Britannia’s David Morrissey on Roman history, his love for The Walking Dead set and more

BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 07: Actor David Morrissey poses at a portrait session during the 2nd International TV Series Festival at Lux 11 on June 7, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 07: Actor David Morrissey poses at a portrait session during the 2nd International TV Series Festival at Lux 11 on June 7, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sebastian Reuter/Getty Images) /

David Morrissey chats with Culturess about Britannia season 2, hanging out at Cannes, gardening during the COVID crisis, and more.

Season one of EPIX’s Britannia brought the Roman army to the shores of a fractured Great Britain in 43 AD, ruled by rival Celtic tribes. Leading the Roman invasion is General Aulus Plautius, who knows it’s not enough to just conquer their lands: he needs to decipher their Druid mysticism, with the intention of dismantling it, in order to truly rule the people.

Aulus Plautius was a larger-than-life character throughout history. He was only second in importance to the Roman emperor, giving Emperor Claudius his most important victory. Bringing this titan of a character to life is celebrated actor David Morrissey (The Walking Dead), who spoke with Culturess in advance of the season 2 premiere.

Culturess: Aulus Plautius was a hugely historical figure and he had a momentous triumph alongside Emperor Claudius. How much history did you bring to the role?

David Morrissey:  What I love to do is lots of research… It’s a period I love anyway. I’ve read lots of Roman history. [Aulus Plautius is] a real character and we know a little bit about him. Claudius obviously we know a lot about, so we know a lot about that time.

Cicero’s writing is quite informative for all of us… [Jezz Butterworth, series creator] likes to take that factual stuff, and use it as a springboard into something that is quite multi-layered in writing. I think the language is quite modern, and the relationships are quite modern… There are factual people in this drama, it’s very much written of its time. I think he brings a real modern spin to it. I see it as a period piece that as a real modern sensibility to it, certainly in his language and its relationships. And the bottom line of it is, it’s just great fun, I think.

Culturess: In the first season, there’s this amazing line at the outset of the show that really sets the tone, “I am Rome, and where I walk is Rome.” Did you realize the weight of those words when you were on set? What was that like?

Morrissey: That was my first day. It was a night shoot when I got there. They’d been shooting for about six weeks before I got there. They’d been doing a lot of the Druid stuff.

This was the first Roman stuff. I got there, that’s when I saw all the sets, and I thought it was amazing. It was a big, big scene. And when I read it, I thought, ‘Okay, I understand what this is.’

But then when I go on to the set, and I saw that multi-camera had three cameras, cranes, we have fires going off. We have me walking in with the SPQR banner, you know, I had to sort of plunk it into the ground. And so I thought, ‘this scene, this is it. I can see this scene.’ I hadn’t really pictured it the way that it was.

But when I got there: my soul, the majesty of it, the scale, all the extras, seeing this ceremony before the Romans interrupt, and the cameras, and our feet marching, and the amount of soldiers I had, then I suddenly went, ‘Ah, this is the scene.’ A real marquee introduction, and then I got it, and it was great. I loved it. It is a bit of a motif and it sort of gave me this little jumping-off point into the character.

And also from the research I did, that’s what the Romans did: they very much went into lands they conquered, but also what they did was they would turn to the populace and say, ‘Look, just carry on the way you are, but you’re Roman now. And you know you can carry on worshipping whatever gods you want to or do, but you are Roman now.’ And then they will slowly, slowly start to ingratiate themselves into the society where the society suddenly became, you know, dependent on what Rome built. The sort of infrastructure: the laws, everything about it was a slow conquering of what they did. They went all over that part of the world.

Culturess: I loved your chemistry with Kelly Reilly’s character Kerra in the first season of Britannia. I was surprised by the twist ending where you killed her. How much ahead of time did you know about that?

Morrissey: I was given a season of 10 episodes, I have five full scripts. I had the breakdowns for the next five… I knew where we were going. Kelly and I certainly knew where we were going. But also, I have to say that I’ve worked on shows where I’ve known where I’m going, and then suddenly it changes. You know, I sort of knew it, but I didn’t know. I certainly didn’t know how it happened, I didn’t know the extent of what went on and stuff like that. So, but it was good to have some sort of idea.

In the second season, I knew less. On the third season, I know more.

So these things change, you know they do. Sometimes the writers don’t want to [tell you]. Like on The Walking Dead, it was episode by episode, we didn’t really know where we were going in a season. The writers did. But that’s what I like about that. I mean, it can be very frustrating but also, that’s like life, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow so why should I know what’s happening in my next episode?

Culturess: How lucky do you feel that you don’t have to do so much makeup like Mackenzie Crook [who plays dual brothers in the Druid faith]?

Morrissey: Oh, it’s so great. I’ll be with Mackenzie. We’ll be at the bar having something to eat and it’ll be like seven in the evening, and he’ll say to me, ‘I’ve got to go to bed cause I’m up in two hours.’ And I’m like, ‘oh my god.’ His makeup takes hours and he’s so brilliant, he just was such a professional, he goes, he sits there with his iPod on, puts his phone on, and just listens to music and stuff.

And the way they do his makeup is phenomenal, because he has these tattoos, but they’re under his skin so they have to put them on and then layer him under this special sort of latex skin that goes over his own skin. And he’s got his shaved head and he’s growing his nails, and then I walk on. I’m in makeup for five minutes, and they ruffle my hair, and put a bit of dirt on me, and then that’s it. So I feel very privileged about that.

Culturess: You were such a fundamental part of The Walking Dead. Will you be watching the last season of the series? Do you keep up with where the show is now?

Morrissey: I will. I don’t keep up as much as I did, just because of life, really, but when I left I watched it for a bit. And now I dip in and out of it. Just to see my friends, really, and see how you know, people like Norman [Reedus], Melissa [McBride], and Jeffrey Dean [Morgan] are getting on, but I will be watching it. And gosh, I’ll be thinking of my friends who put on that show behind the camera, for 10, 11 years.

The great thing for me about being down there in Georgia and Senoia [Georgia], where we filmed it, I came away with great, great friendships, both in content and behind the camera. It was a show that I love doing so much more because of the way it was organized, the way it was put together, the way it was produced, the care and attention that people give to it, you know. It’s a benchmark show for me about how you can run a show of that scale and still stay human and polite and kind and caring for the people around you, which is what they do down there. It was one of the most important experiences for me as a person, never mind being an actor.

Culturess: Sure. Now you have a new podcast, interviewing actors and their great roles, called Who Am I This Time? I love the concept of this. Who have you enjoyed having on your podcast most?

Morrissey: I loved them all, but somebody like Derek Jacobi. He’s a person who I’ve been watching all my life and admired all my life. And he did I, Claudius and here we are on our Roman scene [in Britannia]. And that was one of the pieces of television that made me want to be an actor.

So to get a chance to sit down with Derek, to talk about how [he] made it, what it was like for him, how it changed his life. The anecdotes he gives me, but also the experience that he tells other people about what acting was like in those days.

Modern actors, god, we moan about certain things and when you hear actors like him talk about what it was like in the old days, you’re like, ‘oh my goodness.’ He filmed something like I, Claudius over two days. You really just couldn’t do that now. That means that they are theater actors who have learned their lines, they know what they’re doing. They have nuance, they have a real sort of intelligence behind their performances. So, a wonderful chance to get to talk to him.

Culturess: And who do you want to interview who you haven’t been able to line up yet?

Morrissey: I think, for me, it would be somebody like Ian McKellan, I’d love to talk to. I’d also love to talk to people like Helen Mirren… People who have that type of experience that can tell me. Anthony Hopkins illuminates us as a modern generation—a younger generation—what it was like for them, to go through it because I think we forget about there are people that went before us. And I think there are lots of people who I really have on the list that I’d really like to talk to.

At the moment I’m working with Sophie Okonedo [on S3 of Britannia, currently filming], who I adore and I’ve tried to persuade her. She’s very shy, I’m trying to get her to sort of open up to me.

Culturess: Britannia features songs from Scottish musical legend Donovan, with “Hurly Gurdy Man” played in the first season title sequence, and “Season of the Witch” plays over the second season 1. It’s not really what you would expect with such a historical show. What did you think of this type of psychedelic British music permeating this old-world landscape?

Morrissey: I love it. I went to Cannes, to open up the show at the television festival there, a couple of years ago. It was myself and Donovan, we were on the red carpet. And there I was with Donovan, talking to him about Dylan, about the 60s, about Crosby, Stills and Nash, and James Taylor, and Cream, and just having this conversation with him about all the bands and musicians that I adored, and he was so wonderful.

So, I think it does add to the psychedelic strange world that Jez and the writers are trying to create… You see people like Genesis and Peter Gabriel: they’re embracing that sense of what went before, that Druid-like experience. They are very much of the soil and I love that that comes through.

Culturess: Last question: How have you been dealing with COVID times? Have you discovered a new game, taken up a new language? What have you been doing during quarantine?

Morrissey: Well, I’ve been cooking a lot, and I’m very lucky that I have a garden. I’ve been cooking and gardening. But also, I live with my son, who’s 25. And I realized that I’m very lucky. I’m in a very lucky position, I’m not someone who has to homeschool my children, and I’m living in a place that has some outside space. So I am lucky, but also I know I’m lucky because I’m having a very concentrated time with him. Watching movies, cooking, talking, reading. And I know that I wouldn’t have that time without COVID, and you know he would be off doing his thing.

So, although it is a terrible time for many, many people, and a scary time, both from a health point of view and a financial point of view. For me, I’ve been able to look at it slightly positively and think this has given me some connection with my son that I wouldn’t necessarily have. But that’s not to undermine what it’s been like from everybody across the world. How frightening it is for us all, from a societal point of view, and also from a financial point of view, how we can keep going when we need to. We need to be able to support each other in this really, really challenging global time, I think.

Culturess: Absolutely. And homeschooling is a real nightmare so you’re lucky you don’t have to. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. [laughs] I can’t wait to hear more about season three [of Britannia].

Morrissey: Season three is just fantastic so I’m looking forward to seeing it.

EPIX’s Britannia is the show you are missing in your life. dark. Next

Season two of Britannia premieres on EPIX on Sunday, October 4. Season three is currently filming. How excited are you for the upcoming season?