Interview: Mackenzie Crook on Sky Atlantic's 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.

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Actor Mackenzie Crook tells us more...

What was your main attraction to Britannia?

Jez Butterworth. That’s all it came down to really. As soon as I saw his name attached to it my ears pricked up. I worked with him before on the play Jerusalem, possibly the work I’m most proud of, and the most profound time I’ve had in this business since I first started. It was almost a no-brainer. Obviously I read the script but as soon as I saw his name I knew it was going to be awesome.

 

What can you tell us about Veran?

He’s an enigmatic, charismatic leader of what could be seen as a cult, this really strange tribe. He’ll come across as cruel, and the way he looks, he looks like a baddie. But he’s not necessarily the bad guy. He’s more complicated than that. He’s doing these things that appear cruel because the gods have told him to do this. Because the gods speak through the Druids he’s pretty much all powerful. He can lord it over all the Celtic tribes. The Romans, when they invade, they see this, and they know he’s to be treated carefully.

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In terms of Veran’s appearance, it’s quite a transformation. How did you find the makeup process?

I found it brilliant. I loved every minute of it. From the design to going and having a cast made, and the daily ritual of putting it on – we started off at five hours and then they got it down to three and a half – it was a brilliant process. Watching the skill of the makeup team and seeing myself slowly transformed in front of the mirror helped me get into and form the character.

On that point, how else did you get into the mind of someone as enigmatic and mysterious as Veran? It’s difficult because there’s next to nothing known about the Druids. We’re picking from five or six facts that were written by Julius Caesar and otherwise it’s all just open for interpretation. This is going to sound weird but I sort of drew on Springwatch.

 

Springwatch?

It has this air of being for old people but it’s actually the most brutal and violent show on television – the violence of nature. That sentimental sympathy and empathy that humans have, it doesn’t exist out there. And Veran is all about the natural world. He’s like the seasons. There’s no room for sentiment, sympathy or empathy.

 

So you weren’t channelling Chris Packham?

No, not drawing on Chris Packham. In fact there’s a particular segment of Springwatch from a couple of years back that stuck in my head. There was this nest of blue tits in a nest box with a camera in it. They were raising about 10 chicks and the whole nation was willing along these parents who were feeding them and getting them bigger and bigger. It came to the point where the birds were about to fledge, and the first one jumped up to the hole, and there was a Jay waiting for it, and the Jay just took it. And then he came back and he got the next one, and the next one, and the next one. So all these chicks got slaughtered. And then it went back to Chris Packham he said, “Oh well, the Jays have had a good year then”. Harsh. Exactly. That’s the cruelty of nature.

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Did you have a particular highlight from the filming?

There were lots, it was an incredible job to do. But seeing that Stonehenge they built for us for the first time was incredible. And to find myself on top of that with my fear of heights to perform this massive ritual. They actually built it so that it aligned with the setting sun, so as the sun came down it really did cast this shadow. Those sorts of experience, I just stepped away from myself and said, “This is quite possibly how it actually was back then”.

 

You have a fear of heights?

Yeah I do have a fear of heights in everyday life. Especially with my children. I keep feeling like they’re going to throw themselves off or through some railings. When I’m acting the adrenaline kicks in – you act like you’re not scared. But I’m sitting on top of this cliff, and there was no way I was ever going to fall off, I’ve probably never been safer in my life, I’m harnessed up and have a team of safety people, but it’s still there.

 

Fear of heights notwithstanding, the scenery in Britannia is stunning isn’t it?

 Absolutely. And on a different scale completely there’s a scene Susan Tully directed where I was sitting on a clifftop with a butterfly on my finger, just contemplating it. It was brilliant – this guy had a fridge full of butterflies so that they’d be kept sedate. He put one on my finger and then the heat from my finger would slowly warm it up. So it would stay there for 10, 20 seconds and then open its wings and fly away. It was a really lovely moment.

 

All episodes available 18 January via Sky Atlantic on SKY TV or NOW TV.