Comparing Britannia with Game of Thrones? ‘We live with it’
David Morrissey who plays Aulus Plautius in epic historical drama Britannia says the comparisons are inevitable
You hear David Morrissey before you see him: his low, slow, booming voice is clearly an actor’s projection, speaking of Rada training and a theatre career with a side of narration. But it also sends a shiver down the spine of any Walking Dead fan, for that chilling growl also belongs to the pirate-eyed Governor, ruthless in his endeavour to destroy the supposed good guys.
Two years since he wrapped up that role – arguably the one that brought him international recognition after a series of domestic accolades for films like Nowhere Boy and The Deal, and plays like Hangmen – it’s fitting that we meet in a busy members’ club in London to discuss another role in which he’s out for power at all costs.
In Sky Atlantic’s new big-budget drama Britannia he plays Aulus Plautius, the leader of the invading Roman army, there to take over a formative version of Britain from the indigenous Celts and their otherworldly counterparts the Druids.
Dressed in a sharp black blazer and black jeans, with a salt and pepper coiffure and saltier stubble, he’s the picture of gentlemanly as he stands to invite me to sit, where we firstly ruminate over his two TV baddies.
“Unlike the Governor, there’s a legitimacy around Aulus,” he explains, leaning forward, hands open – another giveaway of his profession(alism). “He’s part of the Roman empire, which thinks of itself as a civilisation that’s taking the savages and bringing them up to speed. Whereas the Governor was kept on his toes, and he had to quickly deal with what was in front of him.
“There’s also a spiritual quest for Aulus: he himself really wants to find out what power the Druids have, what their immortality is. He wants the spiritual, god-like power that they have, which is above and beyond earthly power. Ultimately it’s about his own ego.”
As Druid chief Mackenzie Crook proves a world away from his turn as Gareth in The Office, obscured partly by make-up (which took several hours to apply each day), partly by the psychedelic direction of his scenes.
Zoë Wanamaker (Harry Potter, My Family) is a more recognisable leader of the Rengi tribe, but you won’t guess it from her potty mouth alone: her opening gambit is her yelling “I shit on the souls of your dead!”.
Swears all the time
“My favourite scenes were with Zoë,” he says, “Her language is so blue and she swears all the time – she talks like a man, and it throws Aulus. My character isn’t used to dealing with women, and certainly not used to dealing with women in positions of power.”
Look further and strong female characters run across Britannia: Kelly Reilly is a principled Canti royal; Eleanor Worthington-Cox, a brave not-so-little girl lost. It’s the result of the strong writing from revered show creator Jez Butterworth, says Morrissey. Like the rest of the cast and crew, he’s at great pains to credit the playwright (“I didn’t know much about the job so I didn’t know if I’d take it, but then my agent said ‘it’s Jez Butterworth writing’ and I said ‘well, when do we start?’”)
Aside from the quality of work and stage-ready monologues, there are other correlations between Britannia and Butterworth’s lauded theatre career (The Ferryman, set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, is still reeling in awards). His previous play Jerusalem touched on the topic of paganism, and key members of the cast and crew – Mackenzie Crook, his brother Tom Butterworth, Sam Mendes, his wife Laura Donnelly – are assembled from his productions.
For many the obvious correlation is between Britannia and Game of Thrones, that other Sky epic drama about warring factions in rustic times.
“I’ve never done a job which hasn’t been compared to something else – it’s always the case,” says Morrissey. “Any epic historical drama that has a feeling of being pre-Christian is going to draw comparisons, and for me if you’re going to be compared to something, be compared to something that’s really great. And Game of Thrones is.
“If that’s an introductory way into the show, that’s great. Once they watch it they’ll see how different it is. But at the moment we live with it.”
Game of Thrones’ contribution isn’t only to whet our appetite for other semi-fantasy epic dramas, I postulate. It has also changed the tolerance of mainstream audiences toward multilayered storylines with 3D characters driving the story forward.
“The Walking Dead is a classic example about that too,” says Morrissey. “It’s in its eighth season, and it’s a big ensemble cast with lots of characters coming in and out. We get told all the time that concentration levels are short, but in television it seems to be the opposite because the audiences respond to complex storylines.”
There’s a similarity of location too, but rather than opt for the rugged cliffs and verdant fields of Northern Ireland, the Britannia crew decamped to Wales and the Czech Republic.
“The Czech Republic was really hot over the summer, but then when it came to winter I was longing for it to be summer again it was so cold,” says Morrissey.
“There was a scene near the end when they had a machine so the actors get rained on. They tested that it worked on set, and we waited for a couple of hours, as is always the case. Once we got back in position and turned the machines back on, they made a strange sound, then shook, and then a burst of ice starting hitting us.
“After that stopped we got soaked with iced water instead. None of the crew or director realised because they were in their tents watching it, thinking we were just reacting strongly. We had a lot of hot water bottles in that night.”
There’s another reason why Ireland may have been a better choice for Morrissey: it would have facilitated a visit to Dungarvan, Co Waterford, the town of his great-grandparents.
“My cousins have done a pilgrimage there, and I’m going to go soon. I’ve already spend a lot of time in Dublin, and it’s a place I feel at home – I’ve often had an idea of settling down there at some point. My wife’s [Esther Freud, great-granddaughter of Sigmund] mother was from Cork, so there’s a strong connection.”
For now the UK is keeping him busy with work. His next role is coincidentally as another Roman, Marc Antony, in a production of Julius Caesar. And he’s taking a lead spot in a BBC adaptation of China Miéville’s The City & The City. With a second season of Britannia already in motion, there’s no rest for the wicked.
All episodes of Britannia will be available on January 18th on Sky Atlantic and on the streaming service Now TV.
CAN’T PLACE THE ACTORS?
If Britannia’s make-up and costumes are too convincing to recognise the famous faces, here’s where you’ve seen them before.
Barry Ward: Dublin-born Barry is best known as the lead actor in Ken Loach’s Jimmy Hall. He also appeared in Pursuit, alongside Ruth Bradley, Liam Cunningham and Brendan Gleeson, and Blood Cells before taking on the role of Sawyer in Britannia.
Nikolaj Lie Kaas: Serious acting skills allow Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas to convincingly play the deformed simpleton of Gregor in cult favourite Men & Chicken, and give a show-stealing performance as the rugged curmudgeon Divis in Britannia. You might also recognise him from The Killing, Child 44 and Angels & Demons.
Eleanor Worthington-Cox: She is well-known to theatre enthusiasts as the youngest ever recipient of a Laurence Olivier Award for her lead performance in Matilda aged 10. She’s since starred in the Sky drama The Enfield Haunting, and as Polly Renfrew in the TV adaptation of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather.
Kelly Reilly: Now in the main role of the Kerra, the key member of the Canti tribe, Kelly Reilly was previously known as Jordan Semyon (Vince Vaughn’s wife) in the second series of True Detective and Fiona (Brendan Gleeson’s daughter) in Calvary.