Starring in Netflix’s upcoming fantasy drama Cursed as well as the BBC One’s political drama Roadkill, the English-born, Australian actress Shalom Brune-Franklin, is using 2020 to demonstrate her power and versatility as an actor.
It would be easy to assume that someone building their career would be overwhelmed by working with such well-known names on standout productions, although Shalom Brune-Franklin takes it all in her stride. Her warm, personable nature is indicative of just how at home she is within her burgeoning career; over the last few years, she’s found her talent, sharpened it just a little, and is now here to stay.
Premiering 17th July, Brune-Franklin will star in the twisted-on-its-head Arthurian legend Cursed, where she will play alongside Katherine Langford’s Nimue, before heading over to BBC One and within the gritty realities of climbing the greasy political pole which features Helen McCrory and Hugh Laurie as the mainstay of the title Roadkill.
We caught up with Shalom from her home in Australia, to talk all things Arthur, political intrigue and, of course, her reportedly impressive, lockdown-encouraged cherry pie.
Did you know much about King Arthur before filming Cursed?
I had a rough idea about King Arthur just from growing up in England and ‘The Sword in the Stone’ story is so prominent. I had seen a few episodes of Merlin and I had an idea who Arthur was, but that was my experience with it.
That was the best way to be. I sort of did a little bit of reading and read a couple different versions of the tale, [and] it was really fun to give myself a crash course in English history. It was fun. But then it was good to throw it away at the door because our version is so different; it’s like creators Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller have really shaken it up and turned everything on its head, so there was an element of needing to leave what we knew at the door and go with the world that we created.
As you mentioned, Cursed twists a lot of what we know about Arthurian legend on its head, including your character Igraine. Usually portrayed as a queen and as Arthur’s mother, in this adaptation, she’s a sister. Were you happy with this change?
A lot of the characters in the legends and the myths are so far away from what our characters are and what we play and so I definitely think it’s a challenge when you have an idea about what a character might be. That’s what I mean by saying, ‘Leaving it at the door’ because you can’t get attached to what your character might be or your idea of King Arthur. ‘The Sword in the Stone’ moment in our show is so ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ that I wonder if people will pick up on it.
It’s been taken in such a different direction, and I think that was definitely a challenge at first; going completely from scratch is really scary when it’s such a traditional and popular legend.
How did you prepare for the role?
The audition process for me all happened so quickly that I ended up getting the part perhaps two nights before the read-through. I had this meeting with Tom, and he threw the scripts at me and said, ‘You’ve got this! See you at the read-through.’ I hadn’t even had a second to wrap my head around who this woman was at a deeper level, so I was thrown in completely at the deep end!
But I wouldn’t have changed that for the world because it was such a great way to come into it. When you’re staring opposite these incredible actors that you’ve seen in so many other things — like Gustaf Skarsgård and Katherine Langford across the table — you’re just sitting there freaking out about not saying your words properly!
The preparation was one of those moments of ‘what preparation?’ It was a lot of speed reading and calling friends who I knew had studied medieval literature to help me get into the mindset of somebody living in the Dark Ages, so I can understand that world. It was definitely a scramble, but you know the shoot lasted ten months. I like to think I caught up by the end; it was nearly a year of my life, gosh I hope so!
How much of yourself has gone into this role?
There are so many things that are different from myself and Igraine, but then there are so many similarities. I think at her heart, she really cares about her loved ones and what she believes in and the importance of speaking your mind and standing up for what you believe in or for those who are downtrodden. I definitely think that’s how I was raised; my mom was the kind of mom who said you always stand up for someone who is being bullied. It doesn’t matter what the bully might do to you, that’s something I can really relate to when it comes to Igraine.
But there are so many differences as well; she’s a little too headstrong at times and it can be to her detriment, she’s not as rational and FAR more decisive than I am. I imagine if she walked into an ice cream shop, she would know what she wanted in 3 minutes, whereas I’ll go in there and try everything until I feel sick and don’t want ice cream anymore so there’s definitely a big difference.
There has been a lot of anticipation for this adaptation, and it certainly brings the legend right into the 21st century. Nimue, the Lady of the Lake has been given more spotlight and agency than ever before. How important do you think it is for audiences to see this version?
She’s usually never anything more than a hand! I always feel like there’s room at the table for everything when it comes to different versions of things. I think the legends and the myths are so amazing and entertaining and people fall in love with them, so there’s no reason why they can’t fall in love with them over and over again. I really enjoyed the BBC’s Merlin and the Guy Ritchie film [King Arthur: Legend of the Sword] and even 1981 Excalibur film with Helen Mirren. There are so many amazing versions and there’s always room for it to be modernized; you nailed it when you said we’ve never seen this tale from her perspective.
Nimue’s story has never really been fleshed out, and I think it’s really cool because Tom and Frank seem to have shaken the whole thing up. If you’re not familiar with the tales, it’s a really fun way to be brought to them but also, it’s funny if people go read up on the legends and tales they’ll realise that it is so loosely based on the original legend.
It’s so important to see different people playing different parts, and it being led by this incredibly fearless woman is just fantastic. I grew up watching Xena: Warrior Princess and it’s giving me like my full childhood fantasy of Xena especially that shot [in the trailer] of Katherine with the sword. Just seeing Devon Terrell as Arthur is awesome. I can’t help but think that when people dress up on World Book Day as King Arthur, a kid that looks a little bit like Devon might now feel the permission to dress up as Arthur and maybe he or she didn’t feel as though they had the permission before. It sounds silly saying ‘permission’ but sometimes if you don’t see yourself represented, you just don’t think that you can. I’m really excited and proud to be a part of it because of those reasons.
Is it intimidating knowing that fans of the book, but also people who know the legend will be pressing play with their own expectations in mind of how it should play out?
I’m so excited by that because I just can’t wait to see the surprise. When you say ‘King Arthur’, I just know what people are going to be expecting because I myself was the exact same coming into this. I really can’t wait to see the surprise and see how people feel about it and the different routes the characters have been taking. Arthur in our show doesn’t begin as noble; he’s not a young nobleman — Devon is going to hate me saying that! — he’s just a kid trying to figure his life out, and he’s a bit of a mess which is great. It’s more realistic!
It’s more interesting to see characters find their way to becoming noble or good or even becoming bad; it works both ways because it’s interesting to see the journey.
Have you spoken to fans of the book?
No! Not yet. I’m so glad I read the ebook after we shot the series because also it came out after we shot the production, so it was this really sweet gift that Tom and Frank gave us. Then I read it and was like ‘Wow!’ She’s very different to how they wrote her in the show. Tom just really must have loved this character,
How closely will it follow the Thomas Wheeler book?
The core of the story is the same, but just the way we meet characters and how things play out is different from the ‘Cursed’ book when it happens in the show.
There has been some discussion about the choice to have Katherine Langford, a white woman, play Nimue when in Frank Miller’s illustration of the Thomas Wheeler novel Nimue is portrayed as a woman of colour. What’s your opinion of this?
I never even saw any of the images until afterwards; the book wasn’t finished before the series and so it would be impossible to cast according to the book when the book is coming out after the fact. So, I think it’s just different and it makes the book a different version, which is so great, and it’s not like our show is void of any awesome choices for diverse casting; I hate saying that term, but you know. It’s so difficult for Netflix or Katherine to have an opinion on that because the book came out afterwards so it’s difficult to speak on it. I didn’t even realise that had been a thing; that’s fascinating, I’ll have to have a look.
We have just had summer solstice where each year the apparent reincarnation of King Arthur goes to Stonehenge to celebrate. If you were to hang out with him on the stones, what would you want to fact-check with him?
That is the greatest fact I’ve learnt. I hope he’s watching closely. Dev better watch out if he’s started having some freaky dreams, King Arthur’s like ‘You better not do me any injustice!’ This is the most random fact ever, and I love it.
I would want to know where his real tomb is; his real resting place. So many places have claimed it only to be debunked along the way and the amount of tourism it’s created with people thinking it was in Glastonbury to Cornwall. I would be like ‘Mate, where did you get buried? Where you at?’ And then I’d go. I probably wouldn’t dig him up though, that might be a bit rude. There are so many different theories about the sword, [so] I’d ask him about where that came from, [and] did it really come from the stone?
You are also starring in the upcoming BBC One drama Roadkill which tells the tale of a self-made politician, played by Hugh Laurie, who is trying to climb the political ladder whilst trying to outrun his past. If you could describe the plot in three words what would it be?
Hugh. Fucking. Laurie.
Why is now the right time for people to hear this kind of story?
I think it speaks some truths; it’s not shy about making us have a real conversation about the themes in the show. There are so many twists and turns, and it’s about a man trying to stay afloat. For me, personally, I had such a huge response after getting this role when it came to looking at the prison system; it was something that I’d never ever thought of before. I’ve always thought of prison as just this place where ‘you do something bad and you got to prison’ and that’s it. It made me think about giving people second chances and research into prison reform and look at things I’d never considered before. David Hare [the executive producer] has such an amazing way of telling these incredibly nuanced stories and somehow making it so simple for the actor with these incredible lines; it feels so easy to perform his work.
I know what it did for me so if it does that for a viewer and makes them consider something that they’ve not considered before; what an achievement.
If you were a politician and, hypothetically, something was revealed from your past, what would you do? Would you quit while you were ahead and admit it all or not?
It depends on what it was! Are we talking wild? Is it naughty? A bit raunchy? I think I would own it if I could and if there was no way of being able to own it, I think I’d probably… You know what, no — I’d try to own it.
I’d apologise and see how that goes; it might not go well, but hopefully it does for my theoretical political career. I don’t know how far I’d get in politics though. Me as a politician would just be like ‘No’. In university, we were all running for fake president and we had to do a speech and I ended up just crying for half an hour because I was overwhelmed that everyone was going to question me and I was like well there’s my answer if I ever thought about being a politician!
What have you learnt in lockdown? Have you developed any new or strange habits?
I love a bit of gaming. I’ve surprised myself at how much of a ‘Sims’ K-hole I can go into; I can game for HOURS. When the government first said you have to quarantine for 14 days, by yourself, I was like bring it on! I am gonna go in and wake up with an entire civilisation going on. I’ve surprised myself with how much of a gamer I am, ‘Age of Empires’ is as well is iconic. I can also make a mean cherry pie. I don’t want to throw my weight around too much, but it didn’t last half an hour out of the oven and my dad is a chef and we’ve got some picky eaters in the family. But I’ve done it after 25 years, and I’ve earned his respect.
interview by Eleanor Forrest
photography Matt Holyoak / Netflix