Between Barack Obama and King Arthur, it’s clear that Devon Terrell doesn’t mind taking on roles that come with a lot of expectations. After his breakout role in the 2016 Obama biopic Barry, Terrell is poised to reach bigger audiences than ever in Netflix’s new fantasy drama Cursed. A retelling of Arthurian Legend based on Frank Miller and Tom Wheeler‘s comic of the same name, the series puts the mythic figure of Nimue (Katherine Langford), aka the Lady of the Lake, at the center of the story long before the sword in the stone or the Knights of the Round Table.
What does that mean for Terrell’s Arthur? Well, he’s a bit lost, a bit self-centered, and, as Nimue calls him in the first season, “a bit treacherous”. A mercenary with a dark, secretive past and a lot less secret ambition, Terrell’s Arthur brings a new take to a very familiar character, in the days before many of his legends begin.
With Cursed landing on Netflix this week, Terrell sat down with Collider to discuss reinterpreting such an iconic character, why he was attracted to the empowering reimagining of King Arthur’s story and why legends should belong to everyone, and developing Arthur and Nimue’s relationship with his co-star and longtime friend Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why).
We tend to think of Arthur as “The Once and Future King,” this great leader who unites a wild land. But that is not the Arthur we meet here, who is a mercenary and I believe Nimue calls him “a bit treacherous.” How was this version pitched to you and how did you find your way into this version of Arthur?
DEVON TERRELL: Yeah, I was kind of pitched as… it’s very hard with playing this role, it’s hard not to think of him as King Arthur. It’s hard to push that to the side and go, “Oh, I need to play all of this journey and I need to plot each moment,” but literally Tom and I had conversations being like, let’s find the human being. Let’s find who Arthur is as a person, an everyday person that can find himself and that audiences that are watching the show, and the people in the story, the other characters, can create this story of this legend who is to become.
It was one of those things where I just from the get-go, I just wanted to play him as a human being. I wanted to find the authentic nature of his person and his being. So it’s a different take in terms of him as a young mercenary who’s … he kind of didn’t have purpose in his life until he meets Nimue, and so that’s what I’m kind of excited for people to see is Nimue just drives him into being selfless and helping others.
Did you have to hone in on certain inherent qualities in Arthur that would then emerge for the story to come, so to speak?
TERRELL: Yeah, I think the notion of Arthur that’s wise and tries to find what is right in someone and tries to see the best in people and try to defend others, I didn’t want to show that early on. I wanted to show that he was quite selfish as a person. Then as you start to understand his journey, you start realizing the reason he’s quite selfish is because he grew up in a broken home where he’s had to fend for himself and the only way to survive was to be selfish. I think the more he starts becoming vulnerable, the more we start seeing this sense of there’s more to this person. So I wanted to break the mold of this guy who’s a little bit mischievous. I just wanted to show, “No, this guy doesn’t mind getting in a bit of trouble and will defend someone with his life if he needs to, if he loves them.”
Because of the unique timeline, where the comic and the series were sort of created in tandem, did you get to see any of the source material or at least drawings to pull from before you got in?
TERRELL: Yeah. The drawings were everywhere. We went to the studio in … I forgot the name of the place now. Langley. There was drawings everywhere in everyone’s offices. The costume area was full of different ways they wanted to create the characters. Then when I walked into my day one, which I was jet-lagged from flying from America to the UK, I was just given this massive board of what the world looks like in Erica, who’s the head of hair and makeup. She was like, “This is what these people look like. This is what the Fae look like. This is what Hawkesbridge looks like.”
I was like, “I think I’ve signed up to a massive show and I didn’t realize it.” So it got bigger and bigger as we went on the show. I think you’ll see that too, in the scale of the show. It gets bigger and bigger as people watch to episode 10. I think it can only go further too, which is kind of crazy. But yeah, it was one of those things where the material was everywhere, but the great thing is everyone allowed you to be authentic within your character, with the decisions about your character.
When you have someone like Frank Miller doing the art, were you able to hone on into any specifics in there for the physicality or interpretation of the character?
TERRELL: Yeah. The wonderful thing about Frank is we all know from knowing his work that there’s no stop in how far something can go in terms of gore and violence and things like that. So it was one of those things where I wanted to match that emotionally. Especially in episode 10, I wanted there to be a moment where you see almost this lion within the character. I wanted that to be a feeling of you feel this sense of just like, “Whoa, this guy is going to become something fierce and something of substance.”
But yeah, from the beginning, it was discussions of little intricate things that he would always do in terms of designs on the costume that would give you little indications of how he thought of the character, but also just the sword fighting and the training was so extensive and so rigorous that you can’t help to have that in your body when you … because you’ll be doing a love scene and then you turn around and the scene turns into a battle scene. So you have to always be alert that in medieval times, your head could get chopped off at any time, so you need to be aware. So it was very different to our times, but yeah, I learned a lot from him as a person.
When you are playing a take on a character like this that is quite revisionist, did you feel compelled to return to some of the more famous legends and pull from that? Or was it a situation where you wanted to stick very strictly to pulling from this script?
TERRELL: I’m a big nerd in terms of research, in the best way. I think nerd is the best word. I love it. I claim it. I’m very obsessive with my process in terms of research, because if I do all of that work, inherently it’s all going to be inside of me subconsciously and I can just react in the moment. So Thomas Mallory, reading all the greats, the different depictions of King Arthur, and also reading slowly, slowly through the process, different versions.
I didn’t watch any versions of King Arthur because I knew Merlin in my head. I had that in my head, but I didn’t want to … I’m Devon trying to get my portrayal of Arthur. I’d never wanted to try to play to Sean Connery or anything like that. So I think the amazing thing with the story Tom created was he allowed me to be authentic to myself and how I viewed the character. Then it got to a point where halfway through it wasn’t that you needed notes. You know your character, you know how you … you’ve done six hours, five hours of this character, so you know what you want to do. Yeah, it was a very empowering experience.
Between Arthur and Obama, you seem to not at all be intimidated by characters who come with a lot of preconceived notions, some might say baggage. Does that not affect you? Does it roll off your shoulders? What’s your process of dealing with that pressure?
TERRELL: I think any role you play is terrifying to start off with, especially these two. Because you just think to yourself, “How do I get in?” You have to keep experimenting to find a way in and with Obama, I didn’t find the voice and the mannerisms until a week and a half before shooting. And really only until the first day of shooting because everyone has an idea of this person. Whereas the wonderful thing about Arthur, it’s slightly different where you have an idea because you’ve read about it, but it’s in your imagination and we’ve watched different versions, but we can never say that’s Arthur. That’s what that person is. We have footage of him because also I think the wonderful thing I took away from it was some people thought Arthur was a bear, a lion.
No one really knew if this person really existed. It’s just these stories kept evolving about this person. So the wonderful thing I took from that is as a person of color, I have every right to play that. I felt empowered by the role and I’m excited to also bring new fans into the fantasy world in terms of the more people we can bring into this world, the better we’ll all be in terms of more diversity and more inclusivity in the fantasy world, because that’s what the world looks like really. We want everybody to come to comic cons and to all these events and feel like they have characters that can represent them as well.
Yeah. I did not realize how intensely some people feel about King Arthur in that regard until I started researching for this interview. But you’re right, myths belong to everyone.
TERRELL: Yeah. It’s funny that some people have told me, “Oh, but it’s a British story and things,” and it’s not really. It’s taken from different places around the world and every culture has a different take on it in many ways. But the wonderful thing is it’s been used as tools in history to teach people or to sometimes oppress people in other ways. But it’s one of those wonderful stories that if you can believe in a magical sword, it doesn’t make sense why you can’t believe in a black Arthur.
So I’m excited to bring in more people to this world because I never had that growing up. Unfortunately, young women and young people of color didn’t really have too many superheroes, and when any superhero was transformed into another version, people got angry about it. It was kind of like, “Well, why can’t we have a new take on this?” I think the wonderful thing is with Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, I love them to bits and I still love them, but I never saw myself in them. If I was them, I wasn’t integral to the story. So the great thing about this is if you took myself out of this story, it would change the story completely. So you feel important within your role and it’s not tokenism, so it’s a massive step forward and we can only go further.
Absolutely. And at a certain point after enough of these backlashes, it’s kinda like, stay mad, I guess.
TERRELL: [Laughs] I just also think if you’re watching that you need to actually sit … the great thing about this I when you turn it on and you’re like, “Oh, I feel uncomfortable. I don’t like this version,” you have to think to yourself, “Well, why don’t you feel comfortable with that?” I think that’s the great thing is even with a female protagonist, I think a lot of … I don’t know why I don’t get it, but like people watch, “I don’t like this. I don’t get it.” It’s like, “Well, sit down with yourself and actually think why don’t you like that?” So I think that’s a wonderful thing, especially with being on Netflix. It’s going to start family conversations about inclusivity and diversity and it’s exciting.
Yeah, Netflix has the reach.
TERRELL: Yeah, I know!
You do have this wonderful female lead and you guys have … I mean, depending on the legend you’re reading, Nimue and Arthur have different varieties of relationships. But here, it settles into a very passionate romance. Can you talk about finding that dynamic with Katherine on the set and really honing in on what that love meant for this take on the story?
TERRELL: Yeah, absolutely. I think the wonderful thing is Katherine and I, as individuals, wanted to tell our stories in a way of we’re fighting for our character, we’re fighting for our stories, and when it comes together, it’s an overwhelming sense of love because we’re there with each other and then there’s moments where we couldn’t be more separated in the world. That to us was like what young love felt like in that world of what we were creating. We didn’t want to make this lovey-dovey story of, “Oh, they’re always in love and every time they see each other, they’ve got googly eyes.” It was, no, moments we need to be like, “The survival of our people is more important than our love right now.”
So we had great conversations about character, but also Katherine and I knew each other about three years prior to doing this. We’re both from Perth, Australia and so is Shalom [Brune-Franklin] as well. It was really weird that we’re all from the same place. We’re shooting this show in England. But yeah, we’ve all always been good friends, but to now work together, it was just great to bring a dynamic to the story that didn’t feel cliche or cheesy. Well, hopefully, it doesn’t! [Laughs] We just wanted to feel like two people that love each other, but are trying to live and trying to allow other people to survive.
Yeah. When you were working with someone you knew first as a friend, does that make it easier or more distracting?
TERRELL: No, I think it makes it easier because you feel comfortable going up to them being like, “Hey, this isn’t working, this scene. We need to talk about this.” We did that a lot of times. We’d be like, “Something’s not right. Something’s off,” and we felt comfortable because once they call cut, we’re still mates. We’re still friends. It didn’t feel like there was … there was no competitiveness in the characters. What was wonderful about it was I really found a really … I had a great time discovering Arthur through Nimue and I didn’t feel at any point the pressure was on me to be like, “You’re King Arthur, you need to find Arthur.” It was like, “No, I’m actually discovering him through different characters,” which was a really nice process to build someone.
I’m just about out of time with you, so since you are a research hound and a self-proclaimed nerd, if people are really taken with this revisionist approach to Arthur, do you have any good reading or watching recommendations to get them through the withdrawal once they’ve finished all 10 episodes of Cursed?
TERRELL: Yeah. I mean, Thomas Mallory is amazing in terms of material as a book. I loved his rendition of the story. But in terms of just a TV show that I think is just really cool on a side note is Umbrella Academy. I’m so excited for that to come out. So I think the great thing about Netflix is comic books have always been such a big part of us growing up that having legends like … I was going to say Tom Wheeler, but … I mean, Tom Wheeler, future legend. But having someone like Frank Miller that’s been in the game forever, but still putting out great content is cool. I think go back, read Daredevil, read Sin City the comics, read 300, The Dark Knight, read the original and … there’s just so much material out there that Frank’s been a part of. So if anything, you should discover Frank Miller’s work because it’s incredible.
Season 1 of Cursed is now available to stream on Netflix.