From the moment his meteor crashed into Middle-earth we suspected Daniel Weyman’s Stranger might actually be a wizard. But not only did The Rings of Power not confirm his real identity until the show’s season one finale, Weyman himself didn’t know until he read the episode’s script. That might sound frustrating. But according to him, not knowing helped his performance. That was just one of the things we discussed with The Lord of the Rings‘ newest Istar when we talked to him about his character’s big reveal. He also told us about his own Stranger theories while filming, not letting any wizards’ future in Middle-earth influence his performance in the present, and what it was like learning he’s now in a special group of cultural icons.
Nerdist: You’ve said you didn’t know who you were playing until you read the last script of the season. But, like us, you must have had your own theories about your character while filming the show. So who, or what, did you think you were playing before the finale?
Daniel Weyman: That’s a really good question, isn’t it? I think the first time it became apparent for me was around the idea of speaking to the fireflies. That scene, when the Stranger attracts the fireflies, was with a script where he began to mutter. I was trying to work out what he was muttering and had a really good conversation with the show runners [J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay]. I was keen to find out what they thought. They were keen to make sure that the audience didn’t learn ahead of what they wanted them to learn. But it also it needed to be playable.
What they came up with was a really great bit of advice for me that when viewers are watching this they’re going to see a being that has come shot through the air and landed in this fiery crater. So, the chances are they cannot be human, dwarf, harfoot, Númenórean, or elf. Once you’ve exhausted all of those things, there are only a few things he could be. And once you’re into that bracket, he is one of the Maia.
Then, of course, you’re on this really exciting journey of, “Well, there are a certain number of named canon Maia.” And they have really different characteristics, from the most very dark to the most very light, if you look at it on that spectrum. And that includes Sauron, Balrogs, right through the other end of Istari when they come on the scene.
So then for me the question was, “Well, do I need to know which of those many possibilities I am?” And I took the decision quite early on that I didn’t need to know exactly which it was. What I needed to do was to play the scenes in front of me. Because I had certain connections with other cast and their characters, I felt if I could try to be honest and truthful and authentic with how I was interpreting the character, and how the character would feel in these situations, then it would all take care of itself. And so that’s really what I did.
That was why I actually think it was good for me to not get ahead of myself. It meant I didn’t feel I projected—hopefully other people won’t feel I projected—something like, “Look at me! I’m going to turn into this character.” Rather they could watch this character developing truthfully on its own.
You’ve talked about staying in the present. But there’s a lot of evidence you are playing an early version of Gandalf. So how do you avoid letting what you think might be true influence your performance going forward?
Weyman: I’ve played a few characters in the past where I played an earlier version of somebody who became quite well known. And in that case as well you have to become quite rigorous with the idea of not getting ahead of yourself with looking at what are the key facts, what time are you in.
And I suppose the way I approached the Stranger was looking at each of the scenes and saying, “Where has the Stranger come from? What’s he picked up so far up to this point?” Then, in the scene, “What’s happening? What does he want to achieve in this scene? What are the obstacles that he’s got to overcome and what happens if he doesn’t overcome those obstacles? Why has he got to do it now? What’s important about the present now?” And once I’ve answered those questions, that, for me tends to box my imagination in sufficiently so that I haven’t got little pressure cooker leaks of, “Yeah, but who are you going to become?” So, actually it wasn’t a problem for me to do that.
And also I was working with great other actors who are really, really uber-talented. The way that they were bringing their own storyline, their own needs as characters and group storylines to the table, meant that in order to work properly with them I had to listen really actively. And in doing that, again, you take away from the future living, which I think could have been a problem.
I think that all makes sense. But I also think it’s probably easier to say than necessarily do considering the season ends with the Stranger going out on a dangerous adventure with one of Middle-earth’s small folk. So, now knowing who you’re playing and seeing what you’re about to do, is there any inclination let the potential future of your character crawl into your head and maybe influence you in any way?
Weyman: It’s funny, isn’t it? I feel like the way that Jamie (JD) and Patrick work they are so hugely inspirational. The way they infect you with their energy and enthusiasm and desire and knowledge and love for the lore, they have this universal energy that bounds bigger than just the room or country that you’re standing in. And when I talk to them, I feel like I am being held in this really secure place so that I can experiment and perform.
We’ve really been on this journey for three years since the first audition. I now feel at such a point where it’s not like I’m only just learning about what’s come through. I’ve been on this big journey with them for a long time. And I feel aptly secure in the way that they’re going to bring the story to me. So, I think it won’t be a problem.
I think also that kind of future thinking feeds into a way that actually makes me more self-conscious as an actor. The way that I feel I work best—and by best work I suppose I mean feeling un-self-conscious in front of the camera, feeling like I’m being as honest as I can and authentic as I can with the script—that’s through doing things internally that then come out. And I think the future thing often makes me feel like I’m putting something external inside. And that is not as comfortable a fit for me. So, it’s about the way I work.
You’ve talked about the Stranger and your time on the show in a few different interviews now, but what’s an important aspect of the character or your performance that you haven’t been asked about yet that you would like to share?
Weyman: One of the things that resonated most strongly for me in New Zealand was connection to land. The Stranger was barefoot for the whole of the season. And on location in the mainland, these incredible forestry countryside locations, in fairly wild countryside by that, I felt as an actor I was getting an extra layer of character from my own interaction with the land.
I don’t know quite how that sounds to you. But it was something different to maybe anything I’ve ever worked on in theater or in contemporary TV. To actually be doing this fantastical piece and to be connected so strongly to the earth, and by the earth I mean the soil there but also sand, water, and the elements in the natural elements, that felt like it was giving me a layer of extra complexity to my work that I maybe haven’t been able to tap into before. Hopefully that comes across.
I’ve asked you a lot about the process of developing your character and playing the role. But you’re now officially a wizard of Middle-earth, a truly iconic cultural figure. What was it like on a personal level learning that you’re now in a group that includes Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee?
Weyman: [Laughs] That is… yeah, mind-blowing. Absolutely mind-blowing. Obviously I know their work pretty well. So it’s one of those pinch yourself moments of going, “Can this really be happening?” And it takes me back to my first audition for this thing that it was for The Lord of the Rings. It was that moment of going, “Come on, this is… come on, this is surely way too much to hope for this to happen.”
And so when I then get to be in that realm with other people who have played these characters, I don’t think I can quite say I’m in their league because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before that. The reason that they’re so venerated is because they’ve done a massive amount of seriously good work.
There’s a tantalizing idea that I could be on a journey in terms of the work that I might get a chance to do. But I think I’ve just got to go back to doing the work because they are hugely skillful and massively talented people and I look up to them incredibly, incredibly fondly and, well, they’re heroes, aren’t they? They’re just everybody’s acting or character heroes.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.