Bradley James plays Prince Arthur in the NBC show Merlin. Yes, I said "Prince". In this version, Arthur's father Uther (Anthony Head) is still alive. This British import is a very different take on the Arthur myth, with Merlin (Colin Morgan) and Arthur as young contemporaries, Guinevere (Angel Coulby) as a servant girl, and magic having been banned from Camelot. We're only part way into the first season, but in England, the show has been renewed for a second season. As a huge fan of the myth in all it's forms, I watch it weekly. I was pleased to be able to chat with James about his character, the changes in the story, and working with the amazing Head. (Obviously I'm a Buffy fan as well.)
[Note: Across the pond, they refer to a season as a "series".]
This myth cycle has been re-imagined many times. What is it about this particular Arthur that makes him unique?
Well, the key, I think, to Arthur in comparison to other legends, is the fact that Uther is still alive. [The legendary] Arthur never knew Uther when he was growing up. He had no idea of him. When you have Arthur in our show, where he's grown up with merely a father figure, and he's grown up without a mother...he's grown up with Uther teaching him his ways. It's kind of lead to this kind of arrogant, brattish sort of side of Arthur, which is a bit of a front he puts on, because he can't be seen involving himself with commoners and servants and what have you. Arthur of old just kind of came up from nothing, and so was aware of both sides of the coin, if you will, before he got into any position of power. But slowly but surely, our Arthur is becoming a bit more of a humanitarian as he sort of had his eyes opened to the ways of the world by Merlin.
There have been many portrayals of Arthur in the past. Which ones were you familiar with growing up?
Well, I don't think there has been a definitive telling of the story. I think what largely allows us to tamper with the material is due to the fact that no one's done a job on something where it's then made people go, right, I'm not going to touch that, because it's been done really well. And I think that we're simply sort of putting such and extreme spin on the tale, but I still think there is room for a telling of the story as it is. I think ours...we're sort of here to provide Saturday night escapism in this country, and Sunday night escapism in America...there really wasn't a pivotal kind of performance that I took anything from. It was a case of being able to, because our Arthur is do different, start fresh with the character. I was always very aware of where he was going to get to, because we're aware of the legend and the man he becomes. But he's so far away from that when we first meet him...it's good to be able to play the journey. And he's got one hell of one to go on before he gets anywhere near the man that we know he's going to become.
Were there any changes in the myth that surprised you?
I think the fact that Uther is still alive was a big one, because it changes the whole dynamic of the story. You've got Guinevere as a servant girl as opposed to...in legends, Guinevere was a beautiful, not quite a princess, but sort of a lady of court, who Arthur and a lot of other people fell instantly in love with. She was just this beautiful sort of image that love-at-first-sight hit quite a few people. We obviously haven't gone down that line. Nobody knows she's alive. Arthur doesn't know she exists. It becomes more about the character that she shows, the person she is inside, I guess, that becomes the attraction. And so that is obviously a huge change from the legend. And also the fact that you've got this Merlin character that is a young guy, a contemporary of Arthur. It's not something that's been done before. It's just our kind of our twist on the show. And it still leaves room for that epitomal telling of the actual legend itself.
Colin Morgan (Merlin) and Bradley James
Speaking of Guinevere and Arthur's relationships...at least as far in as American audiences are, there seems to be a relationship with Uther's ward Morgana (Katie McGrath) as well. And there are definitely links to the legend there. (In most legends, Morgana is Arthur's half-sister, and the mother of his child and future murderer, Mordred.) Are we ultimately going to see Gwen and Arthur together?
This is it. I think everyone knows where the story is going to end up. So there's almost no point in doing the show if you're going to go straight there. There's a bit to go through yet before we really get moving on the Arthur/Guinevere storyline. There's a bit to go before Arthur is even aware of her existence.
Your character kicks quite a bit of ass in this show. Can you tell us about the physical training you've had to do for the show?
I've been very lucky actually. It's kind of one of those parts. I was rubbing my hands at the potential of being able to do all the physical stuff. I've always been heavily involved in sports. Sport lends itself to playing the part. So I was really looking forward to doing the fight sequences and all the physical stuff. And it was kind of a case of almost being thrown into the deep end and learning to sword fight as we're filming, and learning routines...and I've been very lucky to have a chap called Andreas Petrides who was part of the stunt team for Gladiator. And he's done a lot of work with me, and the sword fighting aspect of the show. I'm very lucky to have his teaching because he's got me up to speed very quickly. I'm very thankful for that because it makes it all more fun to do when you know what you're doing. I swing a sword round, for Christ's sake. [laughs] It's a bit of a boy's dream, really.
The cast of Merlin
In America, Anthony Head is sort of a cult figure because of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Were you a fan of that show?
Yes, I was. I was. I was slightly gobsmacked to see him on the first day of the read-through. And I sort of walked into the room, and I hadn't heard he was going to be there. And I saw him and my jaw dropped and I said something like, 'what the hell is he doing here?' And they said, 'oh, he's playing your father,' and at that point I was just like, wow. That is pretty ridiculous. And I went over to him and said, 'if I mess up a lot a lot of the words I'm supposed to say in the first few conversations, I'm a Buffy fan. But keep that quiet. [laughs] So yeah, I was quite pleased to see him there on the first day. And it's been terrific working with him. We've gone through the mill a bit with our second series. There's quite a bit going on between Arthur and Uther. It's been a pleasure to have Anthony to work with in the scenes I've had to do.
Since you are filming so far ahead, I don't know what you can tease, but can you tell us anything about the rest of series one and a bit about series two?
Well, I think a key moment for Arthur in the next series is...well, hang on...let me check on this. I don't want to get my wrist slapped. [he laughed as he checked in with his publicist] OK...basically, Arthur...I think there's a large bit of mystery cast in the first series about Arthur's birth. An in the second series, events cause a big sort of uprising in the knowledge and what happened in that situation. So there's that to sort of really dig into.
I'm assuming that means that Nimueh (Michelle Ryan) will be back...
Um, well, that's definitely something I couldn't tell you. [laughs] I know for a fact that I couldn't tell you that. It certainly has sorcery involved. And she is a part of the situation.
Merlin airs Sunday nights on NBC.