April 14, 2023

‘The Last Kingdom’ Oral History: Alexander Dreymon, Mark Rowley and More Break Down How the Epic Netflix Series Became a Sleeper Hit

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“The Last Kingdom” is ready for its last run.

With the debut of the feature-length film “Seven Kings Must Die” on Netflix on April 14, the epic series is wrapping up, with the fifth and final season having aired on Netflix in March 2022.

The film serves as a fitting send off to the series, which is based on the Bernard Cornwell novel series “The Saxon Stories.” Like the books, the show follows the fictional character Uhtred (played by Alexander Dreymon), a Saxon who was captured and raised by Danish invaders in England in the ninth century A.D. Uhtred is raised to live the life of a viking, but destiny puts him in the employ of the House of Wessex and King Alfred, who seeks to unite the disparate kingdoms into one country called England.

With a basis in real history and top-notch stunts, acting and writing, the show has quietly grown into one of the most popular titles in the streaming space despite virtually no promotion or fanfare. When Nielsen revealed its list of the most popular streaming titles of 2022, “The Last Kingdom” came in at No. 14, ahead of Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” and ranking not far below hits like “The Crown,” “The Umbrella Academy” and “Stranger Things.”

Yet “The Last Kingdom” has reportedly shot its entire run on a tight budget and schedule, especially when compared to shows like “Rings of Power” or “Game of Thrones” spinoff “House of the Dragon.” It also changed platforms midway through its run. The show originated on BBC Two and BBC America before Netflix came on to produce and solely distribute the series beginning with its third season.

How, then, did this show come out of nowhere and become the definition of a sleeper hit? Below, Variety speaks with cast members and producers about how the show came to be and how it will conclude.

Nigel Marchant (series showrunner and executive producer via Carnival Films): It was during the success of “Downton Abbey.” There were tremendous changes in television in terms of the scale and what could be achieved with CGI and visual effects. The question was put to the development team, “What’s a book you read and loved that we couldn’t have made five or 10 years ago that we could look at now?” Then the team brought “The Last Kingdom” and Bernard’s world to us. What really grabbed our attention was the duality of the character — Saxon and Dane — and that personal journey. Also this period in history had never particularly been explored on the small screen.

One of the biggest challenges for the show would be to find an actor who could convincingly embody the character of Uhtred. But the production team knew they had struck gold when they found Alexander Dreymon.

Marchant: Alex was born in Germany and then spent time over in America. He had this kind of international duality himself. And what he really had was a presence, a leading man quality that we thought the genre needed and deserved. Our casting director and Nick Murphy — the director of that first block of episodes — fell in love with him immediately.

Alexander Dreymon (“Uhtred” and series co-producer): It was just toward the beginning of sending self-tapes, so it would have been April of 2014 I sent in a tape. Then I got hired in September or October. It took a long time. It was produced by Carnival, which is part of NBCUniversal, for BBC Two and BBC America at the time. So all the heads had to agree that this was the guy who was going to do it…It came linked with the books and so I just got into the books and it gave me a very clear idea of what it was going to be.

The series also managed to put together an impressive cast going into its first season, including David Dawson as King Alfred, Emily Cox as Brida, Harry McEntire as Aethelwold, Ian Hart as Father Beocca and Eliza Butterworth as Aelswith.

Dreymon: The casting department excelled…Alex Irwin and Kelly Valentine Hendry, they really deserve a shout out…The greatest thing is, what they did is not only did they cast actors who are great for the part, but they also cast actors who are great for the family, you know, for the on-set atmosphere. In my opinion, that is a character in and of itself, that makes the show what it is. It would never have been what it is if we didn’t have the relationship we have together.

Marchant: I look back on just how delicious that cast was. Kelly Valentine Hendry did the entire series with her colleagues. Dave Dawson was just brilliant, as were Emily and Eliza and Ian, all of them. She just put this gorgeous cast together. And the other big decision we had was again, this was with the BBC’s support, but we really felt it was important to have our Danes be Scandinavian actors and that was lovely. We found all of this talent over there that was so rich and so brilliant.

Work on the show began in late 2014 in Hungary, with the show using Budapest as its base of operations throughout its run.

Dreymon: Starting the show was just so exciting. Everything was new. I had been doing horseback riding when I was a kid when I was living in South Dakota. So I was so excited about getting back on a horse and having that be part of my job. What a luxury… There was just so much prep work to do. That first season, that’s really all I did. I just worked. Toward the end of it, I remember between takes just taking my fur off and lying on it wherever I was standing, just lying down and taking a power nap for however many seconds I had before the next take. I was so tired, so exhausted.

Marchant: We’ve had other shows in this same genre, and you’re trying to compete with them without, necessarily, the budget. So how can you be creative to get the best production value on screen so that you can compete with those shows? We very much did want to not be compared to “Game of Thrones.” We were looking at real history with a couple of fictitious characters, but it was historical, it wasn’t fantasy. Nick Murphy as director, Chrissy Skinns our producer, and Gareth [Neame] and I, we brought that team on very early to really sit down and work out, what are we building? What’s our base?

With the second season, Uhtred began to form what fans took to calling Team Uhtred. Mark Rowley and Arnas Fedaravičius both joined the series in roles that would take them through Season 5 and into “Seven Kings Must Die.”

Mark Rowley (“Finan”): I became aware of the show when I was auditioning for the show. I ended up doing a bit of research and then very quickly become a fan. The thing that really stuck out to me when I first watched it was not actually the visuals, it’s the sound. You know, it’s very iconic. I’m not going to try and replicate how [Eivør] sings the opening theme [laughs].

Arnas Fedaravičius (“Sihtric”): Actually, I was aware of it like a little over a year before I joined. I noticed it in my peripheral. I was scrolling through some platforms looking for something to watch and I noticed it but I never engaged in it…When I got the job, I remember watching the very last episode when there was that huge battle and Alex was doing all those crazy stunts and jumping over shields. It was a very dramatic journey. When it all ended, I kind of got emotional realizing how big of a thing this is.

Walking onto any new set can be intimidating, but one thing all who spoke with Variety agreed upon was that Dreymon set the tone for the set and what it meant to be No. 1 on the call sheet.

Rowley: It was fantastic working with Alex, it really was. He is honestly one of the best leads I have ever worked with. He is so open, respectful. Especially on set, he makes sure every everyone is heard. And that’s across the board, even from the driver, or the people working in the kitchens. It’s really inspiring. We talked about it on set, all of the guys, that it’s been such a learning curve learning from him how to be a leading actor in a TV show. Alex is a prime example of how to do it properly.

Fedaravičius: I was very stressed because I hadn’t been on a show before. I hadn’t been on something that’s like family based and running for a longer time. So it was a very new experience and I was very nervous. But then I met Alex and he’s the nicest person you’ve ever met. I don’t think I’ve met a nicer person. And that kind of set the tone like, “Maybe this is going to be okay.”

“The Last Kingdom” has consistently been praised for a number of things, but its stunt work has always been top of the list. The show features epic battles and fight scenes every season that continued to push the envelope.

Dreymon: I loved all the stunt stuff! Our stunt coordinator, Levente Lezsák, is just the best guy. We became friends instantly. This show wouldn’t exist without him. He was such a such an integral part of it…Working with those guys was just so cool because they’re all so on top of their game. Like the the two stunt doubles that I had — the first one was Bence and the second one was Tamás, who stayed with me for a long time then also became our fight master.

They both trained with a guy called Kassai Lajos, who is a Hungarian national treasure because he’s revived the ancient art of horseback archery as it had been practiced by the Huns…He lives on this big farm. First time I met him, he was standing in horse training arena, which is huge. And he had spun a wire from one end to the other. He was balancing on one foot on the wire, there was a small target in each corner very far away. And he had two quivers. And while he’s balancing on one foot, he takes an arrow, shoots it into one target, then changes hands, takes another arrow from the other quiver, and shoots into the other one and just empties the quivers. Every shot is a bullseye. So that just tells you a little bit about the skill level that these guys had.

The show received positive reviews from critics from the outset, but was by no means a breakout hit in the early going.

Marchant: It was always respected, but it had not quite found its audience at the beginning. I think that’s been a gradual process.

Things began to change once Netflix became the sole distributor in Season 3, even to the point of what the show could get away with in terms of its content.

Fedaravičius: The transition was very vivid. We could definitely feel the transition to Netflix because, if you remember, we started Season 3 with, like, burning priests alive [laughs] and a level of violence that prior to moving to Netflix wasn’t necessarily available…I think Season 3 was definitely one of my favorite seasons, remembering it for my character as well.

Rowley: I feel like every season is different, even purely by the haircuts [laughs]. It’s just so much fun. This is what I always say to people, because people are like “Oh, it must must be crazy with all those swords and shields and spears,” and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s fun, but you’ve got to remember, we are grown men playing with plastic swords! [laughs] They add in the ting ting after!” So it’s fun and engaging just carrying on with your pals every day. It’s brilliant. Yes, there are scenes where you really need to concentrate on it. There’s some scenes that you need to bring your heart and your soul to. But for Season 3, it was just brilliant, especially with the iconic characters that came in. Season 3 to me was my favorite.

Dreymon: My favorite scenes to do were the ones between David and myself at the end of Season 3…We always shot two episodes in one block and then we will change directors. And that was the last block. So it was it was very much towards the end and I think it might even have been David’s last scenes on the show ever. I’m not 100% sure, but certainly very close to it. So that was an emotional time anyway, but they were great. And yeah, David is just such a gem to work with. Anything you throw at him, you know that he’ll catch it and throw it right back. He’s so well prepared and so precise.

One thing that did not change? The budgets and tight shooting schedule.

Dreymon: It got worse [laughs]. We had to put out a product that looked like it was bigger, like it had a higher production value. It did, but we didn’t get a higher budget. On the contrary. So we all just got better at what we did and working together.

Marchant: Don’t get me wrong, I’d love that [“Rings of Power” or “House of the Dragon”] budget [laughs]. But I like to think that’s where creativity comes from. If you’ve got a budget, and you’ve got to stick to it, you need that collaboration between all of the departments and certainly the writers and directors, the fight choreography. How do we achieve this? How do we work together? What’s that area that’s worth spending our money on?

Rowley: I think it comes down to storyline. If you have a good storyline and strong characters, then people are gonna watch it. You know, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or you want to throw at a project. If it’s not got a soul and it’s not got actors and creators behind it who care about it, it’s gonna be different, isn’t it? And I think with “The Last Kingdom,” all of us who got involved with the show, we put our heart and soul into it.

With the release of Seasons 3 and 4 on Netflix, the show’s popularity began to skyrocket, with the show beginning to rank on Netflix’s weekly Top 10 list.

Marchant: I think it was probably when season four dropped and we did see this massive spike in popularity. We saw it on the internet and we got a few big name fans along the way, like Ricky Gervais.

Fedaravičius: Around Season 3, just seeing the online following of every actor growing and getting these DMs from people from all over the world, just the kindness of the words, we went, “Oh, wait, is this a big thing?” And then I remember when Season 4 or 5 came out where we came up to No. 1 or somewhere around that on Netflix, and that just was a complete surprise. I never really think about it that way. Once you’re really working on something, you don’t necessarily look at it as a some sort of a project that’s worthy of appraisal or something. You just forget about those things. It’s a huge shock.

But all good things must come to an end. It was announced in 2021 that the series would end with its fifth season.

Marchant: The decision was made between all of collaborators. We felt that five seasons in this day and age is good going for all of us. You can’t keep reinventing, and we wanted to go out leaving the audience wanting more. We wanted to finish a proper story that had a beginning, middle, end over five seasons.

Rowley: We all knew as a cast we weren’t going to be there the following year because people were getting killed off and all that stuff. So we just wanted to make the most of it. So that was really tough. But we bonded so much. And we had a great time regardless. I think that’s the main thing I’ll miss about “The Last Kingdom,” going to work and working with my friends everyday. We’re all doing different shows and all that now. We still have our WhatsApp groups and chats, but it’s a bit of a gutter. We just got on so well. We all know that and we know what’s real.

Not long after it was announced that the fifth season would the be end of the show, Netflix announced that the film “Seven Kings Must Die” was in the works.

Dreymon: Bernard Cornwell puts this in a very succinct way that I love. He compares it to “Gone With the Wind.” In “Gone With the Wind,” you have the big story, which is the Civil War, and then the little story, which is Scarlett’s story. And they flip the stories. The little story becomes the big story and they tell Scarlett’s story with the backdrop of the war. So “The Last Kingdom” is the same thing. The big story is the creation of England and the little story is Uhtred and his quest for Bebbanburg. Season 5 wraps up Uhtred’s story. The movie is really about wrapping up the big story, which is the creation of England.

Rowley: I was told about the movie, I think it was in the last week of filming [on Season 5] when we were filming the final battle. One of the execs called me up. So I was very happy, even though I was getting my ass kicked on set. [laughs]

Very few cast members ended up making the jump from the series to the film, something that made the experience quite a bit different than working on the show. It was so weird doing the film, because the whole cast weren’t there. And I think that, to me, was a really big indication of how much we all got on and how a great environment it was up until that point. We still had a great time making the movie, but it was just a different kind of energy and vibe. We missed them. We missed Millie [Brady] and Eliza [Butterworth] and their shrieks of laughter.

But much like the show, the movie shot on a short schedule and with a tight budget.

Fedaravičius: At first we thought shooting the movie was going to be like shooting an episode or two, because it was like two months. It just seemed like not necessarily as much work to do. But then we ended up doing six-day weeks and it felt pretty, pretty tight. At the end, we managed to pull through and again we have a great team. We have a great leader in Alex. His work ethic is one of the most impeccable ones, alongside Mark. So I think that type of energy trickles down. So however tight the schedules become, everybody feels like they want to do the work because of the leadership being so cool.

Now, with the show and the movie behind them, the cast members have started to reflect on the legacy of the show.

Fedaravičius: I always really appreciated that this show explores vulnerability. I think it’s one of the shows that shows men and women experiencing very difficult times in life but not pretending to push through with clenched teeth and white knuckles. I think that’s a beautiful message, that being vulnerable is okay and sometimes that’s way manlier, as Uhtred’s character shows.

And for fans who are worried that the cast have all gone their separate ways, fear not.

Rowley: We started a new thing where every year we meet up. We meet up as a cast or collective and we go on adventure. So we did Scotland last year. I think Arnas and Big Magnus [Samuelsson] are setting up next to go to potentially Sweden, or we’re gonna go to Lithuania. So we’ll keep it going. We just won’t take swords with us, obviously, for customs. [laughs]



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