Q&A: Joseph Fiennes on Camelot

The actor talks about playing a skinhead Merlin and mixing magic with carnal desire

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In 1998 you starred in Shakespeare in Love, which made you a household name, then you withdrew to the stage…

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I never withdrew. I wanted to maintain a balance, and every couple of years I’ll always do theatre. I started off in south London at the Young Vic at the age of 17 and went to drama school afterwards; it was only about theatre. So I never had a burning ambition to succeed in another medium. You learn pretty quickly that film is not the actor’s true medium. There’s also that thing of being pigeonholed. In theatre, you’re not sidelined by the way you look or your age. I’m 41 now, not 17, and theatre will accept that. In cinema, if you’re a success at one age, they want you to stay that age. Once you grow up or change, it becomes kind of difficult.

Is it true you were offered a five-film deal with a major studio – and turned it down?

I was offered that, but I just wanted to be free. I want to be free to go with my gut. To say I want to do six months in the West End, to write a short film and shoot it in Moscow… To say, I’ve never done television, let’s have a go at FlashForward.

Turning to Camelot, your Merlin cuts quite a surprising figure. What, no beard? And a skinhead? How else does he differ from the standard version?

I wanted to get away from that iconic look of a wizard with the pointy hat and staff and long beard. I think of him as a mix between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Donald Rumsfeld [President
Bush’s defence secretary]. This sort of great, machiavellian puppet master behind the scenes,
who takes this young boy — Arthur — and grooms him for power. Theirs is like an Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker relationship.

Does he indulge in spells and sorcery?

Ultimately he is a wizard, but I didn’t want “wizard things”. I felt I could get more of a handle on him as a great political manipulator. For him, magic is like abusing a class-A drug – not that I’ve done that – it can take over and begins to control and condemn you. This is a young Merlin and he’s exploring those powers, learning to understand them. He’s developing into the Merlin that we know.

This is quite a steamy Camelot. Does Merlin get to have some fun?

He might do! Again, reading about Merlin, he’s not this saint. I think in some ways he’s deeply carnal, but he wears different faces all that time – he’s a real trickster. He loves getting into people’s minds – and probably into their pants, too. We’ll see.

Did you read the Arthurian legend as a boy?

I grew up with all the great iconic imagery – the lady in the lake, the sword in the stone,
the Knights of the Round Table, chivalry and honour. But Chris Chibnall [Camelot creator] has been working from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and it’s massive. I realise now I was ignorant of 90 per cent of the stories. So this show is like Wikileaks on Camelot. We’re getting the real angle of how these myths, the history that we’ve been fed, is actually completely warped.

And were you a fan of Monty Python and the Holy Grail – that other great reference work?

I was a massive fan, massive. It’s impossible to erase the image of the Knights of the Round Table tapdancing and saying they push a pram-a-lot. Actually, I’m sure there’s some footage somewhere of the Camelot cast doing impersonations of Monty Python just before action is called on a big, serious moment in shooting. I mean, Monty Python is part of our heritage.

Your last two big projects have been on the small screen. Has television superseded film for you?

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I grew up with Spielberg, Lean, Hitchcock, Kubrick. That was film, and television was this little box that didn’t do films justice. The “small screen” is the iPod now. Television is
actually the big screen — everyone’s got a plasma and surround sound. So now you can see the quality of a film on your television. I look at everything from Downton Abbey to The Killing… I look at the quality of drama and writing on television and I look at the generic, formulaic, clichéd five acts of film and I kind of go, “Which would I rather watch?”