He’s back. After starring in “FlashForward,” whose fans were outraged when ABC canceled the series,Joseph Fiennes returns to TV in Starz’s re-telling of the classic King Arthur tale, “Camelot.” The 10-episode series debuts April 1, but Starz is sneaking the opening installment this Saturday, following the finale of “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.” (You’ll also be able to watch it here on xfinitytv.com). In it, Fiennes plays the manipulative sorcerer Merlin, who is pitted against the new Royal, (Jamie Cambell Bower), and Arthur’s half-sister and fellow magician, Morgan Le Fey, (Eva Green). We recently caught up with Fiennes to discuss this new role and his own experience with the dark arts.
The many adaptations of the King Arthur story are almost as epic as the story itself. Do you have a favorite? As a Brit I’d think it was “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
That’s so good! “Monty Python,” definitely. I should have thought of that immediately. I’ve gotten all highfalutin about it, but you’re absolutely right. Forget Tennyson and Malory – it’s definitely John Cleese.
How familiar were you with this tale going into “Camelot”?
Over and above the iconic images of Excalibur and the Lady from the Lake, I didn’t have [much knowledge]. I guess my introduction came from John Boorman’s “Excalibur,” with a very beautiful Helen Mirren – who is still very beautiful, by the way. That was brilliant. What I love about the Morte d’Arthur, or at least Malory’s translations, is that there’s so much there. When you talk about Camelot there should be several images. At the moment I only have a couple.
Have you ever been into magic?
Card tricks. Who didn’t like a card trick? I’m good with my nieces and nephews but when they got past the age of 2 they figured it out, so I’m sort of off it right now.
What was the timeline between finishing “FlashForward” and beginning “Camelot”?
“FlashForward” was looking pretty unlikely, and the conversation started happening with “Camelot.” When we got the kind of no greenlight for “FlashForward,” I had a conversation with [executive producer] Chris Chibnall and [Starz president] Chris Albrecht. I liked his [Chibnall’s] take on it. And you see it a lot in episode 4, which is where I feel the best of Camelot lies – in the examining of myth, and how we get to accept myth and legend.
Watch An Extended “Camelot” Sneak Peek:
Now that you’re working on this, does the cancellation of “FlashForward” feel almost fortuitous?
Who knows. It’s weird. I just get my head down and work with what excites me. I loved the challenges of “FlashForward,” and I thought David [Goyer] and the team had a great premise, but somehow it disappeared on us. I think there’s a big difference here, and although we had a great time, I’m enjoying the fact that it’s not network, that it’s not straitjacketed with the very subversive barrier of ratings and demographics and who is watching it. That all somehow gets involved with the creative. It’s lovely to not be free of that. This is just like making one-hour movies.
What a nerve racking exercise.
It’s not nerve wracking, it’s just boring. I had known about the ratings, but it’s just like – of course when you open a movie everyone’s aware of box office tickets and things like that…but in the process of when you’re doing it, it’s an interesting dance. I think television is really quite interesting in the fact that the audience really participates within the making – to some degree. Not with this of course, because we’re already finished. But with the networks it really does throw up a kind of chemistry. But you wonder sometimes if the tail is wagging the dog.
You shot in Ireland. So did HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Why do you think it’s such a prime location for these fantasy series?
It’s got great pubs and Guinness! They’ve got such a great film industry, and we had an extraordinary crew. We were blessed with a crew that had been working for four or five years on “The Tudors,” so they were a well-oiled machine. But there’s also the countryside. A large character is the countryside. Merlin is also a deeply Pagan character, and Ireland is hugely sort of energized by Pagan mythology. It’s totally apt to be there.
You’ve mentioned before that this is a more modern version of the classic story. How so?
We give it our twist for a modern audience. We allow them in intellectually on the idea of myth, and I think that for me is a really strong element within the show. The challenge is also to have fun with a brilliant, inexhaustible character, because the material is pretty extensive. But Merlin himself, you could look at him in so many different ways. And the research I’ve done, there’s a multitude of different tellings, from the Welsh, the Scottish, the Brits, and the Irish — they all have their version of him. What I loved is the duality that he is both Machiavellian and devious, and angelic. He’s not to be trusted. And I said, God help me, that he was a cross between Donald Rumsfeld and Obi Wan Kanobi. He’s a real puppet master.
Were you initially approached to play Merlin, or was there a consideration you could play Arthur?
It was always Merlin. They wanted Arthur to be really young.
You couldn’t play young?
[Laughs] I couldn’t! Those days are loooonng gone. Thank God.
How are we going to see him develop?
If I was going to put a contemporary twist on my pitch of the character, I’d say there’s an element of David Blaine in Merlin. He’s a bit of a showman at times. But I think also to push that a bit further in a more serious answer, he really wants to swear himself off magic, he really doesn’t want to be a part of magic. Arthur is this wonderful, innocent, precious entity that’s going to bring a fractured, disenfranchised, murderous landscape into one. He’s going to bring democracy, hope, chivalry, honor – that’s a lot of things. [Laughs] And it’s all actually unachievable. The whole of Camelot is built on a fairly dubious set of morals. Really behind the corridors the worms are eating away at their foundations. That’s what’s so fascinating.