Based on the legendary English poem that’s over a thousand years old, Beowulf tells the story of a disillusioned and damaged hero who returns home to make peace with his past. An unconventional hero responsible for upholding the law and protecting the town from danger, Beowulf (Kieran Bew) is a man capable of shaping the world around him by his actions and force of will, but not everyone is appreciative of his talents.
While at the Esquire Network portion fo the TCA Press Tour, actor Kieran Bew spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he got involved with Beowulf, why this character appealed to him, the challenges of horse riding, the show’s five-season plan, the family drama, romantic trouble, doing special effects work, and how much Season 2 will ramp things up.
Collider: How did you come to this project?
KIERAN BEW: It was a very strange turn of events for me. I was actually coming out to L.A. I was planning to move here, so I was organizing my necessary Visas and things like that. My agents rang me and said, “It’s Beowulf.” I was aware of the poem from drama school, and through reading and studying things, and I thought, “How on earth are they going to make that?” It’s a poem with these three tasks that are set over a 50-year period, and those tasks are very specific. I was really excited to see what they produced. As soon as Jim Dormer, who is the main creator and writer on it, sent me the sides, I was really excited. He had created a whole other world, and immediately I started asking questions about, “How is this Beowulf? What elements are you keeping? How was it inspired?” It was not necessarily less daunting. I was all up for making the original poem, word for word, pound for pound, and hair for hair. He said, “This is for a modern audience, it’s going to be 13 episodes, and it’s going to have a Western feel to it. He’s more of a reluctant hero because of the realities of being a confident, egregious champion. There’s another side to that, and that’s more interesting for us.” They drew me in, I auditioned, and then they offered me the job, so I stopped moving to L.A.
What is the attraction to a character like Beowulf?
BEW: It’s being the hero. That’s a childhood fantasy for anybody. It’s like being an astronaut, or whatever you want to be when you grow up. I get to ride around on a horse with a massive sword and complete tasks, vanquish things, and be celebrated. A lot of characters now on TV have moved into being anti-heroes, which is an interesting thing to explore, as well, but I wanted to be the hero. I always love being an actor for the simple fact that, whenever you do a job, you have to read a lot of stuff that you’ve never read before, you explore things, and generally you meet experts in lots of fields and you get to absorb that information and make it look like you’ve done it for 20 years. I’ve been horse riding with experts who’ve worked with Ridley Scott and Steven Spielberg. I’ve been trained by a two-time world champion kickboxer, who’s local to where I come from, and who is really just there to keep me fit and healthy while I’m shooting. And I get to work with an incredible cast that includes William Hurt, Joanne Whalley, Ed Speleers and David Bradley. There’s so much. I did quite a lot of fencing when I was a kid, I was a swimmer, and I played a lot of basketball. I was a fencer for Great Britain, but I only did that because I watched Robin Hood, Star Wars, Highlander and The Three Musketeers, and I wanted to emulate Richard Harris and the great British actors that I grew up watching. So, when they said, “Would you like to come do Beowulf?,” I said, “For how many episodes?” There’s a great freedom you get when you’re making TV that you don’t get when you’re doing film. I can’t wait to dig into the second season because we learned so much on the first one.
How did you take to the horse riding?
BEW: I couldn’t horse ride, so I had to learn how to horse ride really fast. It basically involved our horse master putting me on the horse and shouting at me until the horse broke me and I could ride. He put me on some that were incredibly still. They’re actors’ horses, so they just sit there. But then, I’m supposed to do lots of action, so he had to put me on different horses. He put me on a pony that was used in War Horse because it had a bad attitude. I also rode stunt horses, which were incredible. It was like progressing from a Mini to a Ferrari. I’m doing more lately where I’m wearing spurs. I’ve come a long way in a year.
Before this show was pitched to networks, there was a full five-season plan worked out. Were you let in on any of that, or do you prefer to learn things as you need to know them?
BEW: I like to know what the gestation of the idea is, I like to know the foundation, and I do a lot of reading and research. I come from the theater and you normally have four or five weeks to prepare. For me, the fun of the job is to pull yourself into a subject that you know nothing about. With Beowulf, I did know a bit about it, so I got to reinvestigate the Nordic gods and Icelandic poetry, which was great. That’s inspired our show. So, I like to know a lot. Because we’re using the basic structure of the poem, with the three stanzas, I know where we’re going, but I don’t want to know it too soon. It’s like Titanic. I know he’s going to die. I know that the dragon is going to kill Beowulf. But then, that’s life. That’s the beautiful imagery of the poetry, which hopefully, we’re paying homage to in our show. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I don’t want to know anything. I want to know everything. I’m probably a bit of a pest for the producers because I ask a lot of questions.
The joy of the show, for me, is that Jim Dormer is such a fan of the fantasy genre and the Westerns that have inspired him and the designers of the show. It’s a strange marriage between the Anglo-Saxon world and this world of Westerns. Part of my preparation was watching great movies like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Hud and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. My job is to read these incredible stories and watch these Westerns, and then get on a horse. It’s a huge world that they’ve created. The show is about a hero and what it is to exist as a hero, either as a man or a woman, in a world that is so perilous and challenging. You can’t go around saying you’re the best, all the time, ‘cause it puts a target on your back. The marriage between the fantasy and the Westerns is that thing of, if people think you’re the best gunslinger around, they’re going to come looking for you. That’s very much the crux of my character. This guy, since he was a little boy, has been famous and infamous, depending on who you are. People have been seeking him out and he’s had trouble his whole life. So, as much as he’s a hero that’s been celebrated, it makes for a very tough life. As an actor, that’s great. You’ve got something really angsty for me to play? Bring it on. Most of the time, I’m goofing around and doing impressions of people, so that’s nice.
There’s a lot of family drama at the center of this. Do you think that aspect really helps make it feel more relatable?
BEW: Yeah. What’s exciting for me is the relationship between Beowulf’s father in the show and his idea of who his father might be, and also his brother and family. In our show, Beowulf has many different. He doesn’t actually have a base, and he certainly doesn’t have any kind of structure. The thing he’s really looking for is to shake off this burden that’s been given him, as a kid, that other people seem to be envious of. All he really wants is to be accepted and to sit still for a bit, but he can’t have that. It’s too elusive for him. In a tight spot, he’s the guy you want, and that brings a difficult family life for him.
That must also lead to romantic trouble for him.
BEW: Absolutely! Beowulf has come back home, having been away for 15 years, and you’ll find out where he’s been. He was banished and, for them, it felt like a done deal. Things echo across the land, so people know about Beowulf, and for them, there was always a fear that he might return. Upon returning, he immediately gets mixed up in a situation that he shouldn’t have, but that’s pretty relatable for a modern audience. Good people make questionable decisions. You’ll find out that, in the 15 years before, he’s tried to engage with people, in that way, and it hasn’t worked out. When he comes home, it’s not the right decision, but it is a situation that creates much drama.
Who are Beowulf’s greatest allies, and where are the biggest dangers coming from for him?
BEW: For him, he thinks his greatest allies are his own instincts and experience. It’s a very defensive world. People are very suspicious of anyone else who’s coming from somewhere with an agenda. The land between the towns is unpredictable. There’s a security that has loosely built up like the Wild West, but the forests, the deserts and the mountains are occupied by creatures, called Mudborn, that are indigenous to the Shieldlands and who all share black blood. Humans came and occupied the land hundreds of years before, and it’s an incredibly dangerous place. There are also characters, called Skin Shifters, who can make themselves look like humans. There’s this realm of tension, fear and paranoia, and Beowulf finds it very hard to trust other people because of his past experiences either being let down or the people close to him getting hurt. But when push comes to shove, it’s the humans and the weak that he sides with, over the Mudborn. So, his main enemies are the people in the land.
You’re dealing with various creatures and things that aren’t actually there. Do you take pretty easily to that kind of effects work?
BEW: In our show, the monsters have been created by a team who did a series of documentaries called Walking with Dinosaurs. They’re used to building things in CGI models with a very specific ecological environment, and they’ve applied that to our show. The trolls and the Mudborn all have very specific traits based on where they might have come from, whether they’re mountain-born or tree-born. With that kind of details, when you go to work, it makes it very easy for you, as an actor. The job is always pretending. We’re used to creating the illusion of whatever the world is, whether it’s a CGI creature or whether it’s an actor opposite you. We look specifically for things that we can empathize with and points that ring true to us. There are lots of elements of the creatures in our show that are based on creatures in our world. When you apply a certain amount of logic to it, it makes it very easy. We talk a lot about the fact that they lived their before and they have their own language, just as animals do. The characters in our world are very small-minded because they’re afraid, and these things are incredibly strong and seem to behave in an erratic way when it’s really the humans that behave appallingly. There’s a lot to relate to, with our modern world, and there’s a lot of depth there that people can choose to dig into or not. It’s hopefully going to be pretty challenging for people, at times. Certainly for me, it’s very interesting to play a guy who’s famous but infamous, depending on which way you look at it. He’s pretty questionable, which is interesting.
What sort of magic are you dealing with on this show?
BEW: It’s a biological magic. It’s not an ethereal, twinkly magic that’s happening. Beowulf is not a superhero. He has a talent, very much like Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. He’s very good at staying calm, in the right moment, but he does bad things. It’s very much about having talent in a tight spot. Because of that, it’s relatable to us. We live on a planet where there were dinosaurs. When you read the poem, you wonder, what might Grendel have been? Could it have been a person that was turned away? Someone that was disfigured or deformed? Like everything else did, it came from somewhere. It’s really exciting, and not knowing is part of the magic and mystery.
Will we feel a sense of completion to the story that you’re telling in Season 1?
BEW: This first season is very much an introduction. I can’t wait for people to get into it and enjoy learning about all the different worlds because it is very rich, but the most exciting thing for me is to play him as a real person. How hard has it got to be to constantly be attacked? And how hard has it got to be to constantly be asked, ‘Can you solve this problem’? It’s gotta be exhausting. And as much as he enjoys the thrill of a fight and completing something, he’s doing it through necessity and survival. And now, Season 2 is in prep and some of the ideas that they’ve got for Season 2 are really ramped up.
Beowulf airs on Saturday nights on the Esquire Network.