Joseph Fiennes travels to ‘Camelot’

Joseph Fiennes on playing Merlin on Starz new 'Camelot' series.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Starz new Camelot series is a more grown-up telling of the King Arthur myth with sex and violence for late night cable. Joseph Fiennes plays this Camelot’s Merlin, a shaven headed mentor for Arthur, going up against Morgana. I caught up with Fiennes in the hallway after his presentation to the Television Critics Association in January.


CraveOnline: How intense does it get when you’re going at Arthur?

Joseph Fiennes: I think ultimately Merlin knows that Arthur’s ascension will be a really gruesome and ever evolving challenge. He does everything he can to prepare him mentally. I think he’s going to be challenged all the time so it’s better to have your right hand man at least pave the way in that regard to some extent, so it’s a sort of tough love concept that’s going on there.


CraveOnline: Are you still describing Merlin as a Donald Rumsfeld type?

Joseph Fiennes: It’s his duality, that he’s not to be trusted. He’s both a Rumsfeld and an Obi Wan if you know what I mean. You never quite know where you are with him. It’s for the good but ultimately there may be sort of Machiavellian ways of extracting that good.


CraveOnline: How did you come to the shaved head look and how did you enjoy it?

Joseph Fiennes: A lot. You just said the one word which was really integral to this project: Enjoy. I came away feeling, “You know what? Joy is the only guide. I’m going to have fun regardless.” I make him into a fairly brutal politician. He’s a warrior monk. To give me somewhere to go, we scale his magic right down, that he begins to evolve as we see him as the audience so we can all go on that journey together. It’s a magic that he’s sworn off as well but that look, I wanted to get away from the picture of long hair and priestly look. I thought, “You know what? I don’t trust Merlin. I feel there’s an aggression with Merlin.” I wanted to do something different. I wanted to break away from pointy hats and long bears and prophet holding a staff. Maybe we’ll get there but I guess warrior monk was that duality again.


CraveOnline: With Merlin and Morgana, magic becomes an addiction. They played with that on Buffy the Vampire Slayer too so you’re in good company.

Joseph Fiennes: I think that’s true. I think it’s good because we all know that too much of a good thing, let’s say magic is a good thing in some regards, isn’t always great. I think that it is an addiction. It has a cost. It has a physical cost on whoever uses it.


CraveOnline: Was there no mention of that perspective on magic in the Mallory texts?

Joseph Fiennes: I think what Mallory really looks at, the shadow that’s cast over Merlin in Mallory’s work, and I think maybe it’s book 2 is the infanticide. Morgana morphs into somebody else, tricks somebody into sleeping with her and out of that – I don't know if this is big spoiler territory although it’s all in Mallory’s work – conceives a child which Merlin goes to great extents, rather like Herod in the bible, he goes out to rid every child in order to get this kid which is a very nasty love child. So that casts quite a dark shadow over the devious nature of Merlin. Mallory really invites us, with the narrative, invites the audience into that sense of the duality of nature. When you want to get something, you might do devious things to get there and that undermines the whole principal of the code of honor and chivalry. So that is very prevalent. Certainly the iconic images of the sword, the lady in the lake, the sword in the rock and the fratricide, that’s all in the Mallory text.


CraveOnline: Have you gotten to do any cool swordfights?

Joseph Fiennes: The great thing about Merlin is that he doesn’t really. I carry a very small knife and that’s it. He doesn’t mess around with broadswords. I think he’s aspiring not to get caught up in the rigmarole of violence and it’s sort of a bit backward for him. It’s less evolved but if he has to handle himself, he’ll handle himself.


CraveOnline: He doesn’t get his hands dirty.

Joseph Fiennes: I think he tries to stay away from that.


CraveOnline: FlashForward ended obviously with the hope of a second season, so they flashed years ahead. Were you hopeful for where that could have gone?

Joseph Fiennes: I think we’re all, I don't know if it’s the same with journalists, but certainly for actors the last part of the equation for us is an audience, is talking to you. So you do it with the hope that it’s for entertainment, it’s for people to witness. Until it’s witnessed, it’s not really realized. So you enter into a job hopefully, so yeah I hoped it would go into a second season.


CraveOnline: Is Merlin a romantic guy?

Joseph Fiennes: I think there might have been, in history, in the myths he lived for hundreds of years. In some respects, people think that he was living his life backwards, he was getting younger. He started off ancient and got younger. There’s many different aspects to Merlin so I think yes, there must be a romance somewhere caught up in there.


CraveOnline: When it comes to Morgana, is there any hint of love?

Joseph Fiennes: No, no, there’s no love. I think there might be a respect but Morgana’s father was Pendragon. And Uther Pendragon, Merlin was his right hand man. So he knew Morgana as a little girl, not that he paid her much respect, he was the king’s right hand man. So I think there was a certain level of respect until she crossed the line in terms of magic and abusing power, trying to get the throne.