Stephen Moyer Talks About ‘The Bastard Executioner’

Photo Credit: James Minchin/FX
Photo Credit: James Minchin/FX

While some may remember Stephen Moyer for biting a few necks in the South, he’s currently chopping a few off in his new FX series, The Bastard Executioner.

Created by Kurt Sutter, the man behind Sons of Anarchy, The Bastard Executioner is a blood-soaked, medieval epic that tells the story of Wilkin Brattle (Lee Jones), a 14th century warrior, whose life is forever changed when a divine messenger beseeches him to lay down his sword and lead the life of another man: a journeyman executioner. Set in northern Wales during a time rife with rebellion and political upheaval, Wilkin must walk a tight rope between protecting his true identity while also serving a mysterious destiny.

Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Moyer to talk a bit about his Trubie past and what’s new for him and his character Milus Corbett, the sinister and manipulative chamberlain with high political aspirations, on the new hit FX series, airing Tuesdays at 10pm.

Can you talk a little bit about what it was that first drew you into the project and the character?

THE BASTARD EXECUTIONER -- Pictured: Key Art

I had heard about the story as much as everybody … [I] really did not know it was set in Wales. We knew that they were filming in Wales, I think I knew, but that was about it. I just happened to be meeting Kurt for coffee because we’ve sort of become friends but I’ve never met him. I might have already said that in the press but I’ve actually never met him. We’ve been sort of working over Twitter and we met up, had a coffee and he immediately started talking about the show and it hooked me in with the story — the idea of the characters, and the mythology behind them. He let me in a little bit to some of the bigger arcs within the story which is really exciting and which I’m not going to tell any of you today. Then he just said, “Look, go away, read it and get back to me.

He didn’t tell me about any particular part at the time. I went away and read it and there was one that jumped out at me straight away. I knew I was too old and gray to play the executioner, but obviously Milus was the one that was interesting to me. I went back to him and just said, “This is amazing, and I love the world. I know this world.” I did a sort of a two-year project at high school, medieval history and this was my period. That was also another kind of hook for me because I already knew quite a lot about it, as it turned out not as much as our fearless leader who has done years of research.

I just love the idea of this character who is kind of hanging on to his best friend’s bootstraps and getting himself into a position that by birth he would never have been in, and the world, and the sort of darkness, and also the richness of the underscoring, if you like, that was already written into the pilot.

Can you talk about some of the additional layers to the character? It definitely feels that there’s more to him than a villain character.

I’ve said this before, I don’t see him as a villain, I see him as somebody who’s trying to push himself forward and is taking an opportunity where he sees it. We talked about the idea of somebody who, and again, this is all sort of back and forth with me and Kurt, an idea that he’d had and truthfully a kind of whole backstory that I wrote to myself.

It’s funny, Denis O’Hare became a dear friend when we were doing True Blood and he wrote something like 3,000 word backstory for his 3,000 year old character and some of which Alan Ball said, “You will never be any of this.” Then he goes to Allan and Allan was like, “Oh my God.” They’re literally like a 10 year series just on Denis’ character with all the stuff that he wrote.” I’ve done stuff like that before, but I was so taken with the idea of just how far Denis went that in my head I started sub-plotting.

Again, that’s an element, a crossover which I’m not going to give away but I think we’ll see some of it. Kurt and I talked about it and he’s got his own ideas and you will see, and I will see, just how much crossover there is in that. But, suffice it to say that he’s from a very, very poor upbringing and he found himself in a position where he’s the Chamberlain of the Court because his best friend was a warrior who was much loved by Edward I.

His best friend becomes the Lord of the Shire that gets created for him by Edward I as a gift for what he does in battle. His best friend who was his Commander of his troops, my character becomes the Chamberlain. Now that the Baron is gone it’s up to Milus to work out where it goes from there.

What are some of the challenges of filming in Wales as opposed to Louisiana where True Blood was at? Is there much difference?

It’s funny my mom came on the set with me and she was always blown away by when she came to the True Blood lot. We obviously did location stuff but we shot the interiors in LA and she opens them. My favorite set I think of all time will always be Merlotte’s and Sam’s place because it was a real working bar, everything worked. We had a kitchen, a full-working kitchen.

I never thought it would be bested, it’s not that it has been bested, but my mom walked [a few weeks ago] she was just like, “I cannot …” You just can’t believe the detail. Giles Masters, our set designer his father was a set designer of Lawrence of Arabia. He comes from very good stuff in a way and it’s extraordinary. We’ve got four studio spaces and an entire village and castle completely built for us. We do stuff on the road as well. We’ve set-up a complete, just like a world.

My family’s with me and I flew the dogs over from LA, they’re with me as well. Truthfully, it’s not hard at all. We’re all here. We’re living our life out in Wales.

One of the best parts of the show so far, for me at least, I know for a few other reviewers and viewers, has been the attraction between your character Milus and character of the Baroness. Could you talk a little bit about that relationship between those two very complex characters, or how you read that and what’s inspiring you’re going into that?

Photo Credit: Ollie Upton/FX
Photo Credit: Ollie Upton/FX

I think there are a number of things going on. Flora [Spencer-Longhurst] has that remarkable beauty on camera that is just mesmerizing. Given that she’s done so much theater she comes straight in and just knocks you out of the park in terms of the quality of the work she’s doing on camera. The first I’d say, for me, she was my lord, the constable whom I was the Chief Officer to, if you like. Brían [F. O’ Byrne] and I talked about this for probably 20 years, and the idea was that he came in and was given this seat. She is a Lady of Wales from a very good family who was married off to Lord Erik Ventris (played by O’Byrne).

From within the court there was absolutely no question that there would ever need to be an affiliation with myself and her. I think that’s important to know from the first. What is growing, the relationship was between them is new to them as well as to the audience. She has found herself with this Chamberlain who she knows comes from a rubbish background, and he is the one who is controlling the machinations of court. She probably has some big feelings about that but knows that ultimately he has the shire in his best interest. When push comes to shove, hopefully he will look after the shire first and not himself.

I think she’s wary of him and she’s wary of what he can do and I think she knows that he’s not like some sort of graceful swan on the surface with the legs kicking under the surface, with quite ugly feet, I think. I think she’s aware of that. On another level, he is impressed by her since Erik’s death he has seen her grow and start taking on the power of being a woman in this position that she’s been thrust into.

Yet also from the side he also sees that there is a, he can’t quite put his finger on it but from that very moment that he saw Lady Love with Wilkin in the church, there’s also a connection between them that he’s going to try and utilize as well. It’s just like anything that he views that happens within the town, in the village, in the castle, and the backstairs, and the servant’s quarters, that he can use or store for later, he will. Again, that develop between those two characters, I do, I have to say I do love working with her.

We’re only three episodes in and already your character has some really steamy sex scenes. The moment with the twins was pretty outrageous and I’m curious is Milus sexuality intensifying because he feels that he’s losing control with the death of Ventris?

The moment with the servant in the pilot was one of those things where it was not stipulated that they were necessarily fucking behind the pillar but there was definitely something going to be going on behind that pillar. I asked Kurt, because in the scene where you see him and me in the toilet with Brían’s character, with Erik, and he’s literally shit wiping, I said to Kurt, “What is that there?” He’s obviously taken in by this boy and he said, “He is new in the castle and he’s not had him yet, and it’s as simple as that.” We talked about the idea of that being power.

We  all know the maxim knowledge is power, but I think that Milus comes from a place where if he can have dominion over everything around him, as well as be it through physicality or sexuality he will. He can glean a positive or an advantage of somebody or something to hold over in the future he will. It’s classic alpha stuff. I’ve got two male dogs and obviously in these days all dogs that aren’t to be bred have to be neutered, but that does not stop in the dog park, assisting neutered dogs trying to help each other.

It’s just the way the dog pound is or the dog park is, and it’s interesting watching that because that kind of aggression in one person in the dog park becomes one dog in the dog park becomes the alpha and Milus wants to be the alpha and in his own way. The way he will do it is he’ll take whatever he can out of the situation and spin it, be it a piece of intel or some kind of sexual … intelligent that you can get from a situation like that. I do think he’s physically and mentally active as well as sexually.

In a recent episode we had what is by modern standards a pretty gruesome thing happened, a woman got her nose cut off. Can you talk about your character’s viewpoint on physical torture and punishment and how that’s going to play out through the rest of the season? It’s something that’s probably a lot of us hadn’t thought a lot about before we started watching this show, in terms of how medieval justice was meted out.

Photo Credit: Ollie Upton/FX
Photo Credit: Ollie Upton/FX

It’s interesting isn’t because when I read that episode I had a number of feelings about it. When I read it I hadn’t realized that she accidentally broken the nose off of Brían’s statue. I just thought that in the scuffle that maybe the statue had fallen out or something, and I hadn’t quite realized that it was as simple as she just landed on it and knocked the nose off. This is great because it shows the innocence of her and yet centered on this belief of holding on to a land and freedom, and holding on to your piece of territory and how important it was to the Welsh.

When I was reading the script I remember visually thinking, “Oh, we’re going to kill her again.” As we were getting towards that punishment sequence I was thinking, “Oh, they’re going to kill her.” We’re leading up to something else like we have in the pilot. I was thinking, “Oh, maybe we’re going to end every single episode with a death, maybe that’s the thing, maybe that’s what our little trigger’s going to be for the audience.” Then literally got to the page where they cut her nose off and I was like, “Oh my God, that’s hideous.”

It hit me that it was almost worst in a way in medieval times where we don’t have the benefit of a good surgeon. To keep somebody alive but with something heinous like that, to understand that the villagers have to see every day as a reminder of what this is, and the fact that Lady Love hated that decision. She is the one who makes that decision. She is the one who brings down that because she knows that she has to keep, in the eyes of the villagers and in the eyes of the town she has to be seen to be strong and to not allow rebels to mount up against the castle, so she has to take a stand.

My character’s take on it is that it’s not enough. It’s interesting because I only watched it yesterday and I was looking at it thinking, “That’s interesting. I wonder if that’s come across the … ” My character looks out for the people who are watching the nosing, I’m going to call it, and he sees, I don’t think we’ve seen it in that episode, but he sees the kind of crowd being slightly upset that they only got to see a nose cut off. Because for the villagers, for the townspeople that was their theater.

You do such a great role in this portrayal of Milus. When you started taking the role was there something that you added to him that may not have originally been written for you?

I’d like to think so, although to be fair to Kurt, he’s written a really complete character. Going back to that sequence in the pilot, I wanted to be seen to be taking that character, taking that French girl. This is a man who takes what he wants and I didn’t want it to be some kind of heavy petting happening behind that pillar. I wanted it to be straight fucking, which is kind of an oxymoron, isn’t? Straight fucking, I just realized but I think it should be like that.

I think that he, without going back to the sexual element, I think that is something that I keyed in to very early and I wrote to Kurt after reading it the first time and we talked about that and what that means. As I said earlier, he went into quite a lot of detail about the power of that.

Then one of the things I’m proud of, I don’t want to go to too much detail with it really because I’d much rather it play out, but for me, I never sounded like Ray Winstone but, I did come from a place where people do speak like Ray Winstone. I certainly have at times in my life sounded like that, and then I went to drama school and came out with a posh accent because I felt like that was what I was supposed to sound like.

It’s very nice to me to go back to playing somebody who’s from the street but that changes what he needs to be for the situation. I think we all have a little bit of that in us. We might speak a little bit nicer in front of our family or our parents or people that we wanted to impress or people that are higher up the food chain or in bigger, higher echelons of life. Definitely Milus is somebody who’s going to be looked at but he also is a street brawler and I think that’s who he prefers to be. One of the things I’ve been experimenting with is the way he speaks around the people that he’s with as well.

Photo Credit: Ollie Upton/FX
Photo Credit: Ollie Upton/FX

Do you judge your character’s actions? Do you try to justify his actions or do you just free your mind and just go to these dark places that Kurt Sutter set-up for you?

Two answers there, first one being this — I know he’s ambitious. I know that he’s also trying to save the shire. I also know that the king is not going to allow a woman to hold this position of the shire as she’s not royal, she’s not a princess. She is from a very good family but I knew that Milus was going to have to do some stuff to put himself for her, for the shire in order to keep his position and everybody else’s position in. I knew that.

From that place I obviously was well aware that I had stuff to do, if there was death, if there were kills then it’s just collateral damage. I just got to move on and do it. Then I have fascinating conversations with Kurt where he said, “Every single thing he does is thought through,” and he says, and again I don’t want to spoil too much but he will not … I don’t want to say it.

To answer the question he is not just looking out for himself. He’s looking out for everybody but he also does have a conscience and deep, deep, deep, within that hard shell he has come up with a reason for doing everything that he thinks is for the good of everybody. When Kurt told me this little bit piece of information that I’m not going to divulge, it all made sense and I went back and started re-reading and looking deeper and deeper into every line and trying to work out where, and it’s like that stuff I was saying earlier, it’s like you read stuff and actually it’s all there. It’s in there, whether you’re interested on the first watch, whether they are aware of it, whether it’s going to come out in season three, it is beautifully written and it’s all there from the beginning. It’s just may not be explained yet.

It’s not quite as simple as in doing just a simple villain or just out himself, there’s more layers to it than that and I’m glad there is because as fun as it is to just be Mr. Machiavelli, it’s also great to know that there’s kind of thought behind it.

You were talking a lot about the Wales, and filming there, and I’m just wondering if that helped at all with preparing for your character? Did it get you in a sort of state of mind, how did you prepare for the character as well?

It’s interesting that because I was walking through the village one day to sort of get my own head and sort of taking in the color, and one of the things that they’ve been able to do in the town, in our little town is the background, it’s about 100 acres and it’s set in a kind of valley on 270 degrees around from where the castle is. It’s all, we’re sort of down within a sort of dell, if you like, and that is surrounded by hills and mountains. When you look from the castle all you can see is green, it’s all green and trees and hills and mountains and stuff, there’s nothing in the way.

Firstly, in terms of what you feel like, you feel like this little village, which is a real working village is kind of fab but as I was walking through the front gates and walking up towards the castle, and there’s all, like hundreds of extras and stuff, because I was filming around. I went past this guy who was cutting up meat and there was four pigs hanging behind him and a fox hanging upside down. There were a couple of rabbits as well, and he was doing some stuff with the pig and I walked up there and shoot.

I just thought he was he was an extra so I went up to him and said, “Wow, you’re really good at this.” He said, “I’m a butcher.” I’m like, “What do you mean you’re a butcher?” “This is what I do. I’m a butcher. They came and found me here and I said I’m a butcher, and they asked me if I’d come and do a day.”

I said, “You’re actually … You actually are doing that? What that thing that you’re doing with the pig right now, you’re doing it right?” He was like, “Yeah.” Then I walked over to the person opposite and there was this guy kind of scraping away on this piece of wood, a carpenter. He is a carpenter. He is an original; he makes bows, that’s what he does. He makes bows in the original way. They found him. They brought him to the village.

I go a little bit further there was a lady making kind of herbal, sort of remedies and stuff like that, they found her, that’s what she does. I was blown away by the idea of it and if you can think there’s people working fabric, there were … What else is there? There was an ironmonger. There was a black-friar making shoes for horses. They were all guys and women who do that.

This village, the idea being, Paris’ idea being that if the camera were to alight on a certain part then you see somebody carrying, they’re doing the thing that they do. There’s no like crap extra, all those going on the background. Honestly, it freaked me out. I was so impressed that they’ve gone to that much detail and they haven’t told us. None of higher ups have told us that that’s what they’ve done. They’ve just done it without even making us aware. They just wanted to make it feel real.

Photo Credit: Ollie Upton/FX
Photo Credit: Ollie Upton/FX

All the AD has gone around and every single extra had something to do. Every single extra has been given a family life, a place that they were going to, what they would do into the village, their place within the society and I don’t really need to go on. You can tell from what I’m saying it’s deeply impressive and it gets you there. If everybody from there upwards is even thinking about what they’re doing in that way then you’re kind of … it’s very helpful.

Since this role is very different from Bill Compton did you do anything to prepare for it and get into the mindset of Milus?

I’ve done quite a lot of reading. Once upon a time in my position one had to go to the library to do this kind of thing, and you go and sit in the library and pull out old books and look at stuff. The historians publish pamphlets online. I can go and look at what was going on in 1312 with a few clicks of the mouse, it’s unbelievable. I’m not an actor who necessarily believe that you have to do all of that to inform your character, I’m really not, but I think the more you understand the more you can glean off of the period and the idea of the period. It just behooves what goes on underneath, there’s that.

But then, obviously also they sent us all to knight camp and there was days and days of horse riding. I actually only shot about eight or nine days on that two hour pilot but I was in Wales two months and I was pre-sort of shuffling my sword, if you will, as well as doing horse stuff. Now I’ve done all that stuff before and I did a lot of sword play at drama school and subsequently I was at drama school as well taking lots of exams because I love it so much. For me, just to be able to do all of those things was just sort of cherry on it, on the top of it all, really because that’s just stuff I love doing.

I found this place, a riding school in Wales where I can go and ride on a beach that no one can ride. They let me go off. I go and walk to grab a horse and they let me go down on the beach and it was right along the waters. It’s incredible. All of that stuff is one of the great benefits of taking on a character like this in the set, is that everybody would like and everybody would fight, as well as the political machinations and all of that which I’ve done quite a lot of reading on.

Watch Stephen Moyer in The Bastard Executioner tonight at 10pm on FX