This week sees the release of Outlaw King, Netflix’s new historical epic. Directed by David Mackenzie, it’s a brutal, thrilling actioner that tells the untold, true story of Robert the Bruce, who transforms from defeated nobleman to outlaw hero during the oppressive occupation of medieval Scotland by Edward I of England. Despite grave consequences, Robert seizes the Scottish crown and rallies an impassioned group of men to fight back against the mighty army of the tyrannical King and his volatile son, the Prince of Wales. (Read our review here.)
Filmed in the middle of Scotland’s muddy, windy and rainy elements, the film stars Chris Pine as Robert, with a host of star names alongside him, including Florence Pugh as his wife, Elizabeth, Billy Howle as the violent Prince of Wales, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Douglas. One of the few Scottish members of the cast is Tony Curran, who plays the loyal ally Angus MacDonald. No stranger to Netflix, with a CV that includes Voltron: Legendary Defender and award-winning indie thriller Calibre, Curran sits down with us to talk about Outlaw King, history and becoming the poster boy for Netflix.
When we chat, it’s the morning after the London Film Festival, when a recut version of the movie has premiered, following a lengthier, original cut at the Toronto International Film Festival.
What did you make of the film’s new cut?
It changed a little bit from TIFF, there were some tweaks here or there, which I think really helped. I think it’s much more powerful, the story zips along now much quicker and it’s got much more of an immediacy to it. And I think a lot of the time some of the festivals you’re invited to – I mean, Inglorious Basterds did that, there was lots of tweaking – and you think the film’s finished, but it’s just part of the process, you know. I think last night was very powerful. I think it’ll go down well in Scotland and on Netflix too, hopefully!
Did any of your scenes get trimmed?
(Laughs) Everybody’s scenes got trimmed! A little bit of everything. Because David shot so much footage, many, many hours of footage and at the end of the day, it’s all about the story, the energy of the story, and you wanna keep the urgency of the situation of how this king, this would-be king, is on his knees right at the very beginning… I think he’s done an amazing job, you know?
Growing up in Scotland, was Robert the Bruce’s story taught in schools much? Are you familiar with the history?
It’s interesting, because me and Billy Howle, we were doing a Q&A together and a lot of history in Scottish schools on the curricuum, you know, they don’t teach a lot of one’s own history – you have to unearth it yourself. Even the history books of England, or some English history, I don’t think they teach whether Edward was the victim or the victimiser – it’s not a Scotland/England sort of thing, I think there are universal themes that go far beyond that. At the time, The Bruce and Edward I, these men were like brothers, they were on the Crusades together, so they were still sort of in bed with each other, if you will. We talked about that and how sometimes a lot of history, very important, pertinent history, isn’t readily available, which is sort of incredible, whether the history is being an oppressed nation or being the oppressor, whatever it may be. I think it should all be available in any cultured society: what we do to each other, what the agenda is politically. Of course, we talked about how the history books are written by the powerful, you know, and they put their own propaganda slant on it, you know, so a lot of time, the Prince of Wales, he was disliked by many of his peers, he was frowned upon from his father’s perspective. But since working on this film, I think everyone who’s been a part of it, they knew who Robert the Bruce is, he’s on the £20 note, he was an iconic king of Scotland, a heroic figure, but how did he become this man? Who was he? I think what’s important David touches on is how he achieved his goals. I think people in Scotland, England, hopefully globally, people will relate to things that are not just about Scotland, but are universal themes.
You’re one of the only Scots in the cast – what was it like with everyone else learning to do Scottish accents?
Yeah, there’s also Jimmy Cosmo, he’s a bit more of a cameo, I suppose. We had a dialogue coach, Barbara, but it’s not an easy accent! It’s quite specific! I think Aaron and Chris really worked their backsides off on. I was talking to Callan [Mulvey] who plays John Comyn and he was sitting outside when we had rehearsals – it was very essential, a luxury you could say – and I was like ‘Who is this guy? Is he Australian?’ Then we went into the rehearsal room and he starts talking in this Scottish accent and he’s nailing it, and I find out his dad is from Glasgow! But I think everyone did a very good job on that front – you forget, you know, there’s an accent, then there’s being a character. If you’re concentrating on that, then we’ve not gripped you. If you can get over that and focus on the story, instead of being the Scottish accent police! (Laughs) Hopefully, people will immerse themselves in it!
What was the shoot like? It looks… arduous. In a good way.
Arduous, I like that word! (Laughs) Well, at the beginning, we did the boot camp, and that was great to have weapons training, dialect class, horse training, stunt rehearsals… There was a scene with Bruce on the beach and the sun was going down and it’s the coldest it’s been and he’s a boy from Berkeley and I’m a Glaswegian, but I live in California… it was pretty brutal! But we’re fortunate enough to get these roles and we didn’t think it was gonna be any other way, you know. David was like ‘This is gonna be physically and mentally challenging’ and you’re on set all the time, you’re outside a lot, you’re not going to be popping back to your trailer. A lot of the food on the set was a roaming lunch, we were in it, you know. But the brutality meant a sort of intensity, the elements were a huge part of it – it wasn’t that difficult to get into character, if I can put it that way! There’s Glen Coe, it’s 1305, you know!
It’s epic, but manages to be intimate – how much does that come across in David Mackenzie’s direction?
The way he works is very free, you know. Sometimes, he wouldn’t say ‘Cut!’, you’d still be Angus or Bruce or whatever, you’re not expecting the director to say cut, so you’re still in it, so you’re still being who your character is, you’re not waiting for an end mark, because David would find these little nuances and bits of magic when people stayed in it. It’s a sweeping, sort of, epic, but there are moments of tenderness. There are moments of levity and of the romantic – I think it’s a very beautiful relationship that Chris and Florence have, you know, it’s essential, but it’s loving and compassionate and sexy and playful, and it’s nice to have that within the stop-chopping-heads-off brutality. In Canada, they started to bring up the fact that Chris showed his junk. But nobody was asing him about it here, which was kind of refreshing. Chris was like ‘I don’t know whether there’s a Google Alert when someone shows their junk…’ but when you’ve got people getting dismemebered, all you can focus on is tits and ass?
You were also in Calibre earlier this year, which Netflix snapped up…
And Stephen King likes it! A tweet and you’re off and running, you know? It’s great! Someone joked last night that I’m the Netlflix poster boy, and I was like ‘Oh, that’s very funny, thank you’. But it’s actually been quite refreshing to do a Scottish accent for once, you know! I haven’t been using my own accent recently, which is quite fun.
You have done Voltron: Legendary Defender for Netflix too – was that your first animated voiceover gig?
No, I’ve done some stuff before for games, like Call of Duty – you know, that little behemoth of a video game. Who doesn’t want to do that? It’s so much fun, you walk in, you’ve got a face for radio! (Laughs) There’s no make-up, there’s no mud, there’s no cold, there’s coffee, there’s tea… I love doing voice work like that and characters like that, it’s a lot of fun!
Do you watch much on Netflix? What’s on your watchlist?
I do, yeah! I’m watching The Vietnam War right now, and it’s the most stunning documentary I’ve ever seen. And have you seen Searching for Sugar Man? I only saw it recently and it was quite moving. Rodriguez, man, what a humble, humble man! And Ozark, a bit of Ozark…
And what are you up to now?
I’m shooting Deadwood right now in California, and it was one of these jobs set in 1889, coming into Victorian period, but the style is cowboyish, so I did, sort of, a deep accent, and the casting director knew me, she said ‘Maybe you should do your own accent’, which is what I ended up doing, and that’s what they liked. So the Scottish Renaissance is happening!
Outlaw King is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.