‘The Last Kingdom’s’ David Dawson on Learning His English History

last kingdom david dawson king alfred
Courtesy of Kata Vermes © Carnival Film & Television Ltd

BBC America’s epic adaptation of “The Last Kingdom” returns for its second episode on Saturday, introducing one of the few based-on-a-true-story characters in the saga of an English-turned-Danish warrior in ninth-century England.

In this episode, David Dawson joins the cast as King Alfred, arguably one of the most important kings in English history — but also someone few know anything about. He explains his research for the character and why he decided a full beard was not necessary for the role.

You play one of the characters who is actually a real person. Can you talk about the research you did for that?

I just delved into the books because that was a great way of picking out the little details about him. In England, we don’t really know a lot about this period of time or this man. And yet, this was the moment in history had this vision to create England and I just found that really fascinating.

The more I read and you realize that, far from being that typical warrior king, he was this physically frail and yet fiercely intelligent diplomat. What I really loved was that strength didn’t have to be physical; he could be the most dangerous man in a room because he was so fiercely intelligent and has an ability to manipulate people to get what he wants.

Was it ever clear as to what ailed him? We see you clutching your stomach a lot.

Modern historians think it was something similar to Crohn’s Disease or some sort of digestive illness. He suffered with this his whole life, which makes him even more remarkable. Every day, he’s in incredible pain and managed to achieve such incredible things.

You also play one of the few male characters who doesn’t have a heavy beard. Was that a character choice?

In my head, I think he’s incredibly clean and well-kept — especially because he’s a godly man and a studious man.

He also seems like he’s trying to be a good person. Did that appeal to you?

That’s something you often don’t see. I think he’s trying to be his best. He’s an adulterer, but he’s quite self-loathing. Every day, he’s trying to do the best for his people and for his god. His dream is for the better of the people, but at the same time he can be ruthless and cold and manipulative.

That’s what I love about the story; these two men loathe each other, but need each other desperately. That’s what fascinated me about their relationship.

You have a history of period pieces with “Peaky Blinders” and “Ripper Street.” Why did you decide to go even further back into time with this one?

The little boy loves exploring different times that aren’t now. I’m a bit of a history nerd as well and I am fascinated by these different eras and the way society was; they way they viewed women and law and how it was ruled.