The new Starz original series Camelot, expected to air in the Spring of 2011, is an epic period drama with a talented cast that includes Joseph Fiennes as Merlin, Eva Green as Morgan, Jamie Campbell Bower as Arthur and Tamsin Egerton as Guinevere. This 10-episode production takes a fresh approach to the powerful story of the legendary King Arthur, weaving it with the authenticity of the most classic medieval tale of all time.
During a recent interview, series star Joseph Fiennes and writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall talked about bringing this epic story to life in a fresh way, setting things up so that they can continue telling the story for multiple seasons and how being on Starz allows them to explore all aspects of the characters and story. Check out what they had to say after the jump:
Question: Chris, is this the Camelot from the sword in the stone to the death of Arthur, or is this taking the story in a different direction, so that there could be a Season 2?
CHRIS CHIBNALL: We have a grand plan, which if we get things right, I hope will allow for multiple seasons. We are telling the story of Camelot, using Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’ Arthur as our source and base material. We’re starting right from the birth of Arthur, and we’ll go through and try to tell the truth that lies behind the myth. If you or I were transplanted to the Dark Ages today, these are the events that could have contributed to these myths because myths grow, change and shift in the re-telling over time. What was interesting to me, when we were talking about Camelot, was excavating what it might be like to have lived then and how these stories might have come about. There is very much a sense of different versions of storytelling within our Camelot – who tells those stories, who creates them, who shifts them. Merlin is a great, big storyteller and strategist. So, we will start at the beginning, and we will make our way through.
Joseph, did you watch any other previous portrayals of Merlin, in developing this character?
JOSEPH FIENNES: I read a little bit. I trust Chris and the re-invention and the re-investigation of Arthur and Merlin. There are so many different renditions, vignettes and descriptions of Merlin, from France to Wales to Ireland to England, and they all have their own sensibility. I think what I’ve gone for is more of a warrior-monk, and less of the zen Obi-Wan that he might get to eventually. At this moment, he’s far more hands-on. He’s visceral. He can take care of himself. He probably won’t always draw on his powers. There’s a lovely sense within the script about power and the use of power, in terms of magic, for want of a better word, and the cost that that has on an individual. He’s weary of bringing a young man into such extraordinary potential and power through his guile and magic. It’s more wit and intelligence and the political that Merlin relies on rather than magicking him into power because that would be deceitful. He’s a wonderful character. He’s also on the cusp of a new religion from the pagan world that Merlin has come from. There’s this wave of Christianity, and there’s a war against that within him. He’s a great joker and trickster, and he’s got a duality about him. He’s never to be trusted. There’s so much range and fun. Ultimately, I’m having a ball and a blast with him because there are so many different colors and aspects with Merlin. There’s the dark and the light. It’s fun playing with that, as an actor, and it’s all there in the script, which makes it a wonderful platform and almost like a trampoline to play and discover. This year is about the discovery.
As Merlin, what sort of cool magic stuff do you get to work with?
FIENNES: Well, the great thing about the Camelot that Chris has reinvented and adapted is that the magic really lies in the political essence of the piece. Yes, there will be some dark arts, and we’ll see people changing shape and things disappearing, but over and above all of that, the real potent magic is the birth of the legend. I think of Merlin as a cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Donald Rumsfeld, in that there’s this very strong political agenda. I’m excited about where the power lies rather than slaying dragons and things like that.
CHIBNALL: Yes, the magic is very much a part of our storytelling and what powers Merlin has, how much he can control them how that plays into his character and who he is, is really part of the story that you will see in Camelot.
Chris, can you talk about how you assembled the rest of this cast?
CHIBNALL: That’s really the great joy of the series. We’ve got Eva Green doing her first television series. We’ve got a wonderful Arthur in Jamie Campbell Bower, who is a really terrific actor. We’ve got Tamsin Egerton as Guinevere. We’ve got some great guest stars coming in. We’ve got Fitz Regan, Sinéad Cusack and Sebastian Koch, from The Lives of Others. When it comes down to it, this is a show with an amazing ensemble, and my job is to keep feeding them and let them do great stuff. The caliber of acting in this show is something I’m really proud of and shall try and take as much credit for as possible, even though it’s down to the actors.
What role is James Purefoy playing in the series?
CHIBNALL: He is appearing as King Lot, who is one of the great warlord power brokers, when Arthur attempts to ascend to power, so you’ll see him from the first episode. He is one of the most fearsome villains I’ve seen on television and film for awhile. James absolutely jumped at the chance to do the show and has given us something really specific. He is a mean guy.
Being on Starz, how adult will this series be?
CHIBNALL: The great thing about Camelot is that it is an adult drama. You can talk about political pursuits, great agendas and a king bringing hope to a turbulent kingdom. The extraordinary thing in all the versions of Camelot and the Arthurian legend is that it’s all about the romance and the passion. It’s all about great ideals compromised by falling in love with the wrong person.
FIENNES: Sex gets in the way a lot.
CHIBNALL: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. It also helps a lot, to be fair. It’s an element of our storytelling because it’s part of our palettes. Also, we have some beautiful actors, so why not?
With the success of Spartacus on Starz, do you feel more pressure to have to deliver on the sex and violence?
CHIBNALL: No, I don’t feel that at all. I think my job is to deliver the best, most cinematic, rich, exciting, surprising and emotional version of Camelot.
FIENNES: I think it’s really important to say that it’s very much character-driven. Out of that, I’m sure there will be scenes of intimacy and scenes of violence, but underpinning that, there’s a very deep sense of character and narrative, which is a huge bedrock to this piece. I haven’t seen anything that’s just salacious or for the sake of a spicey moment. Everything is accurate and justified within the piece, and all the time is feeding back into the desires and needs of characters that are motivated and driven and serve the narrative.
CHIBNALL: I love Spartacus. I think it’s a genius show, but it’s very much its own show and we’re very much our own show. What we’re here to do is tell our story and to be our show. We have the parameters to go where we want, and that’s the great thing about working for Starz and the creative support we get from everybody there. There’s no brief to be of a particular style. It’s all about the storytelling.
Joseph, how do you feel about being back in historical mode after being in a contemporary show on TV with FlashForward?
FIENNES: I never really look at anything quite as a period drama. I tend to think that modern dramas often can date themselves incredibly quickly, and the essence of Camelot is deeply modern. Like with Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth, an audience can readily see a mirror image of their own society, whatever clothes they’re wearing. That’s neither here nor there. The modern thing is the human condition, the struggle, the complexities and the sex. Those are the things that never go out of date, and that’s where Chris and the team have hit this brilliantly. It translates itself to a modern audience. Though it’s set in the wonderful romance of that time and age, it’s not bogged down in period drama.
What’s the relationship between Merlin and Arthur? Is it the traditional one of mentor?
FIENNES: We’re bringing them in very young. Their relationship really is from when he was born, and Merlin takes the boy from the Queen, at that time, who’s married to Uther. He installs the baby with a man called Sir Ector, and Sir Ector educates him in a wonderful way and nurtures him without the blood lust of the warlord king that is his father. That’s where their relationship starts. And then, when he’s a young man, Uther is poisoned and that’s the time that Merlin brings him in. Merlin has pretty much designed this. There’s a contract between Merlin and Uther, that he could have the child when he comes of age, and that’s what puts him into power. Their relationship takes many different turns and shifts. He’s a tutor, a father figure and a brutal headmaster. He’s got to give this boy all of the tools to be king in a ruthless world, and he has to do it in a very short space of time, so there’s a lot of cruel to be kind. I also think there’s a great love and respect for what this boy goes through. He sacrifices a lot to take this position of king, and there’s a huge witness of that sacrifice for Merlin. A very special relationship emerges because of that.
What is Merlin’s relationship with Morgana in this?
FIENNES: They dance around the position of who’s going to be king of the hill, in terms of the negotiation and the attainment of power. We’ll see that dance play out historically. Morgana was the daughter of King Uther, who was the right-hand man. So, their relationship has history, and we’ll see exciting stuff develop between the two of them, and see who feels they should have that position of power.
CHIBNALL: Yeah, there’s going to be a lot of contact between Merlin and Morgan, which is what we call her. There are going to be a lot of battles. It’s a story of a guy and his half-sister, who both have equal claims to the crown, throne and the realm. She’s denied because she’s a woman, so Merlin brings Arthur to the crown and she’s going to resent Merlin’s actions, which will play out through the season. They will have a lot to do with each other because putting Joe with Eva on screen is one of the great joys of this show.
Chris, why did you decide to shoot this in Ireland?
CHIBNALL: The project originated out of Ireland, really. Michael Hirst had the original idea for Camelot, coming off the success of The Tudors, and I came in and took it over as the writer and show-runner, so it was attached to Ireland. It’s like the country has been waiting for Camelot to be there because the landscapes are perfect for the Dark Ages. It couldn’t be a better place. I love the visual world of Spartacus. The vision of that world is so coherent, beautiful and extraordinary. For us, it was about making sure that Camelot had its own world and felt like you’d been plunked down in the middle of the Dark Ages. It’s going to feel very real and very authentic. The landscapes are just perfect for the show.
Is Merlin also somewhat villainous?
FIENNES: I think that’s up for interpretation. There’s a duality with Merlin. Essentially, he’s for the good, but he fights fire with fire. He drives out a nail with another nail. He doesn’t turn the other cheek. I don’t think Merlin is a villain, but I think he’s complex and far from driven snow. He’s full of Machiavellian machinations, and he’s brilliant at getting the people to believe what he thinks they should believe to coerce them into a vote which carries forward what he wants to happen.
Joseph, was your experience with FlashForward and its cancellation ultimately satisfying or disillusioning?
FIENNES: I felt like I went through a series of black-outs for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, woke up and the whole landscape had changed again, and here I was in a Celtic countryside. It’s topsy-turvy world, isn’t it? It’s exciting and exhilarating. I’m passionate and loved my time with FlashForward and all the wonderful people I met with and worked with there. It was hugely ambitious and sad, but being taken off air for so long, we didn’t find our feet. And then, the upside is that I’m working with Chris and Starz on a really phenomenal series which I think will knock people sideways. It’s a beautiful, riveting, romantic, sensational epic story that has never been told, and I think television is a wonderful medium for that. I love television and the fact that it can explore in ways that film just can’t do because film is structured to a particular arc and time frame. The liberation of television, and certainly with Camelot, allows you to really get into the meat of an amazing story, bring it to life and breathe life into it. The other renditions have been fractured. No one has ever done the full impact. Starz has been brilliant and brave in realizing it in this form. I’m loving the fact that there are no commercial breaks. I love that we’re free of that. It is cinematic and it can fulfill that kind of syntax and architecture of film, and I find that wildly exciting. I come from film and I love film, but the hybrid that Starz has is really exciting because you get to investigate for long periods of time. You’re not interrupted relentlessly. It’s not all about depending on advertisers. We’re free to deliver stuff at high quality for an audience that doesn’t need to be interrupted or patronized with commercial breaks. I love that purity, and what that allows us as creators.