A Conversation with Anthony Stewart Head

“L.A. has its pros and cons. There’s a great loneliness to being out of work in L.A.”

Best known for his seven-year stint as Rupert Giles on Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer as Rupert Giles, and his brilliant portrayal as The Prime Minister on the cult comedy series Little Britain, North London native Anthony Stewart Head will be staying close to home thanks to a significant role in this season’s sleeper hit Merlin.

I was lucky enough to catch Anthony Stewart Head between takes recently for a quick chat about the shows sudden popularity, the enduring legacy of Giles and what makes good genre television?

Fletcher: First of all, thanks for you time this morning. I understand you’re in France at the moment filming Season Two of Merlin. Are you surprised at the immediate success the series found with it first season?

Anthony Stewart Head: Well, to date its sold world wide apart from, and this is a couple of weeks old so it might have actually changed already, apart from Iceland, Ireland and somewhere like Uzbekistan. You’re always surprised when a show does well, when a show becomes a big success. I mean, you always hope its going to be, but you never know.

F: You’ve seen a lot of shows come and go, some bigger than others. Have you been able to put your finger on any particular element of Merlin that has captured the audience so completely?

ASH: As long as you get the script right and make sure people don’t speak too strangely… Merlin has some very basic ingredients; its one of those shows which you do think to yourself ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this before?’ And it’s interesting that suddenly there is this resurgence about anything medieval. Whether that has anything t do with Merlin or whether it’s just a certain time in storytelling and people are realizing that that time period offers a very rich place to set your stories in.

But this show, it’s got he makings of a really great show… actually it already is a great show. It has such a wide audience appeal. It’s easily able to be snapped up by anyone really.

F: Having wrapped on the first season with such success, did you have a sense of its effectiveness when you first read the pilot script?

ASH: You know I really liked the script, but I wasn’t sure about it. Looking at the script I wasn’t sure which avenue they were going to go down. They could have played it much younger and with a little more simplicity, and not go as dark as it does.

I went and had a meeting with the director James Hawes, with whom I had worked with on Dr. Who and he assured me basically that everything that I wanted from it was in everyone’s interest, that the darkness which could be found in it would be found, that that everyone wanted that same darkness.

And I think that is part of the shows success, that it’s not just airy-fairy. I think they could have made a kids show, but that wouldn’t have given it such a broad appeal. People come up to me and say they had a good laugh with the show, but that they can sit down with their kids and feel they are involved by the show, that they are interested and that they want to know what happens next.

F: In that regard, did you have much input into the development and direction of your character?

ASH: James Hawes and I sat down and discussed my character Uther Pendragon, and I told him I didn’t want to make him just a shouty king, who just sort of yells and watches people’s heads come off. So James told me that he wanted to make him completely three dimensional, and that he would let me know when I was shouting.

And true to his word every time I did, he would come up to me and whisper ‘Your being a little bit Queen of Hearts’ so I’d back off a bit.

F: And what was your first introduction to Uther Pendragon?

ASH: The first script I read, which was number one, was the tale of the witch who wants to avenge her son’s death. It could have been the typical very old crone with your classical warts and all, but it was played by Eve Myles who right from the outset played it dead straight. In fact she was so moving when she gave her speech in the square disclaiming me for killing her son, done up in full prosthetics mind you, that there were tears running down her checks, and the French background artist spontaneously applauded her. It was a beautiful performance, really great and very very moving.

F: Obviously growing up in England would give you an intimate insight into the mythology of Merlin and Arthur. Was it fun playing inside such a well-known mythology and reinventing these characters from your childhood?

ASH: I think so. I think the back story that they have created, which is now into season two and s getting very down and dirty -there’s some really rich skeletons in my cupboard- but the fact that they have taken this classic story which has been told so many times, from the Sword in the Stone, to Excalibur and The Lady in the Lake, you know all the stuff and so consequently people have told this tale in so many guises. Its been Arthur and the Britons to a lost legion of Roman soldiers to Sean Connery in a very strange woolen costume, its been done so many ways, yet this is such a fresh take on it.

To go back and say ‘what if Arthur and Merlin knew each other as young men’, and that Merlin’s job became to guide Arthur through the mêlée of being a young price to creating Avalon.

We’ve never really known Arthur’s background, apart from A Once a Future King where he was a young snobby sort of king being raised by Merlin to pull the sword out of the stone. But this gives you, the viewer, an almost voyeuristic viewpoint. Because you know what’s going to happen, its fun to see how things might have been set up.

When we first introduce Excalibur it comes out of somewhere else completely different, similar to the first time we introduce Lancelot. It’s a fun sense of ‘I know what’s going to happen but you don’t’.

I guess it’s comparable to Smallville, the American Superman series. I think they must have modeled it on that. It was such a clever idea, I mean we all know Superman but we don’t know about his beginnings, how he grew up. So why not do a show where Lex Luther and Superman are at school together.

F: Having said that, do feel the producers hold onto a sense of responsibility in maintaining the core mythology, and that it should dictate how the show unfolds?

ASH: Well there’s no template. I have a friend who hated the first episode and proceeded to send me ‘The Once and Future King’ with a note saying ‘This is the story. And I replayed back ‘This is a story’ It’s like taking Ivanhoe and reinventing that.

There is no template that says you have to do it this way. The fact is that ‘The Once and Future King’ just happens to mentions the same landmark happenings as we do, or are going to do. A lot of that hasn’t happened for us yet, that’s all to come. I don’t know where it will end or when or how Arthur gets married to Guinevere. I have no idea, but I think Uther might be long gone by then.

But there is a great care that they are taking to make sure the story points hit, that we don’t loose anything and that those moments are very valuable moments in our pail.

F: So how did you actually become involved and cast with the show?

ASH: I was doing another show called ‘The Invisibles’ for the BBC, and it was about five days before I was due to finish and I was sitting in my trailer overlooking a football field when Julie Gardner called me and said ‘I want you to have a look at this thing, it’s a new show I’m doing’, so she gave me a quick breakdown and said ‘I’d like you to play the role of King Uther Pendragon’.

Just the name was pretty cool, I mean I’d get to play Uther Pendragon and so I thought ‘Okay, let’s see the script and have a look’. So after that arrived I told them about my misgivings and they suggested I go meet James (Hawes), which I did, and we discussed things and here I am.

F: You’re arguably best known for your role as Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer that was lead primarily by a young cast. And now, with Merlin there seems to be a similar vibe with younger actors filling the majority of the cast. Do you find yourself taking on a father figure persona with these up and coming actors, or is there a sense of equality?

ASH: Well I was less parental in Buffy as my own children at the time were very small and I was working with these guys in their twenties. I felt more like an uncle then. I could conceivably be parental in Merlin in as much as I’m now 55 and these guys are in there twenties.

I mean there’s an interesting relationship between me and Bradley James who plays my son Arthur, he does behave like my son around me and I do admonish him like an impatient father occasionally. He has a habit of leaving his football in my room and I’ll constantly be telling him to come get it.

But it’s been great. The show is so well cast and they have a wonderful truth about them, no one has to over reach himself or herself to play something they can’t.

Colin Morgan who plays Merlin has the most extraordinary gift of being able to play humor and comedy and tragedy very simply and very easily. Something which, at his age I doubt I could have done. He has got an extraordinary quality.

Also Katie McGrath who plays Morgana has the most magical beauty about her. I was amazed when I sat down beside her in the read through. I thought she had been at this game for years, but this was the first read though she had ever done. She just has the most extraordinarily assured quality on set.

And Angel Coulby who plays Guinevere, she has a lovely lovely richness of humor and longing. They all are really very very well cast.

But do I feel parental toward them? No. Only because they know exactly what they are doing. We chat about many things.

The one thing I do know, which they don’t, is about L.A., about Hollywood. They haven’t been able to go over to the States this year for the launch because they were working, but I have no doubt they will be going over next year.

F: Speaking of which, what’s your view on L.A. these days? You’ve spent a lot of time over the years working there, has your opinion changed now your back home working in Europe?

ASH: I’m very found of L.A. Unfortunately I was only there for two days recently to promote the show. But it has its pros and cons working on the other side of the Atlantic.

If you happen to be lucky enough to get a series, your assured to get at least eight and half months work, whereas in England your lucky if you get six episodes. I’m very fortunate with Merlin that we get thirteen. But in England, I went from The Invisibles to Merlin to a show called Free Agents. I then did The Tempest briefly and then I came back into Merlin. The U.K. gives you the opportunity to multi-task if you will.

But America, I’m very fond of. I have a coupe of pilots out there and I’ve tested for a couple of things since Buffy. And now that my kids are older there is more of an opportunity to tinker over there. I have no doubt if the right thing hits, that I’ll definitely go and play there again. It’s a very interesting place to work, but not a great place to be out of work. There’s a great loneliness to being out of work in L.A.

F: Getting back to Merlin, there is this wonderful rich authenticity to the show which stems from the locations and sets. Where exactly is the show filmed?

ASH: It’s very evenly split between Cardiff, where we do a fair number of the interiors and France, in a château called Pierrefonds where we do most of the exteriors and a few interiors. It’s the most phenomenally beautiful castle. It’s quite young, built in 1880 on the ruins of a medieval castle. So it has a certain luminosity to the stone, which isn’t so old that it’s looking a bit grey. It’s like the seventh or eighth character in the script. It adds so much.

We just did a scene where we had a possible love interest for me and I walk across the cobbles to see Arthur having just dismounted from a horse and I was just looking at this extraordinary beautiful background and thinking you couldn’t do this on a set.

The first time I walked up into my throne room with this high vaulted ceiling and wooden paneling, which was literally the length of a football pitch, I knew I was King. You don’t have to act with that kind of setting, I just walk in, I know it’s mine and I just sit there with authority. In the first season, when people first see it they assume it CGI.

But the producers searched all over Europe for a castle, but when they didn’t find one they nearly cancelled everything because they couldn’t find the right setting.

Julian Murphy, the producer told me the other day that he was in Portugal looking when someone told him about Pierrefonds. So he went and had a look and literally just walked in and said ‘Okay, this is it!’

And it is perfect, it’s not medieval, its not renaissance, it’s a kind of hybrid as it was designed by this very strange architect call Viollet le Duc who did some of the refurbishment of Notre Dame, so its slightly odd. The gargoyles and the embellishments are a little strange, slightly spooky, but it all adds to this extraordinary back ground we get to play in.

F: As equally impressive are the costumes. How much enjoyment do you get in running around those locations dressed in full regal gowns or armor? I imagine there’s a few childhood fantasies come to fruition?

ASH: Oh, It’s fantastic. As a kid I loved Knights. I use collect plastic Knights when I was on holiday with my parents. In fact they built me this huge castle that was about three foot high and four foot wide. My imagination was very fertile when I was a child. I always use to dress up as knights or nobles, but our wardrobe on Merlin is so beautifully designed that when you walk down a corridor your cloak can’t help but bellow. There a little boy in me that’s having a great time, I assure you.

F: And how far into production are you with Season two?

ASH: We are now nearing the end of the second block, so about half way through.

But having said that, Merlin is working off of a five-year plan. And with it being hugely successful in Britain, and I’m delighted t hear its doing well in Australia, I would think that unless something truly bizarre happens it should run its intended course.

In some places it hasn’t yet been shown, Germany for instance isn’t due to screen it until October, but we are already getting German fans who have seen it on the internet.

I hope America takes to it, they’re playing a gamble by screening it in their summer and generally none of the networks show anything important during that period because they think everyone has gone on holidays. I assume the thinking is that families who are all together for the holidays can see it.

F: Can you offer up any details of what the Second season has to offer?

ASH: I’m not allowed to give away anything unfortunately, but there’s some great stuff coming which I think will satisfy everyone appetite. So far we have scripts up to episode eight and the storylines are very rich indeed…

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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