‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell’ interview: Enzo Cilenti on playing Childermass

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Enzo Cilenti’s one of those actors you’ll have seen many times before without realising it.

But he’s an increasingly busy fellow on our screens both big and small, most recently having appeared in Game of Thrones (as a much thinner Yezzan than readers might have expected), Wolf Hall, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Theory of Everything.

Right now he’s starring in BBC One’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (out on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 29 June), as Norrell’s mysterious and sexy-voiced Yorkshire servant Childermass.

> Order the DVD on Amazon.

> Order the Blu-ray on Amazon.

A couple of days before he was due to cycle up France’s Mont Ventoux on a tandem with his dad, all in aid of Parkinsons UK (as of writing this they’d almost doubled their total goal of donations), CultBox sat down for a quick chat with Enzo about the show…


Were you a fan of the book before you auditioned?

“I wasn’t a fan, I hadn’t read the book. I was aware of it just because I’d seen the different covers all over the place and one particular Christmas my brother-in-law just disappeared from view and we didn’t see his face behind this white raven on a maroon dust jacket for about three weeks.

“I was aware of it, then I got the script for Episode 1 and completely loved it. Then I did the first meeting, completely fell in love with Toby Haynes the director, and I thought we really got on. But I didn’t think I’d got the audition because I thought ‘Childermass is the best role in it, it’s going to go to someone amazing and famous’.

“And I didn’t hear anything so I began reading the book, and I fell in love with it. Then another couple of meetings down the line they offered Childermass to me, which I couldn’t really believe.

“In terms of joy of getting jobs that ranked definitely Number 1. It was a really great moment. Sometimes when you want something that much you kind of shy away from it, so you don’t commit fully, but I just decided I wasn’t going to lose the role for lack of trying.

“I kept sending Toby videos of me doing other things as Childermass, and redoing the scenes from the audition. I just grabbed my wife (Sienna Guillory) and annoyed the hell out of her and made her read in and tape it, because I was desperate to get it and didn’t want to lose it.”


You had Vinculus as a ‘Plan B’ in case you didn’t get Childermass, didn’t you?

“That’s true, I loved Vinculus as well. And sometimes it works like that – they cast it as an ensemble – and in terms of what they do in the book Vinculus and Childermass are aligned ultimately. But those two characters are the most fun. Vinculus is certainly the most mysterious.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 1 Vinculus (PAUL KAYE)

“And as I kept reading it I wondered where these two guys were going and what was happening with them and what their stories were. To me they’re the most exciting.

“But I also knew when I was auditioning that Eddie Marsan was playing Norrell, and I was desperate to work alongside Eddie, who’s such a fantastic actor. I’ve been a massive fan of his work for so long.”


It’s all so well cast. Everyone in it feels like they just jumped out of the pages of the book…

“Yeah, I thought that. I can’t speak for me, but looking around at everyone else it was just magical because by the time we started filming I was a fan of the book and it was so exciting; seeing them come to life.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 6

“There’s a wonderful article that Susanna Clarke wrote for The Guardian where she says ‘All these characters in my mind were suddenly walking about in front of me’, and to a lesser extent that was the same for all of us.

“What was lovely about it was that everyone was as excited as I was to be there and playing that particular part. It’s a testament to the characters in the book and how well-drawn that even if you don’t like them you can empathise with them. Even Lascelles…”


I hate him!

“He’s a nasty piece of work, but he’s incredibly compelling! Working with John Heffernan was absolutely delicious. He’s extraordinary.”


He makes such a good job of being a villain, you want to punch Lascelles.

“He does!

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 3 Lascelles (JOHN HEFFERNAN)

“And John is just the nicest person you could possibly wish to meet. There’s nothing to dislike about him, apart from that he has so much talent.”


You’ve made Childermass the ultimate Yorkshireman – the voice in particular is brilliant!

“Thank you! That was the only thing – I sort of accidentally remained faithful to the book – I didn’t think about taking it in a different direction or actively following the book. It was just because I had devoured it, it was completely visceral. And the voice was the only ‘brain thing’ about it.

“I thought of Childermass as someone who’s older than I am. He’s certainly someone who’s lived longer and fuller and had more experience. And it just seemed like doing something with the voice was the right way to go about that rather than doing a hunched back or something like that.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 4 Childermass (ENZO CILENTI)

“It was a very nerve-wracking thing, because the last thing you want to do is do a silly voice and for them to just say ‘Oh that was lovely but can you do it in your own voice?’. That’s just be the worst thing ever. Because of the long audition process and the fact there were so many meetings before it, it just stuck, and it obviously felt right for Toby.

“And the Yorkshireness of it was something I connected with. It’s part of the book and I loved the idea of Yorkshire being romanticised. Childermass is the flag-bearer for Yorkshire, he’s the Yorkshire Jedi. It’s difficult not to love.”


That scene when you first encounter Vinculus in the market in Episode 1 is brilliant. Did you have a favourite scene?

“Oh yeah, that was an audition scene, which usually are a nightmare to choose! You connect them emotionally to being nervous because you’re doing them in the audition. You connect them to someone judging you a little bit.

“And you’ve also kind of overthought it because you know that scene and have been familiar with it for so long that it’s difficult to make it fresh. And because it’s chosen for the audition scene there’s this heightened expectation that it’s a massively important scene, the most important scene.

“So they’re usually the least satisfying thing to do. That one we filmed on three separate occasions. We filmed in situ where the tent was, then once again when we got to York to do some close-up stuff, then we filmed it again in studio to do even more close-up stuff. So I’m really pleased it turned out well and people liked that scene because it was really tough going!

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell 1

“Usually the scenes that are enjoyable are ones where you’ve got loads of chat. But the lovely thing about Childermass is how brooding and internal he is, and what he doesn’t say. So even in those scenes where I’m lurking in the background it just felt there was a lot to do. It’s all there in the book. You shoot any scene and it’s there in the book, and it’s beautifully drawn, so you’ve got this wonderful instruction pamphlet – well, ‘pamphlet’, 900 pages! – as a crib-sheet.

“I just watched Episode 5 and the one scene I have with Strange, Bertie [Carvel], which was lovely to do. I really enjoyed that, I think because he’s going over to the other side and it’s very revealing for the character of Childermass. It would’ve been a shame to do seven episodes of that show without one scene with just Bertie.

“So that was one of many high points in terms of shooting, and one I remember very well. We were both really keen to make that work and we had so much fun doing it.”


Jonathan Strange DVD

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 29 June 2015 from RLJ Entertainment’s Acorn Label.

> Order the DVD on Amazon.

> Order the Blu-ray on Amazon.

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