Kieran Bew and Ed Speleers play rivals in Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, but you won’t find any animosity between the two English actors.
I spoke with Bew and Speleers way back in January at the Television Critics Association winter tour. The actors easily talked in unison and teased each other while discussing the series, which James Dormer, Tim Haines and Katie Newman loosely adapted from the Anglo-Saxon poem written between the eighth and tenth centuries.
Esquire network will air all 12 episodes of “Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands” beginning at 8 a.m./7c Dec. 25. William Hurt, Joanne Whalley and Laura Donnelly also star.
Bew stars as Beowulf, who in this story Hrothgar, Thane (king) of Herot, adopts as a boy. Hrothgar (Hurt) pitted Beowulf against his own son, Slean, whom he thought weak and incompetent. Speleers plays the adult Slean. He is bitterly opposed to Beowulf’s return to Herot, where his mother, Rheda (Whalley), rules after the death of his father.
Fans may recognize Bew and Speleers from their previous roles. Bew starred as Alfonso, the battle-ready Duke of Calabria, in “Da Vinci’s Demons.” Speleers played the mischievous footmen Jimmy Kent in “Downton Abbey.”
The actors discussed their roles and the joys and tribulations of filming “Beowulf,” including breaking some ribs and repeatedly getting slapped in the face by Hurt.
Kieran, are you missing the two swords strapped to your back?
Kieran Bew: [Laughs.] It’s funny. When I first started on “Beowulf,” I went through the door into this incredible interior set. The first thing I did was dip down a little bit because I had to do that as Alfonso so often because the swords would catch on doors and ceilings and things. So I’m happy to have moved on from Alfonso, although I do have some of the swords at home so I can play with them whenever I want. I’m very lucky.
You mentioned that you had done fencing before. This kind of fighting is a lot different than that, right?
KB: It is, but I fenced from when I was nine to when I was 17 as a sportsman. I was British champion for two years. I went all around Europe and to the World Championships. And then I went straight to the drama school LAMDA, where the stage combat school is very, very good. The fighting I’d done had lent itself so well to the choreography of any other style of fighting that I ended up getting jobs to choreograph fights for people. We did sword and shield and axe and flail and bed sheet. You name it, we did it. Actually at one point the head of drama at LAMDA said to me, “Kieran, are you going to do any acting?”
It’s something that as a young guy—everybody wants to kind of get in and do that. And so my fencing kept me in drama school. I got a job at the Globe working at Mark Rylance because I choreographed a fight for “Hamlet.” Specifically the point work was very useful. And it continues to help me now when we’re doing “Beowulf.”
How about you, Ed? Did you have a lot of swordsman experience?
Ed Speleers: I suppose I did some very early on in my career, but not a great deal. I do quite a lot on the job, really, which is one of the great things about doing what we do. You get to learn new skills. Unless you’re Kieren Bew, who got fencing at a really young age, you don’t actually think you’re going to learn how to wield a sword.
But I love being thrown into pretty much most situations and given the chance to learn new things. It’s always a challenge. And I enjoy the sword fighting. Sometimes it’s tricky if I haven’t got a great deal of time to prep some things because it fries my brain a little bit. I have this massive red cape and any fight I did I always had a shield, so I had such restricted movement with this particular sword. It’s always a challenge and I get very frustrated with myself quite easily. You know, “It’s got to be better, it’s got to be better.”
Actually Kieran was great helping me. … Kieran and I would have like five guys to take on, and I would say, “Kieran, how are we going to do this?”
“Don’t worry mate. Just do this, do that, turn around there. And we’ll be like OK, cool?” And he basically choreographed what we were doing and it was great. It was good fun. Like I said, we’re very lucky to do what we do.
As a kid I lived to see shows like this simply because I wanted to be fighting with a sword. Do you feel like a kid again doing this?
KB: Yeah, you’re basically eight years old. We go to work, we put on a cape and leather trousers and boots and we’ve got a sword and a horse. And we charge around investigating caves with torches. It is funny because every day you kind of go, “This is like the ‘Goonies’ or this is like..”
ES: Like “Willow.”
KB: “Or this is like ‘Willow.’” … I got a new cape halfway through the show. The first cape I had was very tough and thick. And the second cape I got was much more sort of cloth and had a hood. So, of course, I spend a few hours pretending to be a Jedi. And I’m jumping off things and taking pictures of the cape blowing in the wind. It’s escapism.
Like I said, I started fencing at nine years old because I wanted to do this for a job. So for me to get to do it in this or in “Da Vinci’s Demons” or even on stage in Shakespeare and things. It’s always a riot because when you’re a kid you look at things and think, “I want to be an astronaut” or “I want to be a knight” or “I want to be a hero.” That’s what we get to do for a job, so it’s absolute bliss. And the cast is full of people who feel the same way.
ES: I’m the same as you, Curt. The idea of trying to create any sort of escapism, fantasy, that took me somewhere else always excited me. My grandad was a good carpenter and he made me a wooden sword. I used it to chop down his garden or whatever while playing around with it. The films like “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and a little bit later things like “Gladiator,” where there’s loads of sword fighting, horse riding, always excited me. So actually getting the chance, like Kieran said, to play around is every boy’s dream. I have a secret—it’s every man’s dream. So hopefully it will inspire people to pick up sticks and have them mess around themselves, or even get into sport.
KB: I hope lots of kids go fencing because it could do with the support and it’s fantastic. And indeed we were talking before about when people … coming in playing villains and all different kinds of kings and what not. They come on with such great enthusiasm and take it seriously. They’ve got their leather trousers and their boots and at some point they split their trousers and end up very exposed. We tell them everybody’s done that; it’s a rite of passage.
ES: We don’t talk to them until that point.
KB: Exactly. You’re not in the club until you expose your crotch. When I first went to get on the horse, the horse had all this bondage gear on and I had all this gear on with my swords here and my backpacks here. I’ve got the leather trousers and my boots. I couldn’t even put my foot in the stirrup because my leather trousers were so tight. It took four people to get me on the horse! It’s great fun. We have a great laugh.
How does that joy with the physical aspects play against your having to be dramatic and emotional?
KB: I think actors really want to act something angsty, sort of wring themselves and get really sort of in their deep and dark selves and play a difficult character that’s conflicted. In this show you couldn’t really describe anyone as a goodie or a baddie. They’re all very well-rounded and slightly contradictory.
Right from the very beginning of the show, Beowulf has been exiled and I come back and the first thing Ed tries to do is kill me. And I just want him to be my friend. And that’s such a joy to play because the stakes are so high. So yeah, inasmuch as it’s a good fun and a laugh, there is a seriousness to it so that people can relate to it. Because if that truth is not there I think it’s tough to relate to a lot of the action.
ES: One of the things that drew me in the first place was the chance to play the sort of character that, maybe as Kieran said, is not so good or not so bad. He’s somewhere in the middle because most of us are square in the middle. I’m not the perfect …
KB: You’re a terrible person.
ES: [Laughs.] See? Playing someone who I felt certainly on the page was so complex and trying to get my head around that and understand him. It’s a family thing; trying to understand why my dad hates me so much. Trying to work that out as Slean was a really difficult thing because that happens all the time. People are shown rejection by their parents … My father’s overlooked me and made my mother queen instead of me. Iit should have been my birthright. Why would he do that? Even on his deathbed he’s telling me I’m not worth anything.
It happens all the time that people never find out the answers to why certain things have happened.He never actually tells me why he hates me so much. There’s no sort of retribution or anything. There’s no resolution which means the son is completely conflicted and completely torn. He doesn’t know which way to go and who to talk to and how to sort that situation out. He probably doesn’t actually hate Beowulf, but because Beowulf took his dad’s affection away from him, it’s hard to love. Maybe there’s hope. Maybe somehow through time and through circumstances.
KB: It’s great working with Ed because he’s so bloody passionate. I mean he comes to set and I tend to goof around quite a bit. And Ed works so hard. It’s so great because we [their characters] have such a huge amount of animosity between us. And this tension he’s talking about right now, it’s not just father-son. It’s mother-son and uncle-nephew as well. And then brother-brother.
I think everyone can relate to different elements. Those difficult family dynamics where something has happened and the love is gone. People are really going to find William Hurt’s parenting skills very questionable. He leaves us with some terrible, terrible stuff to resolve.
Slean’s mom, the queen, seems to dislike Beowulf as much as she dislikes her son. I’ve seen just the first episode.
ES: I think she’s got a lot of love for Slean actually. She just doesn’t think I’m ready to lead. Her belief is that I’m not ready to be king. I’m not ready to be thane.
Slean seems a bit whiny.
How did you stay away from going too far with that?
ES: I hope so. I never saw him as that; I saw it as completely justified. His whole life his dad has said he’s useless. “Beowulf is so much stronger and better than you and I’m not going to make you king.” … He’s bitter and he’s twisted and he’s resentful. Maybe not twisted but he’s definitely resentful. But I think he’s still a strong character and he’s fiercely ambitious. He also believes aside from Beowulf that it’s a mistake making his mother thane because he thinks that she’s not strong enough. She doesn’t think he’s ready but he doesn’t believe she’s strong enough. He feels that he can be doing a better job and take Herot into a new dimension, a new world. … He fiercely believes that this is completely justified.
KB: I think that’s right. I think he doesn’t come across in that way because he believes he’s right. And in many respects he is right. He’s not being heard and I think people will see the sort of injustice of actually how he’s been brought up and the situations presented to him. It is an unjust and very tough world.
You’re not trying to come back and take everything from him?
KB: No and I certainly didn’t intend to as a kid. My character has just always wanted to just have a home. Becoming famous at 10 isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
And then there’s Elvina, whom they both seem to want.
KB: Yeah, it’s her fault. She shouldn’t look like that and she shouldn’t be so wise.
In your character’s opinion, Ed, she shouldn’t talk to Beowulf at all right?
ES: She doesn’t know the half of it. My mother doesn’t want me to be anywhere near Elvina as well. I’ve always felt there’s an element of—I had it growing up—parents might not want you to see certain people and you react. “What do you mean I can’t have her? I want her even more.” She’s mysterious and I think why Slean is so drawn to her is that she’s not like the rest of the women. … And he’s absolutely torn apart that so quickly Beowulf comes in and steals the thunder. Because the legend of Beowulf, most people think he’s a rock star; who doesn’t want to go to bed with him? But I think Slean might have felt that Elvina maybe wasn’t as shallow as that. Maybe she’s not, but I think that’s how it might come across.
How fun is it playing a guy whom everybody seems to have such reverence?
KB: When I got back to Herot, most people hate me. I’ve been banished and they don’t want me there. I was banished as a very small boy; it’s a very cruel thing that they did. ,,, Now he’s not only famous, he’s infamous. So depending on which tribe you’re in, he’s either a guy you want on your side or the opposite.
For me it’s fantastic, but it’s much more complicated than necessarily just the poem. The character is so arrogant and driven and comes and says—like a UFC fighter, like Conor McGregor—says, “I’m going to knock him out in 30 seconds.” And he does it. But in our show the reality of it is he’s actually walking around with a target on his back—like Wild Bill Hickok or someone. It gets tiring because every guy wants to take a shot at you.
Actually playing that on set is great because it’s almost like playing a guy who’s wearisome of the fame. Because anybody who gets close to him ends up getting hurt. That’s the thing. … Everyone’s a little paranoid and Beowulf only really trusts himself. So it’s pretty lonely.
But for me yeah, it’s awesome. Come on, there’s so much depth there and detail and I love doing that. And of course he is a hero so when push comes to shove and there’s a task to be done he’s pragmatic and gets on with it. And then he’s celebrated again, which causes problems.
Tell me about working with Joanne Whalley, who plays Rheda, Slean’s mom and the thane.
KB: I pretended for ages that I was really cool about working with her. It’s very tricky when you grew up watching somebody in “Willow” and “Navy Seals” particularly—me and my brothers watched that many times. It was ages before I put up a bit of courage to ask her about those movies. But Joanne is a riot. I think we’re incredibly lucky to work with her.
ES: She’s great and so supportive. Every day she wants to learn something. …
KB: Joanne’s very cheeky. She’s got a very naughty smile. Her character has quite a lot of contempt for me and I don’t have a great amount of love for her. So our scenes are incredibly tense but she’s a riot. When you do drama, when you do scenes that are very charged and full of animosity and difficult or harrowing you have to keep an element of lightness on the set. Because you’ve got to enjoy it. It’s very easy to go in there and ring the whole day and feel like I really worked. But Joanne always keeps a sense of humor. She’s so experienced. We’re just incredibly lucky she’s there.
I heard it was a rough shoot because of the location. I also heard William Hurt kept hitting you in the face.
ES: [Laughs.] So William—it was a delight to have quite a fleeting moment with him. We had a couple of scenes and one of them was where he’s going to make me thane and he hits me. Now normally, you try to work out some sort of staged thing so that you wouldn’t actually get hit. But William doesn’t do that. William does what William does.
The stunt coordinator was like, “Don’t let him hit you. Just do this and tell him not to.” We didn’t say anything to him and then bam. He’d be like, “Oh God, I’m so sorry. Does that hurt? Your face is a little red. Are you OK?
“Yeah, I’m fine William. Don’t worry about it. It’s cool. I’m actually into that.” And then we go again. Ready, action—bam! He says, “Oh my God, Ed, I’m so sorry.”
It’s like he was really toying with me. We do it again—bam! “Ed, I’m so sorry.” I say, “Will look. Honest, it’s fine. But do it again, you and me are going outside.” And I did a little dance.
He was great and he’s a highly intellectual man. Yeah he’s very smart and he was a treat to work with.
Did you do something to upset him?
KB: I was joking that we paid William to do it.
ES: No, I can’t wait to see that scene.
Or the outtakes.
KB: We must have some fantastic outtakes. Mainly, people tripping over things. And the wind just decimating every moment.
What other kinds of obstacles did you face?
KB: I broke three ribs. I fell off a horse. I hit myself in the eye with an axe and then I got an eye infection so I couldn’t wear my contact lenses for two weeks. And generally just the rough and tumble of the terrain in Northumberland. We were in the Northeast where I’m from. I’m very proud that we’re filming there because it’s beautiful, but it’s just really tough. The weather is harsh. The quarry where we filmed changes in about half an hour; it’s very hot then it’s very cold and wet. … But actually I think it looks wicked on camera. It’s great when you get home at the end of the day and you’ve got bumps and scars and you’ve been in the freezing cold. You really feel like you’ve worked. I’d much rather feel like that; I think we all would.
Does it inform your acting too a little bit?
ES: I think that completely lends to what you do and I think it’s great. Especially if you imagine it would have been brutal living in that time.
KB: I think we all experience days where we’re so cold and then you have to go outside and you have to hide the fuck that you’re cold. And it’s such a big acting challenge. I was doing a play once that was set in Siberia and we were in the south coast of England and we were all down on the beach because there was a heat wave. And everyone was getting sunburned and then having to go into the theater and wear furs and act cold. And we were saying, would you rather be hot acting cold or would cold acting hot?Actually it’s a really hard challenge.
ES: I think cold acting hot. When we filmed “Wolf Hall” it was the height of summer and we’re all in massive furs and massive everything. And you can’t get out of those Tudor costumes very easily like to even pee. It was another heat wave. That was bad.
KB: It is fun, though. It brings you closer together.
ES: Actors get picked up and taken home. We get many coffees and teas. We get looked after. But the crews? We’re very privileged in England with our crews. This crew in particular always have a smile on their faces. They were so tenacious with what they were doing. They were a delight.
Ed, when I saw you in “Downton Abby” I had to look you up because you looked familiar. Then I saw “Eragon,” which I think was your first production. What was it like getting such a high-profile gig so early in your career, which sort of fizzled a bit after that?
ES: It worked out the way it did … I’ve made some mistakes. I was very young and I didn’t necessarily have the support around me that I needed. … I think I was put in an environment that I didn’t know how this whole beast works. I’ll be honest, I hit a real low point and I struggled for anything. And actually I just slowly had to try and work my way and actually realize that this is the one thing I wanted to do my whole life since I was 10 years old. It’s such a cliché I know, but I’ve always wanted to act. There’s nothing else I’ve ever wanted to do.
I decided to become disciplined and become focused and enjoy it. And that slowly happened and I’m trying to find different ways of doing different work. Sometimes you can only go to what’s presented in front of you. “Downton” was a great chance for me to kind of show another side. And so is this again.
I’m immensely grateful 10 years on because I think without learning some of those really hard lessons I wouldn’t be a father, I wouldn’t have my son. I wouldn’t have had my child, which is more than any of this. He’s more than all of this—which I absolutely love and don’t want to end. That’s the No. 1 thing in my work. And I hope that this can just continue.
I started at 17 and I’m still only 27 so I want to just keep learning. … It sounds like clichés but I just want to keep growing. I’ve got a thirst to grow and a thirst to work.