As Prince Airk in Disney+’s Willow, actor Dempsey Bryk turns every stereotypical fairytale trope on its head.
As children, the fairytales we grow up with shape our perspective and mould us in our most formative years. We learn about the difference between good vs. bad, the traditional gender roles and tropes characters fall into, and how to navigate different real-world lessons and experiences by using the stories and fables. The issues explored in these tales typically mirror issues in our own society — which is why Willow seamlessly turns all of those stereotypes, tropes, and preconceived ideas of what a hero is and what they look like.
As an epic fantasy series, Willow takes place 17-years after the original 1988 cult hit. It starts off with a typical story — child of a monarch struggling to find their place in the world, falling in love with their best friend, and going on a harrowing journey to find their sibling after being kidnapped. The sibling in question is Prince Airk, portrayed by actor Dempsey Bryk, who plays opposite Ruby Cruz’s Princess Kit and Erin Kellyman’s Jade, the knight Kit falls in love with. As Airk, Byrk discovers the beauty of toying with the light and the dark. Despite being the damsel-in-distress, throughout the season he slowly shows the audience the beauty of having feminine traits, quietly tackling the toxic masculinity that exists in traditional fairytales.
In conversation with 1883 Magazine’s Editor Kelsey Barnes, Dempsey Bryk chats about spinning stereotypes on their head in Willow, exploring doing his own stunts for the first time ever, what it was like working alongside Erin and Ruby, and more.
It’s been just over a year since your casting was first announced — when you look back between then and now, how would you say you’ve grown and developed as an actor?
I became attached to the show in late 2020 in December and so, to me from then to now feels like a fever dream. It feels like my life changed. I met my closest friends on Willow. I think the interesting thing about acting is that usually, a role will change you if you’re lucky. You can connect with a role or you get a role that sort of pushes you, it usually will introduce you to something I find that you’re not even conscious that you need to be introduced to yet. There is a subconscious evolution that can sometimes take place. It’s been one block of time so it doesn’t feel like there’s been a change, but then I’ll watch episode one, for example. and then think back to the movie that I just shot. I see a creative evolution at the very least, and a personal one as well.
With Airk and Willow, I think it’s a product of John’s cast and his talent for creating three-dimensional characters. He challenged traditional archetypes and traditional societal roles. Some of them are gender roles, some of them have to do with romantic relationships, and part of what he was doing felt like he was paring back the archetype and stereotypes of that character. He made me confront assumptions I had made about myself about who I am or what I’m not, it helped me not take certain things for granted and reevaluate.
If I look at how I’ve grown as an artist, it really is just reevaluating who I actually am and what was just an adopted personality trait because of how I was raised or where I was raised.
Touching on those assumptions and stereotypes, something I love about Willow is that breakdown of tropes we’ve grown up with, both in our fairytales and daily life.
The beautiful thing about the themes themselves is that they didn’t feel overtly apparent. It felt like the priority for the creative team and the priority for the actors was creating real humans, so everything else was secondary to that. Any theme that arose felt like a natural byproduct of these real people interacting in fantastical situations. It didn’t feel preachy, it didn’t feel like a commentary, which I think is nice because there’s a lot of commentary and sometimes it’s difficult to ingest that if you feel like there’s this ulterior motive to it. What John did a great job of when he was writing it — and this was apparent in the writing — was that these are just humans and your job as an actor is to make these humans three-dimensional and then people can take what they want from it.
For Airk, I feel like the idea of masculinity is something that he was able to rebel against but he did it in a subversive way. It had a lot to do with his personal style. I remember some of our first meetings, they talked about style references being Harry Styles, people who adopted sort of feminine style traits. You’re a prince, no one can touch you, it’s almost like a rebellion. That’s an interesting thing to explore — masculinity through the lens of someone who didn’t need to adopt those traits. There’s no repercussion for not appearing masculine in traditional ways because he’s a prince. Also, he’s just a genuinely kind person. That, for me, reminds me of the father figure in Everything Everywhere All At Once. That was such a refreshing character because he just felt genuinely kind and that wasn’t for comedic effect. They were exploring the real virtue in that. I feel like, in a way, John was doing that. I felt like I was able to do that with Airk — What does an actual altruistic person look like? How far does that go? Can that be corrupted or not?
I admire how everyone in the cast really focused on their character’s motives and who they are, almost like you fleshed out an entire backstory as a cast and the result of that is some incredibly authentic characters. I actually spoke with your co-star Erin last week and asked her to ask you a question, and first, she wanted to say that she loves you.
[Laughs] I love her too! That’s so great.
She wanted to know what you think Airk’s thoughts and feelings are towards Jade and Kit falling in love with one another, especially as the three of them have grown up together.
That’s funny because we’ve had conversations about that. It wasn’t something we got to explore as actors unfortunately, but the beautiful thing about the cast was everyone would just hang out. It felt like such an immediate deep connection which also can feel really rare. It’s just super fortuitous when you’re going to be on location with a bunch of people. Erin and I would talk about how we would have shared two looks in episode one and that would be the extent of our interaction. [laughs] We discussed how he would feel but I don’t think I ever gave her an answer. I think that his response would be relentless teasing for a bit.
[Laughs] Like any good brother!
[Laughs] Exactly! These are people I’ve grown up with! I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s a lot of support there from Airk. Kit was Airk’s emotional support system and just to see her happy and to see Jade happy… I think beneath the teasing would be really profound support. Seeing people you love happy is always the best thing, but I think there would be a lot of making fun first.
I think what’s beautiful about his character — all he does is like love. That’s all he wants to do, he just wants to show people and give love. It’s very, very pure. Even with all the teasing, there is so much love bubbling under the surface.
Yeah, it’s love for both. For him, seeing them in love would just be the best thing, but then he would never overtly say that. That’s the thing about this character that I love. It was something that I was exploring personally at that time, the philosophy of relentless positivity. It’s very tempting to hedge your positivity off of some idea of reciprocity. Almost like, I’ll be as loving with this person as they are with me. For some, giving more output than input would be embarrassing or some sort of personal detriment. I think that’s the biggest misconception when it comes to love — it’s not about equal giving and receiving. It’s just about loving someone or something and that’s the greatest gift ever. I’m really glad that, for you, his love felt pure because to me that was exactly what it was like. It doesn’t matter whether or not he’s loved a dozen other people before, it doesn’t make it less unique or true.
I know Erin and Ruby had their way of fleshing out their characters. Erin and I went on a long tangent about songs that relate to Kit and Jade which was very sweet. Was there anything in particular that you did to flesh out Airk’s character?
I love that you just spoke to her! I wish they were both right here.
In retrospect, we could’ve just had a roundtable discussion! [Laughs]
You and Ruby must’ve had some discussions regarding your brother-sister rapport. I think I read in an interview, you said Dylan O’Brien inspired you to do a lot of your stunts, too, so there must’ve been some prep for that.
I remember giving that interview and I think I only said it once, so thank you for reading it. It was a beautiful moment that felt like a spiritual synchronicity, as it felt like for a lot of Willow. It’s been one of the most profound experiences of my life for a variety of reasons that are all in that same vein, one of which was meeting Ruby. Meeting the entire cast was amazing, but meeting Ruby was so … She felt so familiar. I remember the first FaceTime we ever had after she sent me an email. The first thing she ever sent me was my mantra which was secret at the time. I’d never told anybody and it was her sign-off in her signature on email. From that moment on I knew, Oh, this is gonna be an interesting relationship. The second that we got on FaceTime, I felt like I knew her and she felt the same way. We were prepping together in LA before we went to Wales and we went into a store. The cashier had our IDs with our different last names and different birthdays and he looked up at us and he was like, You guys are twins, right?
He said, I would know because I’m a twin. It just felt like there were a whole bunch of moments like that. Erin, Ruby and I were all in boot camp as well. There was nothing conscious that deepened the relationship beyond what was immediately natural. When fleshing out Airk, it’s kind of weird. The whole process feels nebulous because I’ll just do an eclectic mix of different things and just see what works. Music was really helpful to imagine myself in different situations that Airk is experiencing and channelling that. Being on set is crazy because it is a Lucasfilm show, you’re treated in such a strange way.
As a big Star Wars girl, I can only imagine what it was like to be on set.
Well, it’s terrifying because they’re so strict with spoilers.
I saw that they dubbed you TMZ. I love it.
I keep telling people that I still don’t know the plot. I’m so terrified now that security is going to jump out. I was on Instagram live one day in my trailer and someone came to me and said, They’re going to geo-track you and then they’re gonna find out that you’re at the studio and then they’re gonna know that you’re on the show. I thought I cannot express enough how little anyone will care about my current location. Nobody knows anything. Nobody cares. But they have a point! It’s who I kind of became because you’re treated in such a strange way that you have to mitigate. It’s just not how you’re treated in normal life, but weirdly, it was a mirror to how Airk and Kit may have been treated in the kingdom.
You’re never alone, just in case.
Yeah, it was a whole whack of different things. But it was a great process because Airk is, as you said, a loving character and sometimes a character can feel dark as you explore him, so playing on that was fun.
Yeah, speaking of darkness — at the end of episode 7, we see Airk seemingly being taken over by the dark side more or less. You’ve mentioned that he’s a bit of a damsel in distress. What was it like to play this side of him?
I have only seen a little bit of ADR, so I’m just texting people saying Hey….
And they say, we cannot give that to you until you’re done press! [Laughs]
Exactly, exactly. The damsel in distress trope is something I think Airk played and it is a fun inversion for fantasy and the archetype of the fairytale. I remember sending in my first audition — it was one of those things where I biked across Toronto in December because I got the signs that I just had to do it right then. I don’t know why. It went well and I was happy with it and I sent it in right away. I think they had been looking and weren’t having very much luck. They responded to this tape pretty quickly, so I got on the meeting with John and he said, have you seen Willow? And I said, what is that?
I just saw his heart drop. But I mentioned that Airk is a damsel in distress and that’s the moment that it flipped back.
Thank god you said that or else we wouldn’t be talking right now!
[Laughs] Right? I think he was like, Alright, Airk wouldn’t know what Willow is either. Obviously I’m a big fan now, I love the original. To answer your question: he very much is a damsel in distress and a very loving person, and by the very end of seven you see him go through a journey.
Yeah, you see him trying to befriend this person and again, he’s showing how open and vulnerable he is. He just wants to connect with this person because he hasn’t seen anyone normal in a long time. I think that speaks a lot about his character, he just wants a friend in this strange world.
Very much so. I think he’s very pliable because of his need to connect with people and his desire to connect with people. He’s broken down to embrace something we don’t know. The nice thing about having somebody who is driven mostly by positivity and love is that even the people in my life who I know, all have chinks in their armour and everyone has demons. Sometimes people will feel like a fraud if they identify as a positive person and then you have a voice in their head that’s not so altruistic. That was a really, really fun thing with Airk and episode seven. Being able to see how one might be swayed off of their regular path seeing that journey of finding out how someone’s positive intentions can be manipulated. Episode eight is very much the quote “good intentions pave the road to hell.” I don’t think they always do but, in this case, good intentions pave the road to exactly where he ends up at the end of the episode.
Knowing what you do about Airk’s arc over the season, if you could give him a piece of advice what would it be?
That is such a good question and the reason why is because it feels like sometimes when you go on a journey with your character, you start to go on a parallel journey. You put yourself through their circumstances and put yourself in their shoes, empathetically. You investigate similar things at the very least. I feel like I’m giving myself advice to an extent.
Erin said something similar; she said she didn’t want to advise her but maybe get some from Jade.
Yeah, exactly. I think if I gave him advice it would be right at the beginning. I would tell him, for lack of better phrasing, that no one knows shit. No one knows anything. You’re just as capable as anybody else around you. I think the expectation of Airk is that he hasn’t had to fill any extra expectations and I know that at the beginning he feels incapable relative to his sister, relative to his mother because he’s never had any responsibility.
It’s something I had to consider going into my first big show. I was surrounded by people who I love and I love their performances and they’ve been part of big franchises before. Impostor syndrome is a strong word… but just ill-equipped in relation to other people. At the moment, for me, that was pivotal and very helpful. It’s probably helpful for anybody who’s entering a new setting — have an implicit trust in yourself because you’ve had a different life experience. Maybe you’ve not been on something identical to the experience you’re going into but because you’ve had a different experience, you can bring that knowledge in. Trust your life experience so you can embrace the fact that you stand out and potentially bring something that’s to the benefit of the entire production or the entire experience.
For Airk, it’s very much that. Trust your experience and trust your capability. Ryan Gosling said a quote which I’m going to paraphrase but it was something like, Come to the realization that you just need to implicitly believe that you can do whatever you want to do. I think that the first step to doing anything great is to believe that. You can maybe even do things better than the people who haven’t had your life experience because they haven’t explored that.
On a set, you’re constantly learning because everyone has had such a mix of work and life experience. I mean, Erin has been on some incredible projects and I brought that up and even she said she’s constantly learning as well. It’s an opportunity for everyone to grow.
If you’re growth-oriented, it’s just the most fun way to exist. There is personal leniency, you don’t feel like you have to live up to this or that set standard. There’s so much to learn from and it feels meaningful. Erin’s earned it all, by the way. I’m sure she was being humble but everything she does is incredible.
Right? She’s so talented, I said it was just an honour to be on the same Zoom as her! [Laughs]
I was learning from her on a daily basis with the way that she interacted on set the way and how she fulfilled her role. It’s something that, to this day, I still take away from. I talk to her about it frequently, but she’s proof that everyone has something to offer. She was so work-oriented and was able to divorce herself so clearly from personal ego. She truly is Jade.
Lastly, if you could manifest something for yourself in 2023 What would it be?
Okay, I know what it is. I love that question. That’s such a great thing to think about, by the way. Erin actually said this recently so it’s going to be full circle, but to only speak and exist as if it is happening now. That puts you in a mental state where — whether you want to look at it spiritually or psychologically — you’re in the best place. I love writing, I’ve been writing forever, I just put on my first feature-length play in LA.
Congrats! That’s amazing.
I have three films that I’m developing simultaneously and I also want to put on a play in New York. Whatever happens first, happens. But I’m going to continue acting and then create my own things that I’ve written, films and books and everything else. That is the number one thing that I’d like to manifest.
Willow is streaming now on Disney+.
Interview Kelsey Barnes
Photography Emily Shur