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Sword and the Stone: Talking with Colin Morgan and Anthony Head of NBC's "Merlin"

Arthur and Merlin. Camelot. The sword in the stone. Lancelot.

There are many things that spring to mind when recalling the Arthurian myths but NBC's new acquired series Merlin, which aired last year on BBC One in the UK, throws caution to the wind by reinventing those stories for a new generation.

I caught up with series stars Colin Morgan, who plays a young Merlin just arriving in Camelot who is tasked with serving the egocentric Arthur, and Anthony Head on a recent press call to see what they thought of Merlin's legacy, shooting in France, and green-screen filming.

"One of the things that really works about [Merlin] is the variety that the show presents because when you think Arthurian legend and you think about Merlin and Arthur, you think of about that period in history," said Morgan. "And what's great is an idea started with that and twisted it and turned it on its head and made it into something completely new and different. So I think that's what was so exciting about it. And plus I get to do [magic] every day and sort of go through adventures and you find yourself in different places all the time seeing things that you would never see under any other circumstance. And the challenge of playing such a historical character as Merlin presented in a way that we've never seen before. And I mean all those factors just made it a really exciting project to be a part of."

For Anthony Head, who plays the ruthless Uther Pendragon, what lured him to the project was the strength of the writing as well as the opportunity to play a knight in a period that isn't usually captured in serial television.

"It's my first time as a knight," said Head. "To be honest, there's not actually that much of this kind of era been done [on television]. I mean, one of the things about this show is it's one of those shows that you ask yourself why the hell it hasn't been done before because it kind of basically has a little bit of everything. It has romance. It has thrills. It has spills. It has beautiful photography. It has stunning sets, beautiful costumes and it's a great thing to watch. And you do kind of wonder why it hasn't been done before."

Still, says Head, Merlin's castle is an integral part of the success of the series and is almost a character in its own right.

"The producers searched Europe and pretty much as far as they could for the right castle for Camelot, nearly gave up because they couldn't find their Camelot," he explained. "And then right at the last minute [they] found Pierrefonds, which is where we shoot. And it truly is like the seventh or eight character on the cast list because it's absolutely stunning and it lends its weight to pretty much everything we do. It was actually built on a medieval ruins in 1880 commissioned by Napoleon III and he asked his architect to build him a working model basically of a medieval [fortress] or chateau."

"Consequently, it sort of has a luminosity about it," continued Head. "The stones still looks new even though it's a few hundred years old. And that sort of as a huge kind of prism. It's not like a castle that's got, you know, bits missing and chunks taken out of it. It's all there and consequently it feels when we're working in it like it's home."

Morgan, meanwhile, feels that the fact that his portrayal of Merlin isn't the sort of dead serious one you might see in other works based on the Camelot legends is exactly what makes Merlin work relatable. By casting Merlin not as a sophisticated and unflappable wizard but as a headstrong and inexperienced young man, it opens up the story to new possibilities.

"One of the great things is as soon as you hear the name Merlin, the immediate sort of image will pop into most people's heads is a little guy with a beard or with a little serious guy and then when you get the opportunity to play Merlin like it's never been seen before of the old boy with a quirkiness and a clumsiness that's a trip," said Morgan. "And something I definitely [invite with] almost open arms and had a lot of fun playing. Of course I interact with the other characters within the show as well. Arthur being the arrogant and the young prince who you see over the series actually develops in surprising ways and you see he actually has a good heart and he is intentions are in the right place. And also we see Morgana and how she develops."

"Gwen, her relationship as we've never seen her before," he continued. "We normally see Gwen as the future queen, whereas we see her as a maiden next door. Everyone's character, we've all got something new to show, a different tell than people would normally associate with these characters."

Just don't try and make a thematic link between magic users being persecuted in Merlin as a metaphor for a persecuted minority group today.

"I think whenever you see the show and you see the look of it and the feel of it, especially being inside of the castle, and you completely buy into that world and you believe sort of everything in it," explained Morgan. "Magic is a thing that just is there and is accepted and I think you become enthralled with that without I think being caught up in any sort of metaphorical [connections]. It is very much within that world and I hope the audiences will sort of be connected with Merlin against villains that come into play and try to overthrow Camelot."

Still, Morgan says filming the magic scenes were a lot of fun, even if--due to all the CGI wizardry--you have to pretend much more than you normally would.

"When it comes into special effects and things of that within the show, for me it was very new and very different but also quite exciting," said Morgan, "because you just get to use your imagination and you get a bit of free reign with it although you have to be quite technical in terms of where you look and how you look and what way you do it. It's kind of limitless. I mean, it's great to just sort of experiment with that and to have a bit of fun. But yeah, I was speaking to the dragon voiced by John Hurt is like you're speaking to a green screen but in a a room that is [later made to] look like a cave...The creatures they've had to create [...], they did unbelievable job and when we watch the show back in theaters, you know, you've got one idea in your head of what you shot and then you see the final product and it's something that really wouldn't be out of place in the film... As an actor it [was a] great experience."

So does Head get special treatment on set as he's playing the king of Camelot?

"They treat me very, very specially," he joked. "I am, you know, much the same way that as Giles [on Buffy the Vampire Slayer]. I was kind of the oldest actors on set. But I mean having said that, I am joined by Richard Wilson who plays Gauis, the court physician. So the two of us are kind of like the elder statesmen. And then there's John Hurt who is the voice of the dragon. We don't really meet him because he's incarcerated in the bowels of Camelot. So it's down to me and Richard to kind of make sure that everybody is kept in their places."

"The French supporting artists, they give me great deference," he joked. "When I walk in they all bow, which is always nice. We try and get them trained. But it's actually a really, really lovely set and we've been able to attract all sorts of really great guests. And one of the reasons, somebody told me, is that the vibes in the business is that it's a really, really nice set to work on. And that comes from the producers and from the crew is a really great crew."

"I sincerely hope it's as well received in America as it has been in England and now in Australia," said Head. "And it's absolutely huge in Australia. It's breaking all records and its numbers are still increasing. So they're extremely pleased with it. And I hope it does the same for NBC."

Merlin launches Sunday, June 21st at 8 pm ET/PT on NBC.


Stealth said…
Do we know if the NBC version will be edited in any way (like Extras)?

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