Interview: David Morrissey on Sky Atlantic's massive new drama, Britannia

43AD. At the far edges of the Roman Empire lies a land of powerful Druids and warrior queens. A country Julius Caesar had tried and failed to conquer a hundred years ago. A place which lies tantalisingly close to the Roman Empire’s grasp and has almost mythic status: Britannia.

The Romans’ arrival will forever change the lives of the Celts and Druids. Under General Aulus, 400 ships containing 20,000 men land on Britannia’s shores in the name of the Roman Emperor Claudius. They will take the island and anything they want from it. Britannia will be conquered. Britannia will be civilised.

But since when did anyone want to be civilised?

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How would you describe a character like Aulus?

He’s a Roman general, a ruthless guy, but he’s also searching for something else. This is a land in which the Romans have been defeated before under Caesar – where they’ve turned tail and gone back to Rome. So he’s out to prove himself in that respect. But also he’s there on a personal, spiritual journey, to find out what he can about the Druid philosophy and belief system. He’s a man on a mission.

 

What do you think it is that drives Aulus?

I think it’s a personal quest of enlightenment. I feel that he’s a man

who would have seen great trauma, he’s seen the worst of human nature and humankind. There’s something inside there that’s driven him to find some other meaning of life. Something beyond the earthbound life. Or certainly a search to make sense of what’s going on. Like he’s saying to himself, "This can’t just be it".

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It’s refreshing that, while being in command of a Roman legion, Aulus himself rarely utilises physical violence throughout the series. It’s as if his weapon isn’t the sword, more like a scalpel…

One of the things about him, and I think this is true of the Romans in general, is that he gets to Britannia as they would with any foreign place, and he does his research, and he finds out what the old scores are in this land – which tribes hate each other – and he just manipulates the hatreds that are already there, and uses them to his own advantage.

 

How did it feel to don the armour of a Roman general?

It was dependent on the weather. We started off filming in the Czech Republic in the summer, and it was pretty tough. It was quite heavy and hot. That added to the discomfort, which was good, as the characters felt that so it was a natural fit. But then as we went into the winter months and it became bitterly cold things improved dramatically. I wear a lot of fur stuff so that was welcome. It’s hard to ride a horse with that amount of stuff on, though.

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Was the horse riding something you had to learn for the part?

No, I’ve done a lot of horse riding in the past. There are many jobs I’ve had to ride a horse for so it was a joy to do this. We had a great guy who ran the stables and great stunt guys as well, so it was good to get involved in that. The horses were wonderful and I always enjoy that. Good to get back in the saddle and go for it.

 

Is it oversimplifying to call Aulus the villain?

I wouldn’t call him that. I think he’s a necessity of the piece. He’s a recognisable character in that he’s the head of the conquering force. But I think how he uses pre-emptive strikes, manipulation of the civil strife between the tribes, there’s something very recognisable there. There is an element of him in that he is the modern world coming to an ancient one. He brings progress but also the idea of healthcare, sanitation, things like that. But there’s going to be a fight – people don’t like change. He’s a modern force.

 

Did you have any favourite scenes in Britannia?

Zoë Wanamaker and I shared a few scenes together. She’s an actress I’ve admired for many years. We did good stuff together on set. There was a lot of banter. Our characters might not be on equal footing, because I have this massive army behind me, but we’re certainly intellectual equals, and there’s something about that that meant I really loved playing those scenes with her.