A towering figure of leaves and wood straddles an armored horse, clip-clopping its way into the open great hall of King Arthur’s castle. His lush, verdant appearance is striking: his joints creakily bend like tree branches in a squall, rugged bark drips down his face before meeting into a beard of knotted roots, and gnarly horn-like protrusions top his head like a twisted crown. Yet most peculiarly, the figure stands silent, a commanding presence through his existence alone. When he finally does speak, his gravelly, booming voice crackles like medieval bubble-wrap, echoing through the halls – not only those of Camelot but of the very cineplex in which it plays. He is The Green Knight, the titular role in A24’s newest Arthurian romance, immaculately brought to life by Ralph Ineson, with whom we were lucky enough to have for an exclusive interview.
The earthy-toned warrior is one of many pieces at play in The Green Knight, but it was key to creating and selling a believably fantastical version of this story. Headed by David Lowery, the visionary behind A Ghost Story, the film built its own niche between medieval epic and modern commentary – a perfect storm of creative juices and a genre rich with centuries of storytelling lore and mythology. For Ineson, there was a lot to like about the project:
Ralph Ineson: “I’ve always been drawn to Arthurian legends. I’ve loved them since I was a kid. I think my first performance was in 1989 at the Edinburgh Festival. I did a show with the theatre company called Excalibur, and then I did First Knight with Richard Gere and Sean Connery – that Arthurian tale in ’95. So I’ve always kind of been around it. And knights have always fascinated me. I keep coming back to that. So I was drawn to that and mainly David Lowery, to be frank. When I was offered to play the titular role in his new film, I was very excited and was sold immediately.”
The story of The Green Knight was adapted from the classic chivalric romance ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,’ yet took many creative liberties that kept things fresh and exciting for performers and audiences alike.
Ralph Ineson: “I remember reading it when I think I was eighteen at school. And it’s come up in various stories and legends over time, so I was very familiar with it. I get a lot out of the way David Lowery tells the story and out of the way he leaves gaps. He leaves a little bit of room. I read a review that said he doesn’t hold your hand, which I thought was a really nice way of putting it.”
Ineson’s character inhabits a role that is almost antagonistic, but not quite. He is a pressurizing external force that exhibits a regal calmness in his mannerisms. His design, emboldened by production designer Jade Healy’s pervasive usage of green and nature motifs, grabs at a deeper meaning that the film seeks to tackle. On embodying The Green Knight himself, Ineson faced a few challenges:
Ralph Ineson: “Performance-wise, you know, actually being the character is very exciting. The actual act of getting the character on screen was pretty tough, but worth it, absolutely. I was really happy with it. I saw it about three weeks ago, and I can’t wait to see it again… The Green Knight is a very playful, fun tester of men. But the physical act of wearing the prosthetics and riding the horse in armor and all those kinds of things was pretty tough.”
The prosthetics, which Ineson described, helped transform the English-born actor into a vaguely inhuman knight of the forest. Combined with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s moody, low-key lighting, the Green Knight boasts such a well-realized look that many might mistake it as computer-generated. That, it is not:
Ralph Ineson: “It’s all practical prosthetics designed by Barry Gower, who did Game of Thrones and a lot of the best prosthetic stuff you’ve ever seen. That was all real. I had a very heavy piece on the top of the head, which was weighted on one side heavier than on the other, so that wasn’t nice to carry around all day. The facial piece took at least three and a half hours every morning, so that’s quite an early start every day for me. Jess Brooks was my prosthetic makeup artist. We had some pretty early starts, and then it would take an hour to take off at the end of the day as well. You just want to scream – to just claw it off your face when you’ve had it on all day. But you can’t, you want it very gently done because you’d like your face left at the end of it all. It was tough, but you have a great crew of people around you when you’re doing something like that. So costume people who would help me in finding chairs to rest when I was getting tired of carrying stuff around, bringing drinks all the time. I was very well looked after, but it was quite tough.”
In finding his place in the world of The Green Knight, Ineson had to find the beating heart of its emotional core and thematic tone. Turns out he didn’t have to look very far – only to his primary scene partner.
Ralph Ineson: “One of the things I really loved about the film is that it feels authentically ancient, but it also feels kind of modern. And I think a lot of that has to do with Dev [Patel]’s performance. He’s so human and so flawed. There’s a lot of work for him to do, and there’s so much time that the camera spends just with him on the screen. He just develops a wonderful performance.”
Finding a convincing dynamic between Gawain and the Green Knight was crucial; nearly all of Ineson’s screen time was spent opposite Patel’s ratty wannabe-knight. As the film drowned itself with sultry, seductive imagery atop Patel’s brilliantly expressive performance, Ineson suddenly no longer found himself cursing his prosthetic get-up:
Ralph Ineson: “[I’m] Kind of glad I was wearing the prosthetics. Because sharing the screen with Dev Patel and being 51 years old was not going to be a pleasant experience. But it was great. He is genuinely one of my favorite actors I’ve worked with. He’s very soulful. And he’s very intense in a non-showy way. To explain, a lot of actors are intense, and you kind of feel sometimes that’s for other people to see them being intense. But Dev’s not like that. There’s this real intensity to his performance and the way he prepares that feels really real and really truthful, and it just comes out. He’s got the most soulful face and the most beautiful eyes. I think he’s a fantastic actor, so it was a real joy to share the screen with him. As I was saying before, it does actually make you forget that you’re in the discomfort of carrying all the prosthetics and the costume around. You do forget that when you’re involved in performing a scene with somebody who’s very good.”
That praise and respect extended beyond just his castmates; despite the challenging wardrobe, Ineson still had nothing but good things to say about the experience and director David Lowery. When asked about his first impressions, it was a simple response:
Ralph Ineson: “Joyous. It was a nice shoot just outside Ireland. [David] is a very well-liked, non-shouty director, you know? The crew loves him and he’s just one of those directors who doesn’t scream and shout because he knows what he wants. He’s well prepared. Guy’s a joy to work with. He’s a really nice guy.”
As The Green Knight has found itself before audiences across the United States, many have found themselves questioning the message and meaning of the film. While other crew members on the project have said that “it was never clear exactly what it was,” Ineson graciously shared his own insights to how he interpreted the movie:
Ralph Ineson: “Don’t make bets with big green knights (laughs)! A good takeaway, I think, it’s all about what self-awareness means and how you’re yourself. It’s created by something inside, not what other people think of you. Essentially, I think you’ve got to find your own honor. You’ve got to find your own truth, your own bravery. That’s what I take away from it, but there are a million things to take away from this story. That’s the thing. I think it’s about bravery and what bravery really is about and what honor is about – what it means in a modern world and in that ancient world.”
As The Green Knight releases on home video and continues to fall upon new eyes, fans can look forward to spotting Ineson in a few more exciting projects coming down the pipeline this year. Scheduled to debut at the New York Film Festival this fall, Ineson will have a role in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth:
Ralph Ineson: “I played the Captain. I open the film, reporting back from battle. So yeah, it’s not a big part, but quite flattering because I’ve worked with Joel Coen on Buster Scruggs a couple of years before. He liked my voice, and he wanted my voice to open the film. So I got to be flown out to LA to do a part that was a couple of days. It was a great experience to work with him again.”
The singular Coen brother isn’t the only returning collaborator with whom Ineson has recently reunited with. Having played one of the lead roles in his 2015 film The Witch, Ineson will be joining director Robert Eggers’s next outing, The Northman. Hot off the success of his brain-warping trip The Lighthouse, Eggers’s upcoming Viking thriller has a modestly high budget – something that set it apart from Ineson’s previous experience with the director. When asked about the similarities between working on The Witch and The Northman, Ineson continued to show deep admiration for his collaborators:
Ralph Ineson: “Oh, great similarities. We were good friends. We’ve kept in touch since The Witch. So in a sense, personally, one to one, there was very little difference. Although watching Rob work on a $60 million set as opposed to a $3 million set as we were working on The Witch, on his first feature film, was great to watch. He has handled a $60 million movie exactly as well as he did a $3 million movie. It was great and wonderful to watch.”
Even with so many great things on the horizon, there’s already a number of great performances to reflect upon in Ineson’s filmography. He has assumed a number of difficult roles, but when asked to pick out one in particular, he had only a bit of trouble:
Ralph Ineson: “Kind of got two answers, but one film’s not out yet. It’s not even started publicity, so that’s pointless talking about. So I would say The Witch, probably, just because it was a tough shoot and the emotional kind of darkness, in a sense, that I and Kate Dickie and Anya Taylor-Joy were trying to access. To give Rob what he wanted, we had to go to some pretty dark places, in a way. It was emotional and really quite hard at times, but very rewarding as well. We were in tears the whole time. We had a great time doing it, but I think that was probably the toughest. I probably took the most out of it. Definitely.”
As Ralph Ineson reaches new heights as an actor, audiences can catch him atop his trusty steed in The Green Knight, matching up against Dev Patel’s Gawain. If moody critiques of toxic masculinity are your thing, or if you just want to hear Ineson’s smoothly sizzling voice resonate through your eardrums, The Green Knight is right up your alley.