FX’s riveting dramatic series The Bastard Executioner created by Sons of Anarchy‘s Kurt Sutter is currently in the middle of its first season, bringing to life the fascinating and brutal world of 14th century Wales. The series is populated with colorful, intriguing characters and features outstanding performances by Lee Jones, Stephen Moyer, and Flora Spencer-Longhurst.
Spencer-Longhurst plays Baroness Lady Love Ventris, the lead female character at the heart of the world Sutter created. In support of the first season, Spencer-Longhurst took part in a conference call to delve into the series, her character, her co-stars, and Sutter’s scripts.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst Interview:
Lady Love is such an interesting character. What do you find to be the most fascinating aspect of the character?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “Well, I suppose the nicest thing for me about playing Lady Love, as you said, is the complexity of the character. I think the crux of what I find most interesting is she is put in so many different scenarios. She has to deal with so much. She’s dividing herself all the time between her official role as the Baroness and all the noble duties that come with that. Then, her duties to Ventrishire and the Welsh people who are her people, the truth of her. I think that’s what I find the most interesting.”
What intrigues you the most about this time period?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “To me it feels like it’s got everything. There was so much going on. It’s in a very changing time in history. From my point of view playing nobility in this world, it was really divided. There was a real hierarchy and a feudal system was still in place just about what you’re born into then how you deal with that and what you can make from that, which I find fascinating.”
When a show deals with so much secrecy and deception, do you have to have conversations with yourself saying not to wink a certain way or don’t deliver a line a certain way so you won’t give away anything to the audience?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “I would say I don’t really feel I have to consciously do anything to not give it away to the audience. To me as an actress the key is just to play the truth of each moment and as long as you’re doing that I felt that that was my responsibility. That is what I had to do. No, I didn’t really feel I had to hold anything back.”
How far in advance do you get scripts from Kurt Sutter and are you allowed to read the whole script or just your character’s lines?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “You know what? That varies, actually. Earlier on in the series we had the whole script and we had it a certain amount of time in advance. Then as it went on I think what’s amazing about Kurt and his writing is that he adapts, according to what he sees. I think if characters do something in a scene or feel it necessary that in the edit, it’s final, finished state excites him, then he will adapt and adjust and rewrite subsequent episodes accordingly, which is really exciting. It’s a really exciting way of working but it does mean we only have a bit a time with the script. Naturally, not so much time. The last couple of episodes I had a couple of scenes where I just had the scene and then I got the script. I’d say that was one of the biggest things I’ve learned from doing this season is how you adapt. It brings about something very spontaneous and instinctive if you don’t have to read all of the script.”Could you talk a little bit more about playing this incredibly complex relationship with Lee Jones? There’s such a human connection between these two people who have so much at stake.
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “I would say, I suppose, a few things. Firstly, I think me and Lee would both agree – I hope he would agree – I felt very lucky that we got on so well. There was a very natural chemistry. I think for me it was a huge relief because there was nothing to work on in that respect. We clicked as people, which is kind of a gift of that when you’re working off of somebody. In terms of the complexity, it is a bit of a dance. They are having to navigate very, very tricky, complicated, slightly scandalous potentially, relationship. I think, for me, because a lot of it with my character I had to focus on what she’s going through and then each time [remember] the stakes and what the relationship is: absolutely forbidden, there’s nothing right about it. Then, marry into that, we have that chemistry.
It’s something other…it’s something visceral between Lady Love and Wilkin. It’s something kind of unexplained, linked in to perhaps the vision they shared right early on. I think that was something that really hit Lady Love hard and opened her eyes to something that she perhaps otherwise might have felt but not pursued but now she allows herself to pursue. I think this kind of other, this other force that’s going on is a really big part of it.
Then I suppose the main thing, I’m going to have to remind myself playing the part and all the feelings that you need, it’s just how wrong in our world, the medieval world of our time and our social standing, how wrong it would be for anything to happen between the two of them. It’s kind of an interesting spark that’s created by those two things played simultaneously.”
How is it to play the Lady Love and Isabel relationship with Sarah White?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “Again, and I think it’s a bit of a cop out, but Sarah White was one of my favorite people. It was really, really easy. We just kind of clicked from the off. It was so effortless. I think we felt we’d really like our characters. They’ve got some history, which a lot of the other characters do not have. We wanted to really try and show and create the sense of friendship they’ve had, I think, from a young age. Being brought up together, again, very different social standing yet that is irrelevant when you’re five, as a child growing up. We really wanted to show that.
What I love most about my scenes with Sarah is I think often, and particularly early on, it’s Lady Love at her truest. She’s not having to turn anything on or a certain mask on or play her role as the Baroness. A lot of them are in the bedchamber. It’s a very true and what I think is a pure relationship. Sarah White, she’s fairly new to the acting scene but she’s the most fantastic, natural actress. Playing scenes with her are a joy.”
Did the storyline of Lady Love and the Wolf surprise you when you first read it?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “Yes. Kurt kind of drops, dangles little ideas along the way of things that might happen and ideas that he had about characters and relationships. I think he did perhaps something he said implied that there was going to be a connection or those two might be linked. I think in his head he knew all along. I think he’s very clever in distracting in what he tells characters and at what point he tells them. It was really only when I got that script that I found out what the relationship was between the two.”
Can you discuss working with Matthew Rhys?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “It’s absolutely brilliant. I was just sad not to spend more time with him because he’s very busy and he’s working on another show. He actually couldn’t spend too much time. He wasn’t in Wales that much. He flew back and forth a couple of times. Yes, that was my main feeling that I was just sorry we only got to spend a couple of days together.
It was exciting because they shot all of our stuff in two days. We had two kind of intense full-on days together. It was brilliant. I felt just being in a scene with him I was trying to soak it up all. He’s got such an amazing presence and technique and stuff. I was trying take on board and take as much as I could. I just loved it. He’s a really, really great guy. It was very easy and fun to work with him.”
How much of Kurt Sutter’s previous shows had you seen before auditioning or working with him?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “To be honest, I hadn’t seen any of his work I’m ashamed to say. That’s not a reflection on the incredibly high quality of his work and everything he does. Now I’m a huge, huge fan. It’s just more my ignorance and I’m a bit rubbish. It takes me a while to get on board with things. A bit behind, should we say.
I haven’t seen either The Shield or Sons of Anarchy. It was only in the audition process that I realized quite what a name he was and what a talent and an incredible mind. Then, I had this awful dilemma of whether or not to start watching any of it or whether that would be a distraction. I actually decided during the audition process that I wouldn’t and I treated it like any audition process.
I’m kind of pleased I did that but then I did allow myself, having filmed the pilot, I then started Sons of Anarchy thinking I might watch a few. Of course I was totally addicted and I basically watched most of it. I got to season five and then we started filming our series and I kind of was watching a little bit concurrently and then realized that was not good. That was a bit too hectic. Particularly then when I was working with Katie [Sagal] and I couldn’t – I was too in awe. I had to put that to one side. It’s actually a little treat I’ve got waiting to finish off Sons of Anarchy now we’ve finished filming.”
Kurt Sutter has a way of writing female characters in a very strong way. This specific time period that’s tough because obviously it’s a very male-dominated society at that point in history. Your character has been so incredibly strong-willed and incredibly strong at everything she’s done. Has that been nice to play because this is a very different time period than the girl-powered movement that we’re in right now?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “Sure. It’s been amazing to play. That was the kind of huge attraction to the job. Kurt, I don’t really know how does it. His ability to create such complex, strong female characters, I don’t know how he gets in their mind. Yes, intellectually, her intellect enables her to overcome the difficulties of this period and the predominately male world. It’s sad, but she’s able to gain people’s respect and trust. Also, her authority, I think just might be near impossible to be such a young, female, that age, as you say, in a very heavy male dominated world. So much fun to play.”
What can you say about the relationship between Lady Love and Milus, played by Stephen Moyer? Does she really trust him or does she think he’s out for his own personal gain?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “I do like him. It’s a relationship that actually has changed for me throughout the season, in my head, playing the part. We had all these big discussions before we started. Kurt, depending on what he felt the relationship was, I think it’s really kind of morphed and organically changed as the season’s gone on. It’s a relationship that I love playing. I love playing the scenes with them. It’s like he’s her match, her intellectual match, and not quite the same social standing but similar. Certainly within the castle, within the court.
In terms of how much I trust him, I think would say it’s hard to quantify. I think there’s an inherent trust that he will do the right thing for the shire and for the castle. Yet, I know there’s also a certainty, she is not so naive to think that it’s not only for the shire. There is with Milus always the element of personal gain. What’s to be got for him? I think there’s a real comfort relating to knowing that he’s there and that side of thing, protecting the castle and protecting her in the position of Baroness, she has his total support. It’s not as straightforward as that obviously because she also knows and sometimes doesn’t dare quite ask how he’s gone about his strategies and how he’s gone about achieving certain results. I think that for her that’s often not a point of contention. It’s a difficulty. How much to ask him. How much to let go unspoken. That’s part of what makes her character so complex. The end goal, the process, the end goal kind of outweighs the process and how you get there. I think she’s kind of realizing as she goes on in this role, the Baroness, and how to make these decisions that sometimes in that world you do have to overlook certain things for the greater good.
It’s really fun. I love it. It’s one of these real pull-push things between the two of them. I think she quite likes the kind of sparky-ness, their sparring, seeing if she can push certain buttons and he does the same to her. It’s a strange relationship, which I do continue to explore.”
Was playing the medieval violin a challenge? Were you playing a certain song in that scene?
Flora Spencer-Longhurst: “Yes, I was playing it. It is a medieval song, melody that is known. It wasn’t as big a challenge as you might think because I actually do play the violin. I’ve played the violin since I was little, since I was three and a half. I did play it quite seriously. In fact in terms of the bow hold and how you hold the instrument, it’s different. It’s lower but I’m very familiar with that. They gave me the music and I was able to use it. I did see a specialist rebec teacher, a medieval instrument specialist and we had a little lesson together. It was actually really lovely. That side of things, learning new skills and stuff is what I really enjoy about my job.”