Cynthia Nixon, Peter Firth, Charlotte Riley and Miranda Richardson head up stellar cast in television adaptation of Ken Follett's international bestseller, the sequel to The Pillars Of The Earth.
Featuring an exceptional cast including Cynthia Nixon (Sex & The City), Peter Firth (Spooks), Ben Chaplin (Dorian Gray), Charlotte Riley (The Take), Rupert Evans (The Little House), Tom Weston-Jones (Spooks) and Miranda Richardson (Harry Potter), this rousing new series is set two hundred years after The Pillars of the Earth, as both war and plague are waged upon the medieval town of Kingsbridge.
World Without end is on Channel 4 on Saturdays from 12th January at 9pm.
Tell me about your character in World Without End.
I play Petranilla, who's really not what she appears to be. When she first shows up, she seems like a dutiful aunt, sister and mother, and as the story progresses, you discover there's a lot more to play; this is a woman of tremendous thwarted ambition that has driven her to a very murderous place.
They say that most people harbour greater ambitions for their children than they do for themselves.
I think, particularly for a woman living at that time whose ambitions are so curtailed and circumscribed, there are always things she wants for herself - namely, wealth and power - that are really not available to her. However, she has a son and I think a lot of women, particularly in earlier times, rather than have ambition for themselves, they would instead channel it through their children, particularly their sons.
Let's talk about Godwyn, because he does become a tool, which she wields to her needs, so to speak. He's an interesting character himself, and he's very much under her sway.
Her pride and joy, and the vehicle for all her ambition is her son, Godwyn. Petranilla feels she's smarter than him, and that sometimes she has to spoon-feed him a little. I think one of the interesting things about their relationship is that she underestimates her son. On the one hand, she puts him up on a pedestal, and he's her everything. He's going to be successful and she's determined to get him there by any means. However, by doing so she unwittingly ends up teaching him lessons in viciousness and duplicity that she doesn't realise might be turned against her in the end.
Could you talk about a few of the other characters that Petranilla comes into contact with?
Peter Firth plays Sir Roland, and they have a long, romantic but painful history together. Even though she was never married to him, she sees him as the love of her life. Sir Roland keeps reappearing as a key figure in her world, and he wields a tremendous amount of power within the community, town and even the country. Most of all he has his own power over her because she's still completely in love with him.
There's also Caris Wooler, played by Charlotte Riley, who is her niece. The two of them have a very uneasy relationship and alliance. She needs Caris and Caris needs her, but as the story goes on, my character, Petranilla, unmasks herself more and more and rather than view Caris as the daughter she never had, she starts to see her a s a rival.
How does the role of the Church play a part in Petranilla's actions and the community's reaction to the destructive plague?
The Bubonic Plague provides the terrifying and devastating backdrop to the srtory, everyone is affected by it in some way. Like any natural disaster or disease, it's so frightening to know what to do, particularly at that period in history. At least nowadays we think we'll wash our hands and stay inside, but at that time, there were so many contradictory ideas about what might help, or why the plague was happening. Was it a judgement from God? Were there evil people in our midst? Were we not holy enough? Petranilla is not a religious person at all. Even though she has chosen the path of the church for her son, it's because it's a path to power, not for any religious feeling she has. So while other people in the story fall victim to superstition, she uses superstition as a means to an end.
Was your initial attraction to the production through the book? Or did you read the script first? How did the story reach you?
As it's an eight-hour mini-series there‘s a lot to read. So even before I read it, I was given a pretty good description of the character and what she's like, what she goes through and perpetrates. I thought she sounded like a really fascinating individual, a really juicy and evil character, so that peaked my interest right away. I read the book once I'd been cast, and it helped me become fully immersed in the character and story. It works on a national level, the emergence of the nation, it works on the emergence of the town, but it also is very much a power struggle within the family. Not a noble family but a merchant family. Our story shows you don't have to live in a castle to do bloody deeds.
What sort of man is Sir Roland?
Roland actually came from quite modest beginnings but was full of aspiration and desire to better himself. The unfortunate dark side to him is that he will use any means at his disposal to further himself, he's something as a social climber -slash -murderous go-getter, so he's not a particularly nice person, but he certainly achieves some status, and eventually becomes the Earl of Shiring from just being a commoner.
As an Earl, what sort of position does that put him in, in terms of having control over the people?
Being an Earl gives you localised power of your particular district, in this case Kingsbridge. So you would be responsible for being an emissary of the Queen or the King, whichever the case may be, and performing their tasks and instructions in your domain.
How did you become involved in the project?
I didn't know the book before I became involved, but I did read it subsequently. It was really the period aspect that attracted me. I've done a lot of modern work recently, and I've always enjoyed period. You get fabulous costumes and quite florid dialogue, and get to ride horses and do sword fighting - all that stuff that as a schoolboy you aspired to.
He's got a complicated history with Petranilla though?
Petranilla and Roland, like many couples who reach a certain age, in the middle age, have got quite a history. They have been together as lovers on and off over that period of time and know each other very well. I think it's something that, when you get to know somebody that well over, say, thirty years, a bond forms that will see you through just about anything. She's as bad as they come, and Roland is just as bad, they're well matched. I don't think there's a more wicked couple in fiction or literature.
These characters are complicated and very rich, and Roland is capable of doing just about anything necessary to advance. Is that a role that you look at and think you can really sink your teeth in to?
It's always more attractive to have a character with a dark side. For me, certainly, because there are levels to be explored and it's license to maybe ham it up a little, slice it a little bit thick, but certainly to give it richness that a lot of characters wouldn't have.
Tell us how you prepared for the role?
I did a lot of research about the period and particularly about medicine of the time, as Caris is so involved in the healing arts. I have quite a lot of interest in things like essential oils and herbs anyway, so it was enjoyable research. As everything is shot out of sequence, you need to have a really good grip on where you're going to be. As it's a large production you could be in episode one in the morning and episode eight in the afternoon!
Tell us about Caris. What type of person is she, how does her character fit into the narrative of the story?
You meet her when she's rather young and you do get a sense of determination from her that she wants to have a life other than what's been offered to her. There's a great line from her father when she says, "Maybe, you know, I don't want to get married", and he says to her "Well, what on earth would you do then?!" Which sums up that period perfectly. She has aspirations to follow in the footsteps of her good friend, Mattie Wise, who works in the healing arts and she's just fascinated by that, but she's not so interested in the trappings of marriage.
Can you tell us a bit about her relationship with Merthin?
Through having similar troubles and difficulties in their lives, they find companionship, friendship and a love that transcends things that are purely sexual, which I think is important. If she was ever going to have a relationship like that, then this is the perfect type of relationship Caris would want for herself.
Tell us about the character of Mother Cecilia, and where she draws upon her strength and moral fibre in the face of such deceitful activity going on around her.
By the time we are introduced to Cecilia, we assume she must have had a life. It wasn't uncommon for women to enter the church sometimes at a late stage in their lives. The church was one of the few places where women could seek emotional and physical refuge, so whatever has gone before, you could throw yourself upon the love of God and the community of the church. It was a good way to go. You could be guaranteed security, certainly within the confines of the priory, and hopefully within the wider community.
The church played such a powerful role in the community at this time. What research did you do on that period?
The church had wealth, knowledge, education and it's fair share of corruption, but there was a hierarchical view of the world then. It was almost like a caste system. There is God at the top and then there are lesser and lesser divisions as you descend. The church sets itself up as God's right hand and the fount of all knowledge, and nobody questioned it because most of the people involved in the church were the ones with the education.
Cecilia has some very manipulative, devious enemies in the guise of Petranilla and Godwyn. How does she deal with these rivals?
Godwyn and his mother Petranilla are a handful and a trial for Mother Cecilia, who is essentially working towards the good of the community and the glory of God. Godwyn, encouraged by his mother, is on a mad career high, and trying to ensure that he is God's right hand. And to that end, he thinks he deserves a palace that would be symbolic of how important he is in the church, in the community, and in the greater world. He starts making divisions, literally between the men and the women in the priory in an attempt to change the rules.
Cecilia has a great sense of humour, and she also has a sense of irony. As Petranilla she's able to, not exactly manipulate, but is able to point out where Godwyn might be going wrong, or where he might be misguided and where he might not be behaving as perhaps God might wish. I think she spends far too much time thinking about him and probably praying for patience to deal with him.
Being such a long shoot (6 months) was it particularly challenging to come in after a break and pick up from where you left off?
What massively helped was the set. It was very conducive to feeling that you're in that world. So walking down these corridors you really got a sense of how it's meant to be. There's a feeling of strength and a kind of emotional warmth.
Thomas is a knight, he has a military background. How does a guy with that kind of warrior spirit find refuge or find peaceful sanctity that confines the religious warrior?
He seeks sanctuary when injured as a knight in the priory of Kingsbridge. He's convalescing from the injury to his arm. It's a slow recovery with some spiritual, side journey for him. He connects with the people of Kingsbridge, he makes friends, he's particularly close with Caris and Matthias.
What research did you do for the role?
I found a book that was extremely detailed in its description of life in a monastery during that period of our history. That said I got the best picture of that time from Ken's novel and the script. It also helped that the setting, costumes and set were so beautifully realised by the designers. We did a lot of filming outside and you just had to wander through the market squares, and you instantly felt like you were going back in time.
What was the particular element that made you want to be part of this show?
Sir Thomas is fascinating. I play more than one character effectively, because I'm a knight in exile, a knight in exile and eventually a pious man seeking sanctuary. So you get two for the price of one, it's a bargain basement in terms of acting! That's what initially interested me, as well as the other actors, director and of course Ken Follett.
Tell us a little bit about what draws you to Ken Follett's novels?
They are, in the best possible sense of the word, so dense in terms of their evolution, not just in the overall scheme of things but each of his characters are so well worked into his own universe. I think they are marvelous searchers into human nature and human behavior. Of course his fascination with the Medieval, or Dark Ages, I share with him. So for me he's a perfect creator of this kind of film.
To what extent were you involved in casting?
We have so much in development that my main job when I'm in Los Angeles, is reading. Talking to David Zucker, who heads up Scott Free Television: ‘What must I read, what are you considering?' The same goes for the cast. Once something goes into process and we've chosen a Casting Director that we think is good--and of course the Director, the Director has a lot to say about casting in the final analysis-it's a shared experience. And then I'll put in, as I say in English, my two cents about casting.
How important is it to have both experienced and less experienced actors?
I always look for new faces. Even for leading people. Sigourney (Weaver) was brand new, Noomi (Rapace) is brand new to the Western film world. Sometimes it's difficult because you have to persuade the financiers that this a good idea. It's not that you're going after someone to create a star. It's not that. I always think the best man gets the job. So when you're in a casting session with a very good Casting Director, the people I use will always show me new faces.