Max Irons talks jumping spiders and dodgy facial hair struggles on the set of Tutankhamun
The White Queen star plays archaeologist Howard Carter in ITV’s new historical drama – and faced a few deadly dangers of his own during filming in the African desert
ITV’s new Sunday night historical drama Tutankhamun begins tonight, with all the period flair and Downton Abbey connections you could hope for to keep us cosy in the dark autumn evenings.
Series star Max Irons plays moustachioed archeologist Howard Carter (who famously uncovered the titular Pharoah’s tomb in 1922) in the drama – and as it turns out, filming the series was almost as harrowing as the real-life excavation it was inspired by…
Hi, Max – what can you tell us about Tutankhamun?
Well, when I first read the script I sort of fell slightly in love with it because it reminds me of the sort of stories that I read as a kid. Those grand, romantic adventure stories that you don’t read or hear about happening these days – I’m sure they do in distant corners of the world – but that particular period in history is just so golden and magnificent, I fell in love with it.
And I think within that, there’s the story of Tutankhamun, the boy king in Egypt, and that again is an incredible story, and a story of an exceptional human being, a modern thinker within that time. So, yes, I just thought it was extraordinary.
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Max Irons as Howard Carter in Tutankhamun
And what about your character Howard Carter?
Carter’s reputation sort of fluctuated depending on who you spoke to.
He just existed in a very English upper class environment – and he wasn’t. They used to say someone was ‘sound’. I don’t think he was considered sound; he wasn’t "one of us".
What was your take on him? Do you see him as a hero or an anti-hero…?
I suppose I see him as a hero. People who are really good at what they do and care about what they do are always attractive, and should be. I mean, what’s not to like about somebody like that?
Did you grow the ‘tache?
I knew it was going to come to this! It’s embarrassing. You know, I’m fairly young and I still can’t grow a beard. I spent about a month growing that moustache.
The reason for that was because we had to jump back 20 years, so of course when he was older he had a big, bushy moustache, and when he was younger it was slightly more like my pathetic excuse…
Were there any “hairy” moments filming in Africa?
Yes; due to a number of reasons we couldn’t film in Egypt, so we were in South Africa; we were up on the border between South Africa and Namibia.
ITV would probably kill me for saying this, but on the first day they had to bring in a load of extra trailers because a huge amount of people fainted. Dozens of people were just passing out. And then also you have the threat of scorpions and jumping spiders. Spiders that jump – I don’t know if I could think of a worse thing!
Aside from that it was beautiful. Our set designers mapped out the trenches like for like on a huge scale. And for us, for the actors and for all the extras, it enabled us to really get into it because it was so incredibly hot, we were all dusty and sweaty and on the cusp of passing out, as they would have been. It was nothing but helpful.
Max Irons (right) with Sam Neill as Lord Carnarvon
What was it like working with Sam Neill, who plays Carter’s patron Lord Carnarvon?
It was pretty special. He’s one of the funniest men in the whole world. My mother’s an actress and when I went to boarding school when I was about 10 I was really, really homesick, so we used to call each other every now and then, and my mum was in Australia working on a film with a guy called Sam Neill.
I remember talking to her and she said – and I don’t know if Jurassic Park had come out then, I don’t know if I knew who Sam Neill was – but she said, “I am working with this actor, do you want to talk to him on the phone?”
And I went, “All right!” And she popped him on and said something, and then I apparently said, “That man has the most boring voice.” So yes, I have sort of met Sam Neill before. And he doesn’t have a boring voice; he has one of the best voices.
What’s the best bit of acting advice you’ve been given by your parents (actors Sinéad Cusack and Jeremy Irons, below)?
God… it’s always annoying when it comes from your parents! I don’t know, probably don’t take yourself seriously – and that’s funny.
I can think of loads of good advice, but not from my parents!
Max Irons' parents Sinéad Cusack and Jeremy Irons
Do you have a particular period in history that you have an interest in?
Yes, but it’s not that distant. The Cold War.
Where did that interest come from, do you think?
It could have been movies. I don’t know. Jonathan Dimbleby did this book about Russia where he just walked through Russia, it was so good. Because I’m dyslexic my reading is hopeless, but the audiobook…
Being dyslexic, how do you manage with scripts?
I just learn everything. It doesn’t really happen nowadays, but if I went into an audition and somebody said, “Just read this,” I’d just say, “Can you give me 10 minutes?” and pop outside. People are fine about it.
Back to Tutankhamun – while you were out in Africa, did you get to go on safari or anything in your time off?
We did, yes. We rode some elephants, we went to an elephant orphanage… but I was working every single day, I was working six days a week, almost every scene, which I had never done before. So everyone else was doing the parasailing and all that stuff and I was there, covered in dust!
It sounds exhausting.
It was! But it was a lot of fun. To be working with a guy like [director] Peter Webber and working with such a great cast, and having these incredible sets to work on every day, yes, it was pretty good.
Interview conducted by Ellie Walker-Arnott
Tutankhamun begins on ITV tonight (Sunday 16th October) at 9.00pm