Returning tonight on BBC America is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the event series based on Susanna Clarke’s beloved historical fantasy novel of the same name. Faithfully adapted for the screen by director Toby Haynes (Doctor Who) and screenwriter Peter Harness (Wallander), Strange and Norrell takes place in Napoleonic England when practical magic is all but dead to the world. In its place remains a society of priggish old men who pontificate and philosophize on theoretical magic, unable to cast a single spell, until two very different magicians – the peculiar Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) and the whimsical Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvell) – revive English magic and join forces in the war against France.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to sit down for an exclusive interview with series stars Bertie Carvell and Charlotte Riley. We talked about their different approaches to the source material, why Carvell always wanted to play Jonathan Strange, acting in the world of the fantastical, what sets Strange and Norrell apart, and more. Check out the full interview below.
I’m coming at this as a huge fan of the book, so how was it for you guys stepping into these roles with such a fanbase waiting to see what you’re doing?
CHARLOTTE RILEY: How was it for you loving the book and having watched the first few episodes?
It was really cool! It’s always a trip to see what you pictured in your head brought to life. I’ll say the major difference, of course, is that it picks up so much faster. Things take so much less time than the books.
BERTIE CARVELL: Well thats the big challenge of it. I knew it really well. I read it. When it first came out, I was given it and it sat on my shelf for a year and I picked it up and thought, “Why the fuck haven’t I read this before?” And I spent the next ten years fantasizing that when somebody made a film of it, I might get to be in it, but never thought I would be famous enough to get a shot at it. So thank god it took them so long and I just about crept in with an outside chance.
Did you want to play Jonathan Strange?
CARVELL: Of course I did! I knew it really well, so therefore the responsibility – I’m really pleased that I got to do it and not trust someone else to do it. Also, one has a very fully fleshed out – as I’m sure everybody who’s read the novel has – a real ownership of how you imagined it. I have to say, when I first got the email about it happening, I read this, opened page one of the script with some trepidation, thinking they’re sue to have fucked this up and happily, what was amazing, was that Peter’s script kind of derives so much of a faithful sense of the tone of this novel.
You say it moves very quickly, of course, he has to move, in only seven hours, through 1000 pages worth of story – with footnotes, with endless kind of digressions, and so on. And he has to keep this plot on the road in a way that beat follows beat, but in all of that richness and all of those characters, what was amazing was the bravery with which he does that. One of the things I very much enjoyed in the early drafts of the script was how people think in long thoughts with semicolons – like they did then! We know this, because if you read plays of the period, people talk in proper paragraphs with better syntax than I am doing now, but Peter was brave enough to put that on the page. That as a starting place got me incredibly excited. Then what you can do, with a film, that you can’t necessarily do in the novel form is that you can pace things differently. So it’s quite exciting to be involved in that translation. And a huge possibility.
RILEY: I just read the script, and I have to say I loved it. I’d heard of the novel, never read it, got sent the script and read it like a child who’s in chocolate. Just loved it, and auditioned, and went through the process, and was walking my dogs, and jumped up and down a lot, and screamed a lot when I got offered the part.
CARVELL: What’s good about that though, is that we-
RILEY: We approached it very differently.
CARVELL: You have to leave the source material behind anyway, have an ownership, and make it our own. At the same time, there is this sort of document that is feeding everybody’s imaginations. The two things worked quite well in tandem – as did we.
RILEY: And I think what was sort of sick about it was that my enthusiasm was similar to Bertie’s, who read the book. I loved the script as much as he loved the script having read the book.
CARVELL: I mean, the script is what we’re making.
RILEY: Yeah, and that filtered through into – I remember the first table read and the first day on set that you just got this sense of energy and excitement where everybody who was involved that we were getting to create this incredible world ,and something that everybody knew and felt was different, and interesting, and fresh, and exciting. It’s quite rare, I think, in a first table read to really feel that kind of energy sizzling. And it was like that all the way through, because each day you were coming in on a different set. One day you walk into a massive ballroom and work in a house in Yorkshire and there’s a 30 foot oak tree poking through the floor, spreading out across the ceiling, and corsets, and dancing about. Every day you’re experiencing a new part of the script, a new part of the story, and a new part of the script. That level of excitement just continues throughout the whole process of filming. Then suddenly we’re in Croatia and running down cobbled streets and fantasizing that it’s venice, and Bertie’s whisked off to Canada and is fighting for his life in the Napoleonic wars…but you survived, high five!
[They high five]
Working with some of the more fantasy based set pieces and all the magic in the film, how was that as actors, not just dealing with the effects, but stepping into a world that is very similar to ours, but with a fantastical twist?
CARVELL: I think that the magic is sort of a side show in this story. It’s about the people who are living in a world where magic can be done again, and that’s what makes a good script, that we’re able to act recognizably human characters with huge rich human journeys and the setting, as it were, is one in which you have these fantastical set pieces, but they are set pieces and really the meat of it is about what’s going on for these people and how they’re dealing with these extraordinary situations. That’s why I’m drawn to it as an actor as opposed to a fan of the literature…plus, very cleverly, and for budget reasons [laughs], but also very cleverly, the set pieces are chosen very carefully so you get huge, epic moments of special effects, but a lot of the magic is very small and slight of hand. There’s a scene where Charlotte and I are playing an intimate two-hander scene and there are two other people there who we can’t see. That requires no special effects at all, but is the most magical thing you can do because we all imagine that those two people can’t see those other two people and that, to me, is the essence of it. I think that in the story, magic is sort of a metaphor for the imagination, and Mr. Norrell, who wants magic to be boxed in, and solved, and rational, and reasonable-
CARVELL: -and contained, has a sort of failure of imagination. The reason, at the end of the day, that Strange surpasses Norrell as a magician is because he has no limit on his imagination. He has talent but no skill and has no need to solve magic, and that’s because his imagination is more open, I think. For me, magic and imagination go together.
RILEY: I guess there are lots of lots and different layers to it and it’s just as simple as – I play two characters – I play a character called Arabella and I play a character called moss-oak Arabella and that’s quite interesting actually, because there’s two sides of the coin there. There’s the one side of the coin that’s of the reality and there’s the other side of the coin that is the fantasy. Just really simply approaching the costumes and the character traits of the two characters, although they’re the same person, they’re slightly different people. I think it’s just brilliant because it’s a fantastic playground for an actor to splash around in, and have fun, and test out different things, and try different things. I think there was something quite special about this project; that there was really quite a faith from the beginning that everybody involved was allowed to expand and try their ideas, and everybody was trusted to do what they were good at. I think, actually, that’s quite rare on a production, because I think often everyone is being controlled. In this, everybody was trusted to do what they’ve been asked to do and that was fantastic. Because in the context that you’re asking about, we got to play around and try this and nobody actually quite new how it was going to work. How do you pretend to be creating magic when that effect hasn’t been created yet. It was a learning process, wasn’t it?
CARVELL: There’s something about all of acting that is putting yourself into a circumstance. It’s pretending stuff. So it’s not really any different to pretend it’s a bit like ours, but different in these ways. Any acting is that. You go, “It’s myself as if I was living in Moscow in 1919, or England where there’s magic in 1806.” It’s a sort of metal gymnastics. You’re just playing around in your imagination. That’s what we do, and doing it in such a way that other people can go along for that ride with you. That’s the job. So in a way I don’t find it more of a stretch that’s a “Fantasy” anything. Any drama you make, any fiction, is sort of a fantasy.
I suppose the major difference would be that if you’re playing a person with say, Alzheimers, you can go watch a video and see what a person with Alzheimers would act like. That’s not the case with magic.
RILEY: Oh, I see what you’re saying!
CARVELL: Yeah, this is an interesting question about acting.
RILEY: It’s kind of nice. You can be like, “Well, my character doing that would be like ‘Shazam!’”
CARVELL: People have very different approaches to acting. Some people love to sort of find a source for everything they do, but it’s acting. It’s an act of imagination. You imagine what it would be like, and if some people find it useful to go and read around the subject and look at real Alzheimers patients, other people would just imagine it. Both are legitimate. As long as it’s believable and your’e not sort of raping the truth, I think that imagining what’ something’s like is a totally valid way of representing it. And that’s true of all art, isn’t it? Painting, for example, is kind of photorealistic, but you can look at a Picasso or something extremely abstract, a Kandinsky or something , and it can be as true a representation of something as something that is figurative…do you see what I’m getting at?
CARVELL: In other words, not having source material to draw on because there aren’t any “real magicians” isn’t really a problem, because we wouldn’t be telling stories about magic if we didn’t somewhere inside us kind of know what that meant. It’s just about getting in contact with that.
Obviously I’ve expressed that I’m a fan of this property. I want people to watch this, to enjoy it and hopefully seek out the book in turn, if only for the selfish reason that I’ll have more people to talk to about it! What do you think will draw people into this story? Why should they watch?
CARVELL: I think what people keep on saying about TV drama of the moment is that there’s this sort of golden age that we’re in, and one of the things that’s quite exiting is that you can tell a long form story, and then what you want to do I think is really deliver one. What this is, is a story that gets deeper, and riche,r and more mature as it goes along. It’s a big old box of treats. People will not be disappointed. It more than meets expectations. If that’s not a good platform, I don’t know what is. In terms of wanting people to go and read it, we’ve condensed – we’ve sort of boiled up this incredibly rich stew. We’ve sort of boiled it up, and taken off the cream, and made this very rich seven-hour movie; a movie in seven chapters. But then if you want to go and read the book, what you’ll get is all of the richness that’s underneath that, that’s informed that. I think that I would encourage people to go and read it.
RILEY: It’s kind of unlike anything else that’s out there, really. For want of a better term, it’s period drama meets fantasy in a nutshell. It’s really character driven. The characters ground the story and there’s a brilliant reality. There’s a love story within it, and within all that you’ve got then the reaches of the fantasy, and as the story progresses you have – once you’ve got to know these characters, as the magic starts to take over, the magic kind of seeps into the cracks of these characters’ personalities. It all just expands and becomes bigger the more magic there is. The whole world just becomes bigger and more fantastical and – yeah, you may think it’s one thing at the beginning, but it takes you on a journey you really don’t expect it to.