Right after concluding his epic biker series Sons of Anarchy, creator Kurt Sutter is back on FX with an epic medieval series. The Bastard Executioner is a period piece in which an Edwardian soldier experiences the divine calling to give up his violent life. However, he’s led into a new life equally violent — that of an executioner.
Lee Jones plays the bastard executioner, Wilkin Brattle, in 14th-century Wales. A new face to us, let alone the lead of an FX series, Jones met us at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. His costar Stephen Moyer (you know him as Bill Compton from True Blood), joined the interview midway and simply sat down and introduced himself as Steve. Moyer, who plays the baron’s advisor Milus Corbett, spoke with Jones about the action, politics, and spirituality of The Bastard Executioner, which premieres tonight on FX.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: Lee, this is the first that many of us are seeing you. What was your journey to becoming the lead of a big FX series?
Lee Jones: It was crazy. Crazy last-minute and fast is what it was. When I heard about the project, I thought, “That sounds like the dream job.” Then I put down a tape here in L.A., found out that night they were going to fly me to London. You want a job, book a holiday, right? So I was traveling. Had to turn around, fly to London and pretty much booked it the next day. They were down the line and I think it found me in a way.
Rotten Tomatoes: Were you a theater actor in London?
Jones: Not in London, I’m from Australia. They flew me to London from L.A. I’ve been working in Australia mainly in theater. That’s my background. I went to drama school for three years and that was predominantly theater training.
Rotten Tomatoes: Stephen, were you looking to get into another show?
Stephen Moyer: No, I wasn’t. There were a couple of things around that I was looking at, that I’d been offered. I did actually get very close to doing something else and then I kind of just pulled away because I wasn’t ready to do TV yet. Literally, three weeks later I said yes to this because I was just blown away by it. I really wanted to work with Kurt and at some time had hoped I would. I loved Sons and then suddenly this opportunity came along and it just felt totally right. It was a big decision because I’ve got four kids so it was about trying to work out what we were going to do. Literally, Anna [Paquin] and our babies have all transplanted to Wales and we’re all living in Wales.
Rotten Tomatoes: Once you accepted the role, did you delve deep into medieval history?
Moyer: Luckily, our school system is very different from yours, but when you’re in English school between 16 and 18, you pick three subjects and you only do those three subjects. I did history and English literature, and sociology. It just so happened that English literature those two years was all the medieval plays by Shakespeare and my history level was medieval history. My period that I studied was King John to Henry V. So, I actually know quite a lot about Edward I and II.
Rotten Tomatoes: It really did come calling you.
Moyer: Well, it’s funny but it’s weird. I did terribly in those exams. I was f—ing terrible and yet all through my career, when I first went to the Royal Shakespeare Company, that was the period we were doing. It keeps coming back to it. It’s bizarre.
Jones: Yeah, I keep finding dark stuff like this of this period. I did as much as I could in the time that I had. I got cast so quickly, so last-minute, that I chip away when I can. I find there is so much in the script, I just take it scene by scene. That feeds me.
Rotten Tomatoes: Did the two hour pilot feel like a movie?
Jones: Absolutely. It was so epic — so, so epic which is great. We also mainly shot in sequence, so that really allowed me to find the character and feel the arc of the character which is very filmic.
Rotten Tomatoes: How long did you have to film the big battle?
Jones: We did that over two days.
Rotten Tomatoes: That’s it?
Jones: Yeah, and predominantly, it was done on one. We just had to do pickups on the second day. I, when I got the role, went straight into training, sword-fighting, horseriding — so that stuff we’d been working hard on. So then it was really about learning the fights, but also we were fighting on such tricky terrain that a lot of mistakes were happening. We’re falling everywhere and just had to go with it, which is a good lesson to learn early on. Mistakes kind of look good because it’s like a real fight.
Rotten Tomatoes: A movie gets three or four months to train. How long did you have?
Jones: Two weeks. Not fair, is it? No, but it’s good. It was just an intense way of doing it.
Rotten Tomatoes: How heavy are those swords?
Jones: The “allees” get pretty heavy. We use a combination of aluminum and there are some bamboo swords as well, so we have some lighter options to play with.
Rotten Tomatoes: Bamboo painted to look like swords?
Jones: Painted to look like a sword, yeah.
Rotten Tomatoes: When you do a whole fight scene in a single day, are you just totally exhausted at the end?
Jones: Totally exhausted. I did one just the other week that was two fight sequences back to back, and we shot it as one continuous scene because of the way the drama was happening in the story at that point. That, I was throwing myself on the floor at the end of each day. Also, because the motivation behind the fight at that point was so emotionally charged, it took my exhaustion to a whole new level.
Rotten Tomatoes: Stephen, do you represent more of the political side of The Bastard Executioner?
Moyer: Yes. I think Milus is weighing up the opportunities that he’s found in his lap. He also has no reason, after the death of Ventris, for him to be kept on really, because Lady Love didn’t bring him in. He was Ventris’ man. So he’s trying to align himself and get himself into a situation where she will need him. He sees in this situation with Wilkin a possibility to use him because he senses something between Wilkin and Lady Love.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the character of Luca, who’s the little boy who becomes his son in this show. In my sort of backstory, I’ve built a sort of world in which my character was perhaps not unlike that little boy who witnessed some horrific stuff and was probably abused by his father and is doing everything he can to rise up and out of what he was and how he was brought up. So he is hanging onto the bootstraps of the people that will get him there — and he’s creating bootstraps where there weren’t any before.
Rotten Tomatoes: How is the spiritual side represented? Does Wilkin have some sort of vision every week?
Jones: He is so plagued with guilt that I guess his demons are coming to haunt him in a way. The spiritual side of it is very personal to Wilkin [who is] looking for the higher purpose that he’s trying to find in life. That’s what is forcing him to stay where he is in this situation of being the executioner. He has that divine intervention and he’s looking for a higher purpose. He’s really looking for a reason to turn his back on a violent life and he’s tortured by that. I think he’s really wrestling with justifying his faith and the life of violence that he leads.
Rotten Tomatoes: Did you get to see yourself become The Bastard Executioner through the costume fittings?
Jones: I did. It made me hold myself in a different way and that was a big help. The hair and everything was transformative for sure. Also, when you carry a sword, you hold yourself differently obviously.
Rotten Tomatoes: How do they grime up your hair and face?
Jones: Lots of special makeup dirt stuff that I don’t know what’s in it, but it just gets flicked on me every day. I was scrubbing my neck just last night and was still getting stuff off. We’re often in actual mud and it’s pouring with rain so we’re in it.
Rotten Tomatoes: It doesn’t smell as bad as it looks, does it?
Jones: [Laughs] No, it doesn’t.
The Bastard Executioner premieres September 15 at 10 p.m. on FX. Read reviews here.