The new BBC America eight-part drama series The Last Kingdom is a story of redemption, vengeance and self-discovery set against the birth of England, and it follows young warrior and outsider Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), who is on a fierce mission to reclaim his birthright. After his father is killed and he is taken by the Danish warlord Earl Ragnar (Peter Gantzler), he is brought up in a Danish camp, along with fellow captive orphan Brida (Emily Cox), as he develops into a young warrior. Finding himself caught in the middle of a bloody feud between rival Danes, Uhtred’s loyalties are tested as he is forced to choose between the country of his birth and the people of his upbringing.
During a recent panel interview and an exclusive sit-down with Collider, The Last Kingdom cast members Alexander Dreymon, Emily Cox, David Dawson (“King Alfred”) and Rune Temte (“Ubba”) were joined by executive producer Gareth Neame to talk about what drew them to this project, the realistic approach to the shoot, knowing the journey their characters would be taking, balancing history with fiction, what sets this show apart from Game of Thrones and Vikings, and how the story is set up as a continuing series.
Question: As actors, what was it that drew you to this project and to your character?
ALEXANDER DREYMON: My issue was pounding down the door to get the character. I was really excited about this character and about the material. I loved the writing, but I was also excited about the concept of how we were going to shoot it in that gritty documentary style. That reality thing really got me going. That’s the way I love working and it’s paid off. It was everything I expected it to be.
DAVID DAWSON: I had never worked on anything of this scale, and I couldn’t wait to get up every morning and go to work. The design of this was stunning. They actually built where Alfred lives in the palace in the city of Winchester. They built a city, which I thought was incredible. There was no imagination needed from an actor’s point of view because we were working on a three-dimensional set. Every character is so rich. I took one look at this character and thought, “I’ve got to play him.” He’s somebody so complicated with this incredible vision. I loved the story so much, I had to do it.
EMILY COX: I just found it fascinating that they would write such a strong female character, at that time. That was one of the main reasons that I wanted to do it. And I found the story incredibly gripping. It pulls you in, more and more. I really like the fact that she has a great sense of humor. Her story with Uhtred is really interesting and not really predictable. I thought it was cool to get to go to Hungary for half a year. I also really liked the concept of this show, making it as real as possible and trying to create real human beings with flesh and blood who are not just made-up characters. And they had the courage to show the ugliness of life back then and the ugliness of the characters.
DAWSON: You weren’t made up, every day, you were made down. I loved how grubby and dangerous everyone looked, and how it looks cold and like England.
COX: If you got dirt on your costume, it wasn’t a problem because that’s how you were supposed to look.
It’s not just the sets and costumes and look of the show, but the approach to production is also very different on this. How are you finding that?
DAWSON: Stylistically, what I loved was the decision to film the show with handheld cameras. And the majority, if not all of the show, is using natural light, which gives a real grubby rawness and realism and a danger to what we made. And what it asks of an audience is not to politely sit outside and look in and watch these situations and characters. It forces the audience right into the center of the action, whether that be on the battlefield, feeling the sweat and fear of soldiers about to go into war, or whether that’s in the intimacy of a bed chamber, eavesdropping on lovers or conspirators plotting the downfall of a king. I really loved the way it was filmed.
When you were doing this, did you know what the full journey would be?
RUNE TEMTE: The way that it was set up was that we had a lot of freedom to explore the characters and do things that would bring life to it in the scenes. That way, it would surprise the actors you were in a scene with. You could propose something, and the other actor would pick it up.
DAWSON: When I think back to the character that Alfred was, in Episode 2, I can’t believe the journey he went on. It’s such an ensemble, and every character is so sophisticated. Even the supporting characters go on such incredible arcs. I love ensemble pieces like this.
DREYMON: We had the books to go by, at the beginning, that gave us an idea of where we had to go and the direction we had to take with the characters. That was a luxury. We knew how to play the first couple of episodes, having had that information of where they needed to go. That’s sometimes difficult with shows that are still in the process of being written while you’re already shooting because you don’t know where your character is going to end up. And then, you get the next script and you’re like, “Oh, my god, if I had known that, I would have played this scene completely differently.” So, it was great to have the books and to be able to build your character in an informed and intelligent way that will hopefully make sense.
TEMTE: It was great to read the scripts because there’s such great writing there that you want to tell the story. Ubba is a villain, and you need a villain. But then, it turns out that he has this crazy sense of humor. It’s exciting because he’s not just a stereotype. And then, with the freedom that the directors and the creative team gave me in this process, I could also add things and give it another direction. But, it all came from the script because there was fantastic writing there.
COX: We had a lot of input and collaboration, which was really great.
What do you most enjoy about exploring this particular part of history?
DAWSON: This is a period of history that in England, we unbelievably know nothing about. And it’s such an incredible story that England almost never was. This one little treasured part of England, Wessex, is the only kingdom left of England. Everything else has been conquered by the Danes, but this is the most treasured little part of England. And why I was attracted to play Alfred was that this physically frail and, in many ways, slight and weak man surrounded by these burly warriors had this one vision to unite a kingdom under one God and under one king, and followed that vision through. His intellect was far more powerful as a weapon against these burly warriors around him. I love that. We think of Alfred the Great as this stocky, powerful king. The statue in Winchester is of him as this really strong man. But, I believe that he’s the opposite of that.
DREYMON: And the fact that all this weight rested on his shoulders, and how fragile that moment was and how easily it could have gone the other way, I think that’s what’s so fascinating about the show. There are so many moments where it could have gone the other way, and you realize what implications that would have had to all of our histories.
TEMTE: For me, representing the bad guys coming from Denmark and trying to take over what is to become England, and I come from Norway myself, I was very happy to be a part of this fantastic international cast. They actually have Danes in the cast. We don’t know that much about that period of history either, but I’m not trying to convince you guys that the Vikings were all nice and gentle. What grasped me when I saw the first episode was that you are immediately with the characters. It’s partly because the script is fantastic and the creative crew is fantastic, but it’s also because we can relate to the characters as we can identify ourselves today. I think that is something unique. I’m really excited to be part of the show. When I read the script, I thought, “This is why I became an actor.” I want to be a storyteller, and this is a great story being told in a fantastic way. So I’m really looking forward to seeing how it’s received, and hopefully it will be received in a good way.
GARETH NEAME: I think that the contradictions in these characters is what’s so fascinating about them. Uhtred is a fantastic hero, and you really root for him, but he makes numerous mistakes. He acts too quickly. And that’s the complete opposite with Alfred, who we think of as a muscular king, but he suffered from a severe illness his entire life. They think he had Crohn’s Disease or colitis, or something very debilitating. He was original and unique in the sense that he didn’t use his muscularity to achieve the crown. It was his intellect. He was a diplomat. One of the reasons he was quite religious was that he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants. He had to atone for his sins. There are just these wonderful things that you don’t really expect with all these characters.
A show like this will obviously get comparisons to things like Game of Thrones and Vikings because it has a similar feel, but it’s not any of those shows. What would you say to people wondering whether or not they should watch this?
NEAME: I think the core personal journey of Uhtred is so relatable. When you spend all of that time with the child version, you see his father killed in front of him and you see his surrogate father killed in front of him. That sense of huge injustice, anyone can relate to that. You get a big, epic story, and then just a simple, personal destiny. I think that is very relatable.
How much are you going by what’s actually in the historical record and how much is creative license or created because you don’t know what happened?
NEAME: I don’t want to make too much of the history because, at the heart of it, it is a story of a man and his destiny. It’s about Uhtred and the amazing journey that he has to go on and his relationship with King Alfred. But having said all of that, these are adapted from a series of books by Bernard Cornwell, who is the most successful writer of historical fiction, globally. What he does so brilliantly is that he weaves a fictional story. Uhtred’s story is really invented into the actual historical events that were happening at the time. King Alfred is a name that all English people have heard of and know really nothing about, but he was an important figure. The Vikings made numerous invasions and raids on England, so the historical events and some of the characters are completely true. This is the story of how England came to be. Before 800 A.D., there was no England. So, this is the true story of how that country came to be created. The historical facts are correct, but the journey that we go on is a fictional story that’s interwoven with that.
With something like this, where you don’t know if you’ll get another season or not, how do you decide how much story you tell in one season?
NEAME: It is designed as a returning series, so we fully hope, intend and pray that we’ll be making some more seasons of this. We’ve only used the first two books, so there’s another six books still. If it works, it’s a show that’s got a long journey ahead of it.
So, this journey won’t feel like it’s finished being told?
NEAME: No. Uhtred has embarked on a journey that’s going to take his lifetime to resolve. And this was Alfred’s life’s work, as well. His mission wasn’t completed within his own lifetime. It was his grandchildren. So, it took many, many decades to carry it out.
The Last Kingdom airs on Saturday nights on BBC America.