'The Green Knight' Star Ralph Ineson On Playing The Man Beneath The Bark [Interview]

Ralph Ineson's gravelly voice rumbles even through tinny computer speakers, like it was unearthed from deep beneath the bowels of Earth. It's the kind of voice that you'd be surprised a real human being would have — it feels fit for some ancient, eldritch being rather than a British character actor who delighted in making the children on set of The Green Knight cry when he first made his appearance as the titular character in David Lowery's fantasy epic.

Yes, there was a person underneath that creaking tree-bark skin and dusty armor. It was Ralph Ineson, a familiar face in genre films like The Witch and TV shows like Game of Thrones, but nigh unrecognizable as the nameless Green Knight in The Green Knight. He's buried underneath layers of prosthetics crafted by Barrie Gower, a make-up designer who has worked on U.K. productions like Game of Thrones, to transform him into the enigmatic force of nature who storms into the court of Camelot on Christmas Day and lays down the challenge for a "game," which is taken up by Dev Patel's aspiring knight, Gawain.

There's an air of mystery to Ineson's Green Knight, one that the film never dares to answer — lest it may upset the balance of the universe. But Ineson offers an answer to who this mysterious figure is: "He loves his job and he enjoys other people's fear and how that game plays out, because he's done it a million times."

The fact that Ineson imagined the towering Green Knight as just a guy who enjoys is job is extremely funny, and lends to the "playfulness" that the actor wished to inject into the character. One that comes through in The Green Knight, a strange, surreal, and at-times-pretty-funny adaptation of a 14th century Arthurian poem. It's an intimidating, daunting film with Ineson's intimidating, daunting appearance as the Green Knight kicking off the action.

I spoke with Ineson over Zoom about giving some "soul" to an unearthly figure, acting with prosthetics, and what it was like the day that he first appeared on-set in costume in The Green Knight.

I know many people will be surprised to learn that there was someone underneath the tree bark skin and armor of The Green Knight... how much of your costume was prosthetics and how much was CGI?

100% prosthetic. There was no CGI involved. That's all. Yeah. So I sweated for that completely. None of it was done in the studio.

Wow. Well, I know David Lowery considered using a puppet early on to depict The Green Knight. How did you come into the picture as the actual actor to portray an all-prosthetic Green Knight figure?

I mean, I came in fairly late, I imagine, in the overall creative process. The prosthetic design of The Green Knight was already done. By the time I got sent the script, and after the part and... Yeah, it was obviously a tricky one, to be wearing that amount of prosthetics, but it was a rewarding one as well.

And how would you describe your characterization of The Green Knight — which is difficult when you really only get a handful of scenes in the film?

Yeah, I think the key to the characterization was to focus on not how scary and intimidating he is, because that's so much taken care of by the whole design of the character. So it was trying to work against that intimidating somber look of the character and find some playfulness and some fun in him, that challenging, tester of man character that he is, that makes people feel challenged and uncomfortable. So I think...finding that playfulness and that wink about him was very important.

You talked about how it was a very tricky performance, not only with the prosthetics, but portraying this figure that's more a force of nature than man. He's very enigmatic. As an actor, how do you go about portraying or depicting such a character that is hard to even describe on the page?

I think that you... yeah, you try and find the humanity in it because there's so much... like you say is, you're working with and against design, constantly, because it's very hard to change the overall impression of the character by your performance. But the beauty of the design is the prosthetics, which is done by Barrie Gower, who's the main guy in the UK because of Game of Thrones, all of those designs. The beauty of his design was that it left very important areas of the face free for me to do the work, where the latex was... as soon as you come down across... around my eyes and the parts... the edges of my mouth and things. So I could really use a lot of the expression, even though the character still looked like he's made out of wood. So it was a very practical piece of prosthetics to wear. I could still do a lot of my job, while still showing off his job, as it were.

Yeah. And is that where you're able to bring in some of that playfulness? Can you give examples of how you were able to add that playfulness to the character?

I just think the fact that he loves his job and he enjoys other people's fear and how that game plays out, because he's done it a million times. So it's not in any way terrifying to him. He knows how it ends. And it's always fun for him because he's done it a million times throughout... however long he's been alive, centuries, I always imagined. He's seen hundreds and hundreds of Gawains come up, but he really likes this guy, I think. He's got kind of a parental pride in the fact that eventually he does the right thing. I think he's challenged him and he's trying to bring the best out of him. And yeah, I think he likes this one.

This is one... So Gawain is one of the exceptions of the many people who he's played the "game" with in the past?

Yeah. But I think... Also, I think he quite likes the fact that he beheads him.

Yeah?

Because he goes, "Oh, well, you're going to have a good year, aren't you?" Because his other ones have kind of [given him] a cut on the cheek. So, there's lots of different ways of doing that. "Okay. Have a go and now you'll do the same next year." Gawain actually gets Excalibur and chops his head off. And he goes, "Whoa, respect mate. I'll see you in a year. See how that goes for you." And yet when [the year] does go, I think there's a disappointment and a challenge when Gawain still has the sash on and he flinches at the end of the movie. But a real genuine parental pride, almost, when he does the right thing.

So were these past adventures you mentioned, were they in the original screenplay or did you come up with some of them as a backstory for your character to get into the performance?

Yeah, that's how I saw it. I thought, "Well, you can't exactly do a standard character preparation and finding what their job is and who their married to and how many kids do they have." It's not really the normal approach you'd have to a character like this. The major thing was, "How old is he?" And you go, "Well, he's as old as he wants to be. Hundreds of years old and what does he do? He does this. And this is the game." So I just think he's eternally been doing this and he always will. And he'd seen hundreds and hundreds of Gawains.

But does he have kids?

No. No, he doesn't.

dev patel david lowery interview

So how much direction or what direction did David Lowery give you in performing this character?

Well, lots and very little, in a sense. Moment by moment on set... he's a wonderfully intuitive director, who understands actors, understands where performances are going, what's interesting to bring out to rehearsal and the true performance. But he also obviously has a very clear idea of what he wants as well. There's lots of very specific things to do with individual lines, but I think right from the start, we had a very similar idea of what we were trying to achieve with the character. So it was just great to be able to bounce ideas off of him... "Oh, wow, why don't we try this..." He's a very collaborative director who was wonderful to work with. And one of those directors that all the crew like as well, which is not often the same.

And those similar ideas for the basic idea of The Green Knight, being a man who loves this job and has been doing this for ages and finally sees someone who strikes interest in him?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's essentially...how it played out in my mind. Because I think it's important not to over-complicate things, film acting wise, because you've spent your life studying The Green Knight, so you have a different reading of it and it just confuses you. You're actually making David Lowery's version of The Green Knight. The Green Knight only exists in the words that are in that script. So your job as an actor is to make that character real in that moment on set, and then David will take it away and make a great movie out of it. I think  a lot of actors over intellectualize and over-complicate performances, when that's actually their job, just be truthful and real for that moment on set.

I know in the design, David Lowery was inspired by the Ents from Lord of the Rings. I know you just spoke about taking a very simple approach, but did you look into those fantasy inspirations for your performance of The Green Knight, as well, such as the Ents in Peter Jackson's films?

No. No, absolutely not, really, because...that feels really referential and I think that everything you make has got to be original, even if it's only in your own mind. For me, acting is all about tricking yourself. And if I was thinking about other films, it just makes it unreal. I'm thinking about that guy, that's who he is and that's who I am. It doesn't matter in relation to any other films because he's not a character in those films, he's a real person, in a sense. I know it sounds very pretentious but...

[Laughs] That's okay.

... if you're actually playing a character, you can't go, "Oh, is this character like a character in another film?" It's like, "What do you mean the character from the film? He's actually real." But maybe that's just me and my overactive imagination.

I mean, there's nothing wrong with an overactive imagination. So I feel like in every genre project that you've appeared in, like Game of Thrones, The Witch, you've managed to give off this almost timeless feeling, which makes your casting as this unearthly Green Knight, very apt. How do you manage to achieve this timelessness in your performance and settle into a certain time period or setting?

Thank you for saying that, but I don't know, to be honest. Although, I can tell you what I do, I always try and make it as simple as possible. So, William in The Witch, people say about their language, "Is that not a barrier?" And you're going, "No, it's the best thing in the world because you're actually speaking as closely to the way the guy would've spoken." The authenticity of the way that film was designed made it very easy to do. Yeah, I don't know. It's something that all the period stuff... it just helps to me if you can apply it to the immersion, I think it shouldn't be any different from playing a modern day character in a sense, it's the same process, for me anyway. I don't really see any different... I'm doing the same thing, I'm trying to make it truthful and honest. And you have lots of different ways to achieve that, but it's all pretty much the same job as far as I'm concerned.

Well, this renders null my next question then, which was going to be: How does this compare to other fantasy or periods/genre projects, like Game of Thrones or The Witch?

I mean a lot of those questions are actually very — it's very prosaic to say, but they're actually answered by budget. So, The Witch was absolutely wonderful. It was the best experience from my career, but it was a $3 million movie that we made in the wilds of Ontario. So it was really tough. Making Game of Thrones, they spend eight and a half million pounds an episode, so it was a much more comfortable experience. And then making The Green Knight, it's a well funded, independent movie. So again, that's the different things. So the experience is often down to something as prosaic as money.

So would you ever do again a performance like The Green Knight, in which you have to act extensively with prosthetics?

Yeah, it was a fear going into it that I'd be playing a character in a mask, or I'd be voicing a CGI character playing ghost mask. But the fact that it was 100% prosthetic makeup designed by Barrie Gower, who's the guy who does the best UK stuff and all that...

Did acting with prosthetics give you a different perspective on that whole area of acting?

Yeah. I mean, it was the most I've worn. I've worn all little bits and bobs before, but this was the heaviest prosthetic work I've had to do, which is 50% tough and 50% brilliant, in the sense that it's three and a half hours in the morning to get it on, it's an hour to get it off at the end of the day, so you have no leisure time to yourself when you're playing a character like that. And it's uncomfortable during the day. Your senses are all cut off, you can hardly see, you can hardly hear. So it's a weird thing to do. But on the other hand, riding into the court of Camelot on horseback as The Green Knight, and it being the first time that most of the cast and crew and supporting artists, anybody, had seen the character, and looking at the faces around the Round Table and behind the Round Table, it was all the people of Camelot families, like small children... and I genuinely had small children crying into their mother's aprons when they saw me. I was that scary.

And so as an actor, when you walk in, it doesn't matter how long you been in makeup, when you walk in, the whole room goes, "Oh my God." You go, "This is brilliant." I see it's amazing. All I have to do now is bring that character to life in closeups because in any long shot or any wide shot, the character just... the design of the costumes and the makeup and the fact that I'm riding on 17 pound horse in armor, it's just impressive anyway. So it takes a lot of pressure off you as an actor. It's like, "I've just got to find the soul in this so I don't have to play [too much]."

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The Green Knight is playing in theaters now.