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Morfydd Clark is here to slay

The mesmerising breakout star of Saint Maud is on a whole new quest… to Middle Earth, leading Amazon’s impossibly ambitious The Lord of the Rings series

Morfydd Clark and I are on a quest. We are answering clues – sent to my mobile – that will guide us around Kensington Palace Gardens and beyond, if we make it that far. Text Quest isn’t quite The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the Amazon show in which Clark will soon star as Galadriel. But the other, Tolkien-vibing activities we suggested, Clark sensibly declined. “I couldn’t do axe-throwing because I just think I would kill someone,” she says.

Slaying is, however, on the Morfydd Clark agenda. After supporting roles in The Personal History of David Copperfield and the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials, she broke out in singular fashion as the lead in the highly-acclaimed British horror film Saint Maud in 2019. Her depiction of a disturbed young nurse on a mission to guide the fallen in her care to eternal salvation earned 32-year-old Clark a BAFTA Rising Star nomination. The Rings of Power, streaming on Amazon Prime from 2 September, is new territory for the Swedish-born Welsh actor on every level: a mega-budget global franchise in which multiple orcs are to be dispatched in a fight for the future of Middle Earth.

As the immortal elf Galadriel, Clark was expected to play a very physical role, so she learned to swim, ride horses and get a handle on slaughtering fantastical bad guys. “I’ve been killed a lot,” she says. “I’d never been the aggressor.” In order to get her and the cast match-fit, the production enlisted the same stunt team that Peter Jackson used for his trilogy – of which Clark is an enormous fan: “The films have been a big part of my life for years. They’re so embedded.”

There is, to put it mildly, quite a lot of anticipation for The Rings of Power. The series, set long before the events of the three films, is the most expensive TV series ever made. Estimated to have cost about £800 million, it is perhaps the Amazon Prime show that will put to the test its ambition to compete with streaming titans Netflix, HBO and Disney+. (The director J.A. Bayona tells GQ that the show is hard to categorise: “Television is evolving into a new form of entertainment,” he says.) Comprised chiefly of material from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (edited and published posthumously by the author’s son, Christopher) and appendices in the third and final The Lord of the Rings volume, The Return of the King, it will be a difficult spectacle to ignore.

As well as money, a great deal of care and attention has been poured into the new show. Clark wore an antique costume. There was barely any green-screen filming – a boon for an actor. “Rehearsing Rings of Power in a little office in your tracksuit feels incredibly stupid,” she says. “And then you get on set and that’s when you’re like, wow, this is where it’s all going – because you step into a whole world. The level of detail showed a wealth of expertise.”

Clark spent almost two years filming in New Zealand. She arrived in October 2019, went into a six-week lockdown and watched, stranded, as the rest of the world dealt with the pandemic far less impressively. “It felt like being on Mars,” she says. “I just wanted everyone to be in New Zealand. It seemed incredibly unfair. I kept thinking about that phrase, ‘You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child’.”

Clark is a joy to spend time with: quick to laugh; honest; constantly wondering if she’s said too much and saying it anyway. She has an eccentric streak: at one point she says she likes to travel upstairs on double-decker buses to look through people’s first-floor windows; at another, in a story about a fellow actor’s knee injury, she says, “It’s happened – I’ve become aware of my kneecaps”. She is endearingly all-in on our modest quest. “There are none of any of those things,” she wonders, when we fail to find deer, lions or unicorns.

We stroll on, and Clark spots the blue plaque that gives us the answer to our next clue. The news that painter Sir John Everett Millais lived at this address is exciting for her because, she confirms by getting her phone out, Millais was responsible for Ophelia, the painting of the Shakespeare character singing in the river before she drowns. Clark has just been cast as Ophelia, opposite Riz Ahmed, in a modern retelling of Hamlet on film.

It was Saint Maud that ensured that Hamlet-style offers came rolling in. After training at the Drama Centre London at 19, Clark appeared in theatre and film productions that gave her the chance to work with Copperfield director Armando Iannucci and Benedict Cumberbatch [in Patrick Melrose]. But she took flight with this god-fearing frightfest from first-time writer and director Rose Glass, whose gothic tale of a nurse experiencing a kind of religious psychosis dealt in trauma and loneliness while giving serious jump scares.

Clark is in almost every frame of Saint Maud, which had a transformative effect on her career. It was at the film’s Toronto premiere that she found out she had got the Rings of Power gig. In auditions, she says, she usually thinks “Can I trick them into thinking that I can do this?” But with Saint Maud it was different. She felt an affinity with Maud, who is someone simply trying her best to get things right, and empathised with the predicament of someone struggling in the under-funded caring profession, having heard her mother, who works in medicine, describe similar challenges. Clark read the script and immediately thought, “I understand. This is what I wanna talk about.”

Bayona, executive producer and director of the first two episodes of The Rings of Power, loved Clark in Saint Maud. “Her performance is fantastic,” says the Spanish filmmaker, whose work includes Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and the acclaimed horror The Orphanage. “She was able to navigate that performance and to make the range very dynamic. I think what she does is very difficult. You need to really find the nuances.” There was a quality that Morfydd brought to the role that Bayona wanted to tap into for her Lord of the Rings character. “What I really like about Morfydd is that kind of mystery,” says Bayona. “She has this aura of mystery, an ethereal presence that fits so well with Galadriel. You can see how strong she is but at the same time, the mystery.”

Clark took a long time to shake off Maud. After filming she began to think that she, like Maud, was making people uncomfortable and that she was “a really creepy person”. Her characters nest in her head. It’s not that she tries to emulate the life of these people – “I loathe method acting being used as a way to just be obnoxious to crew and everyone” – but that she can’t help thinking about her characters all the time. “What would they be like buying bread?” she wonders.

When she looks her absolute worst, Clark says, she will be recognised in the street as the downtrodden Maud. She’s grateful to the character for letting her play gross, having been cast in “prim and pretty” roles before that. Galadriel is beautiful, yes, but played in the films by Cate Blanchett, the elf leader is an immortal source of counsel and calm, too. In The Rings of Power, she is a little younger, though still thousands of years old. “She’s older than the moon,” Clark says. Clark therefore needed to think about what youth and naivete meant to someone who is already ancient. “So I guess part of that was slightly more rough and readiness… a bit more earthy, slightly less god-like.”

Ruminating on the role made Clark philosophical. She had always wondered about living forever, but thinks instead that she has always wanted to live in a perpetual childhood like Neverland. She doesn’t believe in reincarnation, “but I feel a big connection to people in my life who have died or died before I was born.” If she were to come back she’d like to be “a wisp of smoke, forever.”

Her real childhood, divided between Sweden for the first two years and Wales for the rest, wasn’t without its difficulties. I’ve read that she didn’t get on with school. “I think I don’t suit authoritarian rules,” she says. “I need to understand why.” She has ADHD – diagnosed at the age of seven – and had “no respect” for a system as rigid as school. “I’m very bad at making myself do anything that I’m not finding, like, extremely fun.” Her teachers in Wales called her ‘hollol di gwilydd’, which means ‘totally without shame’.

She didn’t do her homework, so she knew that her grades were never going to be great. She got two A-Levels but breathed an enormous sigh of relief when it was all over. “I’m always running away from disaster, not running towards anything,” she says. She was watching Succession recently and it made her think: “If I was an American businessman and I was being interviewed and they were like, ‘What inspires you?’, I’d be like, ‘Fear.’”

We pause our quest to quench our thirst at a pub. I wonder if Clark always wanted to be a big name. To start with, she says, her ambitions were more modest. There were no entertainers in her family. (Her mother is a paediatrician and her father works in software.) Her upbringing in Penarth, near Cardiff, involved seeing plays at the Sherman or the New Theatre. “The idea of being on stage was something that felt realistic,” she says. “I never thought I’d be on TV, at all.”

Drama school was the only route she knew to becoming an actor. “My experience at drama school is that actually I’m not susceptible to cults,” she says. “There is a cult-like aspect to it, and I didn’t enjoy that. And I think that’s also why I didn’t enjoy school. I don’t like being in an institution.” There was a weird dichotomy at drama school, she says, between being told you were fabulous and that you wouldn’t amount to anything. “Basically, they force fragile narcissism on everybody.” This isn’t good for vulnerable young performers, she thinks. “Drama schools should make you feel great because you come out into the industry and you might not do anything.” The National Youth Theatre does this well, she says. “I’m not really down for the breaking down. Life does that anyway.”

Now that she’s being offered roles, she doesn’t feel she’s earned it. She thinks people have been “mad” to offer her work. “You always feel that when you go on set the director’s going to say, ‘What have I done?’” But she persists, shutting out any of the other issues and concentrating on what her director wants. When she hears people talking about the schedule having gone awry, for example, she says, “La la la la la! I’m in my little imaginary game. Nothing can touch me.”

Galadriel was the first character The Rings of Power team attempted to cast. “From the very beginning we knew that she was going to be the woman,” says Bayona. “She was so strong and there was this little bit of anger in her eyes that made the character so attractive – that tells you a little bit about what the show is about, how far would you go to defeat evil? How much would you sacrifice?”

The character resonated with Clark in that way. “I have an obsessive person inside me, and I have to keep them happy,” she says. But she sees herself as a player in other people’s flights of fancy. “I like other people’s ideas becoming reality and I really like being a part of that. I don’t think I have vision but when someone explains their vision to me, I see it in a different way to them. I’m happy to be a canvas.”

By now, we’ve left our quest behind us, while Clark reflects on the fate of The Rings of Power. She has no idea if it will win over fans. “I feel like I’m looking at a big wave,” she says. “Something’s coming… but you don’t know how big it is.” First, the series will have to escape the enormous shadow of the Peter Jackson films; for Clark, Cate Blanchett’s are big shoes to fill. “That is definitely a frightening prospect; more frightening for some members of the cast than others,” Clark says. “It’s a double-edged sword, playing someone who people are really passionate about.”

Our hunch: she will rule them all. [Source]

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The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
as Galadriel
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Epic drama set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings' follows an ensemble cast of characters, both familiar and new, as they confront the long-feared re-emergence of evil to Middle-earth.

The Fox
as Unknown
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In this black comedic folktale, an affable foxhunter encounters a shape-shifting fox who offers him an opportunity to transform his partner into the perfect woman and in doing so take control of the natural world.
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