Joseph Fiennes, Tamsin Egerton & Exec. Producer Chris Chibnall Interview CAMELOT

     April 1, 2011


The highly anticipated Starz original series Camelot is a dark and compelling new take on the familiar legend. It redefines the classic medieval tale of King Arthur in a 10 episode first season that is set in the wake of King Uther’s sudden death, when chaos is threatening to engulf Britain. When the sorcerer Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) has visions of a dark future, he turns to the young and impetuous Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower), King Uther’s unknown son and heir, who has been raised from birth as a commoner. But Arthur’s cold and ambitious half sister Morgan (Eva Green) will fight him for power, summoning unnatural forces to claim the crown in this epic battle for control. In these dark times, with Guinevere (Tamsin Egerton) being his only shining light, Arthur will face profound moral decisions while he attempts to unite a kingdom that is broken by war and steeped in deception.

During a recent interview, co-stars Joseph Fiennes and Tamsin Egerton, along with executive producer/writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall, talked about the contemporary appeal of this classic story, putting their own twist on these dark legends, having an ensemble of this caliber bringing these characters to life, and using Season 1 to really set the foundations for the familiar story and characters and illustrate their passion, both personal and political. Check out what they had to say after the jump:

Question: Joseph and Tamsin, as actors, why did you want to take on this project?

JOSEPH FIENNES: I was tricked. Chris told me that I’d be up for Guinevere. No. It was very exciting to turn the myths upside down and to get to the legend in a visceral, modern way. It’s told in a wonderful, cinematic way. It’s a great team of actors. We know about the Sword in the Stone and the Lady in the Lake, but it’s great to visit those myths in a really exciting way. That’s what drew me in.

TAMSIN EGERTON: I was very aware of the legend, from such an early age. Being a Brit, you are so aware of King Arthur, Camelot, Guinevere and Morgan, the witch. Merlin is this mad magician who’s cloaked in mystery. It has that mystery about it. And, it’s a lead role for a woman that’s strong and has a real journey to take. She has some fantastic storylines and really grows up, in the first season. You can see her journey. It was a gift to have such an interesting and strong female role to play. That’s really why I wanted to do it. I wanted to be a part of this generation’s telling of Camelot, and also get the chance to play a fantastic, complex, interesting, emotionally passionate, young lead role.

What attracted you to these roles, originally, and what were the challenges in bringing these roles to life?

FIENNES: The challenge is finding the modern conduit for the audience, having fun and really looking at the duality of this particular character, that is both devil and angel, and on the cusp of losing control of the pagan background, to this newfangled religion called Christianity. There’s a great backdrop there, and just a whole dark side with the magic. He’s slightly from another world and place, so it’s about having fun and presenting it in a new way. He’s more of a politician, and slightly Machiavellian, but there’s also a lovely relationship going on between Merlin and Arthur. There’s so much to be had, really.

EGERTON: For me, it was about trying to keep her fresh, young and likeable for an audience. With the mistakes she makes, it’s very easy to judge her, so my challenge was to keep the audience on her side, understand where she’s coming from and try to feel sorry for her, and still like her, at the same time, even though she keeps making the same mistakes, again and again. The physical preparation was learning to horse ride and doing some sword fighting. It was quite a basic way of living back then, and I just wanted to make her more earthy and quite a strong character. I didn’t want her to just sit in the corner, reading and twiddling her hair. We wanted to make her a character with different sides. It’s hard doing a series because you’re finding the character yourself, and I think you can tell. When I watch some of the episodes, I can see how I’ve grown into the role, and I can see how Guinevere’s grown up. It’s very interesting dealing with that, in each episode. It’s about dealing, not only with the overall story, but also what happens in that one hour. I have to keep myself and my character growing in the right time and in the right places, and showing each new thought.

Chris, what was it about this material that really appealed to you?

CHRIS CHIBNALL: Growing up as a Brit, Arthur and Merlin and Camelot, and just the idea of it, is embedded in the culture and in your soul, growing up. King Arthur is alongside Robin Hood, as those great British folk tales, myths and icons. It was a once in a generation chance to tell that story for a new audience and to refresh it. It’s one of the great myths. It was an absolute no-brainer to do. The joy of doing it is that it’s infinite in its possibilities. For a writer, that is a real joy and a gift.

How did you approach this entire legend, as far as developing the series?

CHIBNALL: First of all, I had to approach it in the sense of taking nothing for granted. There have been so many different versions of the legend and of Camelot, so what I wanted to do was strip it all back, and go back to the beginning and tell the story of Arthur, from the beginning of the relationship between Merlin and Arthur. I went back to the source material of Mallory’s darker story, which is the most complete version of the myth. It was like, “Well, here is the myth and here is what they went through, but what might it have been like if you lived through it then?” If you take it for granted that all this stuff happened, how would it be, to be Arthur at 19, quite happy and comfortable in your life, and then this mad, shaven-headed man turns up at your house and says, “Oh, you’re adopted and, by the way, you’re the king. Come with me, half-way across the country, because we’ve got to sort out some war lords.” It was really about looking for the emotional truth in everything. That’s the way that I approached it. From then on, you just start to ask questions. You don’t want to go with the received images. The conversations that Joe [Fiennes] and I had were absolutely not going for the received way of portraying Merlin. It was more about asking, “What does he want? Why is he so keen for Arthur to get to the throne? What is he seeing? What will it be like to have those powers because nothing really comes without a cost or consequences?” The big thing was making sure that the show was full of character and emotion, and also that every decision and action had costs and consequences. Then, it could start to feel emotionally resident to now. We also wanted to have fun. We had to have a laugh doing it.

Joseph-Fiennes-Camelot-image (1)Joseph and Tamsin, how did you approach playing these iconic literary characters, to give them a fresh spin?

FIENNES: I read as much as I could, but really just spoke to Chris Chibnall and asked all the pertinent questions. That made me feel like we weren’t going to do an off-the-peg Camelot, which has been touched upon in many films and TV series before. I really just picked his brain and, in doing so, I got fired up by tackling Merlin in a fresher angle. Youth is a predominant factor. We are seeing a young King Arthur, and thereby a young-ish – as I’m into my 40s – Merlin. It was about how to tackle it, from that point view. I also wanted to have fun with it. I wanted to have the scope, which I felt Merlin has, in his Machiavellian bi-polar way. He’s not to be trusted, yet he is fighting for this great power and is really a master, to some degree, in orchestrating Camelot and King Arthur. He’s a strange, dark devious character, and I just wanted to have fun, and get away from the cloak and long beard and pointy hat. Chris came to the idea that he was more of a warrior monk that is coming to terms with his power, and how it can affect him and others.

EGERTON: For me, it also was mostly talking to Chris Chibnall and seeing what he had in mind for the character. Guinevere has been done quite a few times, especially as a mature young woman, who either is the damsel in distress or the warrior, strong-willed woman. Chris wanted a variety of things in this Guinevere. He predominately wanted her to be real and natural, and make mistakes and be passionate, and be the feisty young girl, but then also completely naive, innocent and ignorant, at the same time. It was fantastic, as an actress. If you steal other people’s characters, it doesn’t work with the context of the scripts and what is written, so I wanted to make her my own. I was petrified, in the beginning, because it’s such an iconic character, especially being a young lady myself. I’ve always wanted to play Guinevere. I just asked Chris what he thought, and he steered me in the right directions. We just wanted to make her young and able to make mistakes, which I think is important.

Chris, as Camelot has developed, what has most surprised you, in going from concept to actual production, with this miracle cast, in these iconic roles?

CHIBNALL: That’s a really good question. What surprised me and delighted me was the level of cast that we managed to bring in and get to commit to the show. And then, once you’ve got actors of this caliber in place, the joy of a series becomes the dialogue. You discuss things in rehearsal, but then you’re also seeing what comes through in the dailies and the rushes. You’re molding and shaping the characters, as you go along. It becomes a response to what’s on screen. So, the characters have very interesting developments and they take interesting turns because you see a little emphasis in a performance, in a particular scene, and you think, “Oh, there’s a whole facet and a whole emotional storyline there I want to follow.” That was probably the biggest thing, and that was the delight of it, to be honest.

Joseph and Tamsin, what do you like most and least about your characters? What has surprised you about them, as they’ve been developed?

FIENNES: Well, I like the fact that we’re stripping the icons away. They’re the WikiLeaks for the age that we’re revealing, with the transparency of the characters. We’re unearthing the truth beyond or underneath the myth. I love that aspect. And, Merlin is really at the forefront, in that regard. We get a glimpse into the dark, Machiavellian corridors of power. I like the fact that, although he has powers, his powers are almost in his political guile as much as what he relies on, in darker forces. I guess there’s nothing I don’t like about Merlin, in this presentation. I love everything, even the things I find despicable and abhorrent in Merlin. They’re actually a joy to ride on the tailcoats of.

EGERTON: Well, I love the fact that she’s young, feisty, passionate and so naive, in the beginning. What I don’t like about Guinevere is the fact that she can’t control her passions and urges. She gets herself into quite a love triangle, and quite a web. Personally, I find that very difficult to relate to. But, it wouldn’t be interesting, if she did everything right. What’s interesting about this series is that we’re real characters making mistakes and having to deal with the consequences. She’s young and naive. She’s whole-heartedly going into her passions, in everything that she feels, in the series. I think she’s so used to having her life mapped out in front of her and growing up knowing her future and, suddenly, this young person comes along who’s like her and actually turns her life upside down, and he happens to also be very good-looking. Guinevere is just head over heels and doesn’t know how to handle these new emotions that she’s feeling, as a young woman. Unfortunately, she can’t reign it all in, all the time. And, even though she tries to do the right thing and be the good girlfriend and have her morals, she slips up a little bit.

Tamsin, in what ways will Guinevere betray Arthur?

EGERTON: I don’t think we’ve actually gotten that far yet, in this season. We’re taking baby steps. There’s so much. It’s such an epic story and there are so many twists and turns. This season only covers a very, very small amount of the story. So, for now, she hasn’t betrayed Arthur yet. That’s not to say she won’t, but she hasn’t yet.

What is it like for you to play the role of seducer?

EGERTON: It’s interesting. Guinevere is not the Morgan type, where she’s sultry and she knows she has this incredible female energy that she can use and utilize, and she’s not necessarily used to having this power over men. She hasn’t necessarily been aware of it before. She’s an innocent seductress. It’s very interesting to play with that and go into these scenes where it’s very passionate on the page. It’s been very fun playing a different side of it. Seductress is a very interesting term because people always think of them as a victim, but Guinevere isn’t. She’s very much just a young girl who’s learning her heart, and that means listening to herself and actually doing what she wants, for once. But, unfortunately, the consequences of that are a lot higher than they would be nowadays, for a normal 19-year-old, especially since she falls in love with a king. That makes it a little bit more complicated as well. It’s very fun. It’s been wonderful. The complexities of it have been quite interesting, in the love triangle, in particular, and seeing how she handles each situation and each man. She’s a very different person, with each man. She’s very much under Leontes’ (Philip Winchester) wing. She’s his childhood sweetheart, and he’s her childhood sweetheart. It’s almost a brotherly love. But, with Arthur, she’s a completely different person. She’s not there to cook dinner and to be maternal. She’s actually there to have fun and have a more sexual relationship. It’s very interesting.

Tamsin-Egerton-camelot-imageChris, how different is Camelot from the original story? What changes have you made to suit the 21st Century audience?

CHIBNALL: Well, there are so many different versions of the myth. There really isn’t that one definitive version of the story, and that’s the joy of myth. It’s re-invented, every generation, to resonate with the concerns of that particular generation of people. The thing that I focused on was making sure that everything we did and every decision we made was emotionally motivated. With these first 10 episodes, you’re talking about the foundations of Camelot and who Arthur and Merlin are, and everyone brings in all the components that they’re going to need. It was a question of what was interesting and what made it relevant. How on earth do you become a ruler? How do you know what to promise, as a ruler? And, if you’re a leader and you’re out there promising hope, how do you then deliver on that promise? How do you bring something as abstract as hope into existence, and deliver it for people? It’s not hard to find modern resonances and relevancies. It’s all there, in the great material, but you choose what to emphasize. For me, it was about making credible characters that you could relate to, that didn’t feel like they were behind a guise, which sometimes you get with your drama, if it’s slightly removed from modern life. I wanted it to feel very immediate, very fresh and very dynamic. And then, in terms of the narrative, the big decision really was making Merlin a very clear king-maker and more of a spin doctor. We ditched the pointy hat, cloak, staff and beard, in our very first discussion. Merlin is much more of a Donald Rumsfeld/Karl Rove type character, which changes the emphasis of things immediately. And then, the story between Arthur and Morgan really is a tale of two houses – a brother and half-sister who both want the crown, both have equal legitimacy to it and are both going to try to get it. That was where we found the emphasis for this first batch of episodes.

Starz is known for doing more realistic portrayals, really showing the sex and violence of a story. How far do you go with this, and does that free you?

CHIBNALL: As a writer, what’s great and what’s key to Camelot is that it’s a story about passion, in both the personal and the political. The political aims are brought down by personal passions, all the way through the myth, and it’s great that we’re able to show that. I don’t ever want to be gratuitous, for the sake of being gratuitous, but when it serves the stories and the characters, it’s nice to be able to do that, realistically and with credibility. You don’t want to do it for the sake of it, or shoe-horn it in. But, it’s a good tool to have in the toolbox.

As actors, does that change the way you deal with things?

EGERTON: For me, yes and no. Yes, to the extent that it’s all about the writing. If the writing is allowed to breathe and to be, it’s more realistic and you can up the ante a bit more, and that’s fantastic, as an actress, because you’re going off what is written. To that extent, it’s fantastic. Guinevere and Arthur’s story is so about the passion. It’s about the sexual attraction between them. You can’t have that story and show that sexual attraction with them kissing, and then shut the door. It just doesn’t work. It’s such an important part of their relationship and what happens in Camelot later on. It’s who they are and how they bond. But, as an actress, you don’t want to run into these scenes, willy-nilly. The couple that I did do were important for the character and essential to the plot, to show what was actually going on between each character. It is great to be able to have that, and to be able to say certain things and have certain passions. I know that the battle scenes, as well, are quite gory and quite strong. Battle was romantic, but it was far from being easy. It’s nice, in both respects, to have that color and contrast.

Eva-Green-Camelot-image (1)Is Merlin getting any?

CHIBNALL: We’re showing what everyone knows is an age of chivalry and knights and honor, but we’re showing the people who are famous and who are icons, in that regard. We’re showing them, warts and all. That’s the true, gutsy reality. That’s what makes it modern and stark. We’re revealing these wonderful, heroic characters with all their doubts, faults, warts and nasty sides. That’s much more engaging than just a romp or the violence. What underpins it is the fact that you have Merlin taking a mother’s child, one or two days old, and stealing this boy to become a future king, with no sort of warning until the day has come. There are these star revelations. For the actors, that’s where it becomes more engaging, more modern and more real. We’re getting to see their faults and the true human conditions of these mythological icons, and they’re being brought back to us in a very vivid, real sense.

Tamsin, were you okay with the nudity in this series, or was that something you had to really consider first, before signing on?

EGERTON: I don’t think any actors love taking their clothes off on film, unless you’re an exhibitionist, which I’m certainly not. Those are the scenes that you actually dread doing. But, so much more goes into this role. As an actress, it’s all about reality, and I’m not a prude. I’m not someone who judges other people for taking their clothes off for roles. I’m not going to show everything, but nudity here or there doesn’t faze me.

How much will religion play a part in the story?

CHIBNALL: I think it’s there, in the background of the show. You’ll see it referenced. Arthur comes from a much more Christian background, and Merlin is clearly from a more pagan time. But then, you’ll have other characters. Where Morgan has come from is a very complex, religious background. You’ll see Sinead Cusack come in as Sybil, who is a nun connected to Morgan. That take on religion is going to be interesting. And then, we also have the character of Leontes, whose belief in God is very important to him, and really important to a lot of his decisions. So, it’s not the central theme of the show, but it’s absolutely there, as part of the texture. It’s a changing world. You have pagans and Christians, all vying for space.

Joseph and Tamsin, did any of your previous roles help you prepare for these characters, or was this just a completely new experience for you?

EGERTON: No, I don’t think I’ve ever done a character like this before, so I couldn’t really draw from previous roles. I’ve been known for doing a lot of comedies in England, so I don’t think that would have worked. I completely went from scratch, with this one, and used the research and what was in the script, and spoke to Chris. It’s all from in my mind ,rather than drawing from previous experiences or roles.

FIENNES: There are a couple of films that I’ve done, where I’ve had to get on a horse and wear a pair of tights, so that helped. But, nothing could have prepared me for the fun of wielding magic like Merlin does, especially in the perverted mind of Chris Chibnall.

Joseph, did any of your previous Shakespeare work, on stage or in film, help you in your preparation for a role like Merlin?

FIENNES: I don’t know. I think all experience is, in some way, shape or form, filtered down to help you, in your present moment. With Shakespeare, you’re trying to act with a fairly archaic language, although in certain aspects, it’s deeply modern. It’s all about human condition, ultimately. That’s what you’re looking at. You’re also looking to have some fun, as well, because that also translates. Maybe wearing tights once in awhile helped. Getting up on a horse a couple of times before might have helped.

While you’re approaching the legend with a contemporary perspective, have you found it to be a lot of fun to work on a period piece like this?

EGERTON: I actually love doing period pieces, purely because it takes you into a different world, mentally. The clothes you have to wear are so far from our everyday clothes that it immediately helps with the character and putting you in that mind frame. And, the sets that they built are just so beautiful. It’s like going to a completely foreign country and experiencing a new culture that you’ve never seen before, especially at Camelot. It’s just so magical. Personally, it’s just so much more interesting than wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and walking around somebody else’s house.

FIENNES: A large part of how an actor works and their process is the stimulation of what’s around you, and none more so than in a period piece. This is a modern piece, as much as it is set in a different time, age and myth. If it wasn’t relevant, it wouldn’t have been made and we wouldn’t be putting our energy into it. It’s relevant for us today because, in some ways, it throws up a mirror to all of us. As an actor, you get stimulus and you’re effected by that, whether it’s costumes or funny beards or castles.

CHIBNALL: As a writer and showrunner, you’re not just creating a set of characters and putting them in the modern world. You’re world-building, particularly with this. There might have been an Arthur. There are various interpretations of history. But, the myth that we’re telling here, with Merlin and all that, is so open to be manipulated and created. You’re building this whole, huge world of castles and sword fights, and then you have some magic, and it’s fantastic and absolutely wonderful. We wanted to place it within a real context, so we did a lot of research about the period when it is set. The great thing about the Dark Ages is that there’s very little documentation available and very little evidence. There’s a certain amount, but a lot of it is contradictory.

Eva-Green-Camelot-image (2)Chris, how did you approach bringing this traditional British epic to America to make it satisfying for that audience?

CHIBNALL: You’re always looking for the big residencies. Rumsfeld was such a pervasive figure, all across the world, that he was one of the references that Joe [Fiennes] and I talked about, right from the start. When I pitched the show to Starz and Chris Albrecht, we talked about leaders who promise hope, and how difficult that is to deliver, on a daily basis. The great thing about myth is that there are certain preoccupations that every era has. Hopefully, we’re tapping into things that are going on, at the moment, in terms of fractional countries, and leaders’ promises, in terms of the complexity, duality and morality of how you rule. You just hope that those themes will resonate with an audience. You do your best to tell your own story, in the most specific way, and then you hope that that travels well, when it’s done with heart and honesty.

What kind of pace will the story be told in, over these 10 episodes? How far do you take the story, in the first season?

CHIBNALL: One of the key things that we wanted to do, in the first season, was really set the foundations. There’s no rush with the story. When I first spoke to Chris Albrecht at Starz about it, one of the things that he said was, “Take your time. Don’t rush. We’ve got time.” What he really wanted to see was how all these characters come into this world. That was a great permission from the boss to really spend time with these people. You’ll see a lot of the iconography this year. You’ll see the Lady in the Lake. You’ll see the Sword in the Stone. You’ll see the very, very beginnings of a round table. But, these 10 episodes are really about bringing together this group of people with some of the artifacts that will become the legendary Camelot. I didn’t want to come in with Camelot as a great, glittering, golden place in its prompt. It was about telling the story of how Camelot is built, earned and achieved through blood, sweat and tears, and a lot of mud.