New FX Series set in ‘Pre-Renaissance, post-Crusades’ 14th Century Wales
Actor Lee Jones, a 32-year-old from Sydney, plays the title character in this new bloody drama but had done almost no television before producer Kurt Sutter picked him to lead the follow-up to his hit series “Sons of Anarchy,” putting significant weight on the unknown theater actor’s burly shoulders.
The two-hour pilot episode, set to air Sept. 15, cost about $10 million to make, and the per-episode budget is twice that of Sons of Anarchy, which cost roughly $2.5 million each. On sets in and around Cardiff, Wales, the production team needed to make period costumes and weapons, build a castle set and populate a village.
“Horses are a lot more expensive than motorcycles,” Mr. Sutter says, noting that a portion of the spending is balanced out by tax incentives for TV productions that set up shop in the U.K.
In Bastard Executioner, Jones plays Wilkin Brattle, a former knight in the service of King Edward I who suffers from a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder as he tries to settle into domestic life in the countryside. After a tragedy causes him to dig out his sword again, he is forced to assume the identity of an executioner-for-hire. The violent masquerade thrusts him into the world of nobles who are trying to put down a rebellion.
Watch the trailer here:
The show is set in the historical window of 1300s Britain. “Pre-Renaissance, post-Crusades,” he says. “Everybody was having Catholicism jammed down their throats, and we were basically half a generation from believing trolls lived under the bridge. It was an interesting place for humanity because we weren’t quite there yet in terms of art and music.”
He says FX chief executive John Landgraf had concerns that the violence in the show would get repetitive, a scenario that Mr. Sutter describes as “a head in a basket each week.” Still, viewers should know to expect a certain level of bloodshed from a cable series with the word “executioner” in the title. “It’s not called ‘The Coronation of the Rose,’ ” Mr. Sutter jokes.
Critics of the writer’s work say he gets too carried away with violence. On Sons of Anarchy, for example, Mr. Sutter was especially harsh on a character that he played himself, Otto. The biker gets stabbed in the eye, bites off his own tongue rather than testify against his brethren, suffers rapes in prison, and ultimately gets shot to death. Mr. Sutter counters his critics by saying that the violence isn’t gratuitous, and is part of the cause-and-effect arcs of his characters.
In Bastard Executioner, True Blood star Stephen Moyer plays a shrewd counselor to a ruthless baron. Katey Sagal, who is married to Mr. Sutter and portrayed a flinty matriarch in Sons of Anarchy, plays a white-haired healer with mysterious motives for guiding the executioner. Mr. Sutter paired himself with his wife in the role of the Dark Mute, a sentinel figure whose body scars require the producer to sit for four hours in the makeup chair.
The search for the main antihero dragged on for months until production was about to begin on the pilot. Mr. Sutter says he wanted to avoid “the typical 5-foot-9 Hollywood guy with the big head,” but he didn’t find his man in London, either. “I don’t know if it was a cultural thing or the training,” he says, “but all those actors had a little too much [Benedict] Cumberbatch—not to disrespect Mr. Cumberbatch. Just a little too posh, no matter how good their acting was.”
The search expanded to Australia, where “they just grow them bigger,” Mr. Sutter says. Mr. Jones, who had recently spent seven months playing the monster in a Sydney stage production of Frankenstein, was shuttling back and forth to Los Angeles looking for work when he submitted an audition tape for The Bastard Executioner. The actor recalls, “Things were looking a bit tough for a while. I was struggling.”
He was in California when he got the call to audition in London for the show that rearranged his life (and hits the air on his 33rd birthday).
Mr. Sutter recalls, “He walks in with these big swimmer’s shoulders—handsome, but not pretty, with a kind of a swagger—and he goes up to read, and part of me is saying, ’Please don’t suck. Please don’t suck.’ ”