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Every Project is Unique: Enzo Cilenti on the Series Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

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By Paul Risker. 

Every project is unique,” explained Enzo Cilenti who recently delved into the past to explore a tale of magic in the Industrial Age in the BBC’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015). Cilenti is no stranger to the small screen having appeared in Game of Thrones (2011- ), House M.D (2004-12), Rome (2005-07) and the BBC’s spy drama Spooks (2002-11).

Looking back on the part Strange & Norrell occupies in his career Cilenti added: “The start of every project is uniquely exciting, and each one has its own character and requires adapting to the needs of that particular project and to the culture of the people you are working with.” In conversation with Film International, Cilenti discussed the uniqueness of this latest project that momentarily looked to the past of his youth before he returned to the present, or more recent past, to reveal how he discovered a connection between himself and his character. Openly discussing his craft and using Strange & Norrell as a centre point to branch out from, the actor touched upon how prestige is attributed to the individual project as opposed to the broadcaster, and he shared his thoughts on the spectatorial as well as the actor’s experience of living and working in a golden age of television.

Why a career in acting? Was there that inspirational or defining moment?

Norrell 02Yeah, there was actually. I had done it all the way through school and I loved it… It was kind of for fun. Then when I was sixteen I got an audition for a feature film – I think they were doing a remake of Wuthering Heights (1847). They went around the local schools in Yorkshire and I was picked out. I went through the rounds of auditions where I got to the last one and didn’t get it. I just went: “Sod this for a game of soldiers.” [Laughs]. So I dropped it after school because I didn’t get an audition; didn’t get a job and couldn’t deal with the rejection.

A friend of mine then planted the seed while at university, and so I was thinking about it. Then on my year abroad it kind of just grew and grew and grew, and when I got back to my final year most of my friends had graduated. So to meet new people I joined the new theatre at the University of Nottingham. There were lots of people who were very serious about it, and all of a sudden it seemed that it was viable; it was a thing that you could do, and it was this that dragged me out of thinking that I had to have a respectable job. In my final year I would visit my friends on weekends who already had real jobs, and watching them shave and put cuff links on a Monday morning frightened the bejesus out of me. So I thought I had better get serious about acting if I didn’t want to do that, and so I started applying to drama schools. All of them rejected me apart from the last one I auditioned for [Laughs], and so that was that. I was quite fortunate because I started working quite quickly after drama school. I got an agent and built a bit of a head of steam – just enough to get me over the line of it being kind of viable. I’ve been fortunate that I have just managed enough to keep going.

What was the appeal of the character and the story of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?

I’m from Yorkshire, and Childermass is everything you would ever want to be growing up and coming from Yorkshire. He is like this Yorkshire Jedi who can do magic, is brooding and enigmatic, and seems to know more than all the people around him. He is almost a superhero, and reading the book while preparing for the auditions, let alone before I got the job, with every page and every chapter I fell more and more in love with him. And the more I fell in love with him the less likely it seemed that I was going to get the role. But I just decided that I wasn’t going to lose out for lack of trying. So I bombarded the director when I wasn’t auditioning for him with tapings I had done for other scenes that we were not able to do during the audition.

I became a fan of the book, which is so rare because it wasn’t a job. It was the scale of it – the way north and south is subverted; north is romantic and magic being this kind of substitute for this idea of… Speaking to Susanna Clarke about it she said the magic represents faith in Christianity. It is not just this fantastic story, but it is also about magic. There is a love story in there and it is political. It is about pride and what your actions mean as well as ego. There is just so much to it, and it is such a beautiful dense piece of work that is beautifully drawn and beautifully written.

Do you look for those projects that will reach a point where they are not what they at first seemed to be about, but resemble an onion whose layers are peeled away?

Of course, and it’s a backdrop to the magic, and this parallel history’s own history is a backdrop to very human stories – those things that are compelling and involve us everyday. So, absolutely!

The one thing I would say is that we are in the golden age of television. The quality of the scripts on the whole is so much higher than it was. Eight or nine scripts out of the ten that I read now are like that, and as you say, to use the onion analogy, they are rich and interesting. This just happened to be one of them, and it is certainly the finest I have ever read. I was desperate to be a part of it, and gone are the days where most of the scripts I get sent are kind of cathedral – you’ve read them before and the characters are very two dimensional. So at the moment it is a great time to be watching television and it is a great time to be an actor.

Starring in a BBC production do you perceive there to still be a prestige to the BBC’s approach to broadcasting?

No, I don’t… I really don’t… I don’t think about that. I think prestige comes from the individual project, and so in this case yes, it was hugely prestigious, but that would be to denigrate working for ITV, which I am doing at the moment. And I am not just saying that because I am working for ITV. But as a kid definitely, because with my first job for the BBC I kind of thought: yes I’ve made it, I’ve done it. When you mention it I think there is a prestige for a lot of people, but from our perspective it is all about the production which always, always, always starts with the writing. That said, all of us are extremely grateful to the BBC’s vision and confidence in this story, and maybe nobody else would have made it. If that is the case then, yeah, I am delighted and hugely proud that it is a BBC production, and I’m proud to be part of that family.

I often consider there to be a parallel between film, storytelling and magic in which the film and storytelling could be defined as magic in their own way.

Norrell 03I think that is a good analogy. There is something that just kind of happens that you don’t know. I’m still in love with it… I still get excited when I see a camera and I still have that boyish excitement about it. I don’t know what the DP is seeing, and then even when you are doing a scene with another actor, when you finally see that scene finished, cut and graded and with the sound, it is completely different to what there was in the room and what it felt like. So in that sense, yeah, it is very much so. And that’s the beauty and the most exciting part of it. I do my bit, but then all of this other weird stuff beyond my understanding happens afterwards, and that’s the same for every department. So much of it is unquantifiable, and so yeah I would say it is.

How do you view the way in which our perception of magic has been shaped through entertainment, specifically film, television and literature?

Well, I think my reaction to the idea of doing a show based on a book about magic is telling. I have to be honest with you, I was not entirely thrilled. But when I read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell I kind of thought: oh, in this case it is something completely different. It seems part of nature, and to me it is parallel to how we are not in tune with our planet, nature, and the environment. The book is all about man’s lack of respect for the power of magic, and certainly how Norrell and Strange think they have control over it, but they don’t, and it’s about the consequences of that. The story is set at the start of the Industrial Age when man thought he had the answer to everything. All the ideas of the Renaissance were poo-pooed. Man thought: we’ve got it; we have the answers. It is through science and it is through man conquering nature and the earth… We will do it. So that really appealed to me.

Does traveling into and recreating the past liberate your imagination in a way that working in the present day does not allow? 

The first thing I feel I need to address when I do any period piece is how to ignore period detail so that I don’t start playing that as opposed to the scene itself. Period costume, detail, and design tends initially to distract me from a scene, for example having to arrive in a scene by horse as opposed to a car! To avoid this I try and familiarise myself as much as possible with a specific time period. I spend as much time as possible researching period art, music, politics and philosophies so I feel at home, as it were, when I’m on set. This sounds a little unromantic, but the research is one of my favorite parts of preparation, and is an opportunity to broaden my (very narrow) historical knowledge.

I have heard it said that a film or TV adaptation is required to live separately of the book in order to tell its own version of the story. Do you agree and how does working on an adaptation change the dynamic of the process for you?

I’m not sure. With Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell we had the very tight TV format to consider, as well as a desire to remain faithful to not just the plot, but the feel of a fantastic book that has a very wide fan base. It’s a balancing act that I think Peter Harness did a marvellous job of (in adapting the book), and I think I should also mention our DP Stephan Pehrsson here, whose work beautifully captured the tone and the mood of the book. There is a literary feel to his work I feel, and yes, the show has to stand alone, but if you stray too far there’s a risk of the show being ‘inspired by’.

In terms of changing the dynamic of the process, it was incredibly helpful. In this instance I was walking around with a 900 page crib sheet in my hand that helped guide me through every scene, and which allowed me to delve right back into Susanna’s world of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell whenever I felt I was being distracted by all the modern day paraphernalia of a film set.

What do you attribute as the reason for this golden age of TV, and with the opportunities presented by long form television dramas, could films be re-contextualised as a short form format?

I agree with you about a golden age of TV, and I think you’ve almost answered your own question in as much as this longer format, and the opportunity to watch say an entire series all at once allows for more careful and fuller storytelling. How we watch TV now affords the writer an opportunity to write empathetic rather than sympathetic characters, and to experiment with pace especially. Film is becoming the shorter format, but I don’t see that as a good or a bad thing necessarily. I don’t think the approach to a feature should change. The audience for film will remain in the same way that sometimes we want to enjoy a short story as opposed to wanting to read say, Anna Karenina (1873-77) cover to cover. The same rule applies – choose the format that is best suited to telling a particular story. For example, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell has existed twice as a film script, and quite rightly it was judged not to be the best way of telling this particular story.

Is each project a unique encounter with character and the people you collaborate with that deepens the affection for your work?

Every project is unique and that’s the best bit about the job – it is always completely different and it is that thing of everyday being a school day. Doing the same thing week in and week out would drive me absolutely crazy. The start of every project is uniquely exciting, and each one has its own character and requires adapting to the needs of that particular project and to the culture of the people you are working with; whether it is only their approach to the work. So it is always thrilling, and even on a job you don’t enjoy so much I kind of remind myself that I have an opportunity to learn something from it; to take something away from it or to make it as good as I possibly can. But each job always has its own challenges.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is available from RLJ Entertainment.

Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering MythStarburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.

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