way, for the 21st century audience, and just play around with it and make it an interesting springboard into discussions for other people. We play fast and loose with Greek mythology, so I’m sure Greek scholars will be horrified. But at the same time, I think they’ll love the fact that we’re making people question it and talk about it. So, the next stage in the development was deciding whether we wanted to follow one particular character, or whether we wanted to follow a group of characters. We were keen on it being a gang show, following three interesting characters, rather than on Merlin, which was really just about following Merlin and his destiny. With this, there are three fully-rounded characters. They’re a dysfunctional family, and we’re following them.
HOWARD OVERMAN: It’s taking a revisionist approach to it, where you meet the characters of legend before they become the people in those legends. You meet Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts, but it’s before he’s got the Argonauts. You’re meeting people before they become the more familiar figure. For example, you meet Medusa when she’s just a girl, but you know, at some point, she’s going to turn into the creature of myth. Hopefully, the audience will fall in love with her by the time she turns. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.
CAPPS: It was important that we did the prequel of some legends, but then also reinterpreted legends, in our own way. With our three key characters, one of them is Hercules, but he’s not the strong man of legend. He’s this guy who drinks too much, gambles too much and sleeps with too many women, but is utterly charming and tells great stories. Through the length of the series, he’ll create the myth of Hercules, but he’s never done anything heroic in his life. He’s just a bit of a charming gambler who’s very good at spinning the truth. In Atlantis, we have these great mythological names that mean so much to people, and we just have fun with the concept of that. When Jason comes to Atlantis, the other person he meets is this young guy who’s brilliant at math and obsessed with triangles, and he’s called Pythagoras. He’s the geeky friend of Jason, and he’s a great foil to Hercules, but he’s the reasonable one who’s always inventing things and helping the guys get out of trouble. And our key character Jason, the young hero, is part Theseus, part Perseus, and part Jason and the Argonauts. We’ve taken all of the principles of those three characters and liquidized them together. At the beginning of the story, we started in modern day and you learn that Jason’s dad disappeared at sea, and Jason is longing to find out what happened to his father. You get the sense that he doesn’t belong in this world and that he’s searching for something. And then, he goes down in a submarine and the submarine crashes, and he wakes up on this beach and he’s arrived in Atlantis. For us, that was a nice way to tip a wing to the whole Perseus legend, but also bringing somebody into the world of Atlantis with fresh eyes, that can question it like we do, as an audience.
Jemima, when you read a script like this, did you wonder how you were going to take on a character like Medusa?
JEMIMA ROOPER: Yeah, absolutely! It’s a name that conjures up so many expectations. But then, I started reading it and it was the absolute opposite. I was expecting snakes and evil, and all that kind of stuff, but it was a really human, sweet story. That was really intriguing, to get to start from scratch with a character that, even in the myths, we don’t know anything about who they were before. It’s just really exciting. It’s really fun to be able to create a journey for such an iconic character, and hope that you make it even more so. I want to flesh out the character and show a different side and play with the audience’s expectations.
Who is Medusa, at this point?
ROOPER: When we meet her, she’s new to Atlantis, herself, and is just trying to fit in. She looks like everyone else and is unassuming. She’s trying to make a life for herself. And then, her fate is decreed and things start changing.
CAPPS: The interesting thing is that, when Jason meets Medusa, of course, he recognizes the name. He’s not a scholar of Greek mythology, but he knows all is not good. He asks Pythagoras, “Is Medusa a common name?” He knows that something is gonna happen, at some point. It’s just a case of when and where, and not if.
ROOPER: It’s exciting, as an actor, to begin a journey and not know how everything is gonna unfold, what it’s gonna be like, and when it’s gonna happen. You just surrender to it and go along with it. There have been so many complex, surprising elements, as we get the episodes. A good sign is when your actors are getting really excited about getting new scripts and seeing the stories, and that’s very much the case with this show.
Jemima, did it help to know that this show was in the hands of the creators of Merlin, so that you could trust that they knew how to make a show like this look good?
ROOPER: Absolutely! I’ve worked with Johnny Capps a lot. He’s known me for a very long time, and I’m a big fan of Howard’s work. That helps, when you’re receiving material and thinking about taking on a job, but you never really know. But yes, the production values of something like Merlin were very encouraging. British tele doesn’t have the budget, but we aspire to make this kind of beautiful television that is made in the U.S., and these guys know how to do that.
CAPPS: Even as the creators, you don’t know until you see it on camera. We’re filming half in Wales and half in Morocco. Our street sets are in a warehouse in Wales, and we’re filming on the streets in Morocco. At some point, the two have to be put together, and it’s a nervous moment where you’re thinking, “Is this going to look okay?” When I was first sent the cut-together street scenes, you couldn’t see where it was the set and where it was Morocco, and that’s a huge relief. That’s a testament to the set designers and everyone who works on the sets.
OVERMAN: I think that was the biggest challenge of this show. With Merlin, it was very straightforward. People’s consciousness are very aware of the medieval world, and knights and armor. People will buy into that world quite easily. You don’t have to work visually too hard with that. With Atlantis, we were creating a new world that has to feel real to an audience, so our attention to detail was a lot more than it was on Merlin. We had to have an absolute reality. We spent the first four weeks of the shoot just paying attention to every small little detail, and wanting to make the world feel very real and visceral. At the same time, you don’t want to alienate an audience. You want an audience to love that world and want to be a part of it. That was the biggest production challenge, to make it feel real, but at the same time, aspirational.
ROOPER: They had to make it look hot when we were in freezing British weather. We were all sweaty and dirty, and we didn’t get to wear enough make-up, in my opinion. It’s really thrilling. It’s really nice. It was the right decision because it feels real. I was worried that we’d get on set and it would be a lot of standing in a green box and acting with things that aren’t there. But actually, for the most part, it’s all there. These incredible things are built around us, and that’s really exciting. It always looks better.
CAPPS: There was a real visual ambition for this show. We wanted to feel like mini action-adventure movies, each week. There are good characters arcs for our regular characters, but each week, there’s a story of the week with a beginning, middle and end. The whole idea is to treat our audience, each week, to a great mini action-adventure movie. The other thing we were obsessed about, with the look of the show, was to give it real scale and to make the sets feel really big and have vast, sweeping countrysides. Scale was really important to us. I think that’s what Game of Thrones did so brilliantly, especially in Season 2, with those vast, sweeping landscapes and big castles. It was important for us to make the world of Atlantis this big city. We built two big, massive green screen sets, one of which we shoot all the massive interiors in. We have the temple at Poseidon, which is this huge, beautiful temple. Those things give our show a filmic, epic scale, which was really important to us.
How did you approach casting character like these? Did you have some idea of what you wanted each of these characters to look like?
CAPPS: We’ve cast a lot of shows now. You have a feeling for the type of actor you want. We never go, “Oh, they need to look like this.” Especially when you’re looking for young actors, you just have to audition a lot of people and get them to read scenes, so that you can get a sense of who works and who doesn’t work. With Atlantis, Jason was the hardest part to cast because you’re looking for an actor that’s good with action, who’s likeable, who’s got humor, and who also is an Alpha male hero. Finding actors that have all of those things together and are likeable is very difficult to find. So, you just keep bringing actors in, again and again, and re-auditioning them. Young actors can sometimes do a really bad audition, but you know they’ve got something. The hardest thing, always, is casting and getting the chemistry right.
OVERMAN: Jason was tough, but Pythagoras was the front runner. It really varies. It can be an absolute nightmare to find the right person. Other times, someone walks in on the first day and you think, “Call off the search. This is our guy.”
CAPPS: And Robert Emms, who plays Pythagoras, came in very early. I remember watching one of his screen tests and thinking, “He’s perfect.” And then, when I met him, he was great. He’s an amazing actor. He’s done a lot of theater. He hasn’t done a massive amount of television, but he had all the essential qualities we wanted for that character. He hit the nail on the head, straight away. But, Jason was a lot harder. It’s such a demanding part. If you cast that part wrong, then the show will never work. It’s always quite a stressful process. You go right up to the wire, but you just have to keep on looking and looking and re-looking at people. We’re lucky. I think we struck gold with all three of our main characters.
ROOPER: I adore working with all three of them. They’re a really amazing unit, and they’re completely different. Mark Addy, who plays Hercules, is obviously quite a lot older than the two boys, but the three of them together are just joyous. It’s really fun. I even moved hotels to be nearer to them, so that we can go for dinner all the time. It’s so nice hanging out with them. Their chemistry is fantastic.
CAPPS: They’re great, and they work incredibly hard and really well together. When you’re casting people, you hope that there’s going to be chemistry there. You read them together, but you can only rely on your instincts. It wasn’t really until we started rehearsing with them and did the read-through that we really got a sense of how they would play all the scenes together. We were lucky that they leapt off the page.
OVERMAN: And then, you get to the point where you see them, when you’re watching the episodes, and you just can’t imagine anyone else in their parts. That’s when you know they’re right. To think of someone else doing it is just totally wrong, and they become that person. You’re writing all of the scripts before it’s cast, and then you see them and you think, “That’s perfect. That’s what I had in my mind.”
Were you able to adapt the writing to the actors, once you saw them playing the scenes together, or were the scripts pretty much locked?
CAPPS: You don’t change the writing that much. It just becomes easier, once you’ve got them cast because you can see them. When you’re writing without the cast, you see the perfect version in your head, but when I do it, they’ve got strangely blank faces. You also know what type of lines they can deliver well, in terms of comedy, and what type of comedy works with each character. You refine, as you go along, but you don’t make massive changes.
OVERMAN: The key is that our show has a really strong heart. Our three guys are this dysfunctional family that you really care about. For us, it was that warmth and that humor, and the banter. The stories go quite dark, so you always need that counter-balance with humor. And it was clear, early on, that they were getting the comedy, so in writing it, you can be more confident about how much you can push the comedy and the fun of it. That was good.
What would you say are the biggest threats and villains in this story?
CAPPS: I think there are lots of different threats that come in and out, but the present threat is King Minos and Queen Pasiphae. They’re the villains. As the first episode unfolds, you realize that Pasiphae is the person that’s controlling the king. She’s the Lady Macbeth to Minos’ Macbeth.
OVERMAN: You originally think Minos is this tyrannical king, but we slowly reveal that she’s the real power and she’s really running the kingdom, and he is, to a certain extent, at her beck-and-call. She will do anything to maintain her grip on the throne.
CAPPS: Through the first season, she’s quite a big threat to our three heroes. But, there are other people that come in and out, from Greek mythology, that serve as threats to our heroes, as well. The unfolding story of how Pasiphae got into power, over the first season, you learn what she did, and that comes back to haunt her.
Jemima, now that it’s been almost 10 years since Hex premiered, are you surprised at how much people still seem to love that show?
ROOPER: In the very long time that I’ve been working, it has been one of my most favorite parts and most favorite jobs. I was working in New York last year for six months, in a stage play, and people that I was working with and the crew had all watched Hex. People would come to the stage door and they didn’t even know the lead guy very well, but they had watched Hex. I love it! It’s really nice. It’s nice that it’s had a few lives, and it hasn’t just disappeared.
CAPPS: We never thought it would last as long as it has. It’s extraordinary that it’s still playing. It’s brilliant! We should have made more of it.
It also can’t hurt that Michael Fassbender is now the very much adored Michael Fassbender.
CAPPS: His career has gone downhill, hasn’t it?! He never worked again! Yeah, he’s done quite well, hasn’t he?!
Atlantis airs on Saturday nights on BBC America.