In our continuing interview with Joseph Fiennes about his role as Merlin in Starz Original series Camelot, the actor talks about the relationship of the great sorcerer and King Arthur, and how it feels to go from playing an FBI agent in TV’s contemporary series FlashForward back to medieval England for the myth and legend of Camelot.
What’s the relationship between Merlin and Arthur in this, as Executive Producer and writer Chris Chibnall is skewing it a little differently?
It’s a great question. I think we’re bringing them in very young. Their relationship really is from when he was born, and Merlin takes the boy from the Queen at that time, who’s Queen Igraine, married to Uther. He installed the baby with a man called Sir Ector, and Sir Ector educates him in a wonderful way and nurtures him in a way which is without the blood lust of the warlord king that is his father. So that’s where their relationship starts.
When Arthur’s a young man Uther is poisoned and that’s the time that Merlin brings him in. Merlin has pretty much designed this. There’s a contract between Merlin and Uther that he could have the child when he comes of age, and that’s what he does and he puts him into power.
I think their relationship takes many different turns and shifts. He’s a tutor. He’s a father figure. He’s a brutal headmaster. He’s got to give this boy all of the tools to be king in a ruthless world, and he has to do it in a very short space of time.
And also, I think there’s a great love and respect for what this boy goes through. He sacrifices a lot to take this position of king. And I think underlying for Merlin, there’s a huge witness of that sacrifice, and I think a very special relationship emerges because of that towards Arthur.
Were there any mentors that you drew upon for the role?
On the wall of my dressing room I have pictures of Charlie in the chocolate factory. I have pictures of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. I have lots of pictures for lots of films which denote for me the relationships of young boys and men who are mentors and father figures; they’re sometimes brutal, sometimes mercurial, sometimes comic. I think those are all coming out of the relationship between the true Arthur and Merlin, and I think they’ve kind of paved the way for the Obi-Wan and Luke story.
Is it good to be back in a period drama rather than a contemporary one with FlashForward?
I think I never really look at anything quite as a period drama. I tend to think that often modern dramas can date themselves incredibly quickly, and I think the essence of Camelot is deeply modern. I think that has the similarities with Shakespeare in Love and Elizabeth, in that sense, is that an audience readily sees a mirror image of their own society, whatever clothes they’re wearing or if they are riding on horseback, that’s neither here nor there.
The modern thing is the human condition, the struggle, the complexities, the sex. Those are the things that never go out of date. And I think that’s where Chris and the team has hit this brilliantly, that it translates itself to a modern audience, though it’s set in the wonderful romance of that time and age, but essentially it’s not bogged down in period drama, per se.
Can you talk about the experience of working on American TV with FlashForward?
I felt like I went through a series of blackouts for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, woke up and the whole landscape had changed again, and here I was in a Celtic countryside! (he laughs)
It’s a topsy-turvy world, isn’t it? It’s exciting and exhilarating. I’m passionate and loved my time with FlashForward and all the wonderful people I met with and worked with there. It was hugely ambitious, but being taken off the air for so long to find our feet that we didn’t pull it off is sad.
But then there’s an upside, and that’s working with Starz on a really phenomenal series which I think will knock people sideways. I think it’s a beautiful, riveting, romantic, sensational epic story that has never been told in all of its episodes, and I think television is a wonderful medium for that.
We’re seeing a lot of myth and epic stories, not just on Starz, but across the landscape. Does this say something about our times right now that this might be a particularly good time to revisit these very big and complex tales?
[They’re] built on hope. We know that governments get in on that wonderful banner of hope. [But] after your ascension, it’s all about the pithy reality. And the wonderful thing about Camelot is it’s all about chivalry, hope, moral code and honor, and yet it’s riddled underneath with the worms that devalue those elements. And that’s the riveting struggle.
We have that, whether it’s looking at our own government or ourselves. We have that complexity, and I think we love to delve into fantasy because through fantasy you can get to the truth in its own way outside of academia.
I think we are all striving for something better. And Camelot is all about hope, but also the kind of conditions that Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot that comes in later, and Morgan and Merlin – they’re all subject to the shadows that sometimes creep over that word ‘hope.’ And I think that’s really engaging.
Camelot premieres on April 1, 2011