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HBO's Rome - Kevin McKidd interview

Kevin McKidd in HBO's Rome

Compiled by Jack Foley

WE TALK to Kevin McKidd, who stars in Rome – released on Blu-ray by HBO and out now – about the last years of Julius Caesar’s reign, playing soldier Lucius Vorenus. He talks about some of the physical demands of the role, finding his character and coping with learning an American and English accent…

Q: How did you deal with being away from home for such a long period of time, making Rome?
Kevin McKidd: You just deal with it, I’ve got a wife and two young children who are not in school yet, so I was lucky that they could come out with me for big chunks of time. And I commuted a lot, I was in those Friday and Sunday night planes. It’s only a two and a half hour flight so it’s doable, it’s not a nightmare, but there were times when you started to crave, I remember I’d crave a bacon butty, a good cup of tea; all those things that you take for granted in Britain. You start to crave for eggs and chips. But then when you leave Italy you realise: “God, man, this was great, how I could ever complain?”

Q: Wasn’t there a hiatus at some point and why was that?
Kevin McKidd: I think what happened was that the Bulgarian set became flooded, so we couldn’t use them so we had to take a break anyway. HBO took the opportunity and looked at the material and decided that they needed to pump more money into it to fully realize the show as it stands at the moment. The sets were too clean, pristine… we wanted it to be much more broken down, much more colourful, much more like an Indian market. I think they put 15 million more after that. We ended up relocating all those exterior locations in Bulgaria back to Rome, we just found locations that were similar to Bulgaria locations.

Q: How much blue screen was there?
Kevin McKidd: About 90% what you see is really built. It’s a five kilometre set in the radius, which is massive. Beyond that there would be blue screens put up, so just only when your eye sees a temple in a very far distance or a hill, only at that point it becomes CGI.

Q: Were you ever able to get so immersed to it that you felt that you really were in ancient Rome?
Kevin McKidd: I’m not Daniel Day-Lewis [laughs] but there were moments, especially the night shoots, in that set when you get the flames going and all these people on the streets at night, I really became so immersed, and between action and cut a few times in a very intense scene, there were moments when you get goose flesh, “wow, we’re actually here” or maybe it was just sleep deprivation, I don’t know [laughs].

Q: How did you start to build your character?
Kevin McKidd: The obvious place to start was the army training, and the guy called Billy Budd who’s become a good friend, he fought in the marines, and I worked with him in Kingdom of Heaven so I knew him a little bit, and we did so much work with him. Not just about the baring of a soldier and the way to present yourself, the way to march, but also for me, because Vorenus is a leader of men, and he taught me the techniques and there’s a very specific technique to win the hearts and minds of your men, to make them fight to the death for you and for each other. It’s about public speaking, honour, chivalry, care for your men, you become their father, so I was just sucking everything in as much as I could. Vorenus is nothing but that and his struggle is to come to terms with his family and civilian life, so I needed to get the army bit right.

Q: Do you think you could’ve made a good soldier?
Kevin McKidd: [Laughs] No, no-no,-no, I couldn’t do it for real. No way.

Q: The class structure was very strong in Rome as it is in Britain, can you talk about it in your own life?
Kevin McKidd: My family is very much a working class background, I’m from a small town in the Highlands of Scotland. My parents were in the service industry, my father was a plumber and my mother worked in a secretarial office. I grew up very unaware of class because I was very removed from anywhere [laughs] that people of class would live [laughs hard]. Only when I moved to London I started to learn about all that stuff. It’s a very sophisticated system of class in Britain, there are certain rules that you have to follow, and I think it exists here (in the States), people say this is a classless society but I don’t believe that to be true. It’s a different class system, I haven’t quite worked it out yet because I haven’t been here for very long but you definitely get a sense that there are rules that should be abided in this country.

Rome

In ancient Rome it was so obvious that you were either hugely wealthy or ridiculously poor. Lucius Vorenus is very much me, a working class man, who because he has this deep sense of honour and the old ways he believes in, Caesar and Marc Anthony realise that they need this guy so they slowly corrupt him with money and power. During this process his family becomes nouveau riche.

Q: Are you a strict father?
Kevin McKidd: Not as strict as Vorenus [laughs], I tell you that. It’s funny, Billy Budd said to me when I was having problems with them: “All you have to say to them is: You’re the one who controls the volume of my voice.” [Laughs] That’s what Billy would say to his troops.

Q: Do you think it makes history more accessible when you see that the crumbling of a republic can start from a bar fight?
Kevin McKidd: Yes, I think so, that’s the Cain of conceit of it. Very much the Vorenus character I play and Pullo are the eyes of the audience, they’re kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Another analogy you could put it’s almost a Forrest Gump syndrome going on; these guys don’t only watch a present big historical events, they seem to take a hand and influence the course of the events. That’s the trick and the hook we’re trying to do, that’s more of the entertainment side, hopefully people will talk about it by the coffee machine the next day.

Q: What other parallels can you draw from Rome to today’s world?
Kevin McKidd: If you look at this moment in history, it’s about this emperor who is spreading his wings, changing and becoming all powerful. The corruption at home seems to be getting worse and worse while people are away fighting other battles, so I guess there are direct parallels with today.

Q: Was the costume difficult to wear?
Kevin McKidd: You got used to them. Initially you are like: “I can’t believe I have to wear this for 14 months, I have to be wheeled around on a wheel chair with it!” But very quickly your muscles adapt, you become incredibly fit actually because I spent a lot of time on horses, there’s a lot of horse back and stuff. Sometimes you spend 12 hours on horseback with 7 extra pounds of weight around you. So, I became very physically fit.

Q: What inspired you, what movies did you watch?
Kevin McKidd: I watched I, Claudius when I was a kid and it made a big impression on me. I bought the DVD set, and as I was putting it in the machine I took out again, I didn’t watch it because, you know, when you watch something as a kid and you’re impressed and then you watch it again and you see the flaky sets and the broom coming in and stuff and you go: “Oh, man, it’s not as good as it was!” So I used my memory of it. In hindsight, I used it as a inspiration and also one of the other inspirations for the show is Upstairs, Downstairs, the famous British TV show about a Victorian house with the aristocrats living upstairs and all the servants downstairs, and it constantly jumped between the two.

Q: You had to do some hard things when you were doing Rome. What were some of the examples, like one of the physically hardest things that you had to do?
Kevin McKidd: It’s funny, because we did a scene [in Journeyman] where I had a bloody nose and it was a tiny thing. And the make-up artist was like: “Sorry we have to do this.” And I was like: “Listen, I’ve been drenched in blood for the last two years, so it’s no big deal.” On Rome, we had so many hard days. I think one of the hardest sequences we shot was one gladiator fight, that was really very hard, but fun. You get to play out your boyhood fantasies being a gladiator.

Q: One of the rumours that’s starting, that they want you to play Thor in a big-screen movie based on the comic-book hero. How true are those reports, and how interested would you be if it is true?
Kevin McKidd: It’s semi-true, although I didn’t know it either until I heard the rumour. They called me and went: “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” But he wasn’t talking about it. I think the last I heard from my agent, they were talking about it, and they wanted to go with somebody much younger – a 19-, 20-year-old for that role. So they’re reconceptualising it as we speak, although I think maybe that I’m in consideration for it. But that certainly doesn’t mean that I’m in the bag or anything. To be honest, until I’ve seen a script, I don’t even know, and I haven’t seen a script. It’s all still just information to me. It could be fun, but it just depends on what’s on the page. I think it all starts and finishes with the quality of the script.

Q: Most of the British and Australian actors on US shows this year are speaking in American accents, including you. Was there any consideration about you using your native tongue, so to speak?
Kevin McKidd: Yeah. [Switches to a thick Scottish accent]. The way I see it – [switches back to a milder version, the one he’s been using during the interview] mean, I don’t know. I mean, I’m not a writer or whatever. But it’s just – it’s another hurdle you have to jump over to explain why would this guy be in San Francisco and be a Scottish reporter. You know what I mean? It’s another big hurdle you have to jump over.

Q: You must have been quite young when you had to learn the English accent compared to the Scottish accent. How old were you when you had to learn that, and is it difficult to go from Scottish to English?
Kevin McKidd: Yeah. Actually, no, no, it’s not. I mean, my indigenous accent from where I’m from, if you’re even at all interested, is completely impenetrable. And, you know, I don’t understand it anymore. Honestly, I mean, it’s a beautiful accent, but it starts [switches back to a thick Scottish accent] pretty much indecipherable, [then switches back again]. I went to drama school in Edinburgh, and they said: “You know, you’re never going to work with a voice like that…” Because there’s very few dramas being made about the upper regions of the Highlands in Scotland. [Laughs]

I had to kind of develop a generic – the voice I have essentially is a very middle-class kind of neutral Scottish accent, and I’m glad the lady at the left likes it. But then, to step into the American dialect is a hard one, but it just takes work and perseverance. It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed. I just see that as part of the transformation, and it’s deeply satisfying when you get it right, and it’s tough to get it right, and hopefully I can.

Read our preview of HBO’s Rome

Rome: The Complete Series is released on Blu-ray on Monday, November 16, 2009.