Based on the best-selling fantasy book series by Terry Brooks, the epic story told in MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles is set thousands of years in the future and follows three heroes, the elf-human hybrid Wil (Austin Butler), Elvin princess Amberle (Poppy Drayton), and human Rover Eretria (Ivana Baquero), as they embark on a quest to stop an evil demon army from destroying the world. The 10-episode first season is written for television by and executive produced by Al Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville, Into the Badlands), and also stars John Rhys-Davies and Manu Bennett.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Austin Butler talked about how he got involved with The Shannara Chronicles, why he was hesitant about taking on this epic project, becoming aware of the popularity of the books, his character’s journey, character relationships, physical preparation, wearing the elf ears, and just how heartbreaking and beautiful the story is that they’re telling.
Collider: How did you come to this show?
AUSTIN BUTLER: I know Al Gough had seen me in The Carrie Diaries. I didn’t think it was his demographic, but I guess he watched it. So, I got sent the script and I went in for an audition for it. And then, we moved forward from there and I screen-tested with some girls after I got the part. It was cool.
Shows of this genre have a lot to live up to, especially now that we’ve seen things like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Because of that, were you ever hesitant about taking this on?
BUTLER: I had a lot of trepidation. I just had this fear of it being bad TV CGI because I’ve seen that for year. When you read it on the page, I was like, “How do you do this on a TV budget? I just don’t know.” But I talked about it with Al [Gough] and Miles [Millar] and [Jon] Favreau, and Jonathan Liebesman who directed it, and they showed me all the storyboards and the visuals. Even with that, I was like, “Oh, man, I hope it looks like that,” as I was reading it on the page. And then, when I saw the first two episodes, I was blown away. It’s really amazing, what they’re able to achieve. It helped that we were in New Zealand because we were working with the people at Weta, which is Peter Jackson’s company, and we had a lot of the crew that was on The Lord of the Rings.
Were you aware of how popular these books were and how anticipated this series would be? Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you signed on?
BUTLER: It wasn’t until I actually signed the contract and I realized I was going to be a part of it. I obviously Googled it and read the Wikipedia, but no one close to me had ever talked about the books, so I didn’t understand the fan base for these books. And then, after I got cast, I had a dental appointment and told my dentist, “I just signed on to do this TV show and it’s called Shannara,” and he was like, “What?! I read those books in second grade!” And then, more and more people started talking to me about how excited they were about it and how they’d been a fan of the books for years. That was really cool. And then, going to Comic-Con and seeing people in person who were so moved by Terry Brooks and how he helped them through rough childhoods, and things like that, it was really, really touching.
When you read the books, did it change how you thought of the story and the characters in any way, or did you focus more on what was in the scripts?
BUTLER: That’s always the challenge. Just inherently, when you’re doing anything visual like that, it has to change a little bit. When you’re just writing, you can do anything with it. But with TV, you’ve gotta work within certain budget constraints, so you’ve got to pick and choose your battles. It was awesome that we had Terry give his blessing on things and help them make decisions. Even if there were changes made from the books, it was all done with Terry’s blessing, so that felt really good. I read the books and understood that there were going to be slight changes, so I got as much information as I could, and then I could put them to the side a little bit. But, it always comes down to the scripts and what we’re filming that day and in the course of the season. The core of everything is there, so it wasn’t too hard to transition between books and script.
These characters are all very complicated and they don’t get lost in the world that’s being built.
BUTLER: I love that you say that because I think that’s the challenge of doing such an epic show. You don’t want the characters to get lost, and you also want them to be complex human beings. When you’re doing fantasy, you can get so caught up in the magic of it that you lose the humanity. That’s something that we’re all trying to focus on, as much as possible.
What can you say about who Wil is and the journey that he’ll be taking?
BUTLER: He really is a fish out of water here. He’s never been outside his village, and then he’s told that he’s the last heir of the Shannara bloodline, who he’s heard of his whole life. They were kings and warriors who used to be rulers of the Four Lands, and he’s found out that he’s the last one, which means that he’s got magic in his blood. When this darkness begins to fall on the Earth, he learns that he holds the power to save the world. That’s a lot of pressure.
Will he continue to have to figure things out as he goes, or will he become more confident about what he’s capable of?
BUTLER: Something that I love is that he does not feel like the hero. And then, through the course of each episode, he finds a little bit more of it inside of himself. He’s afraid that he won’t be able to step up to the plate and that he’s not enough, but then he realizes that he can do these things. I know that when I’ve gone through really challenging things, it’s that feeling that you can get through it. Things come up in life and we don’t feel like we can ever live through them, but if we’re still alive afterwards, we get through it. It’s that thing where what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think that’s beautiful.
What’s it like to work someone as bad-ass as Manu Bennett is?
BUTLER: I had done a couple episodes of Arrow and had heard about Manu on the set, but we were never in the show together. I had heard stories about him and I was thinking, “Oh, man, this guy is going to be scary!” I had this image in my mind of Spartacus Manu, and I didn’t know if he was going to be mean to me or what he was going to be like. But, it turns out that he’s just the loveliest human being. He became like a father figure on set for me, which is perfect for the characters. And he’s from New Zealand, so he took me under his wing and took me to all his spots. We built this great relationship off camera, so when we finally get to be on set together it was cool because we got to bring that with us. We have such a good connection and such a fondness for each other that it was really a fun experience.
What can viewers expect from the relationship between Wil and Amberle?
BUTLER: They’re thrown into each other’s arms, and then they’re told that they have to go on an epic quest together to save the world. In the midst of that, they’re still young people dealing with first love, their attraction, their hormones and everything that’s going on. There’s a lot that goes on between them that makes the stakes really high.
And adding Eretria to the situation can’t help much.
BUTLER: No. When it’s just a small group on a journey together, it’s fun. At some points, when it’s just the three of us, Wil is the only guy and that gets to be very confusing for awhile.
After having some time to prep physically for this show, did you go into the production feeling like you could take anything on, or were there still some big challenges?
BUTLER: It was cool. I got to do most of my own stunts. I also had an amazing stunt double, as well. He and I really bonded while we were there. It was great that they let us come out to New Zealand a month early to do the physical training, sword training and do horseback riding every day. We really got physically in that world. When I was a kid and I would play pretend, I would end up with blood everywhere and I would cut my feet up. I love the feeling of it being real. I would walk through the backyard and feel like I was in a desert landscape that I had to walk through. My mom would get so mad at me and say, “Why are you hurting yourself?” I love the whole commitment of it, so it was incredible to be able to be trained in it beforehand. That way, I didn’t hurt myself too bad. I tore a ligament in my finger that’s still healing and I had a couple of injuries, but nothing too bad.
What was it like to see yourself with the elf ears? Is that something you ever get used to?
BUTLER: After six months of it, they felt like a part of my body. It almost felt weird sometimes when I didn’t have them on. It’s funny how you can get used to it. I spent more hours, during the day, in them than out of them.
There is such a huge scope to this epic tale. When we get to the end of this season, will we feel like we have any sense of closure to the journey you’re taking in Season 1, or are we going to be dying to get to Season 2?
BUTLER: The ending is so heartbreaking and beautiful. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s an amazing journey that they go on. It wraps it up in a wonderful way, but it leaves it with an open-ended feeling to it. I’m excited to see what they write for the future because it ends on such an open note. I can’t wait for everybody to get to see it.
The Shannara Chronicles airs on Tuesday nights on MTV.