Camelot has seen much change over the past four years. Fans of the BBC’s Merlin have watched Arthur grow from a prat of a prince into a king, Morgana turn from King Uther’s loyal ward to a dangerously powerful enemy, Guinevere develop from a servant girl into a trusted advisor and eventual queen, and Merlin become the most talented sorcerer he was prophesied to be, as well as the last Dragon Lord. While respectful of the original Arthurian legends, the show has always felt more like an homage, a love letter, to the stories of King Arthur and Merlin. The BBC’s take on the legend has always been a fresh departure with the unique way its characters and stories are written, appealing to a younger audience but never losing the magic that has enchanted people for ages. Merlin is a visual treat, full of fun surprises, charm, humor, and edge-of-your-seat suspense. Gearing up for its 5th and final season to air on SyFy in the U.S. (the 5th season has already aired in the UK), both Merlin and Camelot will face ever greater challenges from all sides, caught up in ages-old prophecy and magic.
I was fortunate to speak with a few members of the cast– Colin Morgan (Merlin), Bradley James (Arthur), and Katie McGrath (Morgana). They gave me their take on everything from the show’s final filming to their favorite guest stars.
Whedonopolis: What was it like to film your last scene together after 5 years on the show?
Katie: When you get down the end of filming on Merlin it tends to be a bit of a scramble because we have a lot to do and not very much time to do it so we tend to have more than one unit filming at any given time. And on my last day, I happened to be filming not on the main unit, on the second unit, which had crew dailies that hadn’t been there for the final year. So I was looking at spending my last day and my last scene with a lot of people I didn’t know. I was feeling not great about it but my last scene was with Colin and with a director we really liked so I was like, “At least we’ll have that.” We’re doing the scene, and halfway through, the AD comes up to me and says, “Katie, we’re so up against it. Colin needs to be in 2 places at once, we’re gonna have to pull him off your scene. He’s gonna do his close-up, he’s gonna do the wide, and then we’re just gonna have someone else read in his lines for you.” So I’m like, I have no actor, I have no nothing, I’m with all these people I don’t know, it’s my last day of 5 years, and I start to get really upset. I don’t realize that Colin is on the other set and has– we had talked about it earlier on in the day, he was gonna come over and do my clapper board– and he discovers that he is not going to be allowed to come over to do my final scene with me, not even read in for me. So he organizes with the AD to give him the nod, and what we did was, on the second unit we would wait for Colin to do a take on the main unit, Colin would run over, he’d do my lines, then he’d run back. So he’s running back and forth between the two. Second unit’s standing down and waiting for him. He comes to my last take, and he does the clapper board and I’m waiting for the golden wrap, which is where everybody goes around and gives you a goodbye and a well done, and nothing happens. Colin’s just standing there. What I don’t realize is that Colin has refused to go back to the main unit until everyone from that unit comes over, everybody comes down from production, about 150 people, came down, waited 5 minutes– he refused to go back!– ‘til I got my proper golden wrap. I wouldn’t have gotten that had he not been so stubborn. So my final day, instead of being me with a load of people I didn’t know who didn’t really care, I got the entire crew and Colin Morgan– giving me a round of applause. The man’s a legend, is my short story.
W: What has been the most memorable scene for you to shoot in Season 5, or even during the whole run of the show?
Colin: Because you’re dealing with something like the Arthurian legend, there’s iconic moments from the legends themselves that when you see them reenacted within the series, it feels pretty special. The Sword in the Stone moment was pretty huge because suddenly there it was in front of us. I mean it was a polystyrene rock with a sword stuck in it but it still looked amazing, you know, when they put the lights on it. That was a pretty iconic moment. It’s moments like that, that when you see it, it feels pretty special.
W: That goes right along with one of my other questions. How heavily did the original stories of Camelot/Arthurian legend influence the portrayal of your characters?
Bradley: With Arthur, I probably had the clearest idea of where my character would end up because he was always going to end up as the more familiar, heroic, noble king that everyone’s aware of, but obviously he starts off very far away from that. I’d say that’s been the whole deal with Arthur’s journey, is getting to what we’re all very familiar with from where he began.
W: Was any of the Arthurian literature required reading?
Katie: No, I mean I read a bit. I know Colin read quite a lot. But at the end of the day, this was the story and our version that we were telling. It was based on the scripts and the canon that they had created. It was more for everybody’s own interest that you read around it, but I know for me, my character was so well drawn out in the scripts I didn’t need anything else. You’re trying to tell this version, not The Once and Future King, not The Sword in the Stone, not anything else, and in order to make that very definitely its own being and entity, it was important just to concentrate on the scripts. But I have read quite a lot, just for my own interest.
Bradley: I found all the things I read actually very interesting just for my own personal interest, and it actually became useful to when people would ask me what the actual story was to be a bit more of an authority and do the research on the older legends of Arthur. That’s where all my reading came in useful. It didn’t really come into play so much with filming the show.
W: Katie, do you ever find that fans are afraid to approach you in public due to your fantastic portrayal of the evil Morgana?
Katie: I was really afraid that everybody would hate me for being so mean.
(Bradley cuts in with, “It’s not a portrayal,” and Katie responds jokingly, “Yeah, this is the real me.”)
I was really afraid that everybody would hate me for being so mean to Colin and Bradley, but actually people come up and congratulate me on treating them so horribly, so maybe that’s just that they like me and don’t like them.
Katie: But fair. 🙂
W: Colin, how many hours did the makeup take for your 80-year-old alter ego and for the sorceress Dolma?
Colin: It started out longer when we first started doing it. It was really about 5 hours because stuff had to be approved but I think they got it down to sort of 3 and a half, 4 in the end, which is pretty good. But obviously it meant being in the chair very very early in the morning. It still brings back horrible memories of that. Once I saw that my call time was 3 am…
(Bradley cuts in with a silly voice, “Ooo I have to get up early and put on some makeup.”)
Katie: Out of the three of us here, Bradley’s the only one who doesn’t have to do it.
Katie: So he hasn’t got any patience for us to complain.
Colin: Yeah. But no, it’s a brilliant thing to be able to do as an actor, you know, that your image is changed so drastically. Whenever I was doing the Dolma stuff as the woman, we filmed both me as Old Merlin and as Dolma within the same day because it’s actually the same prosthetic for the woman as it is for Old Merlin, just without the beard and the moustache, and longer hair.
W:: Well I thought it looked really good.
Colin: Yeah, God they do such a brilliant job, the prosthetic guys. It’s absolutely amazing.
W: Totally believable as Old Emrys.
Katie: Isn’t it funny how totally believable as well Colin is as a woman? Now what does that say? Just puttin’ that out there. It’s a little bit scary.
W: Do you guys like all the attention you’ve gotten since Merlin began?
Katie: I don’t feel any different. Because I don’t get a lot of attention. I think either people don’t know it’s me, or don’t care. But people talk to the boys so…
Bradley: It’s easy enough to avoid. I think when you’re living your life away from the show, when you’re not filming the show, or doing things around it, you want your own life. You want to be able to sort of blend into the crowd and there are ways of being able to do that. So, that’s nice.
W: Sunglasses, hat?
Bradley: Colin opts for a hat, I opt for a prosthetic…
Colin: Prosthetic what?
W: Who’s been your favorite guest star?
Katie: Warwick Davis. I know I didn’t get to work with him, or even meet him but I was still thrilled that he was on the show. It made me cool by association.
Colin: Probably the most I’ve ever laughed on the set was whenever Ben Daniels and Miranda Raison were on set. They played Tristan and Isolde and they were just brilliant. They were just an absolute comic jewel. You got the impression that they had known each other for years but they had actually just met. That’s definitely the most fun I’ve had.
Bradley: Mackenzie Crook.
Colin: Yeah, Charles Dance. [editor’s note: Charles Dance played an infamous witch hunter in Merlin and also plays Tywin Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones.]
Katie: Laura Donnelly. I like Laura, who was Freya.
Colin: I think we’ve been really spoiled with our guests stars in the show over the years. It’s been great for us because getting to work with people like that has been a real big learning curve.
Bradley: Do you know what, the person who made me laugh the most– Jonathan Aris. In the first series, like episode 10 or something, there was a guy called Jonathan Aris, who– even during takes I was laughing. There are scenes that you can see me smiling in because I’m watching this guy and he was hilarious. Everything he did was just funny. Can’t remember the name of his character but he was like the leader of a village and he gets murdered at one point.
Bradley: But even that was funny!
W: Last question- What is the hardest part of saying goodbye to the show?
Katie: That’s a good question. Saying goodbye to everyone. After 5 years, the crew and the cast and everyone, they become such a huge part of your life, and for me not being able to see everybody every day (or in my case every other day because I was a part-timer), is going to be really hard.
Colin: Yeah, I’d agree. The people on the show were fantastic. We have a core, I think 5, of the crew who’d been there right from the very beginning , and the rest had been with us regularly over the years. So it was a really supportive group of people that as an actor you felt very comfortable going in every day and it was genuinely just a lovely experience.
Bradley: Being a king of a medieval kingdom has its perks so I’ll probably miss that.
Katie: The wenches!
Bradley: The wenches, wenches on tap.
Colin: Ordering executions, you know, you love it.
Bradley: That too.
W: Well it sounds like it was a blast!
Katie: You know it was actually.
Bradley: It was good.
Katie: It was really good.
Special thanks to John Singh and Marsia Powers for arranging the interview, and thanks to Colin, Bradley and Katie, for delighting us with magic and adventure for a wonderful five years!