“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
It’s perhaps the most famous line from William Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, Part Two, and in David Michôd’s film The King, as Timothée Chalamet‘s Hal looks out across the battlefield at Agincourt, France, before blood spills and swords clash, these words ring louder than any war cry.
Yet, that line is never uttered in The King. “There are some killer lines in the plays,” Michôd tells Entertainment Weekly ahead of the movie’s premiere in New York City, “but we had a rule: you either do it all and you do it with purity, or you do none of it.” When Joel Edgerton, one of the filmmaker’s longtime collaborators, first approached him with the idea to do some form of Henry IV and Henry V, they knew two things. The first, they would use “none of it” — little of Shakespeare’s language, that is — and instead beef up the story with historical accuracy and their own interpretations. The second, Michôd wanted to work with Chalamet, the young king of the indie space.
After Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, and Beautiful Boy, the 23-year-old had a rare opportunity in Hollywood to choose his next role. He, in turn, was looking to do something different, less expected, and to do something with Michôd. The King fulfilled that criteria.
With a cast that includes Edgerton (as Falstaff), Robert Pattinson (as the Dauphin of France), Leave No Trace‘s standout star Thomasin McKenzie (as Hal’s sister Philippa), Ben Mendelsohn (as English King Henry IV), Sean Harris (as Henry’s advisor), and Lily-Rose Depp (as Catherine of Valois), it’s Chalamet’s head as King Henry V that wears said crown in this story rooted in Shakespeare’s work but very much updated for the moment.
Sitting in a Manhattan hotel, Chalamet and Michôd discuss the actor’s latest transformation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know this will be released by Netflix, but was it important to have this film be shown on a big screen when you were looking for distribution?
DAVID MICHÔD: I’ve made two movies with Netflix now [after 2017’s War Machine] and I really love doing it because they make the kinds of movies that I love, just properly resourced movies for grownups. But, yeah, I think any filmmaker wants to know that all of that hard work is going to end up on the big screen for an audience to see somewhere along the line. I actually love the way it’s structured now with three weeks [in theaters]. Those people who really want to seek it out and have that experience can have it, but without the burden of 3,000 screens and everyone watching the box office like hawks. It’s not healthy. So, this situation I like a lot.
And a lot more people will probably see this movie around the world.
I promise to get into more of the intricacies of craft, but I wanted to ask about all the bowl haircuts in this movie. How did this become so crucial to the film?
MICHÔD: It’s a little bit of historical accuracy… or a lot of historical accuracy. There’s really only one existing portrait of Henry V. It’s a famous bowl haircut. But, also for me, knowing that I was casting Timmy Chalamet, whose performance in Call Me By Your Name I had fallen in love with, it felt incredibly important that he undergo a transformation, that the character transform both internally and externally. I really loved the idea of taking some kind of facsimile of that character from Call Me By Your Name and plunking him in the Middle Ages, but then suddenly this monumental burden is placed upon his shoulders and the transformation begins. It felt important to me that the transformation be visible and stark.
When did the transformation, for you, feel real? Was it the hair?
TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET: It might’ve been the first time I saw a stunt video, a rehearsal we had done for the Hotspur fight and not even with Tommy Glynn-Carney [who plays Henry Percy Hotspur] but a stunt guy. Not in a self-congratulatory, but self-encouraging way, I thought, “Keep getting after this,” because I think at the origin I really had doubts about my ability within it. And then, once I saw that video, I thought, “Okay, I’ve already taken a couple of steps.” So, that felt like encouragement.
Was there any specific kind of project or specific kind of character you were looking to take on after Call Me By Your Name and Beautiful Boy?
CHALAMET: Anything that would’ve been not evident. This was mainly the opportunity to work with David and to work on material that had historical weight but felt like there was gonna be a new take on it in some way. I just want to work on anything good and that’s the truth. That could be TV, that could be musicals, that could be miniseries, that could be movies. There’s something particular about this movie that I’m proud of which is that it’s about what it’s about, and what that is is someone with good intent — or at least acting with good intent and honor — thrust into a circumstance that, even with decisive action to go in the opposite direction of his father, is weak in comparison to the pre-existing institutions of power. That has contemporary allegories what with leaders we have today who should have no business leading countries, but also for young people. You can draw a parallel to the climate crisis we have in the world now where they are thrust into a circumstance that is way beyond what is management, not to be cynical but affectable.
Is that what you meant when you say this movie was “not evident”?
CHALAMET: Yeah, I don’t think it was. Netflix was the place that was gonna make it at the size that it deserved to be, whereas other studios might balk or something. I think it’s not evident, too, because you would think with historical drama you would know what the palette of that is and this is a testament to David and [cinematographer] Adam [Arkapaw]. And not by calculation on my part, but simply because of my way of my actual youth and actually being Franco-American, it’s not “the good Prince Hal.” It’s something else. Again, it’s that point of pride where it’s about what it’s about.
David, I know there was a little bit of Shakespearian source material and then you built upon the story. What compelled you to go that route instead of a strict Henry IV, Henry V Shakespeare adaptation?
MICHÔD: Shakespeare was where it began because Joel was the one who brought the idea to me. He had played Hal on stage in both Henry IVs and Henry V when he was fresh out of drama school in Sydney and I think it was a seminal creative and professional moment for him. When we first started talking about it, re-reading the plays, we knew that we wanted to move away from Shakespeare, even on a formal level. We wanted to make a piece of raw and real-ish cinema. The Shakespeare text, that had been written to be presented on an Elizabethan stage, didn’t really lend themselves to [that]. But, also, there were thematic and political reasons why we wanted to move away from the Shakespeare. We also knew that one of the things we wanted to hold onto was the character that Joel plays, Falstaff, who’s a Shakespearian contrivance and a glorious one. From the outset, we knew we would be taking some basic scaffolding from Shakespeare, drawing a lot on real history, and then going hog wild with the imagination and engaging in our own grotesque piece of historical revisionism as Shakespeare did.
Did you have any guiding principles in terms of differentiating your version of Henry versus Shakespeare or historical depictions?
MICHÔD: There are some killer lines in the plays, but we had a rule: you either do it all and you do it with purity, or you do none of it. That was the first guiding principle. Beyond that, you try to tread as close to history as possible, but, as they say, never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. And we’re stealing. Also, it’s not like Shakespeare was a rigorously authentic historian.
Did you guys see this film as an opportunity to step outside your comfort zones in certain ways?
MICHÔD: Absolutely. When Joel came to me with this prospect, my first thought, as it so often is, was no. It would never have occurred to me to do a medieval swords and horses movie. But one of the things, as also so often happens, is I find myself drawn to the challenge of doing the thing that I mightn’t have thought was natural to me and, what would my version of it be? As soon as I click into that groove, it actually becomes exciting but daunting. Like Timmy, I don’t want to do the obvious next thing and I think it makes getting a handle on what my thing is maybe a little bit difficult because I feel myself falling asleep doing the same thing again.
CHALAMET: It was very challenging. When you’re 12 years old, you want to be an actor almost to a cartoonish degree with the swords and the horses and the fight training and playing a king and learning an accent. On the other hand, working with Ben Mendelsohn, Sean Harris, handling a role that would’ve made no sense to have fireworks involved, I found myself learning subconsciously more than I can even word… within the context of the movie and also the framework of the story and the politics and the government, what that weight is.
I want to ask you guys about the big battle scene [The Battle of Agincourt]. I couldn’t help but think of Game of Thrones and “The Battle of the Bastards” because there’s that aerial shot where Falstaff looks like he’s suffocating from the soldiers and then there’s the long tracking shot after [Timothée] comes in. Was that at all an influence?
MICHÔD: No. Weirdly, I am that person who has not watched [a lot of] Game of Thrones. I weirdly put myself through the bizarre experience of watching the final episode. Having said that, I did watch “The Battle of the Bastards” really early on when I was way deep in preproduction when we were trying to work out how to achieve the battle. We were actually thinking specifically about visual effects. So, I can’t claim not to have seen “The Battle of the Bastards,” but I can claim, in all honesty, to have had no idea that I was basically ripping that shot off. The great irony is I went to great lengths to shoot the battle from human eye level to keep it all very earthed and real and stay away from the drones and the big crane shots. [The aerial shot] That’s the one shot that’s a crane shot from the sequence. You’d think someone, somewhere along the line when we were finishing the movie would’ve said, “Hey, just so you know…”
What was the preparation like for it?
CHALAMET: Oh, it was enormous. Getting out to England well in advance, getting in touch with the plays, and trying to commit the architecture of those plays to heart, trying to get the physicality right for the character, trying to put on some weight, not to the point where — it probably wouldn’t have been possible anyway — the idea wasn’t that Henry was kicking ass but rather he could survive and that the act of valor comes in his presence in the battle. There’s a dialect, obviously, portion to it. I worked with a great coach named Neil Swain, who’s worked with a lot of American actors when they do English accents. Then, hanging out with Joel a lot, Sean Harris, and trying to build those relationships by way of experience, and then just spending time in London, obviously, way past the period this film takes place just to be out there and being where it takes place. The surrounding areas we got to shoot in are really such a treat because basically nothing shoots out there probably because it probably would’ve been too expensive to shoot out there for some reason. So, it was a little bit of everything. Edie Falco did a Q&A that I saw when I was growing up where someone said, “What’s your process?” And she shortly said, “I don’t know what it is, I just do it.” I was like, How does this live? How is this gonna be a real thing?
MICHÔD: You do all the prep you can. You prep the thing to within an inch of its life. You storyboard it and talk about it and schedule it really intricately and do everything you can to turn up on the day prepped and then you turn up on the day and just s— your pants and swim, and everything changes instantly the second you start. That many moving parts and that much chaos, everything immediately starts changing, but you can always fall back on the prep that you’ve done. You’ve done the work. [To Chalamet] I’m sure it’s true for you. You want to forget all the work you’ve done, but every now and then you need to get back to center. Of all the things I’ve ever shot, [the battle] required the most preparation, but it was also the most chaotic thing I’ve ever done.
Is it harder to shoot those action scenes or when it’s just you and the camera and it’s all about your face?
CHALAMET: It depends. I hadn’t shot anything like this before and I guess the gift is you’re not really acting. It is moment-to-moment survival and true to the style that David wanted where it wasn’t like a lightsaber sequence but properly messy and dangerous.
The King is currently playing in select theaters. It will begin streaming Nov. 1 on Netflix.