Dark fantasy series Cursed comes to Netflix this Friday. We had the opportunity to interview creators/showrunner and producer Tom Wheeler & Frank Miller, as well as actors Gustaf Skarsgård (Merlin), Devon Terrell (Arthur), and Daniel Sharman (Weeping Monk). Also participating in the interview were Tia Fabi from Geek Vibes Nation, Rick Marshall from Digital Trends, and Melody McCune from Geek Girl Authority.
Synopsis: Based on the New York Times bestselling book, Cursed is a re-imagination of the Arthurian legend, told through the eyes of Nimue, a young woman with a mysterious gift who is destined to become the powerful (and tragic) Lady of the Lake. After her mother’s death, she finds an unexpected partner in Arthur, a humble mercenary, in a quest to find Merlin and deliver an ancient sword. Over the course of her journey, Nimue will become a symbol of courage and rebellion against the terrifying Red Paladins, and their complicit King Uther. Cursed is a coming-of-age story whose themes are familiar to our own time: the obliteration of the natural world, religious terror, senseless war, and finding the courage to lead in the face of the impossible.
Tom Wheeler & Frank Miller
Where did you get your inspiration from for both the story and the art, because there’s been so many different takes on Arthurian legend? (asked by Rick Marshall)
Wheeler: For me it was the combined thrill of tackling this mythology with somebody like Frank Miller ’cause I right out of the gate knew this would be very different aesthetically than any King Arthur story we’ve seen before, but then it really was about what we’re gonna bring that was new to the table, from content to whose point of view. I would say that was a mix of being drawn to that image of the Lady of the Lake that evokes a lot of questions, this arm handing the sword to Arthur, questions of who was she? What was her relationship to Arthur? Why is she giving him the sword? Did she have the sword before him? And if so what’s her story? And through that we just began to kind of unspool backward and landed on this young woman who’s thrust into this situation she doesn’t feel ready for and give her her place in this mythology. What was exciting for me personally, I grew up with the characters. I can’t remember when I didn’t know about King Arthur or the Sword in the Stone. My daughter was 10 or 11 when Frank and I were talking about doing this so the idea of creating a hero for her, to connect her to those themes and those values; why not a young woman seizing the sword from the stone? Why not a young woman taking control of her destiny? These themes are relevant no matter who you are. There was a nice moment when my daughter was able to visit the set in the first few weeks of production and she saw Katherine Langford all costumed up as Nimue with the Sword of Power and that was her first association to this mythology. Katherine and I had a very sort of sort of geek-out moment geek out like “okay, maybe we can build a new hero in this myth for young women, for everybody.”
Was Katherine Langford your first choice for Nimue? (asked by Tia Fabi)
Yeah, she was one of the first conversations we had. Netflix was fresh off 13 Reasons Why and I knew Katherine was an amazing actor. I think we saw her as a great Nimue prototype, just her sort classical look, those eyes and yet shes very relatable, she’s really approachable. What we didn’t know, what we found out to our great surprise and delight is that when you put Katherine in a really, really uncomfortable, brutal situation with stunts - whether she’s in a swamp or we’re hitting her with sideways rain atop this rock fighting CG wolves for 4 or 5 days, she just embraced that part of the role beautifully. There were parts where Frank and I, whoever was there would be like “this could work.” She sells that sort of bad-ass warrior as much as that kind of woman on the run in this sort of fantasy fugitive-like setting. She is marvelously talented, a great leader on set, and we were hugely fortunate to have her come on board early ’cause we could build out this great cast around her.
Was there any difficulties in adapting from the book and how things had to be changed or transformed to fit the new format?
Miller: Well I’d say it’s more opportunities than difficulties because, yeah it’s true that that on the face of it that you think that you could imagine anything, but how do you make it real? These days anything can be made to appear to be real and with the facilities and the talent available on this project it seems like the story has only expanded in the hands of the production. In several cases I’ve simply asked property or costume for certain things, I’ve done some sketches for costuming and seen within hours the ideas come back realized and of course improved upon and other places where I have simply said “Tom and I are talking about a scary…dental thing can you get us something on medieval dentistry ‘cause that’s gotta be scary” and in no time at all there’s a table of this the most monstrous dental tools you could ever imagine. Those are just a couple of examples how the talent and expertise available to us have expanded the original concepts into lusher and sometimes funnier or scarier scenes.
What are your thoughts on seeing your art come from page to the screen? It’s something that you’re no stranger to over the years but on this particular one what were some of your feelings about seeing your art realized? (asked by Rick Marshall)
I like it! The thing is you sort of think of it like, if something comes across a way I didn’t intend or don’t like I’ve still got my artwork, so I’m not that protective and I feel like I’m contributing to a process. Every stage, any person working on a screen production is crazy to think they aren’t part of a process larger than an individual and so each bit you get thrown in, everybody’s overlapping over each other, and so everybody kind of owns a piece of somebody else’s work.
[Cursed] is based off a very old, very popular legend but it’s been relevant throughout the ages – what themes do you think are the most relevant to the modern audience?
Miller: I would say the ones that are eternal, the ones that are grandest which are honor and love, but also within that there is the birth of civilization which is completely personified by King Arthur bringing order to a barbaric world, and the contest between nature and technology which is personified by Nimue and the forces against her. She’s a creature of magic and nature and the forces of the of the enemy are very much technological, they all have machines and they all mow down things. These have every possible relevance to this world because they are eternal.
How did you prepare to fill the shoes of such an iconic role?
What I liked about the character when I read the script was that it was a take on it that I have never seen before, and also I feel like Merlin has already been adapted in so many ways that it leaves an open playing field to how you want to adapt him. You don’t have such an impression of Merlin as you do of, say, Dumbledore or Gandalf or other iconic magicians because he’s already been depicted in so many ways so that eases off the pressure a little bit. How to prepare for it, just a lot of hard work getting to understand the character, understand his arc, finding his voice, his accent, his physicality, and understanding him.
At a couple points Merlin is seen using foreign incantations in attempts for spells – did you have to learn some other type of foreign pronunciation for that?
There was a lot of work put into it. We had sound files sent to us by a woman, ‘cause this is sort of like a creative Fey language which is sort of based on Welsh but it’s specifically created for the show and then we had - I think she was a Welsh woman who sent sound files, but then I also wanted to make it my own and not just repeat off of her. Since it is a magical language it gives me the liberty to do my interpretation as well within the realm of the sounds we have agreed upon. It was fun, very challenging to learn, it was really hard actually to memorize.
If you had the opportunity to further develop the character of Merlin what would you like to see more of from him?
I would like to explore more of his origin, definitely what happened between different flashbacks that we get to see for season one, that would be really interesting, and then sort of explore - it’s hard to talk about without spoiling anything - but what happens next I’m just really curious to see who will Merlin become after everything that has happened this first season? I’m very curious.
Did you have any input on the costume design? (asked by Tia Fabi)
Most of the time it’s sort of like a dialogue between the actor and the costume designers, at least if you’re interested in it. I’m really interested in both makeup and costume. Having said that, they had already laid down beautiful work when I entered the project in terms of research and everything and then it was matter of finding the right looks, it was great fun. Marianne [Agertoft] designed the costumes, we first needed to find the nonchalant, drunk, castle-dweller and then find his hero costume for when he’s out on his quests and adventures, great fun. Erika Ökvist who did the makeup, she’s built this whole world with the different Fey people and everything, she’s done tremendous work, and it was also fun to come up with her the different ideas of various different states Merlin goes through.
Traditionally Arthur has been the protagonist of the story and in this iteration he’s become a supporting character. How do you feel that’s affected his development and how audiences might connect with him?
I think it’s so exciting. What I came in to it feeling like was, I wanted to portray his character as a vulnerable everyday person so that audiences and characters within the story could create the legend and the myth for him rather than him trying to live up to this myth or legend. Discovering the character through Nimue helps so much and also I think gives both of our characters more strength within that because of our relationship and how it evolves. What’s exciting, I think, is in fantasy a lot of the time it’s seen from the male gaze, it’s very oversexualised, and I think the great thing about the show is it doesn’t do that to a large extent. It’s really exciting because I was always fascinated by Nimue’s character and how I could help her get where she needs to go and in no way did I ever think “oh this has gotta be the Arthur show I’ve gotta get my way through this” it was always “Nimue will help guide Arthur to where we need to go to in the story as well.” It was a pleasure to work with Katherine because she was always so collaborative in that process too.
This iteration of the story largely revolves around the Fey. Given Arthur is human how do you feel that affects his interpretation of the world?
Hugely. The great thing about Arthur is he feels different in every scenario he goes into, he feels like the other, and sometimes that’ll work in his benefit and sometimes that doesn’t because sometimes he’s wary of where he is and understanding, other times hides away from things. When he does meet the Fey it’s scary but I think because of Nimue, he knows how much she cares for these people, he fights through his kind of fighter’s mentality of “I don’t like where I am, I’m gonna run.” The great thing about Nimue is she forces him to stay and fight through whatever’s going on. As a person it was one of those things of combating those moments of when does he have to show that he’s fearful of the Fey and when does he have to show he’s on their side? His whole thing is he just wants to be accepted, that’s all hes ever wanted from day one. Even with his relationship with family members he always feels a lack of being understood. The more he starts understanding others the more people start understanding him.
This is one of the first projects where you’ve had to do a lot of work with visual effects, what was the experience like of making that transition to a heavily VFX-driven project? (asked by Rick Marshall)
It’s terrifying (laughs) as a fantasy buff I was like “This is gonna be amazing, there’s gonna be a castle behind me” and they were like “No, there’s no castle, it’s just a wall Devon. You gotta imagine the castle. Just look up at this point.” It was amazing watching it now like “Oh wow that’s what was behind me!” Or there’d be a moment where there’s a very short hall and I’m carrying Katherine and then it looks like this super elongated, beautifully textured church. The great thing about the show, it made us focus on the performances and who we were connecting to and trust the high level people around us. One of the battle scenes we’re doing people were throwing sand at the camera and I’m like “Why are they doing that?” And they’re like “It just creates a different atmosphere to the show.” It’s little things like that, that if I ever wanted to create an indie film or something like this I feel you’re learning from the best of the best and now I’m excited that people - my mum can watch this and enjoy this. I’ve done a lot of things that - when I played Barack Obama my mum was like “This is it. You don’t have to do anything else Devon, I’m done, I respect everything you’ve ever done” but I think she enjoyed this story just as much because she was just like “I don’t like fantasy but this felt inclusive, that I could watch this.”
In medieval TV shows and movies we have seen a huge cast that is predominantly white. How did it feel for you to have a cast so diverse? (asked by Tia Fabi)
It’s super exciting, I also feel well overdue ’cause it’s one of those things where, it’s fantasy, it should be the most inclusive out of everything. In a lot of ways what’s exciting about it is, for me personally diversity is never one of those things that should be patted on the back, it should be expected. We should all champion that whether in casting or production, even behind the cameras there should be more diversity within that world. It’s one of those exciting things because it feels like everybody’s included in this world, that you can go to a comic-con, people can dress as any character they want to rather than feeling like they don’t see themselves. I think especially for young women who, to see a character like Nimue, it’s just a different depiction and it’s also a story that young women and young men as well are now able to grab a book and read up on this character. It reminds me so much of Ophelia and Hamlet where it’s just not talked about and it’s very much just written over. It’s such a fascinating character, some of the artwork out there for the character is unbelievable. It’s exciting, it’s one of those things where I understand that some people aren’t gonna like that I play this role and they’re gonna be a bit turned off but to me it’s like why are you turned off? Are you giving it a chance? Because at the end of the day this character was a myth, a legend, some people thought he was a bear or a lion, no one knows if this was a real person. It’s exciting that we’re given the opportunity now and it seems the world is trending in that way, giving more opportunities to people who have been waiting in the wings to really tell these stories.
What was it like travelling to the UK to film?
I’m born in America but I grew up in Australia, and there’s certain things you understand in England because there’s a certain kind of humor to the UK and Australia, but that place is crazy. We were living in London and it’s very busy, crazy kind of world. The places we would go to in Wales you’d be driving, all of a sudden it’s snowing; and then shooting in Cornwall where it was raining then all of a sudden it was the sun then all of a sudden a rainbow with a thunderstorm like “I’m on the edge of a cliff what’s going on” (laughs) it was an amazing place to shoot. The more out you get in the UK, the most beautiful nature you’ll ever see. We were shooting in a lot of forest and it was a pretty amazing experience.
What initially drew you to the weeping monk character? (asked by Melody McCune)
There were a couple of things; one was Tom [Wheeler] and I sat down and talked about who he was and what his kind of backstory was and how he had come to be the way he was and I was very interested in that. I was very interested in him telling a story of somebody without words, having to narrate a human being without using any expression of saying what’s happened to kind of let that be the internal process that you watch, and then an added thing of Frank Miller’s aesthetic and mind, all of those put together. I was just very intrigued by this world and what they were gonna do and I was very interested in kind of being this very misunderstood enigmatic character that doesn’t do, doesn’t say a lot. All those things really kind of go “I’d like to do that.”
The Weeping Monk’s costume looks like it’s quite accurate to the period but also like it might be difficult to move in. Was there any challenge in moving around when it came to fight scenes?
It was a mad, mad costume. I mean, it was beautiful, and it took an hour and a half to lace up my boots and my hood. It’s stunning, you put it on and it weighs a lot, it gets wet and so when it gets wet and muddy and you’re trailing it around it puts on an extra five, six, seven pounds and you end up getting tossed around by this cape and then you also can’t balance very well because you’re constantly off kilter and you cant see! All of those things together is my way of having the excuse of having lots of outtakes of me falling over ‘cause this thing was like, you can’t see anybody, it can really mess with your equilibrium so there was a lot of - people would step on my cloak and you would go oof, be pulled back or my sword would get lost in the tangle of cloak and my hood and so I was quite a deadly, deadly actor to work with ’cause either I would stab you with my sword or you would end up tugging me around. The whole thing looks cool on camera but there’s definitely plenty of outtakes of me looking less than cool.
When you’re approaching a character like this where there is some background for it, there’s a book with art in it, was it challenging looking at the fact that there is drawings of characters you can base things off? How did that change your approach to things? Did you feel any obligation to look like the art? (asked by Rick Marshall)
This is gonna sound bad but I largely take all of that stuff and try and understand what the essence of it is, and then throw it all away because you have to get whatever the essence is. Hopefully by casting you, trusting you with it they know you have that essence, so with any character you have it becomes yours because you play into some degree of that being your character, and then allowing the expression from there to be whatever it is. I’ve read the manuscript, I’ve read part of the scripts, and largely actually the ideas of Tom [Wheeler] coincided with what my ideas were. We talked a little bit about a movie called Seventh Samurai, a Kurosawa movie, there’s a scene in it where the hero of the story does one movement and kills this man. It’s a very iconic scene and we talked about that being his expression, the way he was in his soul. I really liked that I could take that and run with it so I understood him through some of the images Tom & I talked about, but largely I took the story in and ran with my own version of it.
Given the Weeping Monk is more of a modern addition to the story how do you feel his character adds to the legend as a whole and how the audience might resonate with the story?
Yeah, he’s not he’s not a wholly original character though, as you find out towards the end his backstory has some involvement with the original so there’s a bit of a challenge to bring his original life to this story, but it’s quite nice to be able to play a character that has no preconceptions. You get to play around in that and the audience get to believe it for a while. I think it’s an interesting character and then as more gets revealed you see why he’s caught up in this world which just adds another layer to him and some of the storytelling that’s going on.
Cursed launches on Netflix this Friday, July 17th. The show is directed by Jon East, Daniel Nettheim, Zetna Fuentes, and Sarah O’Gorman. It stars Katherine Langford, Devon Terrell, Gustaf Skarsgård, and Daniel Sharman.