The first season of History’s Knightfall came to a close last night, and there was much blood spilled, and much to discuss.
*Beware: Many SPOILERS ahead*
Pope Boniface (Jim Carter) was convinced that he made an error in putting Templar Master Landry (Tom Cullen) on trial, while King Philip (Ed Stoppard) of France and Queen Joan (Olivia Ross) of Navarre’s marriage came to a head. After Philip revealed he had the Grail, Joan clocked him and ran -- Grail in hand -- as fast as a woman in her third trimester can to warn Landry of Philip’s mercenaries coming after him and the Templars.
On a snowy battlefield, Landry is pulled away and worn down, and Philip delivers the final blows, but Joan raises the stakes by interrupting the execution, setting up a dramatic and tragic climax. Without knowing if a Season 2 is on order, we are left with a glimmer of hope, while setting the stage for more clandestine adventures.
We had plenty of questions after last night's drama, so SYFY WIRE spoke with the royal pair of Ed Stoppard and Olivia Ross to find out about some of their biggest scenes, the Knights Templar attraction, and being in the "staggering" presence of the Holy Grail.
Playing royals, you both finally get a taste of the adventurous (or more fantastical) side of Knightfall when Philip shows Joan the Holy Grail. Break that scene down for us.
Olivia Ross: When we were filming this, I was thinking, there’s got to be something extraordinary to see this. At the time we were talking about people who had total faith in God. In general it was a time when it was omnipresent. In that moment, when Philip shows me the cup of Christ, we played it in a way that whatever was going on between them disappears. Whatever the personal and the political stuff going on in your life–none of it compares to when you have the presence of God in the room.
Ed Stoppard: The Grail in the literal sense is fantastical, but for a Christian in the Middle Ages, it was anything but. It was kind of a physical manifestation of the power and glory of God. Those personages would be kind of awestruck, to set eyes on it, let alone hold in their hand the cup of Christ. I don’t think it would have a fantastical sense that it would for a person in the 21st century. You’re trying to play the truth of it, which for our characters in that time was that this is an astonishing artifact, but it’s real. It’s not science fiction. This is the vessel from which Jesus drank from the Last Supper, which caught the blood of Christ from the Crucifixion. There’s no ambiguity about that, I don’t think. The staggering nature to have that object in one’s possession is remarkable. I would posit it remains very firmly in the truthful realm of our story.
Ed, what is it like to play a character you want to give the benefit of the doubt to, but he keeps doing these things that get under your skin?
ES: It’s not often seen in characters who ultimately behave in such an appalling manner that there’s a scope there for the audience to instill some empathy. I’m not condoning his final actions, but if you follow King Philip’s story, over those 10 episodes, hopefully there’s a certain kind of–not sympathy or empathy necessarily–but an understanding of the point that this man was driven to. The extent of the betrayal, his best friend and his wife. There are probably not two people he loves more, and to learn that they’ve not only betrayed him, but with each other, in the kind of rush of blood, in the immediate moments following that revelation, who knows how anyone of us would react? Add to the mix that you’re an autocratic ruler that’s divinely anointed. [Laughs]
Let’s dive into the anatomy of the climactic scene of the finale. Philip is beating down on an exhausted Landry and in comes Joan, whom Philip stabs in cold blood. The way it’s shot feels as if the three of you (with Tom Cullen) are alone in this scene. What do you remember about that day, how did you physically and mentally prepare for that?
OR: It was FREEZING, and we did not have that much time to shoot it because it was the winter, so the daylight was shorter. We had to get it to work quite quickly. It’s interesting that you say it was a scene of the three of us together, but it’s also the scene where the private becomes completely public. There’s almost an arena of an audience of the army of the King watching us. It’s completely personal and private. It’s a scene of complete mess. It’s almost metaphorical in a way, it puts everything in the outside that’s been kept on the inside as much as possible. People don’t like their personal laundry in the open air.
ES: My job was made much easier simply because Tom was ballin'; he was so on top of his game that day, utterly committed. So it made it easier to play off it. He was just giving a fantastically truthful and committed performance. Talking earlier about on some level empathizing with the situation Philip finds himself in, it’s interesting and exhilarating, to give free rein to my when Olivia appears, if you know what I mean. Normally we try to keep in check those worst impulses. Obviously this within the boundaries of the character, there’s something kind of liberating, after realizing how he’s been hoodwinked and betrayed. There’s this sort of release, for me.
As an actor it helps to just jump in feet first; don’t worry about where the bottom is. I remember that day being … fun is not the right word, but from a professional working standpoint, satisfying. It felt like we created this great scene and got there by being bold. There’s no point in doing this scene if we’re going to be kind of self-deprecating, and be very British about it.
OR: If I remember right, you guys had been filming for most of the day and I only had about one or two hours to shoot my scenes. I don’t know if it was the time or the cold temperatures that helped push us to the performances, but–
ES: There was an immediacy to it.
OR: We had been expecting that scene for months, we hadn’t read the script yet, but we knew what it was essentially about, and when you’ve been thinking about something you have it in the back of your head. When it came to the time to do it, you don’t have time to think about it, and sometimes that’s quite helpful because the main thing you have to use is your intuition and instincts and just be in the moment. It’s freeing to have these explosive scenes that are SO dramatic, where everyone is at a heightened state, there’s not one person calming down. Everyone’s just going for it, and were so honest and giving in their performances. The three of us had been working together for months, and to finally get to THAT point was thrilling.
ES: Everyone, including our showrunner Dominic Minghella, who wrote this great scene that felt very truthful. If I don’t believe what I’m being asked to do, that’s not my happy place. I remember feeling so grateful, happy, and relieved. Look, the scene worked on the page, and if it works on the page then we have a shot of putting something really interesting in the can. I remember that it was probably going to be a long day, we’ll get tired and cold. We all stepped into the day thinking (to myself), "This is going to work, because Dom’s written a great scene. So if it’s messed up, it’s on you." At the end of the day, I walked away feeling pretty good about it.
Landry uses the Grail on Joan, in hopes of saving her. Instead, the baby survives. Talk about leaving viewers with hope, which is ambiguous, but leaves the audience to believe or not believe in the Grail’s powers.
OR: I liked that the scene left it open to a little interpretation in the sense that it didn’t save her but perhaps instead saved the baby’s life. Is it the Grail, is it not the Grail? Tragically, it’s what you want. You’re leaving it to the audience to decide what they want to believe. There’s this ambiguity where you wish it works, but then it doesn’t, but something else takes over and it’s not what you expected.
ES: This is the History Channel, it’s not SYFY. So that gives a certain level of ambiguity and uncertainty as to whether it is like the divine power of the Grail, or is it just this moment of did it save the baby? Did it not save the baby? If not, then what saved the baby? It ties in to trying to create a world that is very real that is also very dramatic, exciting, and grand, ostentatious.
Referring back to what we were saying earlier as far as what would the Grail have meant to these people, living in the Christian Middle Ages must have been filled with episodes which one could chalk up to divine intervention, or would play into people’s faith or lack of faith. That question of was it the Grail, was it not the Grail, was very much in keeping with the realities of living in that time, when there was more ignorance of how phenomena occurred.
You think about the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Sean Connery is shot and Harrison Ford pours water from the Holy Grail, and it fizzes like an Alka Seltzer, and viola, and within that context, it’s fine because you want Sean Connery to live. There’s just a time and a place. If clouds part, with beams of sunlight and angels appear with harps, you’d have been like, really? The messiness of that moment felt like the kind of tone that the show is reaching for. Life is messy, it’s complicated, it’s not smooth, it’s uncertain. There are dead ends, it’s not nice and simple. I really love the way Dom wrote that, how Douglas (Mackinnon) shot it, and the guys played it.
What is it about chasing down the holy relics that fascinates people?
OR: What I find so interesting is the spirituality that we give to objects. Whether it’s a holy relic or if you’re an atheist or not drawn to any one religion, think of something sentimental given to you that’s more pragmatic, something you see inhabited by the presence of your grandmother or father or someone you lost. It’s so meaningful. It’s different but similar, in that they’re relics, in the sense that what it means is the material life is not material, and in our case of being, means we are not just bodies that are going to expire. The reason these relics have such a power is that it means the existence of the soul and the spirit. The spirit elevates us. It’s also the time where there’s that tokogeny of the spiritual and the material, or the body and the soul, that you aspire to be more than your body, more than your passion. Even if you’re an atheist, there’s the possibility of being more than just the material existence.
As humans we attach such strength, force, and presence into very tiny objects. That I find completely fascinating. There’s the idea that the Grail is just a simple wooden cup, but it’s something about what it carries as a symbol, and that’s something you find in so many areas of life, where objects carry a symbol that’s beyond their actual nature.
ES: In the terms of the modern age, I kind of get the people who certainly push back from the enlightenment. By nature, I’m sort of Darwinian. Empiricism works for me, but at times of crisis in my life, I find myself really envious of people who have faith. It’s an odd notion: You just have to take it on faith. In this kind of prescribed modern age we live in, that has no mystery, the wonder’s been bled out of it because of the Hubble telescope or whatever. We’re all just made up of these organic compounds versus being chosen by deities.
There’s almost like a childlike delight and wonder of not knowing how the world works, that is imagining there’s some other possibility, that there is something that is less prosaic than what is presented to us by our modern iPhone world. There’s something quite comforting about that, that maybe for a lot of people, the modern age is quite cold, and dispassionate. These symbols suggest something, which transcends this rather cold, defined, deliberate existence that we find ourselves in, watching Netflix or the History Channel [coughs].
And what do you think it is that people love about stories of the Knights Templar?
OR: There’s something interesting about this thing of teamwork and the ability to face dangerous situations when you’re a team or this sense of family. There’s something about tapping that sense of people working together, all you can do is have faith and trust.
ES: Who doesn’t like a handsome man in a suit of armor wielding a sword? I know I certainly do.
OR: [Laughs] It’s funny that Ed said there’s something about watching sexy men fighting, but I think the reason why they’re so attractive is that they’re heroes, valiantly fighting to defend something. It’s different than watching the Royals because they are appointed by God, they do have to be good rulers, there’s a responsibility to create justice and promote peace and make sure your subjects are happy. But there’s something about watching these two groups of people make such huge decisions and they have to act like heroes. The Templars are the direct opposite of antiheroes, and that’s why you want to watch them.
ES: I’d agree with that, and one thing I want to add about the Templars is their selfless nature, that they’re fighting for something that’s much bigger than their individual selves. If you were to compare them to today, you wouldn’t compare them with LeBron James or Tom Brady, you would say they’re like these nameless, faceless Westerners who travel from Wisconsin to Syria to fight with the Kurds against ISIS or something. What’s the upside for that guy? It’s not getting a sponsorship with Nike, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The upside is that he doesn’t die. There’s something about that, that’s in the Templars. Who doesn’t want to be in the presence of someone like that?