Enzo Cilenti interview: “Childermass is a Yorkshire Jedi”

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Spooky Isles Associate Editor ANDREW GARVEY caught up with Bradford-born actor Enzo Cilenti to discuss his role as Childermass in the BBC adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a new television twist on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Jekyll and Hyde and riding a tandem up a French mountain.

Enzo Cilenti in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Enzo Cilenti as Childermass in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

Interview with Enzo Cilenti

ANDREW GARVEY: So, how did you end up playing Childermass?

ENZO CILENTI: I got an audition through my agent and I was already quite familiar with the book because my brother-in-law got it for Christmas, I think the year it came out and we didn’t see his face the entire holiday because he was buried behind it.

I just got the first script and it was fantastic. I remmeber being really confused that they’d not got someone more famous to do it. So, I did that first audition and it went really, really well. Then I didn’t hear anything for ages and in the interim I bought the book and I kept reading it and the more I read it, the more I sort of fell in love with the book, the story and the character.

Then just out of the blue they called me back in again [for a second audition] by which time I was totally head over heels with the story and with Childermass and the more you want something the less likely it is that you think you’re going to get it. But it just worked out.

The great thing with Toby Haynes, the director, when we did the audition it wasn’t like him watching what I could do, we just, it was like we were rehearsing or working together and it was just a really enjoyable process.

I was determined not to lose this role for lack of trying and certainly, what I did do which I’ve never done before is, after each audition I’d go home and I would re-tape what we did in the audition and I would do other scenes from the book with my wife [actress Sienna Guillory, better known as Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine] reading and she’d film me and I just kept bombarding Toby with these videos, all these homemade scenes. I just thought, I’m not losing this for lack of trying and if they can’t decide, they’ll obviously go with the person who wants it more.

How did you go about actually playing him?

When you’ve got such a wonderful and weighty book there’s a lot to work with, which is incredibly helpful. I didn’t make a cerebral decision to go with what was in the book or actively put my own spin on it.

The other thing is, I really didn’t feel like my own voice was right for it and I kind of did a lot of work, I think I imagined Childermass a lot older and I wanted to bring that across with my voice so I anted my voice to sound like he’d lived longer and hadn’t had the kind of cossetted life that I’ve had.

That was a really big thing and kind of nerve-wracking because when you prepare that, you sort of half expect them to go ‘oh yeah, that’s great but can you just do it in your own voice’ which is like the most embarrassing ever, but for some reason it seemed to work, it seemed to fit.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon

And certainly, the Yorkshireness of Childermass, he’s sort of like a Yorkshire Jedi isn’t he? That was something, it was a really nice opportunity to get more Yorkshire than I usually get. It was something that I definitely connected to and understood – that plain speaking pragmatism that I kind of remember as a child, you’d meet older people that in a sort of semi-exaggerated Yorkshire voice it’d be ‘eeh thy lad, aye’.

I felt a real connection there and because Toby was so lovely and we got on right from the off I felt confident enough just to go in there with everything that I thought he might be. And throughout the filming process what was lovely was having the book in my hand as we’d film a scene and the scene was in the book and it says he winks or nods or gives a side glance and it just seemed natural to me to stay with the book, there’s no reason not to. It’s beautifully written, it’s rich, why not do that?

I felt like I had to be faithful, to not disappoint fans of the book and also I became such a fan of the book. People, the people who were fans of the book have been really, really kind and generous about it. And I feel glad that a lot of people have said that’s kind of how they imagined Childermass.

But it’s not really me, it’s not really my work, it’s the book. That the Childermass we see on screen is so evocative of the book, that he’s so similar is a testament to how accurately and sharply drawn he is by Susannah. He leaps off the page, I think. Had I been given the choice of any character to play, I’d absolutely have gone for Childermass, absolutely. Before Strange or Norrell. I really did genuinely fall in love with this part.

How was the filming, compared to some of the other work you’ve done?

I think the whole thing, we did the read through in the end of October [2013], started filming in early November and I finished at the end of March [2014] and then they then went on a little hiatus to prep, then to Croatia after that to do the scenes in Venice. Then was another hiatus for prep then they went to Canada to film all the war stuff.

But for me, I did sort of, from November until the end of March and it’s probably the longest thing I’ve ever done. It was very different because you have this one director for all the episodes which is just brilliant. Most directors don’t want to be tied in to something for that long but that was always what Toby wanted to do. He wasn’t going to get involved in it if he wasn’t going to get to direct all seven episodes.

It was fantastic and it made so much more sense for this thing. We needed someone to do that, someone with that level of passion and because it’s so meaty, you need someone that’s all over it.

It was very, very different to a lot of other things I’ve done. No one was just coming in and working for the camera. Everyone in the cast was really just completely right for the piece. The unifying thing was how happy everyone was to be there, to be part of it and I know you sort of have to say that on every job but it really was true.

You could get the cast, line them up against a wall and you could just tell, without knowing, who they were there. It was so obvious who was playing Drawlight, who was playing Lascelles and so on. It was brilliant in that sense.

You know, I went to school with Vincent Franklin [Drawlight]. We went to grammar school together. He was a bit older than me, probably about six or seven years older than me and I remember him doing plays and when we got older, our English teacher took us to see Vincent in Harrogate, doing the Marriage of Figaro which was incredibly inspiring because there’s a lad from our school doing this professionally and it kind of sparked something in me to think I could do that and it was this lovely, sweet thing to kind of come full circle all these years later, working together, filming in Yorkshire with this guy who really inspired me.

You’re currently working on a new television version of Jekyll and Hyde. Can you tell me a little about that?

Usually you’re kind of bombarded with more and more adaptations of the same thing but I knew that Charlie Higson [best known as writer and actor from cult comedy sketch the Fast Show but more recently the author of a series of young adults’ zombie novels] had written it and that really piqued my interest and his spin on it is fantastic in that we’re using the original story as a springboard for this fantastical, supernatural tale told in a comic book style.

We start with the premise that it’s not the potion that separated the two sides of Jekyll and Hyde, it’s actually a genetic mutation. So, we join Robert Jekyll, who is Henry Jekyll’s grandson in the 1930s, in Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] and he’s been whisked away there for his own safety, presumably because people want him for their evil plans for world domination.

It’s a really brave sort of leap. Rather than just a re-packaging, or even a reimagining. It’s taking the story into the future and just running with it. And I think where Charlie’s gone with it is very exciting.

You’re doing something unusual this weekend aren’t you? Riding a tandem up a mountain?

Yes, I’m very stupidly doing a triple ascent of Mont Ventoux which is a notoriously impossible, difficult climb in Provence that often features in the Tour de France. People have died trying to ascend it but in order to raise funds and awareness for Parkinson’s UK I’m doing it three times in one day with my father who suffers from Parkinson’s, on the tandem.

But it’s something I’m very excited to do because of [me being involved in] Jekyll and Hyde and Game of Thrones and Strange and Norrell, we’ve been able to get lots and lots of people knowing about it and talking about Parkinson’s.

It’s going to be hell but completely worthwhile. It was going to be tomorrow but because of my filming schedule I’ve got a night shoot so I’ll be flying out tomorrow and we’re doing it on Sunday which fittingly is Father’s Day which is great. It’s a really nice thing for my Dad to get out and do stuff and do something incredibly worthwhile and we can spend some time together. So, it’s a great thing.

Note: Andrew spoke to Enzo Cilento on 19th June. Enzo and his Dad successfully, safely completed their tandem challenge two days later, raising over £10,000 for Parkinson’s UK. It’s still not too late to donate. Please go to: https://www.justgiving.com/enzo-cilenti/

Jekyll and Hyde, a 10-part series, is due to be screened in 2016, on ITV.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.


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