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Ralph Ineson Reveals The Truth Of The Green Knight And The Profound Impact Of The Witch - Exclusive Interview

"The Green Knight" is not a film designed to answer all the questions it asks. It's a hero's journey and it does follow one of King Arthur's knights, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), but it's not a traditional sword and sorcery tale. There's not much clashing of blades, no one is entirely pure of heart, and the entire endeavor definitely isn't meant to leave you with warm fuzzies at the end.

And of all the characters who are difficult to get a read on, there is arguably no one more mysterious than the Green Knight himself, as portrayed by Ralph Ineson. We know he's created by Gawain's mother (Sarita Choudhury), he seems to be some sort of tree person, and it seems altogether likely that he's impossible to kill in the traditional sense.

We're told that the Green Knight is inexorably tied to Gawain, and we're also told that the Green Knight is entirely without mercy — but is that true? Who is the Green Knight, really? Looper sat down with Ralph Ineson to get a sense of how he envisions his character, and along the way, we learned a little something about his past film "The Witch" and who would win in a fight between the Green Knight and Groot from "Guardians of the Galaxy." 

The DNA of the Green Knight

Adaptation is more than just retelling the story. Intentionally or not, adaptations are a reflection of the times in which they're made, and they are a reflection of the people involved in making them. What did you bring to the Green Knight, both the film and the character? And how do you think you influenced the shape of this adaptation?

The influence I have in a sense is determined by the way that David Lowery uses me. It's his film, and I'm a big believer that as an actor I'm a very small part of a very big process in making a film. And the best work I find is to hand yourself over into the hands of a very good filmmaker. And you do your simple job of existing honestly and truthfully as the character in that moment on set. A really good filmmaker will make something amazing out of that.

So I think my job, in a sense, is quite simple as far as something like the Green Knight is concerned. And when we filmed it, obviously I've read a lot of stuff since, but when we filmed it, despite being a childhood fan of all the Arthurian legends, I was just concentrated on playing that script for that director in front of me, in a way. So the whole cultural idea of the Green Knight adaptation, it was kind of not my department. I also think that as an actor, you have to just do your job.

What did David provide you? What was the working relationship as he guided you in understanding who this character is and what he wanted for the story?

I think we both agreed fairly early on. He was very keen to stress to me that ... When we talked before we were filming, that he wanted to do it a hundred percent practical prosthetics, but he also wanted a real performance, and that it wasn't just me voicing the character. So a lot of discussions were about the design that Barry Gower's designed for the prosthetics and how that would limit, or not, my performance. How I would work around that. But the design was so brilliant, leaving lots of very important areas in the face free for me to work with ... a very thin latex mask on. So even though there's huge lumps across the face, there are also lots of areas that as an actor, I could use to make the performance more than just voicing Groot, as it were, from "Guardians of the Galaxy."

I'd like to think that hopefully in there you get a bit closer into the character, so there's an opportunity to properly perform. And so that was important. David stressed that to me, right from the start. We also had very similar ideas about the character. How intimidating he is. A lot of it is done by the enormous horse, the big axe, the great costume, the incredible prosthetic design. That's not really the interesting angle for the ... as far as the actor/director relationship is concerned. We both were interested in this idea of him being a bit of a windup merchant. He's a tester of men and he kind of likes his job. There's fun. There's playfulness about it. I think that was kind of important to bring out. So he doesn't become this kind of very somber being.

Is the Green Knight really merciless?

The Green Knight clearly is not Groot, but what is he, do you think?

It's a good question, to be honest. I don't know. He existed in my mind as lots of people that I kind of recognize in my life of men who have kind of challenged and inspired me and pushed me on, for better or for worse. I think there was that kind of angle, is the way I wanted to play him. And it's a strange thing. I always felt that there was something almost paternal about the relationship, especially at the end of the movie, between Gawain and the Green Knight. There's a certain parental pride, disappointment and then pride in that final scene between the two, especially as he's kind of summoned by Gawain's mother. I think, again, all of these things are clashing with a lot of intellectual study of the original poem, but I think that's the beauty of David Lowery's version is that you can take all sorts of stuff out of it. He doesn't hold your hand. He doesn't explain it to you.

There's this point right before Gawain actually has this final meeting in the Green Chapel where the fox refers to the Green Knight as being without mercy. Do you think of the Green Knight as merciless?

No, I don't see it as merciless at all. I think he will absolutely make someone fulfill their bond if they have played the game, so he's merciless in that sense. But I think there's a lot of soul and humanity about him in a way. I think the fox is wrong.

Filming the final scene

The last scene, these moments once Gawain gets to the Green Chapel, what was that like? How did you and Dev Patel figure out those moments? Because they are critical.

I love working with Dev. He was amazing. And some of the stuff he did in that last scene, the way he prepared himself for the takes was so, so intense and so honest, and it was incredible to watch. Sometimes you look across when you're doing the off-lines in the scene and you're watching an actor perform and ... Yeah. Dev was just stunning to watch. The places that he got himself into in those moments of terror were great, and just made my job kind of so simple in a way, because he's giving you it all. He's a wonderful actor.

I don't know how many takes you did of it, but did you find yourself doing different sort of performances, bringing a different type of energy, more malicious, more kind, almost?

Oh yeah, definitely. We definitely explored all those kind of different ways of playing that final reaction and exactly how merciless the Green Knight was at the time, or how much almost parental love was there, or how much unkind laughing was there. You can be mocking, you can be loving, you can be merciless. There are a lot of ways to play that scene. But yeah, just whatever I threw at Dev, you just got something amazing back.

The Northman and Macbeth

There are a couple of projects you've got coming up. Chief among them being the Northman, which reunites you with Robert Eggers and with Anya Taylor-Joy. I was curious to hear what it was about working with them that made you want to jump back into another project with them after "The Witch."

We formed an amazing bond as a group over "The Witch." That includes Jarin who is DP, Craig Lathrop as designer, and Linda Muir as costume designer. They've all done all his films, including "The Northman." So they're now doing $60 million movies when we did a $4 million movie in Ontario, but six years ago, with "The Witch." Anya Taylor-Joy now is, quite deservedly, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. She's a fantastic actress. So we're a bit of a company. In fact, it sounds pretty pretentious to say, but Willem Dafoe described it when we were working together and he was commenting on the fact that, yeah, there's a lot of repeat castings and working together. He said, "Yeah, yeah. We're part of the company now." But that was quite a buzz for me to have Willem Dafoe telling me that we are part of the same company. So that was really good.

It's interesting that you use the word "company," because the other thing that immediately jumps out is the fact that, of course, Joel Coen was directing you amongst a ton of enormous names doing Macbeth: Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins. It's an absolutely massive cast. What was it like working with those folks on what is maybe the most famous play ever written?

I think you have to take all that kind of out of your head, in a way. It's great. I've worked with Joel Coen before, so that was nice to hook up with him and obviously I met Frances McDormand during the process of that last film. So I knew the two of them, but yeah, working with Denzel Washington was amazing and shooting at Warner Brothers in L.A. was an incredible experience.

The long-term impact of working on The Witch

There's a young actor named Alex Wolff who was in a horror movie called "Hereditary." It's considered by some to be the best horror movie of the last 20 some-odd years. And he talked about how that movie had this profound, psychological impact on him. You have been in a number of horror films — is there any film that you've been in that it had an impact enough that it's something that even after production was done, it's still impacting you, was still in your mind?

"The Witch," very much so. My mother will still say that "The Witch" changed me. And I think I was about 45 when I made "The Witch." And she was really worried about me for about two years afterwards. She thought that it had changed me, because it was really intense. Brilliant, I mean, I love that movie. I love all the memories of making it, but it was incredibly intense. And a lot of it is down to the power of Kate Dickie, the actress. She kind of led us, me and Anya Taylor-Joy, into some really dark places the way we performed that. And it was such a learning experience for me as an actor and yeah, but it absolutely affected me emotionally, physically, and everything for a long time after we finished filming.

How do you think "The Witch" changed you professionally?

I think the experience of it, not just what it did for my career, but what it taught me about my job, I think was very profound. Having done it, that was almost my hundredth credit, I think, on IMDb when I did "The Witch." It almost completely changed the way I did my job and that's quite intense in itself. Yeah.

Clash of the Tree-tans

I have a very serious question. If the Green Knight and Groot got into a fight, who would win?

Is this adult Groot or baby Groot?

Let's say the standard first, since you were technically a Ravager in the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie, we'll take that incarnation of Groot. We'll take the big tree Groot.

He doesn't have a weapon, though, does he? You see, if I've got the axe, and he's got no weapon, I'd probably back me. But, hand to hand, I reckon Groot would probably have me.

I appreciate that you've given such a thoughtful and even-handed response. I would have just said the Green Knight would beat Groot just because the Green Knight is an actual flesh and blood in a way person, as opposed to being a CGI character.

Yes. Obviously I agree, but I've got to be British. Got to be modest about it.