Exclusive: Graham Shiels Talks Olympus

Graham ShielsSyfy's new mythological series Olympus airs Thursdays. Recently, star Graham Shiels, who plays King Aegeus on the show, talked to Jamie Ruby of SciFi Vision in an exclusive interview about his role.

The actor first talked about how he got the role. "I was in Vancouver just for the weekend, and I have a great agent in Vancouver working for me. While I was there, I had this audition from a casting director by the name of Sean Cossey, who also cast Arrow, which I did three episodes of. And I went into this audition with him, and I was like, "Wow this is so cool."

"And they wanted everything in a British dialect, and you know, I'm a classically trained actor from Yale School of Drama, and I looked at this material and was like, 'this is like Shakespeare on camera; this is like a dream; it's amazing.'

Graham Shiels"So I went in and did it. I did not meet the director and creator Nick Willing; I just met Sean. I did it once on tape for him, and then he said, "Thanks that was great," and I was like, "Are you sure? I can do it again; I can do it better." He said, "No; it's fine."

"That was on a Friday morning. I didn't hear anything for the rest of the day. A lot of times, especially on the weekend, it's customary to hear, like on a Friday, but I didn't hear anything, so I was a little crest fallen.

"And then I got a call Monday morning; I was thinking, 'oh this is great; I'll get a call back,' and they told me I was pinned for the role. So I guess they saw my tape and that was that. [Though] I didn't actually get booked for it for months.

"So that's how that came to be. I was definitely super excited about it, because I love period pieces and I love fantasy. I love Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Dungeons and Dragons, so this was like a dream role really."

Shiels researched King Aegeus before playing the part, but it's hard to tell history from myth. "I certainly researched King Aegeus. Now granted, when history is this old, you don't know what's history and what's myth, but King Aegeus from 2000 B.C. was actually a real king of Athens, Greece. But, as Nick will detail too, 2000 B.C. is actually a time before all these myths that we know now in contemporary culture as Greek myths. It was never really documented at that time...So for King Aegeus, there's very little known, so everything you read is part myth, part contradictory.

"But, given to me as a gift from a friend when filming, I have a poster that's from an actual vase of King Aegeus meeting the Oracle of Delphi, consulting the Oracle because he can't have a son. And that is actually a real vase that exists in some museum somewhere."

The actor didn't necessarily base his portrayal of Aegeus on anyone in particular. "When I did the audition, I could see why I got cast, because I always play these brooding bullies, thugs, degenerate bad guys, monsters, and aliens - intimidating and menacing characters. And that's kind of what the audition was.

"But when I met Nick, before we started shooting, and then even when we were on set in the early days, he kept talking about what a coward Aegeus is. In fact, there're many, many scenes where he has all these blustering lines, like I'm just going to make one up, but, you know, like, "You will quake at my thunder!"

"Nick had this vision that he would say that line through tears, because he knows it's not true. So Nick really wanted to touch on this notion of it all coming from cowardliness.

Graham Shiels"So that just lent me to use my imagination in terms of, anytime there's something like that in the script, always play the opposite. So then it was up to me to really go over the script with a fine-tooth comb and say, "Oh this might be something that would trigger that."

"But there is a British actor who I said to Nick, "Okay, so you don't want it to be like this." He said, "Absolutely not," because this is an actor who always plays these lion-type boisterous characters, and it was good for me to know that he wanted it nothing like that actor.

"And as well all know, a lot of bullies, as modern films [depict], when somebody finally stands up to him, he runs away crying. That's kind of the standard American tale of a bully. And that's the archetype of a bully, and that's really what Nick wanted to highlight here."

Playing that side of Aegeus was what he found the most challenging about the role. "The hardest thing was to play all the vulnerability and cowardliness that Nick kept encouraging me towards. And also as you'll see getting into later on in the season, when the siege of Minos isn't going so well for Athens at the beginning, Aegeus just gets to a point where he's losing everything. He's losing his family, he's losing his city, his country, heritage, his sons, and then it was like scene after scene after scene, and it became a lot.

"So that was really hard how you kind of have to ramp yourself up to get to the point where they call action and having to do it over and over and over again day after day after day. But you know, that's the joy of acting. I wouldn't have traded the experience for a second.

"A lot of that stuff I shot with Martin Wood, and he was really patient with me, and the same with the producers. They know with acting, you can't always just call action and expect something to happen on a dime. So I think the emotional range of Aegeus was the hardest challenge for sure."

Sheils also found working with green screen to be a challenge. "I did [work with green screen], but not a lot, and thank God, because it's hard. I only had a few sequences - I think I had two fights actually in the green screen that I guess will be when they're painted will be taking place in the forest. Then I had a couple scenes on the castle wall, and I had a couple dream sequences that you'll get to later on in the season, but generally, thank God, I got to do mostly interiors in the castle like the map room with the generals, my bedroom with Medea, and other kinds of like antechambers with Medea or some of my concubines or whoever it may be. And that's so much easier."

That did not stop the actor from really enjoying getting to work on the action and fight scenes. "I had about four fight scenes in all once it's all told, but nothing compared to Tom [York], who I think had one every episode.

Graham Shiels"[What was in] the first episode I wouldn't even consider that a fight scene for me, because I was more reacting to stuff going on around me, and then I got shot with an arrow. But I do actually have full on sword fights, and actually one spear fight.

"We had a whole stunt team, and I would train with Tom, and he was so busy every day that we'd have to take two or three hours out of his schedule to rehearse with the fight director and our stunt doubles.

"And that would have taken place a few days before we shot the scene, so that when we did get to set, we actually knew what we were doing, and we could speed everything along. They were very particular and took a lot of care with the fighting, and it was a lot of fun.

"It's another reason why I just love the gig. The work in this show is not rapier and dagger work, it's more short sword and barbarian type fighting, but still, for a boy - for a man, it's like playing pirates or cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. I mean, that's literally why you want to act, so you can get to do this kind of stuff. It's really fun."

Most of Shiels scenes so far have been with Sonita Henry, who plays his wife, Medea. The two really hit it off. "She's great; she just moved back to LA, so her, myself, and Cas Anvar, who plays Xerxes, were the only people who lived in LA from the show, although Sonita is from London. So we had a lot to share and talk about, about LA.

"And I think for her too this was kind of a dream role in terms of it being like a period piece. I mean, everybody on set, loved Game of Thrones, so this was like our little Game of Thrones [thing].

"Sonita has a great sense of humor. I remember the first time we worked together we had to kiss, and they actually cut it out in the first episode, at the end of our first scene together. It was supposed to be this big passionate kiss. In the script it said "they kiss passionately." So when we did it, we were very polite - you know actors, you don't use your tongue, but you're trying to make it look passionate.

"And then we did it once and Nick came up to us and said, "What was that?" And we're like, "What are you talking about? It says here to kiss passionately." And he says, "No, no, no," and then he described how Medea wouldn't want to kiss me.

"So we had to shoot it again, so that the kiss for her came out of nowhere, and she kind of reacted awkwardly to it.

Graham Shiels"But they ended up not using it, because I guess it kind of betrayed the storyline that Nick was trying to tell, but I can see his point.

"But that was also a turning point in terms of how Sonita and I would work with each other going forward, because certainly from my side it would seem clear to me in the script that Aegeus was very passionate about Medea. But Nick let us know very early on that, no the two are - he didn't use the word fighting, but just maybe the passion is gone in the relationship, so to speak. And that changed it a lot for me. But he would always keep reminding Sonita to be very caring for me. So even though there may be no passion, she's always caring. And whenever he would say that, my heart would melt a little bit...So we had a lot of fun teasing each other with that."

The two actors might enjoy working together, but Medea is not someone that Aegeus should trust. "The only person Aegeus thinks he can trust is Medea, and that's probably it. Even some of his concubines he doesn't trust.

"Aegeus thinks he can trust Medea, but as the season progresses, he does learn to trust another person, and I don't want to say who that is, but it's obviously not Medea. But he's desperate; he's got nothing. Everybody is turning on him."

One of the reasons Medea has been working against him, is because she discovered that he gave away the Lexicon by having an illegitimate child, his firstborn son, with another woman, as it is passed down from father to son. Viewers will continue to learn more about that Lexicon. "One thing that will be explained more to the audience, is that the Lexicon, I think for Aegeus anyway, and for that matter any mortal man, is an unsolvable riddle; that's why it's so archetypal. You have this potential to go be immortal and be ever powerful, and yada-yada-yada, but like who is ever going to solve this thing? It's like winning the lottery.

"And then the audience will learn that the other half of being the Lexicon barer, is that you're tortured by this titan Chronos, who's the protector of Olympus. So I may have this thing inside me that if I solve will make me immortal, but the cost of it is inner anxiety, sleepless nights, wrestling demons, etc. Torture to the extent that you and I could never even imagine. It's like Tony Robbins always talks about how people have more motivation to avoid pain than to gain pleasure, and that's kind of the Lexicon.

"So I think Aegeus was more motivated to get rid of the Lexicon, because it caused him so much pain, then to chase after this 'oh maybe one day I'll be immortal thing, if I ever figure this out...' Now the son is being tortured by Chronos too.

"So when you talk about what his goal is, I feel that Aegeus would never believe that the Lexicon was solvable. Never. So that's why he would have chosen to get rid of it, because it's just too much pain, too much torture.

Graham Shiels"But having said that, then Aegeus has to live with those consequences of 'I'm a coward; I'm a failure; I'm a weakling,' and all that guilt and weakness left behind with those emotions.

"But that's the rest of the series; that's the rest of the season, because it does exist. In the myth of Olympus, of our show, this Lexicon is real, and that's what Medea's going for; it's what the Oracle (Sonya Cassidy)'s going for; it's what Hero (York)'s going for. So it was just too much to bear."

Lastly Shiels talked about his favorite scene, which was from last week when he came to the throne and screamed at his subjects. "It was so awesome; it was so cool. It was such a badass scene. It was nothing I did, trust me; it was all the writers, Nick and Martin - and the drumming.

"In the scene they had the drumming, and there're these guys, these big muscular guys who looked like models, on these drums over in the corner, but when we were shooting it, they weren't allowed to hit the drums, because it would interfere with the dialog. But I was always imaging that the drumming was going on the whole time and how awesome that was.

"And then I had the best line of the series, though I'm a little bias: "Sit at my feet, whore," said to his own wife. So it was just awesome; it was great.

"...And you know they always say that old thing: you don't need to play the king, it's everybody around you that makes you the king. Everybody is bowing. Hopefully I did that well; hopefully I honored that tradition."

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