There was Camelot and King Arthur, and the return of Mulan and Ruby (Little Red Riding Hood for those not in the know), but in this first half of the fifth season of "Once Upon a Time," the only character to give Merida a run for her money as most anticipated would be Merlin.
From the moment he was first mentioned by the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Oncers were looking forward to meeting the wise sage and the all-powerful creator of Excalibur. He was all of that and a bit more as "Once" creators Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis pulled a casting coup with Elliot Knight.
Knight's Merlin was black, had no long white beard or pointy hat, gained his powers through drinking from the cup of Christ, was trapped in a tree for many episodes and even created Excalibur using the cup and the flame of Prometheus (first fire of man). It was definitely a different version of Merlin than many envisioned.
As the midseason finale nears, we caught up with the 25-year-old, best known for playing Sinbad in the self-titled U.K. series, and asked him about his experience on the show, how he approached playing such an iconic character, and what he thought the ultimate fate of the magician would be (though we all know now -- or we think we know). We kept it spoiler-free, DVR squad.
What did you think about the premise of "Once Upon a Time?"
I think it's great. I hadn't seen the show before I was going to be involved with it, so it was a whole new thing to me. I got to watch everything in its entirety from the very beginning to the end -- all in one chunk -- so I got to follow the journey straight through in one ride. I was quite fortunate to be able to do that -- thanks to Netflix. I really liked it. I love the scenes that show power and hope, and just the actuality of grown adults and people that are so engaged with their imagination in such a creative way that they can create a show that appeals to people around the world. So I was very excited to get to be a part of that.
And you got to play Merlin, a role steeped in mythology and previous portrayals. How did you approach that?
I suppose I tried to do a similar thing to what I admired about the show. I saw adults connecting again with their child-like imagination and the wonders that come with that territory, so I wanted to reconnect with my own again. I went back and watched the version of Merlin that I loved when I was a kid, and I remember being excited, and the elements that I really enjoyed and what captured me. It's not even that I tried to re-create that, I just tried to remember it in myself. I was approaching this character like any other, because even though this is a world where all of the characters are in this fantastic, magical -- to a degree -- unrealistic setting, it still doesn't change the fact that you approach them with a complete sense of realism and their human nature. So it's wonderful to be able to connect with that on a human level but also have this wondrous section where anything can happen.
It was a case of me not overthinking too much, and not trying too hard. That can get in the way, especially with a role that is already so famous and has already been laid down strongly for so many years. It was my job that I brought an appropriate energy and life to this character in this world and make him relevant for the characters that already exist.
With your research, did you have any pre-conceived notions of the role and what to expect? And did that change a lot?
Honestly, I didn't know what to expect. I only knew what was laid out to me when I first met [Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis]. They briefly explained what was happening with Emma and her struggle with the darkness. They wanted this character Merlin to come in and play a big part in her journey, and obviously I'm familiar with Merlin. Honestly, I didn't know what to expect. From watching, the more I saw of it and thought I knew what was happening, the more I was surprised because it went in a completely different direction than I expected. There's always so much to wrap your head around when you're trying to understand the work and portray it in a way that other people can understand. There's not even room left for you to try to figure out what might happen or what are the future possibilities. I just concentrated on whatever they gave me.
Then how did you craft the role of Merlin to fit the interpretation?
The one thing that I discussed with the boys is that they liked for Merlin to have a lighter nature to him -- a less intense energy to him. Not that it's going to be easy with the stakes set so high, but you know he's going to play an important part in the journey of Emma and the darkness. It was nice to be able to introduce him to the story, and he's not an old man. He's youthful and in good spirits. I'm not going to act like an old man; that's not who Merlin is. I think people get confused about who Merlin is. It's not his age that makes him, it's wisdom, and wisdom is not necessarily linked to age. Definitely not in the same way in the world of "Once Upon a Time." Even though you can have a youthful energy, it doesn't mean that you can't know a lot and bring a lot to the situation. I think that my casting alone is a perfect example that nothing has to be a certain way.
What would you have liked to have had happen to Merlin in this world?
I really like how Merlin had developed this relationship with Emma that's more than just him being called when she needs him. It's becoming almost like a friendship in a sense. There's a bond between the two that perhaps Emma can't really explain, but there's definitely a link between the two of them. There even seems to be similar ties between her romance with Hook and Merlin's romance with Nimue. They'v both been in similar situations. I like the fact that a bond has been created between the two and I think it would be nice to see that bond expanded and maybe placed with other members in that world. I would like that, but I feel happy about how well it's been received and I'm really happy with the direction that it's gone -- letting Merlin be a light, bright energy in this world. That was my goal coming into this was to portray the character in that way.
Did this role affect you in terms of your craft?
It definitely has brought its own set of challenges that I've not had before. In the past, I've been lucky enough to have a nice, different range of characters to play in my career already, but I really enjoyed this one. It's nice to be able to play someone that has so much wisdom. That's not really something that I've got to portray before -- I'm more at the opposite end there. The new kid who's wild or very fresh and doesn't really know what's happening. Even the character is coming in fresh to the show, he comes in with all of this wisdom that extends the knowledge of everyone else that's on the show -- of any of the characters in any of the realms, whether we've met them or not. Merlin is old as magic; he's older than magic. He goes beyond that. It's almost like being the father of this universe. That's the polar opposite of any other character I've had to play before. That's been a really fun dynamic to play with.
Is there anything you have coming up?
Well, I'm going home to England for Christmas, then back out to L.A. I have a movie called "Take Down" coming out next year that I shot last summer. That was very fun, and again, a very different character than Merlin. I don't think I'll ever get to play a character like Merlin again, to be honest. I'd love to, but those opportunities are so rare. I had a lot of fun doing this.