Big action sequences plus swords and sorcery means it’s little wonder there are whispers that Britannia could fill the hole on our TV screens left by Game of Thrones.
But according to its cast, viewers will soon realise Jez Butterworth’s nine-part debut series has its “own thing” going on.
“I’m sure it will appeal to a lot of people who enjoy Game of Thrones,” Mackenzie Crook says of the Sky Atlantic drama, which is set in 43AD and follows the Roman army as they strive to crush the Celtic heart of Britannia. And “it pulls no punches,” he says, adding: “It shows how brutal and violent life was in those times.”
Viewers will be taken to Britannia, a mysterious land led by warrior women and powerful Druids who claim to channel the forces of the underworld.
Butterworth – the writer behind recent James Bond outing Spectre and multi-award-winning plays Jerusalem and The Ferryman – tells the story of the emotional and physical power struggle between the Druids, Celts and Romans like never before.
“It feels very exciting, it feels very alive, and it feels very relevant, weirdly, to the time in which we live,” adds Kelly Reilly, who plays Kerra. “There’s not really anything safe about this place, these people. We don’t know what’s going to happen, anything can happen.”
A tale of epic proportions requires epic characters – and Britannia certainly doesn’t disappoint.
There’s the fearless Aulus Plautius, as portrayed by The Walking Dead’s David Morrissey. One of the greatest generals to have commanded a Roman legion, Aulus has been charged by Emperor Claudius with conquering Britannia. But, as will become apparent, Plautius has his own agenda.
Then there’s Kerra, the headstrong daughter of King Pellenor (Ian McDiarmid) and as skilled a warrior as any other member of the Cantii tribe. Played by True Detective actress Kelly Reilly, Kerra has hated the Druids ever since they cast judgement upon her mother, sentencing her to be flayed alive.
The Detectorists’ Mackenzie Crook plays Veran, a 10,000-year-old enigma who knows the secrets of both this world and the next. The tribes believe he speaks for the gods.
Finally, veteran stage and screen actress Zoe Wanamaker portrays Antedia, the queen of the Regni tribe. Fierce and unforgiving, she has a score to settle after being betrayed in the past.
As anticipated, the show doesn’t shy away from lavish costumes either, with David donning armour and Wanamaker’s elaborate outfits taking inspiration from the British Museum.
“It’s a flight of imagination based on reality,” Wanamaker says, admitting the most stressful part of the day was being helped out of the costume “to pee”.
However, the biggest transformation of all was undertaken by Crook, who spent up to five hours a day in the make-up chair.
“We managed to get it down to three and a half hours at the end!” he says with a laugh.
“I grew to really love it. [It] was a meditative process and slowly changing in front of the mirror was a ‘getting into character’ thing. It was uncomfortable, but not unbearable.”
So what about most memorable moments?
“Zoe and I shared a few scenes together,” recalls Morrissey. “Our characters might not be on equal footing, because I have this massive army behind me, but we’re certainly intellectual equals, and something about that meant I really loved playing those scenes with her.”
Wanamaker says: “My favourite bit was the night shoots where the explosions happened.
“Towards the end, there’s an attack on my camp so they had to set off all these explosives. That was great fun to watch them go!”
For Reilly and Crook, shooting at the fictional ritual site Amber Palace took some beating.
Reilly says: “It looks like Stonehenge, and we had 300 extras dancing and playing drums and a smoke machine going under a full moon.
“I was just thinking, ‘This thing is touched with some magic’.”
Another highlight for her was the opportunity to work with Crook. “He was channelling something playing Veran,” she says. “He’s extremely powerful for such a slim guy, and he inhabits Veran with this madness and brilliance. He’s so inventive.”
Of the Amber Palace, Crook remembers finding himself on top of it “with my fear of heights to perform this massive ritual”.
“I just stepped away from myself and said, ‘This is quite possibly how it actually was back then’.”