Poppy Drayton on Shannara Chronicles and The Little Mermaid

The Shannara Chronicles star on THAT finale and her next project

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How was the experience of working on The Shannara Chronicles?
It was amazing, it really was. We started shooting in February 2015 and finished in June, so it was quite a long shoot. It was so exciting, it was like a new adventure every day. It’s not every day that you get to charge around in the New Zealand countryside wielding a sword, so it was fantastic really. The crew and cast were amazing – and just the most lovely people. It was a dream come true.

Were you at all familiar with the books before filming the series?
Before I read them I confess I’d never heard of them, but once I got the audition and got close to the part I did a lot of research into it, and found out all about Terry [Brooks] and his books and started reading them, and carried on reading them from then on really until we started filming, I tried to immerse myself completely in his world.

Terry was on board as executive producer. Did you get much feedback on Amberle and how to portray her?
Terry was wonderful – he came out at the very start of shooting and he was wonderful – he was so excited and twinkly eyed when he arrived on set. He was so supportive, and it was the most wonderful energy to have on set. We could go to him with any questions we had about the characters, and that was invaluable, because obviously he created these characters and knows everything there is to know, so it was wonderful to have him there with us.

What was it that particularly attracted you to the role in the first place?
The first thing I was struck by was Amberle’s interesting combination of vulnerability and strength, because essentially she’s quite mollycoddled. She’s been brought up in a palace, she’s had the finest things in life, she’s been taught how to behave and how to act, and it’s always been a very prescribed life, but what I found really exciting about the character was her desire to break free from that and really prove herself as a human being in her own right, especially considering that it’s quite a male-dominated world, the elven world at the time.

There’s a race at the beginning that determines who becomes the chosen, to look after the tree. This has always been between the boys, and so she decides that she’s going to do it too, and that she has every right to do just that, so she does, and she becomes a member of the chosen, which is a huge feat for her and a huge feat for all the elven women in the society at the time.

I was struck by her determination, power and strength, so I think if that’s one message we can get across to everyone who feels that they’re discriminated against for whatever reason – in this case it’s because of her sex – but in lots of other cases it’s because of creed, colour anything. No one should feel that they can’t achieve something or are in any way inferior because of something that identifies them.

Poppy Drayton as Amberle in The Shannara Chronicles

You mention the racing scene. How was that to film? It looked pretty full-on!
It really was! It took three weeks just to shoot that opening race, so it was quite rigorous. We trained for five weeks prior to filming, so we had a personal trainer who was fantastic, this guy called Josh Randall, and he tried to get us in fighting shape before we started. We also had sword-fighting and horse-riding lessons every day to really get us game-ready. The race was extremely intensive, but so much fun at the same time – it was really exciting to be able to push yourself physically. I’ve done lots of active roles in the past, but this was the first one where I really felt like I had to delve deep down within myself to push through it.

What would you say your favourite Amberle moment from the series was?
Oh my gosh… there are so many… it might have been the scene in the first episode where I’m in the waterfall, when Wil approaches and startles me, I really enjoyed shooting that. It was very early on, and there was something about being under that huge body of water in the middle of New Zealand, and feeling completely at one with the elements, and strange sense of calm and beautiful-ness. There was a really nice energy on that set that day.

Amberle has a very varied arc. Were you aware from the beginning about how your character’s arc would begin and end, or did it come as a surprise to you?
We didn’t get all the episode scripts at the very beginning; they were sort of drip-fed to us throughout the process of the six months filming. But I’d read the books, so I knew the end was pretty devastating for my character! But then again, you never know how closely they’ll stick to the books, because Terry was really understanding from the get-go that this is a different medium, and it requires a different kind of storytelling. You don’t have the luxury of time with TV like you do with the book.

We knew that some things were going to have to be exaggerated or embellished, if you like because of the nature of TV, so I wasn’t sure how they would do it, but when I read the last episode just before we filmed it, I was just a mess – I remember reading it in my hotel room and just crying! It was a beautiful, beautiful ending.

Drayton will next be seen starring in Chris Bouchard’s The Little Mermaid

There seems to be quite close dynamic between yourself and Austin Butler and Ivana Baquero’s characters. How helpful was this?
It helped that we automatically really got on. We met at the very beginning, so we had those three weeks of training to get to know each other before we started, and we felt really comfortable and clicked quickly, which helped us endlessly, because you’ve got to work with these people for six months and if you don’t then you’re in for a rough ride, but they were absolutely brilliant and spectacular, and I’m so lucky to not only have a chance to work with them, because they’re fantastic actors, but to have the chance to get to know them as human beings too!

You will soon be starring in the new film adaptation of The Little Mermaid – can you tell us much about that? Is it lighter like the Disney animation, or darker like the original fairy tale?
I think it’s a combination of the two – it’s definitely a beautifully told, enchanting, mystical fairy tale, but at the same time it has a dark side to it, a real edge, which I think is nice. So I think it dances on the line between light and dark.

What was it about the film that drew you to it – were you a fan of it?
I was! When I was little I always wanted to be a mermaid, so it was literally a dream come true. I don’t know what little girl doesn’t want to be a mermaid – you can’t help but dream about dream about swimming around in the sea with lots of fish and dolphins! On set the other day we were shooting a scene out in the sea and there were real dolphins in the back of the shot playing around, so that was pretty spectacular!

Season 1 of The Shannara Chronicles is available on 3-disc DVD and Blu-ray from 6 June. For more news about the latest TV series, pick up the new issue of SciFiNow.