Best known for his role as Rupert Giles, mentor to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Anthony Stewart Head has recently been seen in Doctor Who and Little Britain. Now starring in the new dramatic series Merlin showing on NBC, he portrays King Uther Pendragon, a ruthless tyrant who rules the mythical city of Camelot, banning magic from the kingdom.
When Merlin, a young man gifted with extraordinary magical powers, arrives in Camelot, he quickly makes enemies, including the heir to Uther’s crown, his son, the headstrong Prince Arthur. I spoke with Anthony Stewart Head about his new project at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, where NBC’s summer programming was being presented.
Is the TV series an updated version of the story?
I don’t think they necessarily used Smallville as the model, but it’s in the same mode as that. We all know the story of Merlin and Arthur, we all know the Sword in the Stone, we all know Guenevere, Lancelot, it’s a classic tale which as been visited in so many guises, even Sean Connery in a very dodge polo-neck.
So they thought wouldn’t it be interesting to do, basically to find out if Arthur had met Merlin as young men, and their destinies have been inextricably linked, how would things manifested, how would it became the story that we all know? The purists say, ‘How can you mess around with a classic tale?’ They almost say that you’re messing around with history, get a grip, it’s actually not history, it’s a myth, so it’s fair play.
What’s the premise of the series?
Basically Merlin turns up, Camelot already exists, it’s ruled over by Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father. He’s a troubled king, and poor old Merlin arrives almost in the first scene, he’s been sent by his mom because she doesn’t know what to do with him because he’s got these powers. And he turns up in the square and watches me sentencing a man to death for using magic. Magic is forbidden as far as Uther is concerned it is evil, and anybody who uses magic should be instantly put to death.
So Merlin is an outlaw within the confines of this very claustrophobic society. He can’t help himself and he uses a bit of magic and it grows. The story is about his destiny with Arthur. All great tales come out of conflict, you can’t have a decent story if you haven’t got conflict, and the fact is that Uther is the typical catalyst within this world, if he didn’t [hate] magic, then we wouldn’t have a story.
So you’re the bad guy?
They haven’t just made me the bad guy, they’ve actually given me a reason for doing what I do, and it’s about trying to maintain peace in a very troubled time, trying to maintain the kingdom. The whole thing about magic started two years before with his own experience, and there is a reason for it. There is a transition in him, you will understand why he behaves the way he does.
Is there an ultimate arc to the show, or is every episode self-contain?
If you miss an episode you would absolutely know what’s going on. There are parts of the story where if you missed one you might miss a reason for something, you might miss the episode that explains why Uther is the way he is about magic, there are little story points as we go on that are released, but each episode is self-contained.
What’s your relationship with Arthur and Merlin?
Merlin ends up as Arthur’s servant, and there’s one point where Arthur says he’s going off to try and help Merlin, and I say, ‘Why, he’s a servant. You can get another one.’ He’s a bit of a Victorian father, and we see why Arthur becomes the great king that he was, because Uther just isn’t. He’s old school, it’s almost children should be seen and not heard. He’s a single parent struggling to make it work.
What was it about the part that made you want to do it?
Basically because I saw that it was a multi-dimensional part. If it had been black and white, a kids’ show, I didn’t know if I wanted to do that for 13 episodes and eight months a year. But he was multi-layered, where we delve into the darkness. I actually find it refreshing that you don’t have to see someone’s head cut off and the blood gushing out to feel the moment, the moment is very strong and it plays off people’s reactions
If it had been an American production would it have been too safe?
If it had been an American production we might have got lost in the pomp and splendor, of which there is much, but it’s got a nice edge to it, it feels like we are warriors; that we fight for a living.
Do you ever think there will be a Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie?
I would love to do a movie, but it would have to be the class reunion 20 years down the line. I’ve asked Joss [Whedon, the creator of the series] and he laughed at me. I don’t know that he’d want to paint himself into that corner again.
What happened to the Giles spin-off?
There was going to be one. The last time I was over here in Los Angeles I talked to Julie Gardner, who is the force behind this series, BBC World, who’s coming over to BBC Worldwide here, and she was really interested in doing the spin-off, so I put her and Joss together and for a good six to eight months it looked like it was going to be done. It might still [happen], who knows.