While it almost feels like it happened in lightning time, Brief Take arranged to speak with the garrulous star of the epic Netflix series The Letter for The King, Ruby Ashbourne Serkis, in a fun phone conversation. If the last (or middle) name sounds familiar, yes, that’s something that we address, (more on that later), but Ashbourne Serkis is very much a future star in her own right, delivering a standout performance as Lavinia in a series that is set in the realm of fantasy, but happens to be modern and relevant (and is filled with action). Although billed as a kids series, it definitely kept us fully engrossed and Ruby Ashbourne Serkis was an absolute delight on the line from London, England, which was a slight change of plans but a wonderful opportunity to get to know the charming actress.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our nice chat with the wise beyond her years (she’s 22) Ruby Ashbourne Serkis. (*Major spoilers ahead*)
Brief Take: The locations on this series are stunning throughout. What was it like filming in New Zealand and the Czech Republic?
Ruby Ashbourne Serkis: It was beautiful. It was such an amazing experience. New Zealand obviously is breathtaking, the fact that we got to go there and obviously do what we love to do is just incredible. It was so beautiful. Prague as well was really, really gorgeous. And because we were in Prague for a really long time, it was really, really amazing to…it felt like we lived there. And to be able to experience this beautiful, massive Prague landscape and also these exquisite old castles was really amazing.
BT: Was it interesting watching the series and discovering the way in which the landscapes were filled in as well?
RAS: Yeah. There were mountain shots but a lot of those were drone shots, which obviously we didn’t see, and there were some scenes that we filmed in like the parking lot of a warehouse and they dressed it up and there’s the snow and everything, and that’s how I remember filming much of it, like being literally in this warehouse in Prague and then you see it all merged together and it’s seamless. It is quite incredible how they’ve managed to stitch it together.
BT: Did you have a lot of downtime on set to bond with your fellow cast members?
RAS: When we were in New Zealand, we were there for 10 weeks, but there, I actually only had about 10 days filming. All my stuff really was in Prague. And what was great about New Zealand was that because we were so far away from home, all of us, it kind of thrusts us all together and we got really, really close. We spent the whole time together going out and exploring New Zealand and we did crazy things like skydiving and jet skiing and…I should be a little careful what I say about this. [laughs] And that was great in New Zealand. And in Prague we did loads of stuff: we went rock-climbing together, we explored Prague and did lots of nice cultural things. I mean just chilling in each other’s rooms is pretty great toward getting to know each other.
BT: You were at the premiere of I Am Not Okay with This with Amir Wilson and Gijs Blom too.
RAS: Yeah. I loved it!
BT: Had you known or worked with anyone in this cast previously?
RAS: No, no, I have not. But it definitely feels like I have because I feel like I know them quite well now. [chuckles] But no, I have not. It’s funny because Thaddea Graham and Islam Bouakkaz, funnily enough, had graduated from the same year at Drama school together. So it was crazy because it was their first major, major job and it happened to be together, which was quite incredible. But before, I didn’t know any of them. Amir was an incredible actor, as were the entire cast, he was really instinctive and natural and he was great fun to work with. He brought a lot of life and fun onto the set.
BT: You did a few junket interviews that I watched for research, so I’m curious, what was the original plan for a premiere?
RAS: We were meant to have the premiere in Amsterdam, obviously, because it’s based on a Dutch book. That was meant to happen on Tuesday (of this past week), I believe, and we were going to have a press junket there as well and obviously, that didn’t happen, but it’s for the best. Of course it’s a shame as we would have loved to have celebrated this series all together, but there will be time to do that. But yeah, it has been very interesting, like on Monday, all of our interviews were over Skype. It’s funny, though, it’s been enjoyable.
BT: Did you know the source material well before filming?
RAS: I actually had never read the book before but I read it when I found out that I had gotten the role. But the storyline, it’s quite specific, I think, and what Will Davies has managed to do really well is keep the heart of the book. There’s obviously other characters, but he’s built on it in a way that has really magically made it a kind of modernized version of the book, in terms of bringing in diverse and female characters and updating it really, to make it more relatable for today. But I know Gijs, Gijs Blom, who plays Viridian, and he always talks about his father read it to him and his grandfather read it to his father and it really is a popular story in the Netherlands. So yeah, I just hope that they will be happy with it [laughs] and we’re excited to hear what they think of it.
BT: Did you know that the twist was coming? [*major spoilers*] Did you know that Lavinia would be the one with the magic?
RAS: [laughs] Um, not initially, no! Not until after I had gotten the part. They kind of changed it. But I did, yeah. I did know for quite a long time. That has been one that has been very difficult to keep secret.
BT: How did you enjoy doing so many different scenes in that same medieval dress, although there must have been many version of the same dress, and how did you go about crafting your portrayal of Lavinia?
RAS: In terms of the costume, it is so vital to get it right, because I was basically in that one brown-y green-y dress for the whole show. Barbara Darragh is an absolutely incredible costume designer. She did everything. We worked continuously for a good three weeks while we were in prep in New Zealand and I had fitting after fitting after fitting, we had so many ideas to try to test them out and I’m so glad that we did, because it felt like her, and once you feel comfortable and grounded, it felt perfect, the dress and the boots, they all felt right. Because she’s…Lavinia is, I wanted to keep her femininity, but also, she’s very practical, she’s very pragmatic, she’s always up for an adventure, and so I think that we’ve managed to get all of those character ideas into the dress. [laughs] In terms of playing her, it was honestly the best, the best best time. She’s so much fun to play, she’s got so many layers, she does not give a shit, she doesn’t care about what other people think of her and I love playing parts like that because it’s so rare [chuckles] that you can just not care what other people think of you and feel unapologetic about how you are behaving…nothing is on par.
BT: Had you done a lot of horseback riding and stunt work and other skills like this prior to being on the series?
RAS: Most of them I learned on the job. I had done a bit of horse riding before, but not properly and only if I’ve been on some sort of trail. So learning how to properly, properly horseback, it’s so liberating being on a horse and go somewhere, and we had incredible horse masters. Stunt training-wise, I did great things like learn to knife throw and you don’t really see that much of it in the finished product, but we all had really good stunt training. The three weeks that we went out in New Zealand prior to filming, we had boot camp, which is four hours every morning of stunt training and then an hour of horse riding every day in the afternoon. It was a crash course [laughs] but we all got really, really good at it. And so it was really great. It’s pretty amazing to be able to learn skills like that at same time as filming, it’s an amazing gift.
BT: There are some incredibly exciting genre-based sequences in this series. I especially liked the horror elements in the last monastery on the hill episode and the character developments in the village episode towards the end of the season. What was your favourite scene to film?
RAS: Oh, God! I don’t even know. Like you say: each episode, they all have such a different feel. I have really great memories of a lot of little bits, but some of the first bits we shot were in episode five and it was Stupor, the magician, after the boat scene. I think because those were the first kind of scenes that we did that they always have a fond place in my heart, and we’d be in a forest in New Zealand and it was fantastic working with David Wilmot, he’s such a great guy and he’s such a great actor. [laughs] I love absolutely all of it, and as you say, the fact that all do have such a different feel, each episode, it was like we were able to film six different little movies within one series. The variation was incredible.
BT: I loved how the group of aspiring knights and you and Tiuri all came together as a group in episode 5.
RAS: It was so much fun, that bit in particular, because for most of the journey, it’s really Tiuri and me, Lavinia and Tiuri. That was the first big chunk of time that we all spent filming together, so it was so much fun. It was about two weeks that we spent in that village and it’s interesting because an offscreen dynamic can kind of reflect on that dynamic between the characters and I would have to say that they…sometimes the focus on set really wasn’t there [chuckles] because we were having so much fun off camera, but it was quite hard to get it together. [laughs] There were a lot of hysterical giggling sessions, but it was really great.
BT: This series is perfect for Netflix, though how was the break from filming to finally getting to show it to the world?
RAS: It’s been bizarre. It feels like a lifetime ago since we were last filming. It was last June and it really does feel like a lifetime ago, I can’t believe it’s finally here. [laughs] But it was so nice to see it come together. When you’re filming it, day-by-day, and while you’re in the middle of it, you forget that you’re working towards an end goal, and once you remember that you spent a whole year actually making something and to see it coming out is really great. I’m so excited to be able to watch with my friends and family and for everyone to see it.
BT: Speaking of family, your Dad is in a few scenes with you when we first meet Lavinia. What was that like for you?
RAS: It was really great! It was really good fun. He was in just a couple of scenes, but it was so much fun, it was really special being able to play off of each other. It was a bit weird playing, not weird, interesting playing father and daughter, obviously while having that bond in real life. [laughs] But it was really good fun. It was interesting, like it was just weird. I’ve spent my whole life visiting my Mum and Dad’s sets or their backstages, and it was odd having him come onto my set in which I had been all this time, and I knew everyone, I knew where everything was, and [laughs] God! This guy kind of walks on to my set. [laughs] I really had to show him all the ropes and he said to me: “God, looking back, I think that I was more nervous than you were [laughs] coming onto set”, which was quite like…it was unimaginable, but really good fun.
BT: Was it assumed that you would go into the family business and be a performer?
RAS: No, it was never assumed. Never, never assumed. It just kind of worked out that way. I don’t know how things are going to go into the future, but for me, it’s something that I’ve always, always wanted to do from a very young age. I remember being about seven years old, and being like: “Mum, Dad, can I have an agent for my birthday?” [laughs] It’s always been the dream to frolic around in big dresses and run about, sort of like we were doing. So in a way, it was quite a nice, it felt like a…not a rite of passage, being in New Zealand, it felt like it kind of was like the start of my career.
BT: What kind of roles are you looking for in the future?
RAS: Playing such an empowering character like Lavinia is very important for me. Being able to be given the gift of horseback riding and all of the skills that we learned, and on top of that, playing such a wonderful female character, I will always look for roles like that, in whatever sort of world in which it is set.
BT: Would you want to do more seasons of The Letter for the King?
RAS: Yeah, of course I would. I’d relish the chance to work with those people again. I really, really love them all. And I would love to play Lavinia again at the drop of a hat, so yeah, no doubt about it!
The Letter for the King is now streaming on Netflix