Anthony Head and Colin Morgan talk about the show's first season
While the summertime usually means reruns, NBC is turning back the clock with a brand new series dealing with the wizardry of Merlin, which premieres on Sunday, June 21 at 8 PM ET on NBC. Anthony Head plays King Uther Pendragon on the series and Colin Morgan steps into the robe of the title character, Merlin, on the series and the two actors recently held a conference call to discuss their new series. Here's what they had to say.
Hey Anthony, you've done a lot of things but I don't think you've done very much this period of the Camelot period and so forth. Is this really your first time in this - doing a show in this era?
Anthony Head: It's my first time as a knight. To be honest there's not actually that much of this kind of era been done. I mean one of the things about this show is it's one of those shows that you ask yourself why the hell it hasn't been done before because it kind of basically has a little bit of everything. It has romance. It has thrills. It has spills. It has beautiful photography. It has stunning sets, beautiful costumes and it's a great thing to watch. And you do kind of wonder why it hasn't been done before. You know, one of the classics when somebody invents something, you go why the hell didn't I think of that. So I think the answer is because it's a production (values around there) and they are with this show that it would just - it would look a little sad. And the whole thing about - I mean the producers searched Europe and pretty much as far as they could for the right castle for Camelot, nearly gave up because they couldn't find their Camelot. And then right at the last minute found Pierrefonds, which is where we shoot. And it truly is like the seventh or eight character on the cast list because it is - it's absolutely stunning and it lends its weight to pretty much everything we do. And I have to say that as a kid I used to love playing knights and running around in my garden with a bamboo pole pretending to have sword fights. So this for me it's a really terrible job and I don't enjoy it at all.
Could you be a little more specific? Tell us where that castle is kind of (unintelligible) because I couldn't follow that. And tell us roughly where it is in England. And do you do all your filming there or just the castle scenes?
Anthony Head: No. The castle is actually in France. It's an hour north of Paris and it's called Pierrefonds. It's P-I-E-double R-E-F-O-N-D-S. And it was actually built on a medieval ruins in 1880 commissioned by Napoleon III and it's - he asked his architect to build him a working model basically of a medieval (unintelligible) or chateau. And it's - consequently it sort of has a luminosity about it. It's sort of - the stones still looks new even though it's a few hundred years old. And that sort of as a huge kind of prism. It's not like a castle that's got, you know, bits missing and chunks taken out of it. It's all there and consequently it feels when we're working in it like it's, you know, it's home. We shoot about - well, it's about two and a half months, three months in the chateau and the rest of the time we spend in Wales on sets and shooting sort of Camelot scenery in the lush countryside of Wales.
Tony when you play a king do the people on the set treat you - do they treat you better - do they treat you special?
Anthony Head: They treat me very, very specially. I don't - I don't really - I mean I am, you know, much the same way that as Giles. I was kind of the oldest - one of the elder actors on set. But I mean having said that, I am joined by Richard Wilson who plays Gauis, the court physician. So the two of us are kind of like the older statesmen. And then there's John Hurt who is the voice of the dragon. We haven't - we don't really meet him because he's incarcerated in the bowels of Camelot. So it's down to me and Richard to kind of make sure that everybody is kept in their places. But I don't think because I play the kind anybody gives - the French supporting artist I must admit are extremely - they give me great deference. When I walk in they all bow, which is always nice. We try and get them trained (when I arrive). But it's actually - it's a really, really lovely set and we've been able to attract all sorts of really great guests (off it). And one of the reasons, somebody told me, is that the vibes in the business is that it's a really, really nice set to work on. And that comes from the producers and from the crew is a really great crew. And the - it has to be said that the cast is - we're very happy about.
Colin, what turned you onto this role and this project? What was it that made you want to be part of it?
Colin Morgan: Well I mean I think especially one of the things is (you know) many of the guest artists that were part of the stories is shown in the stories and the script because they're constantly changing and evolving and (unintelligible) that's one of the things that really works about it is the variety that this and that the show presents because when you think Arthurian legend and you think about Merlin and Arthur, you think of about that period in history. And what's great is (just a) an idea started with that and twisted it and turned it on its head and made it into something completely new and different. So I think that's what was so exciting about it. And plus I get to do (logic) every day and sort of go through adventures and you find yourself, you know, in different places all the time seeing things that you would never see under any other circumstance. And the challenge of playing such a historical character as Merlin presented in a way that we've never seen before. And I mean all those factors just made it a really exciting project to be a part of.
When I (see) King Arthur, I think of the movie Excalibur with Nigel Terry and Nicole Williamson being Merlin or I think of Monty Python that - so yes, you have (reinvented) it in quite a different way.
Anthony Head: It has - can I just say it has to be said that Colin is a little bit better looking than Nicole Williamson.
Anthony you talked about the production value but in terms of the writing, what was sort of new and exciting and what's it (repeal) to you about the writing?
Anthony Head: The writing they spent some time getting right. And it was - it was - initially it was - it was quite hard. They wanted to write something, which was accessible but didn't seem like a team show. It ultimately - you know, there was certain anachronistic references, which stayed and some which were cut out. You know, people say okay and, you know, and yes, sort of yes. Not me I have to add. I talk like a king and always will. But it was - so basically they wanted to get a script, which would sound as I say accessible so it would appeal to the widest audience of all. At the same time they didn't want to have something which sounded too hip, too, you know, too silly basically. And also when I first read the script, I was - one of my concerns was that, you know, it could have gone down the road of kiddy show. It could have been very light. It could have been, you know, when we would deal with the witch that she could have been, you know, the warty, toady woman, you know. And ultimately I talked - had a long talk with James Hawes who was the first director and I'd worked with him on Doctor Who and so I knew his pedigree and also I'd worked with Judy Gardner who was the head of (BBC World Drama) who was responsible for getting the show put on. And I knew both their pedigrees and I knew both their sensibilities. They're both extremely sharp and anyway James assured me that we would be going as dark as possible and that we would - my character wouldn't be two dimensional and it has been born out because basically even though I am somewhat of a villain, I do so because I have to or I feel like I have to. I just basic old school (despot). You know, I am - I am a tyrant but ultimately I do it in my book for the right reasons. And, you know, if I have to chop someone's head off, it's because I believe it's (fitting).
It occurred to me that we're dealing with a world where magicians are persecuted and magic is banned. Is this a metaphor?
Anthony Head: For what?
Well for any persecuted group that...
Anthony Head: Any persecuted group. To be honest, I don't - I think really it just gives you an area of conflict in which someone, you lead character, Merlin who his whole (unintelligible) his whole reason for being is that he's very good at magic and he's actually a young sorcerer, can't actually function because he's in danger of having his head cut off. And I mean throughout, you know, throughout the first season and into the second, the persecuted and there are druids and there are all sorts of minorities that are persecuted. But it has to be said that the (oof) or premise of doing this is the fact that he feels strongly that you've no one, whatever their motives, however much they say that they will use magic for the good, can resist being drawn to the dark side for his own reasons. And in some cases it has to be vetted, born out and he is absolutely right as I keep telling everybody, but no one seems to be listening. What do you think Colin?
Colin Morgan: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, yeah, I don't think - I think it is very much, you know, contained within that world. I think whenever you see - whenever you see the show and you see the look of it and the feel of it especially being inside of the castle and you're completely buy into that world and you believe sort of everything in it and you really do not - you - magic is a thing that just is there and is accepted and as the (Duke was known), I think you become enthralled with that without I think being caught up in any sort of metaphorical (records). It is very much within that world and yeah, I hope the audiences will sort of be connected with Merlin (and his spot again) against villains that come into play and try to overthrow the - overthrow Camelot.
Colin, in the first episode your fight with Arthur where you saw your magic, that's Merlin using all his magic. But it occurred to me as an actor you don't really get to do anything because it's all special effects. Can you talk about shooting that scene?
Yeah. We're fighting in the streets with Arthur. And yeah, again, when it comes into special effects and things of that within the show, for me it was very - it was very new and very different but also quite exciting because you just get to use your imagination on - and you get a bit of free reign with it although you have to be quite technical in terms of where you look and how you look and what way you do it. It's kind of limitless. I mean it's great to just sort of experiment with that and to have a bit of fun. But yeah, I was speaking to the dragon voiced by John Hurt is like you're speaking to a green screen but in a - in a room that look like a cave. And when you see the fight, it is amazing. The creatures they've had to - they've had to create as being Griffins or (she) elders like water immense and things they just - they did unbelievable job and when we watch the show back in theaters, you know, you've got one idea in your head of what you shot and then you see the final product and it's something that really wouldn't be out of place in the film. And so yeah, the whole progress and how it all - the process and just the fact that it isn't anything to watch and yet as an actor it gives me great experience.
Colin I wanted to ask one of the things I loved about the show was its irreverence and its great sense of humor and it wasn't all mired down in just special effects. Did you find that attractive that your Merlin is not dead serious?
Colin Morgan: Yeah. I mean that's one of the great things is, you know, everyone gets - as soon as you hear the name Merlin, immediate sort of image will pop into most people's heads is a little gut with a beard or with a little serious guy and then when you get the opportunity to play Merlin like it's never been seen before of the old boy and with a quirkiness and a clumsiness (then it was a trip). And yeah something I definitely like almost open arms and had a lot of fun playing. Of course I come from - I interact with the other characters within the show as well. Arthur being the arrogant and the young prince who you see over the series actually develop up surprising ways and you see he actually has a good heart and he is intentions are in the right place. And also we see Morgana and how she develops. And Gwen, her relationship as we've never seen her before. We normally see Gwen as the - as the - as the future queen whereas we see her as a maiden next door. Everyone's character, we've all got something to - something new to show, a different tell and people would normally associate with these characters.
Anthony Head: It has to be said also - can I just add that the rapport between Colin and Bradley, Bradley James who plays Arthur offset as well as onset leaves us all very confused. But they are - they are very funny on screen.
Anthony, how have British audiences responded to the significant differences with traditional Arthurian legend? Has there been any outcry for purists?
Anthony Head: Of course there's been an outcry from purists. They wouldn't be purists if they didn't outcry. Yeah, they basically, you know, there is - we have very close friend who even (censored) me once a future king I think it was. (This is the story. This is how I want it to be). And one is at pains to say it's a story. It isn't the truth. It isn't history. It's myth and legend and therefore it is based on hearsay and on people's opinions. So therefore if you come up with a different way of telling the story, you're not actually doing anything desperately relevant. You're just showing another way of telling the story. And the bottom line is that there will be lots of children who probably wouldn't be tuned into, you know, the original Arthurian legend by not because we've seen so many different takes on it. We've seen him as a Roman Centurion, as an ancient Britain. We've seen Sean Connery in slightly odd (polar net jumper). We've seen Nigel Terry, you know, with his - where (Nicole) went into a strange (dynamic) path. Ultimately, you know, there aren't that many ways more ways of telling the tale. And to actually have found a different spin on it, a young spin, a humorous spin, a dark spin, you know, I'm sure there are purists who decry (Smallville) who say you can't talk about the Clark Kent, Lex Luther relationship as if it, you know, as if it started as to - why not? And bottom line is it, you know, it actually tells a tale and it's entertaining, it's thrilling and the other story is still there. If you want to go and read it then go and read it. It has to be said thankfully for the purists are far, far outweighed by the audience that have enjoyed it.
Colin, considering the enormous success of the Harry Potter series, why do you think magic holds such a feel for the youth of today?
Colin Morgan: I mean, you know, kind of something I should have - been, you know, what Anthony said. It's pure and here I'm getting to see the, you know, someone young and that can - that people can relate to doing extraordinary things. And then, and said a lot of thing about Merlin as a character about, you know, he is - he's born with and yet he finds himself in a world where its punishable upon death that he takes it upon himself to accept his death I mean which is as we know with the audience is to bring Arthur to the throne. And I think it's a grown up tale, it's a grown up story to see Merlin as a regular kid. He just - he just happens to have these magical abilities. And I think - I think audiences enjoy seeing him as sort of someone who wouldn't have a chance at life for any other way. Only that he has that hidden - (unintelligible) hidden ability and I think there's a lot of hope and I guess encouragement from that here I think you're really wanting a hero along throughout the story. And yeah, I think it's pure entertainment. It's fun to watch. And yeah, I think it's well the effects and the stories that they're driving on. And I think audiences become enthralled so I think it's just - I think it's got that kind of appeal of magic is just hot right now or something.
Anthony Head: Can I also say I think, you know, I mean for as far back as, you know, movies have been made, I mean right way back to the (seats of Baghdad), all sorts of, you know, ways of dealing with magic have always been hugely entertaining. I mean look back at, you know, the first time, you know, Alec Guinness said feel the force Luke in Star Wars. You know, the idea of someone young and apparently innocent being able to do extraordinary things is incredibly palatable and, you know, fascinating. But not just for kids to watch but for us all because it unleashes that innocence and that, you know, the spirit of anything can be done. And that's a great thing for us all to believe. And, you know, I still believe that anything can be done. And I still believe in fairies.
Anthony, I just wanted to ask you a little bit about what you still hear from fans of Buffy and are you surprised that the show this many years after its cancellation is still so popular with fans?
Anthony Head: It wasn't cancelled. It was never cancelled. Just we took a bow and decided to basically that he had said enough. Although having said that and I haven't seen it all, but Season 8 is alive and kicking in comic book form. No I'm not surprised inasmuch as, you know, ultimately Buffy was an extraordinary piece of writing. And because of that, the fact that it was used by universities as an example of modern writing - you know, I'm amazed when I got to LA and I go and meet producers who came up as writers and, you know, Buffy was almost their bible and they almost genuflect. So it's always very flattering but it's nothing to do with me. It's because I worked with Josh Whedon. What does amaze me, and the fact that I love, is that I'm constantly met by young people and I think that they've seen something else I'm in, Little Britain or Merlin and Buffy goes - I don't know what it does in the states but it goes round and round. It's cyclical here and it keeps garnering young audiences. And long may that be so because it is - it is great TV. But one of the things that appeals about Buffy was the fact that it was - it was so multi generational. It was - even though Fox didn't market it this way, Fox marketed it for 15 year olds to 25 year olds. But it actually was to get people so the middle aged people coming as we think slightly ashamed of it as they watch Buffy and it's written for everyone. It is truly universal appeal and that is the secret of Merlin as well. It has this extraordinary generate - multi generational appeal that people come up to me in the street and say thank you. This is truly, truly - I go it's nothing to do with me. I (didn't write) it. But they say this is truly a show that we can sit down with our kids and everybody loves it. Everybody - it's a truly family show. And there's not that many shows that parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters, teens, 25 years olds down to the age of six can actually enjoy a show together. There's something in it for everybody. And it's once every few years a show like it comes along. And as I say it's one of those shows that you don't want - why wasn't this made before. It's kind of very simple, very basic premise but it's a very clever premise. And as I say, it somehow appeals to everyone.
What have you found challenging about your role?
Anthony Head: Oh, learning to walk with a sword. Eating with gloves. No, it's actually - although I am being facetious there is a way of walking with a sword so that you don't - because sometimes - most of the time you walk with your hand on the hilt. But occasionally you have to use both your hands and you can't have your hand on the hilt. And it does have a bazaar of catching between your legs and tripping you over, tripping you up. And you do seem to look like a bit of a twerp. Equally I elected to play Uther with gloves. I wanted it to be a bit like Howard Hughes that he is so paranoid about magic that he doesn't want to touch anything with his skin, which actually works very well. But I do also have to eat with gloves on. And (consequently) when I'm eating something messily with my, you know, with my hands it tends to stick on the gloves. But as I say that's me being facetious. The true challenge of the role is as I say to make him multi dimensional and to give him a reason for doing what he does and not just making him and old fashioned (dirt pod). He has - he has real reasons for making the decisions he does. And occasionally very, very occasionally he's proven right. Most of the times he's proven wrong. And the decisions that he makes are particularly unpopular. But he makes the decisions. At least he makes the decisions and sticks by them. He's not, you know, he doesn't waiver. It's fun playing a parent of, you know, of a young prince (reason) that, you know, we have family arguments on the set that sort of - it's something out of - I don't know, some medieval tale. But I mean that's the principle challenge is just try to make him - keep him human. And not - I mean right at the beginning when I talk to James Hawes, the director of the first block and I said, you know, please don't let me get too shouty. I don't want to be one of those shouty kings who sort of every time there's (unintelligible) just sort of scream to people. And he says all right, I'll let you know. Every now and again he'd come up - he'd sidle up to me and he'd whisper in my ear, it's a big queen of hearts. And I'd say okay. And I'd back off a bit. And interestingly doesn't it happen, one director about halfway through somebody said I love what you're doing with your voice. I said what, what am I doing with my voice? And he pointed out that I actually was speaking in a much lower tone than my natural voice when I was playing Uther. And it's something I've become aware of and when I watch it it's like my God, I don't normally talk like that. That's a bit extraordinary. I've got this really low, quite the tone and it worked very well. Give me some strange authority that I certainly don't have in real life.
I was curious on how well did you know the story of Merlin before you signed on to this?
Anthony Head: I've seen lots of versions. You know, I mean basically they're all landmark. You know, there's the Sword and the Stone, there's the Lady in the Lake, there's, you know, oh Lancelot's turning up; oops that spells trouble for Arthur and ooh now, you know, more garners getting ready to oh Mordred's going to ruin everything. And right in the middle of it all is in, you know, Merlin stirring things up. And I think in England we know the story very well, which is why as I say it's been told in so many different ways but it's still been the same. You know, they dress it up in different ways but they just tell the same tale which is why this I think has caught the public's attention because it just - it's refreshing to see a different spin which allows the audience to be more knowledgeable than the players or the protagonists. We all know when we see Excalibur created, we know how it's going to end up. But it's fascinating to know, you know, how in our stories creating and how we see it. It's, you know, when you see a character turn up like Lancelot, you know that it's going to have repercussions but it's fascinating to know - you know, it's a very clever re-working. It's a very - it makes - it gives you an opportunity to be bit sort of voyeur as an audience. You kind of - you get a sneaky sort of - a laugh because you know - you know, how it's going to somehow end up. And that's - it's fun. It's just - I mean exactly the same way as (Smallville). There is - there are specific characters that have been introduced throughout the season and when you introduced - you know, you know that somewhere along the line he's either going to be trouble or he's going to be help (to Superman).
I also want to know about the wardrobe. Like since it's from the period I guess, do you find it heavy and hard to work in or was it all right?
Anthony Head: It's interesting. Charlotte who's the designer has managed to put together because there is no period (unintelligible) to Camelot really. We're in this indefinable sort of medieval time which, you know, I mean we eat with knives and forks and, you know, and we eat off plates and we, you know, there are all sorts of anachronistic elements. But the beautiful costume design has sort of - initially the problems that I've had - I mean we cloak for instance. Cloaks have a strange habit of falling off backwards. And the less you can - I mean there's a certain way that you can wear a cloak with a sort of belt with ties around behind you that holds it in place. But if you can't do that for one reason or another, and a couple of mine I couldn't, I mean I wear half a cow at one point. I have a cowhide and cloak and it always - I made an idiotic suggestion. I watched Lion in Winter and at one point Anthony Hopkins, the young witch had wore half a sheep as a cloak and he wore it with a woolen side and went ah, now that makes sense. You see that would actually be warmer so why don't I wear it with the cowhide outside and the fur or the hair inside. Of course it was really, really slippery and it choked me. Every step I took it would completely be pulling off my shoulders. And the other thing - I made a lot of stupid mistakes. At one point I would wear chain medals. We had a - we had a tournament at one point and I suggested at the ball afterwards - at the feast in honor of the winner I would wear chains now because I am a warrior king and I want to remind people at all times that I - I was pretty good in battle. So wore chain metal, which looked fantastic and actually makes you feel very real because it's actually proper chain metal but it's made out of aluminum instead of steel.
Anthony Head: It's not as - obviously not as heavy as steel but it's (designly) restricting and after you've worn it all day, your shoulders at the end of the day, it's weird. They're sort of pulled into this shape. So that when you finally take it off you could - it's like taking this heavy (yoke) off. After all that it's worth suffering for because it looks absolute stunning. Let's say the costume design if she doesn't win an award for it, I'd say there's something very wrong in the world because it is - that and the production design on there is just stunning, absolutely stunning.
Joss is back in television and he got his Dollhouse picked up for a second series. Have you had any just even friendly conversations about maybe dipping one of his future projects again?
Anthony Head: We've had conversations about working together again. It's, I don't know, something that may happen again in the future. I hope so. We've talked about a project that he and I have been talking about for a long time, which got sideswiped by Dollhouse because Dollhouse suddenly presented itself. He came up with an idea, pitched it at lunch with Eliza and from that moment on it was - it was a done deal. I don't think, I may be wrong, but I don't think any of the Buffy crew could really, well not crew because there's a lot of Buffy crew working on Dollhouse, but actors would really fit comfortably in Dollhouse because you'd automatically be, you know, you'd be taken to Faith. And Eliza is not Faith in Dollhouse. She's a fascinating character that, you know, lives a totally different life from Faith and it came out through the life of Faith that, you know, she'd like to - she'd like to play something different than what Eliza is usually asked to play. And he came up with the idea that she could play something different every week. And from there Dollhouse was born. But I would love to work with him again. I think he's a fascinating writer, fascinating director. He's a lovely, lovely guy. I'm very, very fond of him and I would - I'd, you know, I don't use the word genius lightly but I think he is one.
That long talk about project with Josh wasn't by any chance Rippersville was it?
Anthony Head: Strangely yes. Ripper is a kind of a - it's a funny old thing. Whether it ever gets made or not - if it does ever get made I'll probably be an octogenarian by the time it does. But it is something I actually introduced Josh to Julie Gardner who was the exact producer on the - with the BBC. She has long wanted to do something with the project. There are obviously complications with Ripper because there is - there are lots of tie ins. There's props, there's the (gazuies). There's all sorts of stuff that, you know, basically it isn't just a simple question of Josh making a series that he wants to make as far as anything concerned with Buffy. There are a lot of people down the line that would have a say. And that's part of the equation. But we were sort of talking about, you know, how you would - what we might do with it. And as I say, pretty much at that point he had this conversation with Eliza and the rest is history for the moment. You know, I mean I think Dollhouse is a stunning series. I think he really is a great writer. I would like to see him make more movies. I think, you know, I thought Serenity was a funny film and actually it was hugely well received by critics and at the same time was not possibly marketed as well as it might have been. It was a great film. And I love - he makes writing really count. It's not just writing for writing sake. He gives everything a life and a reason and it's - you know, I mean with Dollhouse, I think - I think he had problems initially with Fox because they wanted one show and he was sticking readily with his guns. And I think they've gone with it now because they realized that ultimately it has got - it's wonderfully complex and it, you know, all the characters have got all sorts of neuroses and problems and, you know. I mean it's a fascinating world that he's created with Dollhouse because you have no idea what three of them (have got). And that's, you know, the whole thing about the secret about grave (rocking) is complex. And, you know, it's what they've done with Merlin - you know, by creating a world in which magic is forbidden on pain of death, they've created a very, very interesting world for a young Merlin to exist or not to, you know, basically fight for his life. As I say, writing's about - good writing's, a good drama is about conflict. And if, you know, like Joss Whedon you can allow comedy to come through to support your, you know, to support your drama. It makes the thrills and spills that much more pertinent and that much more poignant when, you know, when you do get it. When you get the shop horror it gives you a bed to feed it in. You know, and then ultimately that's what makes its appeal so wide.
You can watch Anthony Head as King Uther Pendragon and Colin Morgan as the title character when Merlin premieres on Sunday, June 21 at 8 PM ET on NBC.