Kieran Bew talks about starring in the epic new series Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands which can be seen Sunday evenings at 7pm on itv.
How did the role of Beowulf come about?
I was really excited when I got the script. I learned it over two days, taped it and sent in a couple of scenes for the casting director and executive producers to view. I had a recall, then a meeting. I went to ITV for a chat with all of the executives and they offered me the job about an hour later. I was at my agent’s office when the call came in and they told me. I was thrilled. All of that happened in less than two weeks.
What about filming in the north east of England?
As a local lad from Hartlepool it was a huge bonus that Beowulf was filming in the north east. I’ve only ever worked in the region once since I left which was for an episode of George Gently a few years ago. London is where all the castings happen and you have to be there. It’s tough getting back home because either I’m auditioning, rehearsing, filming or doing a tour somewhere. So to be able to come and work back in the north east and be based in Newcastle is amazing. It’s half an hour from the main exterior location to my parents and my grandad. I didn’t have a huge amount of time off but I managed to get a couple of Sunday dinners with my mam.
Did you know much about Beowulf before this drama?
I did. About 10 years ago, in between acting jobs, I gave myself a pet project to try and write something about the Norman Conquest. Then I started looking further back to the Vikings’ conquest and looked at all the sagas and Icelandic poetry which led me to Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon Britain. It’s a brutal time and the stories are so rich and dark. I’d read the Seamus Heaney translation of the Beowulf poem and recently looked at the Tolkien one as well. So that was really lucky. ITV had no idea I’d already done all that research and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve actually named my cats after characters from the era.’ One cat was called Tostig, after Tostig Godwinson the Anglo-Saxon Earl of Northumbria, and my other cat was called Saga. I became obsessed with Nordic gods and all the rest of it because they’re just great stories. It’s part of our history as Britons. The Beowulf poem itself spawned The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings . And for us in our world, there is so much room to grow and fill with all these great ideas from brilliant writers. It’s really exciting.
Who is Beowulf?
Beowulf was banished from the town of Herot as a young boy and has since been roaming around, living various different lives. When we first meet him in this story he is returning to Herot, having been away and alone for some time. He’s had a prehy difficult life, as most people have in this tough landscape. Beowulf has spent a lot of time protecting himself and protecting those around him. He is deliberately keeping himself a loner. He’s enigmatic with quite a few secrets. An honourable man and pragmatic. He doesn’t dwell on things. In the poem he’s very decisive and front-footed and he’s the same in our drama. I don’t want to give too much away about what’s going on underneath it all but he is complicated and conflicted. Now he’s returned there is unfinished business to deal with. You will see all the different facets of who he is. Beowulf is a tough warrior but it’s not as simple as you think. He’s a human being and has reasons for doing everything he does. What the writer James Dormer has created really well is a world where characters do display good and bad ahributes. You’re living in a town where outside the borders there are very scary, dangerous creatures. It makes people paranoid, brittle and reactionary because they’re defensive and have been hardened by it. There are times when Beowulf wants to do the right thing but has to make decisions he doesn’t want to make because of the circumstances he’s put himself in. This is a fantasy show but it’s based in some historical fact. During the period of time in the poem of the Dark Ages certain pockets of Britain had lost the knowledge the Romans had brought. People found swords in the ground which were of a better metal and better forged than anything they could produce and so these were magic weapons. The poem is full of magical fantasy which is actually based on historical fact. But this is a human world and I think everyone will identify with various elements of it.
What was your initial reaction to the main filming location?
The first time I went high into the quarry where they built the sets for the town of Herot , the thing that struck me more than anything was how ominous the place seemed. It was very wet and there was a deep, thick cloud hanging over the entire set. Our Mead Hall was sticking out of the top of this cloud and looked like something that had been there for hundreds of years. It’s just an hour outside Newcastle in County Durham and Weardale but it’s like another world. It’s the biggest set I’ve ever been on. Quite incredible. Because of the particular position of the quarry, the wind rushes in. The climate essentially changes every half an hour. I can’t quite believe that it was constructed through the winter. They all deserve medals for enduring that. It was brutal when we got there as a cast in March by which time all of that stuff had been constructed by quite a small team of builders in the harshest of conditions. There’s no GGI. It all physically exists. You really feel as if you could be back in the Dark Ages up there. You quickly realise that if you don’t have access to electricity or hot running water then you have to stay prehy wrapped up all the time. In the first couple of months the cast and crew had nowhere to hide from the elements. Everybody was discovering just how good their thermals and jackets were. It definitely helped us really think about the brutality of living in a period of time where there were none of our modern creature comforts. Because we simply didn’t have any. We all had to huddle together. All of which was helpful in terms of transporting us back to a different time. My parents have been up to the quarry and my brother and some of my nieces came up and tried on some of the armour and costumes. It was prehy special for my family to see it and understand why they can never get me on the phone. It’s like a Beowulf black hole because there’s no phone reception in the quarry, the forests and the beaches we’ve been filming on.
You have some experience in fencing?
I’ve been sword fighting for a long time. I began fencing at the age of nine. I’d been fascinated by that scene in The Three Musketeers where Oliver Reed gets his cloak stuck in the water wheel. My dad said, ‘If you’re going to do something, do it right.’ My family were all sports people, all swimmers. So even then at that age I’d already been training every night and swimming competively. Then when I went fencing I just loved it. By the time I was 14 I was on the British squad. Which is quite strange for a lad from Hartlepool . It’s normally a sport people do in private education. But I was lucky. Between then and leaving to go to drama school I went around Europe every year: Switzerland, France, Germany, Hungary and Sicily. I was placed 21st at the World Championships, which I wasn’t happy with. I’d come third in the last international I’d been in and I was like, ‘21st is not good enough.’ I look back now and think that’s great. But at the time you’re fiercely competitive.