A headstrong knight in need of schooling. A grizzled warrior-turned-teacher with a wicked sense of humor and an even more wicked taste in workout regimens. They meet day after day on a sparring ground covered in mud, muck and grime. And one of them is Mark Hamill. Think we're talking about Dagobah? Try 14th century France. For its sophomore season — premiering at 10 p.m. on History — the medieval action drama Knightfall enlists the Star Wars icon as Talus, a Knights Templar master tasked with overseeing the re-education of the show's fallen hero, Landry du Lauzon (Tom Cullen).
If you're like us, you can't help but notice the coincidence in Hamill playing the mononymous trainer of a saber-swinging soldier whose first name starts with "L." But Hamill is way ahead of us on the Yoda-Talus connection. "Oh, you bring everything back to Star Wars — like I didn't think of that," he says, chuckling. "Let me put it this way: Yoda and Talus are both spiritual. That's about where the comparisons end: Yoda uses wry humor and riddles to challenge his students, and Talus uses us a club and kick to the head."
For Talus's true spiritual heir, Hamill advises viewers to look past 1980's The Empire Strikes Back — seven years past, to be exact — to Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, which features real-life drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey, as moviedom's scariest military taskmaster. "The Knightfall producers told me to look of the brutality of that sergeant — they really wanted me to go full psycho."
Besides Ermey, who died last year, Hamill credits legendary Hollywood iconoclast Samuel Fuller with inspiring some of Talus's personality. "I adore that man," he says of the Shock Corridor filmmaker, who directed Hamill in the World War II film The Big Red One, based on Fuller's own wartime experiences. "The very first day we were shooting The Big Red One in Israel, I didn't realize that he doesn't say cut when he gets what he wants. He'd go, 'All right’s, I got’s it!' So when he screamed that after my first scene, I took it personally like I had done a bad job! But you quickly learn he mean we're going on to the next thing."
Based on Hamill’s off-the-cuff impression of Fuller — who died in 1997 — the actor memorialized the director in Talus's distinctive voice: a sharp, biting tone that almost sounds like its emanating from the crypt. "I wasn't doing it consciously, but I think there is a little Sam Fuller in Talus. People always ask me where I got the voice of the Joker [in Batman: The Animated Series] from. I say that i don't really know where, but then I realize I used to do an impression of Claude Rains as the Invisible Man. So even if it’s unconscious, you wind up using [those inspirations]. At the first table read, I made Talus much too educated and much too British. Looking back, I'm sort of embarrassed by that. But once I got into the full makeup and costume, it seemed to fit. He's a religious zealot who has had a rough life, so I gave him a rough voice."
Talus's teaching methods are just as rough, and he makes a point of singling out Landry for special treatment hoping to drive him out of the Templar order once and for all. Throughout Knightfall's first season, Cullen's alter ego found himself constantly torn between his holy mission — protecting the pope and hunting for the Holy Grail — and more earthly passions, like his love for the French queen, Joan (Olivia Ross). In the finale, he watched his royal lover die, but not before she gave birth to their daughter. "He starts this season with a child, and he doesn't feel as though he's worthy of her love," Cullen tells Yahoo Entertainment, in a separate interview. "So what he does is try to redeem himself in the eyes of God and his Templar brothers in the hope that he can one day be a father and a better man." That path to redemption requires that the former Templar commander return to rank of initiate, putting himself under Talus's direct control. "What’s interesting about their dynamic is that it represents a conflict of ideas and ideals. Landry takes on the role of big brother, but Talus believes you should not be an individual in any way."
The general code of conduct for knights — and actors — is to avoid geeking out about the famous heroes that they may find themselves working with. For obvious reasons, that proved challenging for Cullen when he returned to the Knightfall set. "My brother [Joseph] is on the show this season, and we used to watch Star Wars together and he had Star Wars-themed birthday parties — I think I went to one of them as Luke Skywalker," the actor remembers. "So when we found out Mark was doing the show, the pair of us were trying to be so cool when we first met him. It was very difficult; there's that weird unconscious thing where you start to whistle the Star Wars theme. But the think about Mark is that he's an intensely humble human being who instantly makes you feel at ease. And Talus is such a departure from that iconic character of Luke that you just forget about who he is."
Besides his perceived vanity and sins against his brothers-in-arms, Landry is also on shaky ground with Talus because the elder Templar recognizes him as a potential threat to his own authority. Even as he accuses his new pupil of putting his own glory ahead of God's glory, Talus clearly relishes being in a position of unchallenged power — a hypocritical position for a warrior in a holy army, not that he'd ever admit to that. "They justify everything they do as God's will," Hamill notes of the general Templar mindset. "They use God as a template for how they live their lives, but it seems to me that if you were so devoted to God, you wouldn't behave in that manner. That's what's fascinating, because it's so out of my wheelhouse. This is the first time I’ve gotten a chance to play someone this hardcore, and vicariously being a badass when I'm pretty wimpy in real life."
Hamill credits Knightfall's stunt team with aiding in his onscreen badass-ery, including a scene in the season premiere where Talus takes out a small cadre of enemy combatants with a sword, an axe and, finally, a crossbow to the face. "The crossbow I kind of like, because when you're up close and personal with a sword or an axe, that's pretty harsh,” Hamill says. “It's funny, because as a kid in the backyard, I'd be playing Robin Hood, Zorro and the Knights of the Round Table and thinking, 'When I grow up, I'm going to be making cowboy movies and movies about knights!' Then you grow up and realize they don't make cowboy movies or movies about knights anymore. So this is a rare opportunity to fulfill that childhood dream."
And before you point out that Luke Skywalker is, technically, a knight, Hamill anticipates that Star Wars connection as well. "The violence in the Star Wars films is stylized — it's sort of clean and antiseptic," he explains. "I mean, when you run someone through with a lightsaber it cauterizes the wound. When I got my hand cut off, I wasn't spurting blood, because it cauterizes the wound. The violence in Knightfall is far more realistic, brutal and graphic. It's the most violent show on television! It's got all the bloodshed, all the carnage, and all the glamour of the 14th century."
Knightfall airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on History.
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