Despite its well-intentioned nature, the old phrase “Daddy’s little girl” has taken on a very different – and extremely dangerous – meaning in the hit BBC fantasy series Merlin. As the ward of King Uther of Camelot, the beautiful Morgana had everything a young woman could ever want, except, of course, any claim to the throne. That honor is reserved for Uther’s son, Prince Arthur.
Things changed, however, when Morgana discovered she was, in fact, the king’s illegitimate daughter. Guided by her half-sister and scheming sorceress Morgause, she honed her own magical abilities and used dark magic in an effort to take what she felt was rightfully hers. With Morgause by her side, Morgana managed to dethrone Uther and crown herself the new Queen of Camelot towards the end of the show’s third season. Luckily, Arthur and The Kings of the Round Table, with the magical assistance of the prince’s right-hand man Merlin, were able to defeat the sisters and oust Morgana from the throne.
In Merlin’s two-part season four opener The Darkest Hour, (airing in the U.S. on Syfy, Friday, January 6th @ 10:00 p.m. EST/PST and on Canada’s SPACE Channel, Saturday, January 7th @ 8:00 p.m. EST/PST) Morgana’s resolve to bring the people of Camelot to their knees is stronger then ever. The sorceress summons the mighty Callieach (pronounced “kay-lix”) to tear open the veil between the worlds. Hellish creatures pour forth, killing any who succumb to their touch. With Uther a shadow of his former self, it falls to Merlin, Arthur and his loyal Knights to protect the kingdom.
Katie McGrath has spent the past four years captivating viewers with her deliciously wicked portrayal of the scorned sorceress Morgana. Prior to taking a brief winter holiday, the actress spent some time chatting about the new season of Merlin, the virtues of playing evil, “Jitterbug Perfume,” the recurring medieval themes in her professional life, The West Wing, Louis XIV, and Florence and the Machine. The following is that BBC Press Q & A. Enjoy!
The fourth season of Merlin continues down a darker, more dramatic path. Do you feel the show is following a natural evolution?
KATIE MCGRATH: The guys (co-creators Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy) have found a formula that works, and they’ve taken it to the next level with the fourth season. This is clearly their most ambitious. In four seasons, the characters have changed and grown, and the audience has grown with them. Merlin still has all the great comedy and relationships that the audiences adore, but we’ve gotten more sinister and the show has gotten there in a very organic way. That was the path that was destined for us. Plus the show has gotten more feature film-like – it’s bigger in many ways than when we started, visually and in the storytelling. So our episodes are now more like 14 little cinematic films.
In Season Four, Morgana is having dreams that include visions of her future as well as an aged, bearded Merlin (Colin Morgan). How does this affect her perspective of what she’s doing?
KM: I think it breathes a fear in her of this character. Morgana doesn’t know that this vision is actually Merlin – she only knows the name Emrys and that he’s a very powerful person. Before the visions, Morgana didn't believe she had anything to worry about, because she is so powerful herself. But these visions breed a fear and mistrust in her because she can’t fight what she doesn’t know. So her fear and paranoia of Emrys becomes a major part of the fourth season.
Has Morgana’s appearance also made the transition to evil?
KM: Morgana now kind of looks like a Goth Jessica Rabbit. She’s the character that really changes the most in the series because of where she starts and where she has to go – it’s a massive transformation. A year has passed since third season ended, and you can’t underestimate how that has changed her. Morgana has fully embraced her magical side now – she doesn’t have to play the dual role game anymore – and that is reflected inside and out.
Morgana has also given up wielding swords for telekinetics, tossing knights 20 feet in the air. Obviously it’s an effect, but do those scenes still give you some playful thrill?
KM: I love those scenes. Every time a woman gets to throw a man around the room, it’s good. To take a man like Tom Hopper, who is around six foot five, and toss him across the set with just the power of your mind – oh, that’s fun!
Morgana is the villain, but she didn’t start that way – and the fans adored her. So how do you create some form of humanity or sympathy for such a wicked character?
KM: It’s fairly easy for me because ultimately I believe in what she’s doing, and why she’s doing it. She’s been betrayed by her father, ostracized from her family, and she’s all alone. She’s been taken down this path and, now, in Season Four, she’s lost her sister. So she’s running on pure revenge. Pure adrenaline fueled by pure revenge. I do feel sorry for her. If you look at it from her perspective, she’s just desperately trying to get back something she lost. I think audiences will sympathize with that.
Your fame has gone global, and there’s no greater testament to that fact than seeing the UK government recognize the series’ popularity with a set of postage stamps. What’s it like to find your face on a stamp?
KM: Honestly, that is so cool. It’s actually a bit surreal. There’s an envelope that goes with the stamp, and I took the stamp, put it on the envelope, and mailed it to my mother. She now has it properly displayed – she was so happy and proud.
It’s funny because often those things – the stamps and toys and action figures, etc. – come out while we’re filming, and we’re so apart from things while on set that it all just kind of washes over you. But then when you see the reaction in the eyes of your family – to see how they react to the toys or stamps, or to be on stage at Comic-Con and see that little glint of joy in your brother’s eye – that’s when you realize how lucky you are and how special the job is that you’re doing.
Have you learned anything about yourself from playing Morgana?
KM: I guess I’ve learned that I love bringing out my inner bitch, because I play those roles so well. I certainly keep getting cast as these horrible, horrible women, so I must be underneath, right (she laughs)? The wonderful thing about playing Morgana is that she’s so different from me that it’s very clear when I’m being Morgana and when I’m Katie. I don’t try to kill my siblings (she jokes). So there’s no confusion, no blurred lines. But I do keep getting these bad girl roles. The funny thing is that, honestly, I don’t think I’m believable as these aristocratic mean girls. But I do love playing them.
You’ve done a number of projects – most notably Merlin and the upcoming Labyrinth (again with John Hurt, who provides the voice for The Great Dragon in Merlin) – that take place during medieval times. Are you drawn to this time period, and if you could pick an era to have lived in, what would it be and why?
KM: I think this period is drawn to me. Maybe people don’t see me as believable playing a person of today. I guess I’m just more realistic in a corset and funny hairstyles (she laughs). Still, if I could have picked an era to have lived, I think I would’ve loved to have been one of Louis XIV’s mistresses. They were so fantastic and aristocratic, and they had so much power. And he was such a renaissance man. I think I would’ve fit into that nicely.
Can you watch Merlin or any of your various projects and enjoy the shows and films as your fans do, or does your on-screen presence distract you?
KM: I can’t watch most of my work. Once I come on screen, all I can think of is “What am I doing with my hands?” or “Why did I lean that way?” or “What’s that look on my face?” It’s too difficult to not focus on evaluating my acting. The great thing about Merlin is that I can be quite separate. There are so many episodes where I’m not in many scenes – I think probably 75 percent of the season has scenes I wasn’t involved in filming. In that way, it’s all new to me. So I can sit down and thoroughly immerse myself in Merlin.
You’re known as a voracious reader. What are you reading now?
KM: “The Lies of Locke Lamora” – genius! My brother got me the second book for Christmas, too. And “Jitterbug Perfume,” which was a present from my make-up artist on Labyrinth. She swears it's epic, and I trust her. She’s pretty epic herself.
Do you have any appointment television shows?
KM: The West Wing. God, I adore that show. And I have to watch Band of Brothers every time it's on telly. It's the most perfect 10 hours of viewing ever made.
What’s the current favorite song or album on your iPod?
KM: Future Islands, a great, epic, wonderful band, and the new Florence and the Machine album. I love her, I want to be her. And Guns N’ Roses; there is never a time when G N’R is not perfect.