INTERVIEW: Magic comes to Comic-Con: Anthony Head

Anthony Head is a man that needs no introduction to the Comic-Con crowd. Known for many roles throughout his career, the one he may arguably be most recognized for in the US is watcher Rupert Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On Merlin, Head plays ruthless and magic-hating King Uther Pendragon, father to a young Prince Arthur (Bradley James) in this Smallvillesque retelling of the Arthurian legend.

Being back in the States at the behemoth gathering known as Comic-Con was a treat for the actor, as he and castmate Colin Morgan are in the thick of filming the third season of the BBC adventure show.

Along with other outlets, I was present at the roundtable discussion prior to Merlin’s first ever Comic-Con International appearance. The interview follows below:

How does it feel to be back in the States?

It’s great! It’s like, it’s, the only thing is it’s like a weekend. And I’ve got a meeting in London that was supposed to be first thing Tuesday morning and thankfully I got it pushed so that, otherwise I’d have to fly out tonight! It’s like [Fake whining sound from Anthony]

You have a little bit of time!

Yes! But I love it and I managed to hit acting class yesterday morning, which is good. It’s all good. We don’t have that stuff in England.

None?

Well there are but…[Head makes a so-so face and laughter ensues]

Is the show on hiatus right now? Or are you taking your week break?

No that’s in August — it’s about 2 or 3 weeks time. We couldn’t miss this!

So everybody’s still filming and you get to be flying off!

That’s true they are! They managed to find some scenes that Colin’s not in.

All three?

Yeah [laughter] which is difficult and they’re doing those on Monday. And I did have a scene that I was supposed to be shot on Tuesday where they realized that I wouldn’t be back, so they’ve moved that.

You’re in the 3rd season correct? Can you tell me a little more about the show for those who haven’t heard of it?

Oh! It’s basically Smallville-meets-Camelot. It’s “What if?” We all know the Arthurian legend but if you don’t then… [laughter from Anthony]. The whole idea of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, and you know, the fact that he created Albion and brought all the warring factions together.

This is the idea of what actually would’ve happened if a young Merlin had met a young Arthur and their destinies were entwined. And basically I’m his Dad. I’m the King, King Uther and actually in legend, all that’s known about Uther is that he was a womanizer and he got drunk a lot! [Laughter]

That’s why you took the role right?

Oh yeah yeah! That’ll do, that’s fine!

And basically we play in this series that he is everything that Arthur will kick against. He’s an old-style King and an old-style father; he’s playing with an extremely limited toolbox, or set of golf clubs – not that I have any allusions to playing golf. But he basically does it the old way. If you basically do something that he doesn’t like he burns you at the stake or drowns you. Or chops your head off.

And he has this thing about magic, about sorcery; he believes that anyone who’s drawn to sorcery will automatically, somewhere down the line, be drawn to the dark side.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because everyone that he – there was a vast – um, I can’t think of the word — a purge! That’s the word I’m looking for. And he killed everyone that was suspected of having anything to do with sorcery and magic. And so now, he’s paying for that because there’s an enormous amount of insurrection. People want to kill him basically and get him out and bring magic back into the land. So everything that he sort of fought against is now coming back to have him.

Do you think we’ll see anymore about Uther’s past?

Oh yeah yeah. Season three is about the turkeys coming home to roost – fully basted. [Laughter] Episode eight of season two kind of visited that area and we kick off episode one right in there and all the repercussions, everything that he did is filtering to the surface.

As the series has progressed, Arthur has taken on more responsibility. That he’s not so much under his father’s shadow and making his own decisions. Do you think that threatens Uther or is he satisfied with that?

Well bottom line is that he’s priming his son to be king. I mean, Queen Elizabeth never thought Charles would be, but [laughter] somewhere along the line he must’ve been kind of in the running. But no, Uther is very proud of Arthur. He knows he’s not going to be around forever and I think, even though, you know some of the things his son says and does are a bit – odd – a bit modern, I think he respects his son and he’s almost come close to almost congratulating him and saying he feels proud but you know [shakes head no].

In one of the DVD commentaries, there’s a scene where you’re adjusting your belt and you said that you thought you were coming out of the bathroom…

Really? Did I say that? [Big laughs]

Do you have any other stories where you’re coming out of interesting situations?

Um…no the only thing is that I did play from the first season the fact that Uther was a bit of a carouser as legend has it. So I quite often try to engineer that I would be drinking wine. Some directors liked it more than others like:

Director: “What’s with all this drinking?”

Head: “He’s a bit of an alcoholic!”

Director: “Noooooo.”

Head: “Well yes!’

And I just kind of, whenever I had an unpleasant decision to make or that life was a bit difficult, I’d have him reach for a goblet. Less so now, I think I’ve kind of registered that. That’s not very funny! It’s that really difficult thing where someone asks you to say something funny that’s happened on set and we actually have a lot of laughs but I can’t think of one!

How about when they’re dragging you through the castle on a blanket?

[Laughs with sarcasm] That was fun.

Was that OK? I wondered how you would take that.

Um yeah that was…

They were dropping you quite a bit.

They were! They were. The only thing is I did suggest a body board – which is like a board with very small ball bearings so it’s really close to the ground. I did a series called Little Britain and there’s one point where I’m dragging my aide out of the office and I said “Why not put him on a body board?” and it worked really well because you can’t see it and it looks very funny. But they didn’t for some reason and they had me on this enormous sort of piece of ply with huge wheels on it.

So they occasionally were “Get the wheels in.” but we couldn’t use it on camera at all so it was only there for rehearsal.

They were constantly dropping your head and I was thinking “Don’t drop his head on the floor like that!”

That’s the power of TV. You see? You think that I’m [makes dizzy wobbly actions].

I saw Six Degrees while you were in it and are you going to be doing any more theatre in your off time?

I hope so! Did you enjoy it?

I loved it – really liked it a lot. I liked your accent!

Thank you! It’s such a great play; I had such a good time doing it. It’s always difficult to try and work out what… [Gets distracted by other journalist furiously taking notes] It’s like you’re at an exam! [Big laughs ensue].

When you’ve got a limited period of time between seasons and you want to use it to the maximum effect, also the timing of stage. I was trying to set something up but I don’t think it’s going to work at the moment – but yes is the answer to your question. Definitely – I love theatre. And also it’s a great way of changing the way people perceive you. So I’m constantly at that. If there’s any chance of people thinking they’ve sorted me out, put me in a box, forget it.

Can you talk about what you’re bringing to the role of Uther that makes him distinctly your role and not just someone you’re imitating?

I think with someone like Uther it would be easy to paint him as a little bit of a stereotype. Because you know he’s that classic, old school King. He’s setup right from the beginning as someone who has questionable scruples. No actually, I don’t think that’s fair. He has questionable ways of dealing with things. And as I say, as far as he’s concerned, it’s the Dark Ages, he has a very limited range of what he can do and strike fear in the hearts of people is high on the list.

But I’ve always, for me as an actor, it’s my job to make the character human. And to find out more about his pathology than just “he’s a bad guy”. There’s a reason for everybody to be…even Hitler. I haven’t ever studied him but I’m sure there’s something there. Something there? Maybe he was picked on at school? I don’t know!

Understanding someone’s pathology doesn’t necessarily mean that you forgive it or that you make them a good guy. But it gives them a heart and soul. There there’s a person instead of just a two-dimensional kind of story.

You feel like you brought the humanity into the role…

I would hope so! I mean I don’t know that it’s me beyond any other actor but that is my pathology. As an ator, I like to find the heart of what makes somebody who they are. And that for me, it makes it more interesting to play and certainly, I hope makes it more interesting to watch.

What would you describe as the good qualities of Uther being King or a father?

Um…

Crickets.

Crickets? [laughter from Anthony] I think he loves Arthur in his own way; he loves Morgana, uh and he you know, he basically…I don’t know as far as Dark Ages go, he’s a good guy because he’s surrounded by complete twerps. [laughter] I mean, look at all the people who are vying for his kingdom. He’s got people who want to invade his kingdom all the time. So he’s hanging in there! He’s just made a few…questionable decisions. Back in the day. Oh I’m being moved on.

Thank you so much.

Cheers!


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