Mackenzie Crook has come a long way since playing Gareth on The Office.
An actor of some considerable talent, his credits since then include Pirates of the Caribbean, Game of Thrones and the criminally underrated BBC Four series Detectorists.
Now he’s back again with Britannia, Sky’s epic new drama about the Roman invasion of Celtic Britain which also stars David Morrissey and Kelly Reilly among others.
Crook plays the enigmatic Druid Veran on the bloodthirsty new show and, ahead of the release of Britainnia on DVD and Blu-ray this month, spoke to loaded about history, the cruelty of nature and possibly some orgies…
loaded: What was your main attraction to Britannia?
Mackenzie: Jez Butterworth. That’s all it came down to really. As soon as I saw his name attached to it my ears pricked up. I worked with him before on the play Jerusalem, possibly the work I’m most proud of, and the most profound time I’ve had in this business since I first started. It was almost a no-brainer. Obviously I read the script but as soon as I saw his name I knew it was going to be awesome.
loaded: What can you tell us about the Druid Veran?
Mackenzie: He’s an enigmatic, charismatic leader of what could be seen as a cult, this really strange tribe. He’ll come across as cruel, and the way he looks, he looks like a baddie. But he’s not necessarily the bad guy. He’s more complicated than that. He’s doing these things that appear cruel because the gods have told him to do this. Because the gods speak through the Druids he’s pretty much all powerful. He can lord it over all the Celtic tribes. The Romans, when they invade, they see this, and they know he’s to be treated carefully.
loaded: In terms of Veran’s appearance, it’s quite a transformation. How did you find the makeup process?
I found it brilliant. I loved every minute of it. From the design to going and having a cast made, and the daily ritual of putting it on – we started off at five hours and then they got it down to three and a half – it was a brilliant process. Watching the skill of the makeup team and seeing myself slowly transformed in front of the mirror helped me get into and form the character.
loaded: On that point, how else did you get into the mind of someone as enigmatic and mysterious
Mackenzie: It’s difficult because there’s next to nothing known about the Druids. We’re picking from five or six facts that were written by Julius Caesar and otherwise it’s all just open for interpretation. This is going to sound weird but I sort of drew on Springwatch.
Mackenzie: It has this air of being for old people but it’s actually the most brutal and violent show on television – the violence of nature. That sentimental sympathy and empathy that humans have, it doesn’t exist out there. And Veran is all about the natural world. He’s like the seasons. There’s no room for sentiment, sympathy or empathy.
loaded: So you weren’t channelling Chris Packham?
Mackenzie: No, not drawing on Chris Packham. In fact there’s a particular segment of Springwatch from a couple of years back that stuck in my head. There was this nest of blue tits in a nest box with a camera in it. They were raising about 10 chicks and the whole nation was willing along these parents who were feeding them and getting them bigger and bigger. It came to the point where the birds were about to fledge, and the first one jumped up to the hole, and there was a Jay waiting for it, and the Jay just took it. And then he came back and he got the next one, and the next one, and the next one. So all these chicks got slaughtered. And then it went back to Chris Packham he said, “Oh well, the Jays have had a good year then”.
Mackenzie: Exactly. That’s the cruelty of nature.
loaded: Did you take on any other research for the role? Where do you start when there’s so little documentation?
Mackenzie: Well that’s it, it’s mentioned that they were a tribe of wise people, but they were also lawyers and doctors, but there’s not much to go on. So Jez has taken this idea and applied artistic licence to it. All I can really do is read the history of the time and books on Celts and Celtic folklore and try to draw from that.
loaded:Why do you think people are so fascinated by this era?
Mackenzie: It does have that feel of a fantasy story. Two thousand years ago, nothing is the same as it is now. It may as well be a different world. Although it is set in a real time in our history, it does still have that fantasy feel to it, and people are really into that at the moment.
When people think of the Druids, they may think of the herbs, the sacrifices, giant stone monoliths and so forth. One thing that may surprise them when they watch Britannia is the sex.
loaded: Were you surprised to find that?
Mackenzie: It goes back to the nature thing – nature is a cycle of birth, life, sex, death. The base things. The Druids in this interpretation celebrate sex as much as they do birth and death and everything in between. It’s part of life. Good old Druid orgies.
loaded: Did you have a particular highlight from the filming?
Mackenzie: There were lots, it was an incredible job to do. But seeing that Stonehenge they built for us for the first time was incredible. And to find myself on top of that with my fear of heights to perform this massive ritual. They actually built it so that it aligned with the setting sun, so as the sun came down it really did cast this shadow. Those sorts of experience, I just stepped away from myself and said, “This is quite possibly how it actually was back then”.
loaded: You have a fear of heights?
Mackenzie: Yeah I do have a fear of heights in everyday life. Especially with my children. I keep feeling like they’re going to throw themselves off or through some railings. When I’m acting the adrenaline kicks in – you act like you’re not scared. But I’m sitting on top of this cliff, and there was no way I was ever going to fall off, I’ve probably never been safer in my life, I’m harnessed up and have a team of safety people, but it’s still there.
loaded: Fear of heights notwithstanding, the scenery in Britannia is stunning.
Mackenzie: Absolutely. And on a different scale completely there’s a scene Susan Tully directed where I was sitting on a clifftop with a butterfly on my finger, just contemplating it. It was brilliant – this guy had a fridge full of butterflies so that they’d be kept sedate. He put one on my finger and then the heat from my finger would slowly warm it up. So it would stay there for 10, 20 seconds and then open its wings and fly away. It was a really lovely moment.
BRITANNIA Season One is out on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital Download from 26th March
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.