You're a wizard, Paddy: Why Patrick Stewart 'couldn't resist' the chance to play magical Merlin
The veteran actor once felt 'overlooked' for wizarding roles, but that's all changed with modern-day Arthurian epic 'The Kid Who Would Be King'
The Kid Who Would be King finds Attack the Block director Joe Cornish put a decidedly modern touch on the legend of King Arthur, not least in the shape of veteran English thespian Sir Patrick Stewart’s Merlin who, rather than the traditional robes of yore, can be found sporting wellington boots and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt.
The film tells the story of schoolboy Alex, played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of another English acting great, Andy Serkis, who stumbles across the legendary sword Excalibur. By doing this, he sets the full Arthurian legend in motion once more, complete with the evil plans of wicked enchantress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) who is determined to prevent his ascent to the English throne, but this time set in modern-day London.
These events are doubtless surprising enough for a 21st-century schoolkid, but what is perhaps even more surprising is that Stewart, a veteran of stage and screen, has never played a wizard before. It seems the actor is glad to have ticked this feat off his bucket list: “The Kid Who Would Be King allows me to enter this exclusive club of British actors who have played wizards. I was beginning to feel a little overlooked,” he reveals. “My dear friend Ian McKellen became a living legend with his performance as Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings. And then there are the Harry Potter stories which Michael Gambon has done so brilliantly. But nobody had ever come to me and said, ‘How do you feel about playing a wizard?’ until Joe came along.”
Stewart admits that once the offer was on the table, he didn’t need much convincing. “As soon as he began to describe the story, I knew it was something I was not able to resist and it would at long last be my opportunity to create my own wizard,” he says. “My Merlin is pretty wacky. For one thing, he looks a little strange but he is a fun, energetic and surprising character. In every respect, it was a delight to work on it.”
In fact, Stewart’s Merlin is probably the least wizard-like of the wizards the actor has described, but that clearly hasn’t spoiled his enjoyment of his mystical debut: “He is a rather unconventional Merlin and that was a particular delight for me. I wanted to make him as un-magician-like as possible,” Stewart explains. “My approach was to find a strong, persuasive, impressive character, more based on what he achieved than how he behaved. So I didn’t do much 'wizard' acting as such. At times I enjoyed appearing a little confused and not certain what to do next rather than being the all-powerful, all-knowing great medieval wizard.”
Cornish is a director who is not afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve, in his case, classic Eighties family movies. There’s more than a hint of Steven Spielberg’s ET in Attack the Block’s gang of bike-riding heroes, although they’re trying to save the world from aliens rather than save an alien from the world. TKWWBK’s gang of school friends transported to an incredible fantasy land, meanwhile, isn’t a million miles from Richard Donner’s classic The Goonies.
Another thing Cornish shares with these directors is the ability to deliver a family film that can be enjoyed by the grown-ups as well as the kids. “Sometimes ‘family film’ has an unfortunate connotation. It can be a bit soppy and soft and silly,” Stewart admits. “This movie is about very serious matters. It’s a film about duty, responsibility, believing in yourself, taking actions that will help society become better. These are important messages for young people to hear. The characters are taking serious risks in order to achieve this good outcome for its country and its people.”
In fact, despite being a ‘family film,’ Stewart admits that the better he got to know the script, the more layers he realised the movie had. “[The film] has more scale to it than I first anticipated on first reading the script,” he says. “It has a drama on such a scale that was completely unexpected and will be very, very exciting. There are really quite scary elements of danger in the movie but they are also surrounded by a world of fantasy. Even though we are in the 21st century, there is a sense that just around the corner is a medieval world of magic.”
Stewart even claims that his vast experience as a Shakespearean stage actor came in useful when shooting the Arthurian yarn: “[Joe was] very script-based, which is fine for me after all my years of Shakespeare, Stoppard and Pinter,” he says. “To me the script is everything, not just the narrative but what the script says about the character. Joe was very intent on the script revealing who Merlin was and what his objectives were. And that for me was very important. He’s had this idea since he was a child so I want to listen, I want to say, ‘What is your feeling about this?’ Those are insights that you can’t replicate.”
Finally, with his long and distinguished career to draw from, Stewart must surely be aware of the old thespian adage that one should never work with animals and children. The ever-charming actor insists he has nothing but fond memories of his time with his young co-stars, however. “Their commitment to the work, their seriousness, their determination to hear Joe Cornish’s advice and try to move what they were doing in that direction it was all so impressive,” he insists. “I enjoyed their company very much.”
The Kid Who Would Be King is in cinemas now
Updated: January 29, 2019 04:42 PM