“I’ve become a plant parent.”
That’s the first thing the Perthian actress Katherine Langford tells me, with a candor of pure excitement, on an early-morning phone call from her European quarantine hideout. She’s recently adopted a flowering Chinese lily, which she’s cleverly named after the Australian comedian Chris Lilley, and a carnivorous Venus flytrap she calls “Snappers.” At first listen, this achievement may seem altogether quite ordinary, but the experience is, in actuality, completely novel for the 24-year-old. Ever since the 2017 debut of the controversial drama 13 Reasons Why, in which she starred as Liberty High School student Hannah Baker, her career has been an endless stream of increasingly high-profile projects — Love, Simon; Knives Out — that have kept her always on the go. “Because I travel, I’ve never been able to buy plants,” she says. “I’m just trying to keep them alive.”
Though the coronavirus pandemic has forced Langford to slow down, affording her the opportunity to cultivate her “dream” garden as a practice in self-care, her career milestones keep racking up with or without her. June marked the airing of the final season of 13 Reasons Why (she appears in its last episode via edited and adapted footage from prior seasons), and last week, she made her latest starring appearance in Netflix’s newest fantasy series, Cursed. Adapted from the popular graphic novel by Frank Miller and Thomas Wheeler, the show is a fresh telling of the Arthurian legend through the eyes of Nimue, played by Langford, a young, spitfire enchantress (and somewhat of a “plant parent” herself) destined to become the legendary Lady of the Lake. Armed with the mystical Sword of Power, capable of laying waste to entire armies, she must protect the fey, a race of magical woodland peoples from which she is descended, from extermination at the hands of the Red Paladins, a horde of religious extremists working at the call of a tyrannical king.
Historically, Nimue has always been a side character in the Arthurian fables; even in contemporary reimaginings, the story is largely filtered through the lens of male leads, like King Arthur or Merlin. To that end, powered by Langford as its fearsome blade-wielding heroine, Cursed is a timely update to the familiar tale. “It feels like we’re telling a whole new chapter of this iconic story,” Langford says, adding that the core issues the series tackles — particularly, racialized oppression and the destruction of the natural world — make it feel “like looking at our world through a kaleidoscope.” She tells MTV News how the series was brought to life, through rain and through snow and with no plants at home, over the course of 11 months.
MTV News: What appealed to you about the role of Nimue?
Katherine Langford: When this project came across my path, it was about two years ago. I was looking for something that felt different and challenging. I wasn’t necessarily looking to do a TV series but I received a manuscript for this written by Tom Wheeler, and it wasn’t even the full story. It was just the first chapter, or three chapters. I just couldn’t put it down. It felt like such a beautiful meld of this fantasy genre, a legend that felt familiar, but pulled from such a new perspective.
MTV News: What is the significance of Nimue being the leading voice of the show, rather than Arthur or Merlin, as it is typically rendered?
Langford: Representation has always been really important to me, whether that’s age or race or sexuality — not just seeing yourself in stories but also seeing yourself in different roles. When it comes to this genre and the Arthurian legend, historically, women have never really been at the center. To be a part of something where we’re able to see such a familiar and legendary tale through the eyes of a woman, and to see her journey to becoming a heroine, it feels very timely and very powerful. We’ve always been heroes but we just haven’t been recognized.
MTV News: Was there a favorite scene that you filmed in the show?
Langford: I was so lucky because I got to work with a lot of different members of the cast and I had these really beautiful moments with different characters. Lily Newmark, who plays Nimue’s best friend Pym, was so much fun to work with. I think we brought such a beautiful flavor to those two as a duo. I also really loved working with Devon Terrell and Shalom Brune-Franklin; we’re all Australians so when we were filming our stuff, it was the most wonderful anarchy you can imagine. I think I had a lot of really poignant scenes and moments with Gustaf Skarsgård, who I love and adore, not only as an actor but also his brilliant take on Merlin. I really feel like he shines in this. But also as a person, I think we really connected and we were able to coach each other.
MTV News: You’ve starred in dramas, with 13 Reasons Why, and mysteries, with Knives Out, and this role is quite different. Were there any new challenges that you were up against with this role?
Langford: It was definitely an eye-opening experience being on a project like this, where it’s not only a TV series, which is a huge commitment in itself, but diving into this epic genre. It requires a very specific commitment and effort, such as creating costumes and these sets from scratch. We shot 11 months — that’s shooting with no breaks. By the end of filming, it was such an amazing, close-knit crew that we had, that everyone felt like family. They made them shoot outside in forests, and there was rain and snow and all of the elements that are attacking you on top of filming such a giant show with such an amazing and intricate world.
MTV News: Even though this series is pure fantasy, there are undercurrents of real-life issues, particularly if we think of the oppression of the fey as a greater metaphor. Why do you think fantasy is a good medium to talk about real issues?
Langford: I’m glad you brought that up because, as a fan of fantasy as a genre, it can be a really powerful tool to comment on issues that we see in everyday life. It’s almost like looking at our world through a kaleidoscope. It is a bit of escapism and it brings you entertainment and it can bring you joy and a thrill, but it’s also able to reflect on certain issues. We filmed this a year and a half ago, and some of the issues that we touched on were the oppression of minorities, religious oppression, and destruction of the natural world. They’re all issues that have always been relevant but it’s been interesting with the timing now. Those issues are even more so at the forefront of people’s social consciousness.
MTV News: How do you interpret the title, Cursed, within the context of Nimue’s journey?
Langford: Her whole life she’s grown up being unashamed of who she is and she goes on this tremendous journey, not just for other people and not just for the sword, but also for herself. But she has to really embrace all of her in order to find the courage to fight injustice in the face of adversity. That title Cursed, I feel it’s almost like taking that title and owning it. That word and that thing that people have told her that she should be ashamed of and she embraces it and she ends up using it to save the very people that ostracize her and bullied her for it. I may be alluding to one of the strong messages within this season which is courage and to embrace yourself, all parts of yourself and not let people tell you you can’t do something.
MTV News: How does Cursed reflect where you’re at with your career and where you’re going next?
Langford: At the beginning of the season, we see Nimue very restless and not quite sure where she fits in. And that’s me. It’s something that we all go through, no matter who you are, what age you are, or where you are. The year before we filmed this, I moved 39 times in 10 months, so I very much connected with the restlessness that she had. I think going on the journey that she went on, in terms of coming into her womanhood, taught me a lot. She gave me the courage to be more assertive and a bit more confident in myself. Maybe, for me, it’s just emphasized a little more, really growing as a person and stepping into this next chapter of my life as a woman. I’m looking forward to what all of that has in store.