Although he only ruled over Ancient Egypt for nine short years, the legacy of Tutankhaten — colloquially known as King Tut — has cast a millennia-long shadow. Tut lives again in Spike’s new six-hour miniseries Tut, which premieres July 19. Avan Jogia plays the young pharaoh, who is guided (and, in some ways, misguided) through his reign by a kindly, yet possibly duplicitous advisor, Vizer Ay, played by Sir Ben Kingsley, star of such historical dramas as Gandhi and Anne Frank: The Whole Story. The Oscar-winning actor spoke with Yahoo TV about his fascination with Ancient Egypt and why Gandhi would likely be a TV miniseries if it were made today.
What attracted you to being part of Tut?
Epic historical drama has a very viable form in a miniseries or series format. Look at a version of Henry VIII [like Wolf Hall] or Game of Thrones; even though that’s fictitious, you’re still dealing with the same extraordinary mix of ingredients: personalities fighting for supremacy within families and power groups. I think it’s a great initiative Spike took to say, “We’re going to invest highly in a power struggle that took place about 3,000 years ago.”
The culture and history of Ancient Egypt still seems to fascinate audiences — it’s an era movies and television keep returning to.
What I find fascinating is this: The Ancient Egyptians were committed to the idea of immortality. They placed their pharaohs in extraordinary devices, mathematically-calculated and herbally-infused, so that the body could stay alive forever and join the gods. I find it really quite tingly to think that Tutankhamun is alive on television screens. Somehow, his story is immortal. The Ancient Egyptians would have had no concept of television broadcasting or the extraordinary things we play with now, but they may have had a glimmer of some story lasting over time. They achieved that because we’re using what they left behind to put onscreen.
How would you characterize Ay’s relationship with King Tut?
One thing that’s true about Ancient Egypt is that it hardly changed: If you take an artifact from one dynasty and place it next to an artifact from another dynasty, they appear identical. Even if they’re separated by 500 years, they’re identical. I think this is a reflection of the desire of the ruling powers to remain immortal. As soon as things change, you are forced to confront your mortality. We have a tablet in our pocket that will be obsolete in three months; they had tablets of stone that remained the same for 3,000 years! They were not committed to progress, they were deeply conservative and committed to preserving and conserving. So I decided in my appearance as Ay to use the classic conservative look: the eye makeup, the shaved head. He is a man who is not of royal blood and desperately wants to join the royal club, succeeding by great skill and great intelligence and pitting rival factions against each other. I believe the narrative of our series will show that Tut was more inclined to break the orthodox hold of the priests and landowners in Egypt and give that power back to the people.
Did that conflict between Ay and Tut put you in mind of any contemporary historical events?
It’s an extraordinary parallel to the fall of the Shah of Iran. In 1979, the Shah had already given back the land to the peasant workers that was owned by the mullahs. That’s where the great rivalry and hatred started; it was nothing to do with the religion, it was because the Shah was breaking a conservative pattern by taking the land away from the priests and giving it back to the peasantry. That’s exactly what Tut tried to do, and he had the priesthood violently against him. [But] it’s very dangerous to bring 20th century historical parallels to something that’s so ancient. I only mention that because I’m talking about certain historical factions that were in play then, and are in play within our own lifetimes. You apply the lessons of history to the present, but you can’t really apply the present to lessons of history. I just mention that as an uncanny example of how history repeats itself.
The sets for Tut appear to be quite grand, and the battle scenes look epic as well.
It’s huge isn’t it? Ridley Scott let us use some of his chariots [from his 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings], and there is a wealth of beautiful artifacts, mostly manufactured in Morocco by craftsmen. It’s all in the detail; the detail in the sets and costumes was a huge factor in making the screen into an epic canvas. It does look absolutely magnificent.
As you mentioned, it seems like period historical epics are migrating to television. If Gandhi were made today, for example, would it be produced by a network rather than a movie studio?
I think it might be. With Tut, we have more time to explore the few years of Tutankhamun’s very short reign. Six hours really does it justice, because you see how the tension between the factions builds and why. With two hours you’d need to sketch in some things. Richard Attenborough achieved miracles in Gandhi, but that was three hours. You have to go over the two-hour movie formula, and that’s getting harder. Gandhi was also made before CGI, and we really did have hundreds of thousands of people on the screen. That’s impossible today, given the budget and time restrictions. So yes, I think it probably would be made for television. My own production company is readying a project about a great historical event, and we recently decided that it wasn’t a movie, but a six-hour TV series, which has given us a lot of encouragement.
You referenced Game of Thrones earlier. Are you a fan of that series?
I don’t think I’ve seen a single episode! Isn’t it extraordinary how, by osmosis now, we know about things that we haven’t even seen? I do have great friends who have participated in it, and I’ve seen glimpses of it and it looks beautiful. I have very little time to follow TV shows. I travel far too much and have far too many lines to learn. I wish my assistant could learn my lines for me, but that’s impossible, I’m afraid. [Laughs.]
Tut premieres July 19 at 9 p.m., continues July 20 at 9 p.m., and concludes July 21 at 9 p.m. on Spike.