Anthony Stewart head has been something of a pop-culture stalwart these past ten years, having entered the genre pool with his iconic seven-year stint as Rupert Giles on the acclaimed series Buffy The Vampire Slayer, taking a satirical turn as English Prime Minister on the cult comedy series Little Britain, and even donning the fishnet stocking as Frank-n-Furter in a stage rendition of the Rocky Horror Tribute Show. However, the prolific North London actor, whose been puddle-jumping the various oceans as his fame escalates, shows no signs of slowing down, as his latest role, none-other than that of the fabled monarch Uther Pendragon, has been elevated to series regular on the high-fantasy sleeper hit Merlin.
We were lucky enough to secure a brief phone call with Anthony Stewart Head takes recently for a quick chat about the show’s sudden popularity, the enduring legacy of Giles and what makes good genre television?
Fletcher: Merlin seems to have surpassed all expectations with its success, both critically and commercially. Was the sudden popularity of the show s a surprise to you and the cast, or were their hints that the show would be hit from the early stages of production?
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, but apart from Iceland, Ireland and somewhere a little obscure, maybe Uzbekistan.
But you’re always surprised when a show does well, when a show becomes a big success. I mean, you always hope it’s going to be. But you never really know.
F: Obviously you’ve been involved with a number of hit shows, as well as your fair share of projects that never found their audience. From your personal experience, are you been able to put your finger on any elusive or particular element that’s helped Merlin connect with the audience so quickly, and completely?
ASH: Usually, as long as you get the script right and make sure people don’t speak too strangely, you’ll do fine.
But I think with Merlin, it has some very basic ingredients. It’s 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 to 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 the makings of a really great show. Actually, it already is a great show. It has such a wide audience appeal, that allows it to be snapped up by anyone really.
F: There does seem to be an element of the-right-place-at-the-right time for Merlin. But with Season Two now shooting in France, what were your initial thoughts of the project when they first approached you for the role back in 2007?
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. There was a possibility that they’d play it much younger, with a little more simplicity, and not go nearly as dark as it does.
But I eventually 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 the story was in line with everyone’s similar thinking, 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 show’s 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 engaged by the show, that they’re commited to it and want to know what happens next.
F: And having worked with James Hawes previously, were you able to collaborate on the development and direction of your character?
ASH: James and I sat down and discussed my character Uther Pendragon rather thoroughly. I told him I didn’t want to make him just a ‘shouty’ king, someone 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 being a bit shouty.
And true to his word every time I did, he would come up and whisper to me ‘Your being a little bit Queen of Hearts’ so I’d back off a bit.
F: During that first season, was there a particular scene or script that gave you a real understanding of Merlin’s thematic and emotional direction, and how your performance should be tailored to fit into that world?
ASH: The first script I read, which was episode 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 (Torchwood) 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 one of the French background artists spontaneously applauded her. It was a beautiful performance, really great and very very moving.
F: Obviously growing up in England you’d have an intimate knowledge of the mythology surrounding Merlin and Arthur. Was the idea of playing inside this richly detailed mythology and reinventing these characters from your childhood appealing, or did were you apprehensive at rewriting their fabled exploits?
ASH: I think so. The back story that they’ve created, which is now spilling over into season two, is getting very down-and-dirty; there are 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, where you know all the stuff and people have told the tales in so many guises, be it as Arthur and the Britons, to a lost legion of Roman soldiers, to Sean Connery in a very strange woollen costume.. it’s been done so many ways. And yet this is such a fresh take on it.
To go back and ask ‘What if Arthur and Merlin knew each other as young men?’ and that Merlin’s job was in fact to guide Arthur through the mêlée of being a young prince, in order to help create 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 even though you know what’s going to eventually happen, it’s fun to see how things might have been set up differently.
When we first introduce Excalibur, it comes out of somewhere else completely different than what was expected, 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 modelled us on that. It was such a clever idea, I mean we all know Superman, but we didn’t know about his beginnings, or 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 a sense of responsibility in maintaining the core mythology, and that it should dictate how the show, its narrative and characters should unfold?
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 mention the same landmark occurences as we do… or are going to do. A lot of that hasn’t happened for us yet, that’s still all to come. I don’t know where it will end, or even 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 lose anything and that those moments are very valuable moments in our pail.
F: You’ve certainly bought an element of legitimacy to the production, not just from your performance, but with your undeniable cult-status as a genre actor and dare I say, pop-culture icon? How did you actually become cast in the series?
ASH: I was doing another show called The Invisibles for the BBC, and about five days before I was due to finish I was sitting in my trailer overlooking a football field when Julie Gardner, one of our producers, 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: Most international audiences would arguably know you best from your portrayal as Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which you starred alongside a cast of relatively young actors. A situation similar in which you find yourself with Merlin, where younger actors filling the majority of the cast. Do you find yourself adopting a father figure persona with these up-and-coming actors, or do you encourage a sense of equality among the actors?
ASH: I would say I was less parental in Buffy as my own children at the time were very small, and I was working with these guys who were mostly in their twenties. I felt more like an uncle I guess.
But 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 this habit of leaving his football in my room, so I’m constantly be telling him to come get it.
But it’s been great. The show is so well cast, and they each 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 that she had ever done. She just has the most extraordinarily assured quality on set.
And then there’s Angel Coulby who plays Guinevere, she has a lovely, lovely richness of humor and longing. They all are really very well cast.
But do I feel parental toward them? No. Only because they know exactly what they are doing. The one thing I do know something about, which they don’t, is 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, you’ve spent a lot of time over the years working in America. Has your opinion of the Hollywood system changed much now your back home working in Europe?
ASH: I’m very fond 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 month’s 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. certainly gives you the opportunity to multi-task if you will.
But America, I’m very fond of. I have a couple 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 many of the locations, including no small number of castles and chateaus. Can you offer a little insight into 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, which is where we do most of the exteriors and just 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 extraordinarily 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 panelling, 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 saw that room, they assume it was CGI. But the producers searched all over Europe for a castle, and when they didn’t find one, they nearly cancelled everything because they couldn’t find the right setting.
Our producer Julian Murphy had 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, it’s not renaissance, it’s a kind of hybrid as it was designed by this very strange architect named Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who did some of the refurbishment of Notre Dame, so it’s all slightly odd. The gargoyles and the embellishments are a little strange, slightly spooky, but it all adds to this extraordinary background we get to play in.
F: As equally impressive are the costumes. How much enjoyment do you get in running around in those locations dressed in full regal gowns or your suit of Armor? I imagine there’s a few childhood fantasies being lived out on those sets.
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 as 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’s a little boy in me that’s having a great time, I assure you.
F: So with Season Two well under way, do you have much more shooting to do personally? And I would be remiss if I didn’t at least attempt to ask if your able to offer any hints as to what we can expect from the sophomore season?
ASH: We are now nearing the end of the second block, so about halfway through shooting the second season.
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 to hear its doing well in Australia, I would think that unless something truly bizarre happens, it should run its intended course.
I do hope America takes to it though. They’re playing a gamble by screening it in their summer, as generally none of the networks show anything important during that period as they assume everyone has gone on holidays. I guess the thinking is that families who are all together for the holidays can watch it.
And while I’m not allowed to give away anything unfortunately, here is some great stuff coming which I think will satisfy everyone’s appetite. So far, we have scripts up to episode eight and the storylines are indeed, very rich.