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Though Dev Patel has certainly captivated critics and audiences, and stolen the internet's heart yet again, thanks to David Lowery's dark fantasy film The Green Knight, he's not the film's only star. After all, Patel's Gawain spends much of the film reacting to the action or inaction, as the case may be, of the film's title character, a hulking avatar of the natural world who begins the film with the offer of a friendly contest and ends it with much, much more.
For the role of The Green Knight, Lowery was always clear that he didn't want a computer-generated creation stalking the landscape of his film, nor did he want an actor covered in motion-capture dots to simply represent the Knight for his cast and crew. He wanted a fully realized costume and an actor who could embody the character from inside that costume. He found that actor in Ralph Ineson, who genre fans will recognize from smaller roles in Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter films, and for his breakout leading role in Robert Eggers' celebrated folk horror film, The Witch.
Ineson, who was offered the role directly no doubt in part because of his instantly recognizable baritone voice, was immediately drawn to Lowery's ideas for the character, and deliberately steered away from doing too much research beyond his initial familiarity with Arthurian lore. For him, it was important that the Green Knight he embodied be the same one that existed in Lowery's script, without other influences intruding on that vision.
"I think that film acting is quite a simple job that is often over-complicated and often over-intellectualized," Ineson told SYFY WIRE. "This is David Lowery's telling of The Green Knight, so the Green Knight exists on the page in that script. So [if I were] to bring other stuff to it, David's probably thought of it and got rid of it. So yeah, my job, I always thought, was to concentrate on what was in front of me rather than dipping into various different retellings of the original poem, as there are many, as we know, many readings of it. I made a conscious decision to just stick with David's version."
Though previous adaptations have sometimes portrayed the Knight as either an otherwise ordinary man colored completely green or as a man decked out in green costume, Lowery's version called for an elaborate, completely transformative costume for his actor. Ineson's Green Knight has a face that looks carved from tree bark, armor etched with runes, and a sense of creaking movement that makes him seem carved more from thick vines than muscle tissue. For the actor, who spent more than three hours getting into his wardrobe and prosthetics each day, much of the character's physicality was informed simply by the limitations of the costume.
"The way that I moved on set was right, but it was almost determined by the character," Ineson said. "And so with beautiful sound design on the movie, with all the cracking of the ivy as he moves crunching it, it wasn't like I was playing that pace. That was the pace that I had to move in all of that. So yeah, it definitely informed the character."
But Lowery and Ineson's version of the Green Knight was about more than an intimidating look, something Ineson discovered as he got deeper into the role on set. The Green Knight is an imposing figure, to be sure, but Lowery's script also called for something just as important: A certain playfulness that comes with his role as Gawain's tester.
"I found that the things that didn't work when I was playing the character was when I tried to play the intimidation of him," Ineson explained. "Much of the point of the character that I think David and myself were interested in was leaning into the Tester of Men element, the fun and the joy that the Green Knight gets from what he does, and what he does with Gawain."
What he does with Gawain, of course, culminates in a meeting at the Green Chapel near the end of the film, where the Knight gets to finally see how far the young nephew of King Arthur has come.
**Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers for the ending of The Green Knight below.**
"Obviously Dev was in such a wonderful place with the performance, it was such a great performance, and by that point he was so ingrained in what he was doing," Ineson said of the Green Chapel work. "And it was such a wonderful scene to film. There was just David and the two of us in this tiny chapel, and it was a very limited crew because, with all the moss and all the grass and everything around, it couldn't be disturbed."
For Ineson, who spent an intimate couple of days with Lowery and Patel in the Green Chapel location to film the final confrontation, the Green Knight's motives at the end were less about whatever Morgan Le Fay had summoned him for, and more about his own agency in testing Gawain. In those final moments, he's become less of an avatar summoned by a sorceress to perform a task, and more of an independent being acting like another proud parental figure in Gawain's life.
"I also think that there's, especially in that final sequence, an almost parental love for Gawain from the Green Knight, in a sense. There's the challenging him, of him wanting the best version of Gawain; he's trying to get that out of him. And at the end he does, he actually makes the right decision, he makes the right choice, and the Green Knight is very proud of him at that moment.
He continued, "And I think that parental love is the kind of full stop to the challenging and the playfulness. I've got a 22-year-old son. I wind him up a lot to get the best out of him. I think there's an element of that in that final scene. That's where a lot of it was coming from me, anyway. That's the feeling I had for Dev at that point; it was like, 'Come on, you can do this.' And then when he did, [The Green Knight] was very proud of him."
Though he's been working regularly in film and television for nearly three decades, the years since The Witch have been especially good to Ineson. After the success of that film, he's popped up in everything from The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance to Chernobyl to a film that arrived just days before The Green Knight, Gunpowder Milkshake. Now, as The Green Knight becomes one of the best-reviewed projects of his career, he's got other major work on the horizon, including a role in Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth and a role in The Witch director Robert Eggers' upcoming third feature film, The Northman.
"It sounds like a bit of a social media buzzword, but I just feel really blessed," Ineson said. "I've done my job for the best part of 20 years, and loving it, and being a jobbing actor for a long time, and getting a lot of decent quality work in decent quality projects. But never quite having the chance to play fully rounded characters until I was lucky enough to get The Witch with Rob Eggers. I think that was the one that changed it for me, really. I got to show people that I had a range beyond perhaps what they thought.
"So, yeah, I think since then I've had the chance to work with some amazing filmmakers, and I've got a lot of nice stuff to come out, and nice stuff to film. Yeah, it's great, it's a bit of an Indian summer, really, I felt like. I've done the graft, I've done the hard work, so I don't feel too guilty about getting some nice parts now."
The Green Knight is in theaters now.