Fantasy film lovers will certainly remember Joanne Whalley from her star-making turn in the 1988 Ron Howard-directed, George Lucas-produced Willow. Over 25 years later, Whalley is back in another historical fantasy type of project, this time a series based on the classic poem Beowulf. If you’re into Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings, it’s worth a look, as Whalley told me in a recent interview that, “we have it all. It’s quite an epic.”
Part of what gives the series its epic look is its filming location. “It’s the northeast coast,” Whalley said, “so Northumberland. It’s so beautiful and so untouched. It’s wild. It’s where Lindisfarne, the holy island, is, and where the epic poem was written. … It’s spectacular there; [it’s] like a character, so you immediately feel like you’re in this world.”
That world, as readers of the poem will recall, includes monsters, which are expanded upon in the series. But there is also human drama.
“There are all the human storylines, and the line that we live in, which hangs on a very fragile kind of balance, really, because everything changes with the death of Hrothgar [played by William Hurt]. … It’s a hard life, hard world. There are different tribes. I’m the Thane of Herot, according to Hrothgar’s wishes.”
With Whalley’s character, Rheda, fulfilling her late husband’s wishes, that leads to some political intrigue.
“What really attracted me,” said Whalley, “was the fact that Rheda is like the line about the power behind the throne, the woman behind the man on the throne. She’s always been like that. She’s very clever. She’s very politic. She understands how things work and has always been an advisor in a way to Hrothgar. … She has a lot to contend with, and it’s a very personal struggle because it’s something she never thought she would have to do.”
Like much in the series, Whalley’s character has been added to the original story of the ancient poem, which Whalley said she has never read, but thinks, “we all know it somehow. It is the oldest poem in the English language, and before it was written down, it was the great oral tradition of storytelling. These stories and legends and myths were passed on. … I feel like many of us, at least we know the archetypes too. We know the hero on a quest. There are many elements that we all know, so I didn’t feel like a stranger to it.”
Whalley also feels like she, as an actor, is helping to carry on that great human tradition of storytelling that has been continuing since even before the Beowulf poem.
“I think it’s really important, you know? I mean, for me, stories are so valuable. That’s where I learn things about the world, about people, about myself. Sometimes in a film or a play or whatever it is, someone will articulate something that makes absolute sense to you and you think, ‘Of course that’s how you say it,’ and it can gel things for you, bring things together that you hadn’t quite managed to put the pieces together. It’s like a good shrink, you know?”
Working on the story of Beowulf even gave Whalley a recollection of sorts to her time playing the warrior Sorsha in Willow, which she says fans still talk to her about.
“That movie has such a life,” she said. “I can’t believe it still. It made me laugh, actually, As this story develops, at one point, as Rheda, I found myself back in the saddle with my armor on, and I thought, ‘I’ve been here before.’ It was quite nice to get the armor back on. I mean, I’m a sucker for anytime there’s a horse involved. I love horses, so that’s like a big perk for me.”
Beowulf airs Saturdays at 10pm ET on Esquire Network. Along with Joanne Whalley and William Hurt, the series stars Kieran Bew as Beowulf; Ed Speleers as Slean; Laura Donnelly as Elvina and David Ajala as Rate.
Photo credits: ITV Studios