Hockity pockity! I had the fortune to grab a few minutes with Elliot Knight, Once Upon a Time's enigmatic Merlin, and was able to ask him about his experience playing the famed sorcerer, as well as his craft and how he does that voodoo that he do so well.
Elliot Knight (Image credit: Isaac Sterling Photography)
I’m interested to know what it’s like for you to be portraying a character as legendary as Merlin on a show known for its twists and turns like Once Upon a Time?
I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to play such an iconic character of popular myth and legend. It’s great to get to create a brand new interpretation of Merlin and to see how he is received by the fans and also how the story unfolds as he is introduced to the rollercoaster that is the world of Once.
What is the one thing you strove to emphasize in your portrayal of Merlin that you think sets your take apart from all the others? What is one thing you hope viewers take away from your performance?
He’s already different than every other Merlin without me having to do anything! Honestly, I haven’t concerned myself with actively trying to make my Merlin different to other’s portrayals, but more to focus on the heart of this Merlin being appropriate to blend effectively into the world of Once Upon A Time. I have enjoyed giving Merlin a lighter and more relaxed energy than we normally see from characters on the show when he first arrived. This was something I had discussed with Eddie [sic] and Adam and we thought it would be a refreshing contrast from the usually heavy themes of the episodes.
As we saw in ‘Nimue” more and more of your scenes on Once Upon a Time feature moments that are intense and emotional. It sounds exhausting! Can you talk about how you, as an actor, get into that headspace and what you do to prepare for filming these intense scenes?
Yes, it definitely can be exhausting! Most of all, I love what I do, and for me there is nothing more enjoyable and satisfying than really getting to connect with the emotional drives of a character you are playing. Episode 7 was a great opportunity to do this. We get to see not only what makes Merlin magical, but also what makes him human. I believe that behind every magical being there is a story of great human emotion, and I relished getting to explore Merlin’s. For this episode, I was very lucky to be working with Jen (Morrison) and Caroline (Ford), who are both two wonderfully talented and committed actors that make playing my part in scenes with them much easier. As an actor, I like to relate myself to the characters I play. So if my character is going through a loss, I will try to connect with my own experience of loss and then apply those emotions to the scene. For me this approach helps to make the scene feel much more real and grounded, and often leads to me discovering a deeper understanding of my character’s emotional journey.
Obviously you don’t have to go through extensive Dark One make up like others on the cast, but how long does it take to “create Merlin”? Can you give the fans a taste of a typical day for you on set?
Up, shower, drive to work, breakfast, hair and make up (which is usually takes about 10 minutes but I will stay for 20 to catch up with everyone!), into my costume which is actually pretty simple, the bits I can do myself anyway! Usually my belt and cape would be added on set after rehearsals: The belt is tied up intricately at the back and the cape is... heavy.
Elliot Knight as Merlin (Image credit: ABC)
Who inspired you growing up and what words of wisdom from them stand out to you?
I never had an obvious role model for acting when I was growing up. A lot of the people who were famous and successful looked nothing like me and I didn’t relate to, or at least no one who did was being talked about. I didn’t seem to have the same points of inspiration as other people did around me that were interested in similar things. So to that end I’m really just doing my own thing and not trying to emulate anybody else's path or career. I’ve always said that the best I could hope for is that one day I might be a source of inspiration for another young kid who wants to achieve but doesn’t really feel like they fit in, to the norm, just like I didn’t have when I was a kid. That would be wonderful.
What’s it like being on set with so many fierce and strong actresses? Do you have any favorite scenes with Jennifer Morrison or Caroline Ford?
I think my favourite thing about the show is how it celebrates the strength of its female characters. I have always found female protagonists more interesting than the classic “heroic man” as I’ve found there can be a tendency for them to deny themselves emotional vulnerability that is often so important to what makes the character who they are. After all, to possess true strength one has to acknowledge their weaknesses. Jen has been so brilliant as Emma from the very beginning; she allows herself to be present and true in each moment that comes and it is a joy to work with her. I loved every scene I got to do with Caroline - we get on really well and had fun everyday we were on set together. Naturally, it made all of the Merlin/Nimue scenes easy and enjoyable and I would do them all again!
Caroline Ford as Nimue, Elliot Knight as Merlin, Jennifer Morrison as Emma Swan. (Image credit: ABC)
Did you find it at all intimidating to be at the heart (pun intended) of some of the deepest lore having to do with the mythology of Once Upon a Time? How familiar were you with the show before you got the role?
Before I met Adam and Eddie [sic] I hadn’t seen any of the show. But after they told me about it and that they were interested in me being Merlin, I went home and started watching right from the very beginning. I was a Disney kid and so it already sounded exciting just from our conversation. I started working my way through season 1 and then when I knew I would be playing Merlin I went into overdrive to watch all of the other 3 seasons before I started filming. I felt it was important to have watched everything so that I could know every detail of this world and these characters before entering as Merlin, as I felt he would know these things also. Merlin is the most powerful sorcerer of all the realms in Once which I believe greatly informs the energy he should have and the way in which he may conduct himself. So obviously, I wanted to know what that would be before I came on set to start!
I see you tweet with your #Apprentices often, can you speak about what the response to Merlin has been like?
Amazing! I genuinely did not expect to have such a warm and LOUD welcome from the Oncers, but they blew me away. I did expect there to be a certain level of anticipation for Merlin’s arrival as its been built up for what seems like a small eternity. But the fans have been amazing and made me feel very supported both leading up to and during my time working on the show. It means a lot to me - and to Merlin!
I assume you’ve had experience working with CGI before on Sinbad, but do you find wielding Merlin’s powers to be challenging at all?
It’s so much fun! I do think a lot of the time that I was meant to do roles like this. I love wielding magic and interacting with imaginary forces and objects, I always have. Maybe I am partly magic! Or partly crazy. Who knows! I do wish I could have *poofed* more though - apparently Merlin really likes walking places!
Merlin and Emma. Walking. (Image credit: ABC)
What is one thing about playing your character that is a challenge most people might not realize?
It’s usually a challenge to play any character that already has so many well-known and loved representations, as you can feel that there are expectations you have to meet or that you will fall short of no matter what you do. Honestly though, I haven’t felt any pressure like this. I have just enjoyed having the opportunity to play a brilliant role in a well loved show that nobody like me has got to do before. That’s already wonderful. And I would be remiss not to be happy about that.
Can you speak on the difference between acting in a television show to acting on stage? Obviously when you act in a play you get one run through, but television work seems to be a bit more choppy and repetitive behind the scenes. I’m interested to know how the two differ for you in terms of how you do your work.
Predominantly I have worked on productions for television and film, which often is a very different process to working on stage. Rehearsals, for one thing, are something that are a must in theatre, but you are lucky to get at all in television. For this and many other reasons, acting for the screen demands a contrasting but equally as important set of disciplines. Because of the quick turn around and chopping and changing of scenes and scripts, it’s important to understand the ins and outs of your character as thoroughly as you can so that you can adapt to quickly changing circumstances. Personally, I approach my work in a very intuitive manner, so working on TV suits me. I like to act on gut and instinct rather than on processed thought, which takes time that you often don’t have on TV. However, I will take my time to figure out my character on a more intellectual level before I begin filming, with the intention that I will have a deep enough understanding of them to be able to act on their instincts while I am shooting. But I do really enjoy both; I would love to do some theatre again soon.
Do you have any advice for young actors and actresses out there? Is there anything you’ve learned from being on the Once Upon a Time set?
I’m learning new and old things all the time, its one of the wonderful parts of being an actor. You are constantly working with different people, all with their own approaches to and perspectives on work and life. The more people that I meet, the more I realise that everyone’s approach and perspective is valid and meaningful. There is no wrong way and as such there is no right way. There is only YOUR way. And that’s all you have to focus on doing as an actor. Bringing what you bring, because nobody else can in the same way. It’s a lesson not to doubt yourself and not to question your ability or choices. Believe in yourself and believe in the work and you will be fascinating to observe.
If you could get a guest role on any television show, UK or US, what would that be and why?
I would love to be in Peaky Blinders - it’s a great show with a brilliant cast, and also it’s set in my hometown! It would be great to be part of a project that’s so close to home.
I know you can’t spoil any of the upcoming episodes, but if you were to describe what happens next for Merlin and Emma on Once Upon a Time, what one word would you use?