Charlotte Riley and Bertie Carvel are champions. They’ve flown halfway across the world to chat with a veritable smorgasbord of TV writers at the Television Critics Association winter press tour and the jet-lag is just kicking in, but still they carry on. The stars of BBC America’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell don’t mind because they’re seriously enamored with the project itself, premiering Saturday, June 13th. An adult period drama set against the Napoleonic Wars, Strange is a sort of cake-and-eat-it-too situation because it also involves a LOT of magic (because the duo just so happen to be magicians).
Given how hard (read: expen$$$$$ive) it is to make on-screen magic look as fantastical as our imaginations, wariness is to be expected, but rest assured: it is not! We watched the first two episodes and then chatted up Jonathan and Arabella Strange’s real-life counterparts and were giddily excited about just how magical — literal and otherwise — this adaptation looks to be.
But first, heart attacks.
CHARLOTTE RILEY: Did you know that when the clocks go back, more people have heart attacks?
NERDIST: Is that a thing?
CR: Just that one hour time difference screws with people’s levels of sleep and their energy and therefore more people — when the clocks change — more people are admitted [to hospitals] for heart attacks. There’s a spike in the statistic. …And on that morbid note!
N: Well I for one will not let heart attacks get in the way of my excitement about this and you must be too, Bertie, because don’t you love the book?
BERTIE CARVEL: I love the book and I love our series. I used to sort of cast myself in it.
N: Did you cast yourself as Jonathan Strange?
BC: Oh yeah! Yeah, but I was thinking I would never be famous enough to have a shot at it and ten years later, here we are: making it!
N: Well, what does that feel like now?
BC: Massively exciting. I’m not a great fan of the “dream come true” narrative when it comes to actors telling stories, but I can just straight down the middle say this is kind of a dream come true. I’ve kinda cast spells for it, really, and it’s amazing to have that honor and responsibility of translating something to the screen that you love so much and have imagined so fully. So often when you see a screen adaptation of something literary that you’ve imagined yourself it’s so often disappointing. I hope people will share my excitement about it.
CR: Yeah, being on set, there was a real buzz about it in terms of all the different departments who were working on it. You could really tell that everyone had read the 7 episodes and thought ‘Wow, I wanna do this.’ It sounded kinda genre-changing and it really pushed the limits of costume and hair and make-up. They didn’t want to use CGI for a lot of it so everybody in every department had to be super-creative and you really did get a sense that everybody felt a part of something that was exciting and new and different and fresh. I certainly felt that on the first day of rehearsal and it continued throughout the shoot.
N: I imagine that just sort of adds to the magic itself.
CR: Yeah, and there’s a lot of magic in it, so a lot of the sets and things that you walked onto in the morning — you had no idea what they were going to look like. You see it in the script or the section of the book and then you walk on set and there is a giant tree, in a ballroom, and there are dancers and music and you really do feel it. You get completely transported every day. You’re learning dance moves and there’s wind machines — you’re thinking ‘this is something out of my craziest dreams.’ A lot of the sets are quite twisted and strange and quite eerie, but beautiful at the same time — like a kind of f**ked up nightmare. What do the French call it? Jolie Mon?
BC: Jolie laide. [Note: this translates to “pretty ugly”]
CR: Right, Jolie laide.
BC: I think that magic, in the sense of the magic of the occasion — what am I struggling to say here?
N: It elevates?
BC: I think it’s more, well, this is a story about magicians and magic and what does that really mean. What it doesn’t mean, to me, is how many special effects can you get on the screen. Although we’ve got wonderful, amazing special effects, too. But what it really means is, I think magic is a metaphor for the imagination, really. And one of the reasons it’s such a brilliant novel is you’re asking the reader to imagine these great feats of magic and there’s something about making a drama that requires people to do just that — to kind of imagine this stuff and come together to create it. There really is a magical quality to that. You are making something that is not there, there. That’s sort of an esoteric way of putting it, but if you were just sort of cynically turning up and doing it, it wouldn’t have the same effect. I think there is magic in our translation of this to the screen because it’s about the potency of people’s imagination.
N: Well — and this is not a completely formed idea in my mind so bare with me, but — I think that we’re seeing a lot more of that in stuff these days because we’re all sort of realizing that we don’t truly know the what those limits are in regards to human imaginative ability.
BC: I think you’re right: I think we’re in an era where the questions that science are asking — and by nature, they ask more questions than they can answer — and I think that was different earlier in the twentieth century. I think there was an excitement that science would start to answer all the questions we often had. I think it’s flipped on its head though, now, and that’s why we see more and more stuff about fantasy and magic. This story — Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — are two very different men. One, Norrell, is a kind of enlightenment figure who wants to rationalize the world and one who is an instinctive romantic figure. One had talent but no skill (that’s me) and another with great skill but no talent. And there’s this great clash and I think what happened around the time the novel’s set is, is that the enlightenment basically won and we all got programmed to think that you could solve the universe in terms of rationality and science. I read somewhere that the program of the enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world — and that sorta won. I think this novel, and our story, images what would’ve happened if that went the other way: that the romantic, instinctive side answered in full-force.
And I think, culturally, we’ve come back around to that — people crave stories that solve the world in a different frame than oh, well, ‘A plus B equal C.’
N: Can you just tell me about the Stranges in general in this story.
N: The Stranges. You and your wife …or the new band that you two are clearly going to make now with that. ‘Hey, whats up we’re The Stranges.’
BC & CR: [Laughs]
CR: I like that idea! Let’s form a band — I’ll play the drums.
BC: We were just talking about that, actually — and I think the main thing is trust. These two were childhood sweethearts and they know each other. Jonathan Strange is the luckiest man in the world to have married someone who loves and knows him so well and they go through an awful lot together. The thing about this story is the horizon keeps receding — it matures and matures and matures and you wouldn’t know, two-thirds of the way in, where the last third is going to go. And their relationship, similarly, the arc of it is much longer, deeper, and more profound than one would expect. It’s a love story but not just a straightforward one. The corners they have to navigate are quite literally out of this world.
CR: They’re really the heart of the piece. Between the other characters, there’s not really a lot of love in the piece. I think they are really the beating heart of it and it’s quite beautiful to watch, really — they’re quite a modern couple.
BC: I was going to say that, yeah.
CR: For 1806. She has a huge amount more freedom than a lot of other woman would back then and so does he.
BC: They’re very evenly matched. She’s actually more than a match for him, really.
CR: And they give each other a lot of room to grow and to learn, and she’s quite a guiding hand for him. And he injects her life with a huge amount of fun and widens her horizons in a way that they never would’ve been if she hadn’t met him. And she’s his support network.
BC: There’s a great line where Arabella says ‘I’ve always been more in the habit of rescuing him,’ and that’s right. They, in different senses, save each other. I think he’s the lucky one in that relationship — I’m not quite sure what he’s doing for her.
CR: We’ll they’re very kooky together! They move around each other like fish, they understand each other’s movements. They both look at things and notice things at the same time. They’re both quite nosy.
BC: I like to sort of talk about this as a movie in seven chapters, not least because the term “a mini-series” doesn’t seem to quite cut it somehow. But also because the scale of it — the kind of cinematic sweep of it — really is on par with something you’d see in a movie theater. … Can you tell that we’re quite enthusiastic about it?
N: I can! I love it — it only makes me more jazzed to see the rest of it.
BC: It’s really hard to do these interviews because what Charlotte was saying is right — it’s so rich so we don’t know which direction to really sell people on.
CR: And it just gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger.
BC: I’m tempted to always want to pull back on the magic because it’s a detail. You could sustain just watching these characters journey — and you get magic!
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell premieres Saturday, June 13th at 10PM. Are you excited about it? Let us know in the comments.
Alicia Lutes is the Associate Editor of The Nerdist. In her spare time she wishes she were a magician. Find her on the Tweet Machine @alicialutes.