‘Last Kingdom’ Star Alexander Dreymon on Creating a New Style of Historical Epics

This weekend marks BBC America’s premiere of “The Last Kingdom,” its eight-part adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories novel. Produced by Carnival Films, it tells the story of British-born and Danish-raised warrior Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) in ninth-century Europe. And while Variety TV columnist Brian Lowry feels it is a “worthy, somewhat complementary variation” of History’s “Vikings,” Dreymon feels it may break the mold for this type of storytelling. He elaborates on this and more in an interview with Variety.

Why did you decide to take on literally such an epic tale?

I loved Bernard Cornwell’s books. I loved the storyline. I loved the character. I saw the potential of how many places this story could be taken. He’s just started his 10th book and there’s so much material out there.

But I think what hooked me the most was the vision that Nick Murphy had. He’s a co-producer on the show and he directed the first two episodes. He was very adamant about the fact that he wanted to shoot it in an almost documentary style. He didn’t want to have any sort of typical epic, period drama stuff going on. He always used this example that people can talk about getting a divorce while doing the dishes. Those are major life-changing events and yet you’re doing these mundane tasks.

It’s the idea of people who are making history, which in this case is the creation of England. That had an impact on the whole world and still has to this day. People who are creating history don’t realize they’re creating it at the time it’s happening. It got back to realism and that’s the style I’m interested in as an actor.

What do you mean by documentary style?

This was specifically for the first two episodes because we had four different directors and everybody brought their own style to it. Nick’s style was to give us this playground. He’d just let us loose and follow us with the camera.

We had this focus puller named Simon Heck. He would never know what our next moves would be and he would always manage to keep stuff focused. I think we only lost something like two or three takes due to focus through that whole first two-episode period, which is really incredible thinking that he didn’t know what was coming next.

Nick also would try to get one golden take so that, if he had a gun to his head, he could show the scene in a one-take. Once he got that, we could totally try new stuff.

This seems like so much more work than you would do for a normal television series.

You didn’t have much downtime to this style of shooting. Quite often, you’d shoot with natural light so there was much less time between scene setups. [In other projects], you’d be waiting around for an hour or two between setups. We didn’t have that there. We had so many parts that were shot on location in the middle of the forest and you just go for it all day long.

I personally prefer that because it’s so much easier to stay in story. There’s so many ways to function as an actor and every way is totally valid as long as you get the results, but I can’t really drop out of it that much. Like I can’t have my cell phone on set; I prefer staying in it.

Had you read the books before you got cast in this?

I had a good buddy of mine who swore by the books, so it had been on my list anyway. Then the auditioning process was pretty long, so I could read a lot during that time.

Are you a history buff in general?

You know, my mom was a history teacher when I was a kid, so I hated history out of rebellion. But one of my favorite parts in this job is you get to dive into so many different worlds. I’ve sort of become a history buff through my job, but I definitely wasn’t when I was a kid. I hated learning all these dates by heart.

What do you think of the fact that there are a lot of historical epics right now, such as FX’s “The Bastard Executioner” and History’s “Vikings”?

It’s normal when there’s a new show on the air to say this is the new “Game of Thrones” or this is the new “Vikings” because we need to put things in boxes. But there’s only so many stories in the world. You can tell these stories in the 20th century or in the ninth century and I think with the ninth century, there’s a lot of opportunity for gore like “The Bastard Executioner” and there’s the opportunity for fantasy like “Game of Thrones.” With “Vikings,” what’s interesting about that is there sort of combines the gore and brutality with incredible attention to detail and I’ve always loved that.

I think we’ll create our own genre because I don’t think we’ve had a period drama shot in the documentary style. Hopefully it will become a new thing on its own.

The Last Kingdom” premieres at 10 p.m. on Oct. 10 on BBC America.

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