Anthony Stewart Head is back.
The actor who famously played Giles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer has kept himself very busy in the U.K. (where he generally goes by “Anthony Head”), popping up in TV projects ranging from Doctor Who to Little Britain.
But since leaving Buffy in the middle of its sixth season, Anthony’s appearances on American television have been rarer.
That all changes on Sunday, June 21st, when Head returns to American series television on NBC’s Merlin, a ”before-they-were-famous” retelling of the Camelot legend about Merlin and once-and-future-king Arthur’s adventures as young men. The first thirteen episodes of the series aired last fall in the U.K. (as The Adventures of Merlin).
If there was ever any doubt as to Head’s considerable acting prowess, he quickly puts them to rest in Merlin, in a role that couldn’t be more different than his role as benevolent mentor of the Scooby bunch. Here he’s Uther Pendragon, the cold, tyrannical father of Arthur.
And if there was any doubt about Head’s enthusiasm for the part, that was immediately put to rest too when he spoke to me by phone from the Merlin set in France, where they were filming the first episode of a second season — and obviously having a ball in the process.
TheTorchOnline: So you’re filming a new season of Merlin, but you’re promoting something you filmed back in 2007. Do you ever get confused keeping it all straight in your head?
AH: Strangely not. It’s the rest of my life I get confused about. [laughs]
TTO: Does the fact that NBC picked up Merlin and decided to make it a big spanking deal here in the US change anything about the way you’re doing it? Is that why you’re doing more episodes?
AH: I don’t know, to be honest. NBC picked it up right from the get-go, right out the box, even efore anything had been filmed, and in fact, I believe, only on the strength of two or three scripts. So, we knew it was already a winner in those terms.
I think they had always intended to do like a chunky series, just because the stories are so rich, and the possibilities are so rich. Also, it’s the same people — well, not the same production company, but the same basic BBC world who make Doctor Who and Torchwood. That’s what here we show on Saturday night. Well, not here, because I’m in France, but in England. Saturday night is kind of peak time.
TTO: It’s going to be on Sunday nights here, which is also a peak time.
AH: Which apparently, the thing that’s great about this show is that it appeals to a really wide audience. Ultimately, it’s truly a family show. Many people come up to me and say, “Thank God! Thank you so much for the show because it’s something we can actually sit down with our kids and watch.” And kids of all ages as well. It’s down to about six, but it goes through teen and into twenties, and then beyond.
There is something in it for everybody. Most people love the romance of swords and sorcery. The tales are dark enough to amuse and entertain adults, and there’s enough excitement and thrills and spills for the younguns. It really is truly a family show.
In the states, I think NBC has been quite wise. I was a bit worried that they were basically launching it right before July 4th. In my book, I’ve always thought everything sort of stops after July 4th, but the whole idea is to sort of recreate that sort of family hour on a Sunday night, and it makes sense to do it when the family is going to be around. There’s absolutely nothing else to watch for a family, at a time when a family can actually sit down, at eight o’clock, and get their thrills and spills.
TTO: When I first read about it, my first thought was, “Oh Lord, not another King Arthur adaptation.” But then I heard this is not like your father’s King Arthur. This is everything thrown out the window, and I’m curious is that what initially drew you to the project, that it was such an original retelling?
AH: Yeah. I mean it’s all familiar. When I’m offered something I obviously look at the scripts. Initially, I had my misgivings in as much as what I didn’t want to do was just a kid’s show. I wanted to know it was going to get dark. I wanted to know that the areas we were dealing with were going to be done in as adult a way as we could.
For instance, the witch — you could either play her as a fat, old crone, warts and all, or you can do what we did. Eve [Myles, from Torchwood], who plays the old lady in the first episode, she’s truly scary because she plays her absolutely down the line, absolutely real.
I came with my misgivings and my questions to my first meeting with the director. I’d already worked with him on Doctor Who, so I knew I could trust him. And I’d already knew Julie Gardner, who was at that time the head of BBC World Drama. So I knew in my heart of hearts that it was in the right hands. I just needed to check. He reassured me and said, “Absolutely, this isn’t light fare. It’s got plenty of depth, it’s got plenty of darkness.”
One of the other things I was concerned about was this character of mine, who could just be a villain, should be more than two-dimensional, that he can have a reason for what he does.
Again, James assured me, and it has been borne out in the scripts, and that’s how I’m playing it. The bottom line is he’s a warrior king, and he’s hanging on by his fingernails to a kingdom that has wars on every border. He has to rule it with a first of iron, or he has a very tenuous grip, which is what will make Arthur into the great king he becomes.
You’re right. I’ve seen Arthur as an ancient Briton, I’ve seen Sean Connery in a very strange knitted jumper, I’ve seen Nigel Terry in Excalibur. It’s been done many, many times. The idea of doing this was very appealing. It’s the Smallville factor, the idea of taking something before the legend everybody knows, and getting in there and messing with it. Seeing what would have happened if a young Arthur had met a young Merlin, and if their courses had been inextricably interwoven.
TTO: And also moving the POV a little bit from Arthur to Merlin, which changes nothing and everything. You mentioned you’re playing the villain. I wonder if even off stage when you’re on the set, do you feel a different vibe as opposed to Buffy when you were one of the gang? Is there a different sense as the antagonist as opposed to one of the protagonists?
AH: Not really. Because we exist in this Camelot, I am one of the gang. It just so happens that some of my decisions are a little bit unpopular.
There’s an episode where, for one reason or another, the land is plunged into famine. At one point, Arthur comes to me and says, “We’re running out of food. We don’t have enough to go around the people.” And I say, “Okay, stop giving it to the people and save it for the army.” And Arthur says, “What are you talking about? If the people die, there’s no point in having an army.” And I say, “If we don’t have an army, the people will die soon enough because someone will be only too keen to come in and take this kingdom.” You can’t argue with it. It makes perfect sense. It’s unfortunate, and I probably wouldn’t do it myself.
And also, the fact that I’m a father in it. Ultimately, I am Arthur’s father, and Morgana’s guardian. Our relationships on set are more about I’m an old school father. It’s not terribly PC, but my relationships with Katie [McGrath, who plays Morgana] and Bradley [James, who plays Arthur], I don’t behave like a father to them off set. Although, I have to say occasionally, Bradley does leave his footballs in my hotel room, and [laughs] I take him to task. Also, incidentally, he mucked up the screen of my Nintendo DS. [laughs]
TTO: That’s not good at all!
AH: No. No, it’s not.
TTO: It sounds like you’re having a really good time. Any chance you’re going to be singing on this show?
AH: [laughs] I don’t think so. That one hasn’t come up yet. It would be interesting if Uther did.
TTO: It seems to me the villain is an actor’s dream role, because every scene is a meaty scene, and yet, you’re not in every scene. Or do you not look at it that way?
AH: Oh, absolutely. To be honest, as long as the character has a reason for doing what he does, to me, it doesn’t really matter. But there is a certain element of, as you say, every scene is a meaty scene. As long as I don’t chew the scenery, I’m fairly okay. Hopefully, it will stick out.
You’re right. No, I don’t need to be in every scene in order to be noticed. I think it’s really more about the fact that the character has a reason for everything he does. It’s my job to find out, even if it’s not actually in the script, I need to find out and bring him to life.
As time has gone on, the writers have written more for me based on what I’ve given them. Between us, I think we’ve actually given a bit of credence to what I’m doing. Basically, I’m the underlying, driving force. The fact that I’ve outlawed magic and sorcery, because as far as I’m concerned, even if you claim you’re doing it for good, you cannot help yourself from being taken to the dark side. It makes perfect sense. And I do have my reasons for that. It’s gradually become evident as the series goes on.
Ultimately, there are also sorcerers and sorceresses, who because they hate me so much, mean harm to Camelot, and are therefore villains. Everybody has an agenda. The dragon, initially seems to be a lovely chap, but actually he’s got an agenda, too. Everybody has something going on, and nothing is simple.
Click here for Anthony’s take on the possible new Buffy movie that doesn’t (so far) involve Joss Whedon.
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