Meet the man behind Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’s Childermass: Enzo Cilenti

The Yorkshireman playing Mr Norrell's right-hand man reveals what other tricks he has up his sleeve

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Enzo Cilenti is an actor whom few could pluck out of an identity parade despite covetable roles in the likes of 24 Hour Party People, Rome, In the Loop and The Theory of Everything. And in the past few weeks, the 40-year-old Yorkshireman has been cornering the market in fantastical tough guys.

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He popped up as slave trader Yezzan in episodes seven and eight of Game of Thrones, a character he describes as “a nasty piece of work,” (see here for more of his thoughts on that). And in BBC1’s dramatisation of Susanna Clarke’s magical-realist epic Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, he plays Norrell’s right-hand man Childermass. It’s a role that’s close to Clienti’s heart…

“It’s one of my favourite books, I enjoyed it so much,” he tells RadioTimes.com. “My brother-in-law got it as a Christmas present, and that Christmas we didn’t see him without this maroon book with a white raven on the cover stuck in front of his face. I was rolling my eyes, thinking ‘this is just a slightly more advanced Harry Potter’. Then I got a call to come in for an audition and thought ‘I’d best read that.'”

“The audition process was quite protracted,” he continues. “I did four or five meetings over a period of about three months. I only got maybe 50 pages through the book before the first audition, and by the time I got down to the last two I’d completed it. With every chapter I fell more and more in love with it, and more in love with Childermass. And the more I fell in love with that character, the less likely it seemed I’d ever get the opportunity to play him; it seemed to good to be true.”

“It’s not out of hubris or pride, it’s more out of disbelief when I say he was my favourite character [in the book] and would absolutely be my number one choice to play.”

Bradford-born Cilenti’s affinity with Childermass is, at least in part, because he’s a fellow northerner: “He’s the most Yorkshire Yorkshireman ever. So in terms of his pragmatic approach to things, that’s all quite familiar. What’s lovely about the book is the way it treats the north/south divide; the north is more in touch with the spiritual. And, as we’ll find, Childermass is part of the tapestry of Yorkshire. He believes in the absolute certainty of the Raven King prophecies, and that’s his motivation. And let’s not forget, he’s part magician himself. He can, to a degree, see into the future.”

So what does the future hold for Cilenti’s career? There’s no need to consult cards or crystal balls: he’ll next appear in yet another period fantasy. “I’m working on [ITV’s] Jekyll and Hyde,” he reveals. “I’ve always liked [writer] Charlie Higson in everything he’s done, so it was a real honour to work with him.”

“The premise of it and where he’s taken the story is really exciting. I can’t say too much other than we start off with Henry Jekyll’s grandson in the 1930s, who’s been whisked away to what was then Ceylon for his own safety. So take from that what you will… there may be people after him, and I may be one of those people. It’s done in a very grown-up, graphic novel style. It looks wicked and it’s been a lot of fun.” 

He’s filming until early July – if he survives the charity bike ride he’s got planned in June, cycling up Mont Ventoux in aid of Parkinson’s UK. He’s doing it alongside his dad, who has been affected by the disease since 2012.

“It sounds stupid,” he laughs. “My dad and I are doing it on a tandem, which is the worst-designed machine to go up hills. It’s really really heavy; but conversely it’s really good at picking up speed, so I’m even more worried about the downhill.”

“Parkinson’s approached me to do the ride on my own, but it became increasingly obvious that I ought to get my dad involved — his diagnosis is the whole reason I’m involved with the charity. Then, I stupidly came up with this brilliant idea: a 40-year-old slightly overweight, not-fit fella on the front, and a 64-year-old man with Parkinson’s on the back. Go figure.”

“Dad wanted to do it, but he doesn’t have the energy he did, and because he’s always cycled he knew straight away the enormity of the challenge we’re facing. But if you’re going to ask people for their donations, then it’s got to be a challenge. There’s got the be a chance we won’t do it. Otherwise, why bother?”

You can support Enzo’s cycle in aid of Parkinson’s UK by visiting www.justgiving.com/enzo-cilenti

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell continues on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1

Game of Thrones continues on Sundays at 2am, repeated Monday at 9pm, on Sky Atlantic

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Read more: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell star Eddie Marsan’s magical career: from Bethnal Green to Hollywood