Camelot - Joseph Fiennes
Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) © 2010 KA Productions

After a successful career in the theatre, Joseph Fiennes became an overnight sensation with is role as William Shakespeare in the Academy Award winning movie Shakespeare in Love. He went on to stars in such films as Elizabeth, Running With Scissors and The Merchant of Venice. But it was his recent role as FBI agent Mark Benford, on ABC’s FlashForward that brought him back into the public’s eye.

Fiennes now stars as Merlin in Chris Chibnall’s new series Camelot for the Starz Channel. As custodian of the young King Arthur, Merlin can foresee the threats to his charge more clearly than anyone, but must fight the dark nature of his power and harness it to bring forth a new Camelot.

What do you remember of Merlin from when you were a child?

Camelot - Joseph Fiennes
Merlin (Joseph Fiennes), Igraine (Claire Forlani) and King Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower) © 2010 KA Productions

The nearest I got to Arthur and the legend of Camelot and Merlin was really as a kid. I grew up near Stonehenge. I used to climb those rocks, and there was some kind of myth that Merlin brought those stones and built that himself for some pagan ritual.

At the age of nine or ten, I was climbing them in a marauding way. They’re very full of energy, so maybe there’s some lineage to that moment to where I am now.

Did you go into this project with a specific take on Merlin? Did you watch any previous portrayals?

I’ve read a little bit. I trust Chris and his reinvestigation of Arthur and Merlin. There are so many different renditions and vignettes and descriptions of Merlin from France to Wales to Ireland to England, and they all have their own sensibility.

What I’ve gone for is more of a warrior-monk, less of the Zen Obi-Wan and Gandalf. I think that he might get to that eventually. But at this moment he’s far more hands-on. He can take care of himself. He probably won’t always draw on his powers. I think he relies on more wit and intelligence. He’s a wonderful character.

As Merlin, what sort of cool magic effects do you get to work with?

FlashForward - Joseph Fiennes © ABC
Joseph Fiennes in FlashForward © ABC

The great thing about the Camelot that Christ has reinvented and adapted is that the magic really lies in the political essence of the piece. There will be some dark arts and we’ll see people changing shape and things disappearing, but for me the real potent magic is the birth of the legend and what we read in the history books and how those tales have been invented.

I think of Merlin as a sort of cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Donald Rumsfeld in that there’s this very strong agenda politically. That’s what I’m excited about, where the power lies, rather than slaying dragons and things like that.

How is Merlin like Donald Rumsfeld?

I don’t want to draw too many parallels and be boxed in a corner too much, but I just think it’s really about a political agenda.

It’s about power sharing, and gaining power, the distribution of power, how we bring in a democracy, how we get the people on our side, what lies do we tell them, what truth do we tell them, what information do we put forward or hold back?

I jokingly brought his name in, and I think there are many parallels to be had with the modern world and Camelot. I think it’s a landscape, which is power given to the wrong individuals. It’s a country split and decimated by war and greed. I think we know a lot about greed in our society now.

I think it’s about the ascension of a pure king, a noble mind, and bringing together a moral code and an act of chivalry that should be the basis for Camelot, and maybe an audience can draw those elements into a modern understanding of what it is to bring hope and democracy into a land.

If he’s like Rumsfeld, will some people consider him somewhat villainous?

Camelot - Joseph Fiennes
Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) © 2010 KA Productions

I think that’s up for interpretation. I think there’s a duality with Merlin. I think 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.

I think he’s full of Machiavellian machinations, and I think he’s a brilliant act getting the people to believe what he thinks they should believe in to coerce them into a vote which carries forward what he wants to happen

What’s the relationship like between Merlin and Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan, in this?

It’s full of villainous antagonism, which is always a fulfilling place to be. And there’s a great chemistry between the two. There’s essentially good and bad, but yet I think you’ll learn in Season 1 the way Morgan is set up, you realize and understand where her evil roots stem from.

Merlin is Machiavellian in his architectural bringing about of this young king. And so he is not all light. I think he walks with a very dark shadow as well. They both interact on that wonderful level

I think Spartacus may have raised certain expectations on the part of viewers as to how graphic you’ll get, both in terms of violence and sex. Does that mean you’ll have to deliver a bit more on that than you might have done were you on another network?

I’m sure there will be scenes of intimacy and violence, but from what I’ve witnessed there’s a big difference. 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 for the sake of a spicy 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.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.