Arthur & Merlin: Knights of Camelot tells the story King Arthur (Richard Short), who has been absent for five years, fighting a war abroad that has stricken his knights, left his throne defenseless and his queen at the mercy of Mordred, his illegitimate son. He must return home fast, facing dark and dangerous threats from all sides. But as he fights to preserve Camelot and all that he holds dear, the toughest conflict will be with himself. Guided by the legendary wizard Merlin, Arthur must strive to become the king that his nation needs.
We spoke to actor Richard Brake about playing the iconic role of Merlin, heading back to his home country of Wales and Game Of Thrones.
How did you get involved in Arthur & Merlin: Knights Of Camelot?
Well, I worked with the director Giles Alderson a couple of years ago on a movie called the Dare, and I loved it. I loved working with him, I loved the whole experience – I think he’s a great director. And then he sent me a text. I was just out with my one-year-old and suddenly I got a text from Giles saying “are you free in a couple of weeks? I’ve got something for you”.
I said yeah for sure. Honestly, before I’d even read the script I was going to do it, because I just love Giles. I think he’s a great filmmaker. And then they sent me the script, I had a read of it, and that was it. I was on my way to Wales two-three weeks later!
What is it about Giles that makes him good to work with?
I think partly because originally he was an actor, so he knows how to work with actors, he gives them a lot of space. He doesn’t force his views on you, he lets you be as creative as you want to be – encourages you, in fact. And I think the great directors I’ve worked with really inspire everyone around them to be their very best and bring a lot of joy and fun to the process of making a film. Especially an indie film where the conditions can often be really really challenging because you don’t have a lot of money or time. So a director who still makes that a lot of fun and a great creative experience are rare and I love working with those types of directors and Giles is definitely one of them.
How do you usually choose a role?
Initially, it’s always the script except for a handful of directors like I’ve said – Giles and a director I’ve often worked with, Rob Zombie. With those guys I just know. I don’t even need to read the script because I know it’s going to be good and those guys are going to make a great film.
But if it’s someone I haven’t worked with before of course, I want to make sure the script is good, that the character is something I want to play, and it’s something I’m interested in doing. And then inevitably I want to meet the director and just get a feel for what their vibe’s like. Especially with indie films, I just like to make sure it’s going to be an experience that we’re both going to get a lot out of and make something great.
I’ve been really lucky. I can honestly say, whether it’s a big-budget film or small films that I’ve done, or TV shows, I’ve never had an experience where I’ve worked with someone that’s just been a nightmare. So many people talk about really terrible experiences on set with different directors and I’m just incredibly lucky. That’s really my first port of call, the script, the character and inevitably the guy who’s running the show, the director.
What is the main difference between a big production and an indie project?
Time and money really. I did Game Of Thrones which you know has huge budgets. I think for the ‘Hardhome’ episode we had at least three weeks. I can’t remember [excatly] but we had a lot of time just to shoot that 20-minute segment with the whole battle in Hardhome. And I’ve shot entire movies in the same amount of time!
So obviously when you have to condense a two-hour film into a four-week shoot it puts a lot of pressure on everybody to be at the best of their game. But that’s also really exciting because it creates a need. You have to work things out when something isn’t working. That’s why I love working with Rob Zombie because we’ll get to set, and we’re just about to start shooting and the fire machine’s not working and he’ll immediately come up with another idea which 90% of the time is better than the original plan we had in place!
Even with Arthur we were shooting one of the big scenes and I’m with Richard Short up on the cliffs and Giles said: “Oh, by the way, we’ve changed the dialogue…” Luckily it was lunch so I had an hour to look it over but you just have to go for it! Whereas in a big film you have a lot more time and a lot more freedom to take your time with it.
There are a few iterations of the Arthurian legend, what makes Arthur & Merlin: Knights Of Camelot different?
Without trying to give to much away what I loved about the script when I first read it – what I love about the film – is that it is a different kind of Arthur. When he starts out [in the film] he’s pretty much down and going through PTSD. He’s in France holed up in a bar, he’s just been fighting in the Crusades, he’s had enough, he’s burned out. You don’t usually think of Arthur like that. [Then] he finds out things aren’t going so well back in Camelot and he has to pull himself together (with a little help from Merlin) and he has to go and deal with the problem.
That was one of the things that Giles said to me: “It’s Arthur’s story” and when I saw the script I could see why. It was a whole new take, a whole new Arthur really, a whole new journey for that character and I thought ‘oh I get this, I see why they’re doing it’.
There have also been quite a lot of iterations of Merlin – was it intimidating taking on such an iconic role?
I think if I had more than just a few weeks and [Giles] hadn’t given me five pages right before shooting a big scene I would have been a lot more scared! But I had so many other things to do I didn’t think about all the wonderful people who have played this part. Nicol Williamson was in a John Boorman film many years ago [called Excalibur] and he played a brilliant Merlin. I didn’t have time to reflect on that otherwise I would have been a lot more terrified! I loved the tales of Arthur and Merlin when I was a kid so it was a real dream come true to play Merlin and to play [him] in Wales which is where I’m originally from. That was a real treat.
Merlin is almost like a psychiatrist [in this movie]. He’s really there to just help Arthur gather himself and get through this trauma that he’s been through. To begin to really heal from what he’s been through and give him the strength to carry on with what he has to do in order to save his beloved Guinevere and Camelot. So I’m there as a kind of therapist as well as a guide and a source of strength and inspiration.
Was the whole production shot in Wales?
It was! It was all shot mostly around the Caerphilly, Cardiff and Newport areas – down by the beaches in South Wales. They just did a great job finding some really wonderful locations on a low budget to make it look so authentic and real.
I used to go to Caerphilly Castle all the time! It was a big treat as a kid. It’s changed a lot now – it’s a lot posher now – but it was real ruins back when I was a little boy. I used to go down there, run around and pretend to be Arthur and Merlin!
How long did the movie take to shoot?
I think it was something like five weeks. I just popped in and out as Merlin but the boys – all of the great young actors who were playing Arthur’s knights and Richard himself – they were holed up down there for about four-five weeks shooting this film. All living together as well if I remember correctly and really just banding together as a group both off and on set!
I was sort of separate to them. I was in a different hotel so I was always slightly away from the whole gang which is probably good because I’m 55 and I think their average age is about 30 so you can imagine the hijinks they got up to! So it was probably good for old me to be getting to bed early and up the next day.
What was it like being back in the fantasy genre?
I love it. I’ve done another series which is an Arthur legend called Cursed that’s coming out around the same time on Netflix. That was, I think, my first foray back into that fantasy world since Game of Thrones. And then I got straight in to do this with Giles.
You get wonderful costumes and really incredible dialogue [in the fantasy genre], which I didn’t get in Game of Thrones of course. It’s well known The Night King never said a word but so I got this time to at least speak whilst wearing an amazing costume. That was fun.
Can you tell us more about your part in Netflix’s Cursed?
I play one of Peter Mullen’s bad monks. I pop up as one of his nasty little monks that does some bad things to people. I don’t want to give anything away but I think I burn someone alive if I remember correctly! We shot that a while ago and it was great fun working with Peter for a few days. But I pop up in it.
Eddie Marsan is a good old friend of mine, he’s a wonderful actor and we went to drama school together and he coined the phrase of a ‘pop-up actor’. And the two of us are very good pop up actors. We sort of pop up in everything. In my case, I usually pop up, do something terrible and then end up getting killed. So I pop up in Cursed and do something rather wicked – when the witches get burned have a look for the guy standing beside them with a big grin on his face!
What’s coming up next for you?
I have Cursed coming out soon and I did another series called Brave New World that we also shot in Wales which has Demi Moore and Alden Ehrenreich who’s just a great actor. It’s an adaptation of the novel, Brave New World and it’s coming out in America soon and it should be on Sky at some point. It was really fun – I got to work with Demi and Alden, just some great actors.
Then I had a couple of projects that were just about to get going right before everything shut down which are now supposedly starting up in the next six-eight weeks. Unfortunately, they’re both top secret but it’s nice to see we’re about to start moving again with work and the world is slowly coming back!