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Carnival Row Interview: Tamzin Merchant, Andrew Gower & David Gyasi

Carnival Row - Imogen and Agreus

Amazon's latest fantasy series Carnival Row is ready to view on Prime, with 8 episodes of sex, politics and supernatural intrigue. The strained relations between humans and faerie folk in The Burgue are best exemplified by the Spurnrose family. The wealthy head of the household Ezra (Andrew Gower) exploits fae for his own gain, while his beautiful sister Imogen (Tamzin Merchant) looks down on them from above. Needless to say, it’s quite a shock when a puck named Agreus (David Gyasi) – the lowest member of the fae totem pole – moves in next door.

Screen Rant sat down with the actors to discuss the most gripping elements of Carnival Row, allowing all three to share their personal thoughts on the trajectory of their characters and the importance of the show’s themes.

The first thing I want to start with is: what got you on board for the project? 

Tamzin Merchant: Well, as soon as I read the script, it just felt magical. It's an intriguing world that’s got so many parts that we recognize, and I do a lot of period dramas so there was a lot that I was kind of familiar with. But what Travis invented in his dorm room in college how many years ago now –

Andrew Gower: I want to go into that dorm room. I want to see what’s behind that door; what’s on those walls.

Tamzin Merchant: It just is so brilliant. It's such a fresh, I think, take on a fantasy and on. It's such a fresh way of looking at humans and looking at characters.

And also, to play Imogen, for me, playing a character who is starts off as an obnoxious bitch. I mean, she's awful. And I'm so used to how so many female characters, especially in period dramas, can be quite one-sided, quite reductive, quite two-dimensional. And often it's more archetypal. So, you'll play a damsel; you’ll play like a tragic, doomed [girl]. But Imogen, she's argumentative, and she's clever. And she's keeping a bonfire of emotions just about in check. And that, to me, was just absolutely gold. I was like, “I’ve gotta be in this show.”

Andrew Gower: Yeah. I don't know about you guys, but within the industry – especially in the UK; it's incredibly small – people talk about scripts. And, obviously, I didn't know that this had been talked about for 10 years.

There was a bidding war for it. 

Andrew Gower: Yeah, there was a bidding war. And that kind of discovery, when I was finally attached to it, was like, “Wow, this has been an ever-present thing for the last decade.” I remember being on a plane, and somebody was like, “Have you read that Carnival Row script yet?” And I was like, “No.” And then literally it came when I was on a plane, and I read it. It was a similar reaction of, “I have to be involved in this.”

And then to meet Travis and realize the extent to which that guy has not only created these characters that read so well but thought about this huge, unfathomable new world that he's created. I mean, sometimes people adapt books, and I've been in booking adaptations. But he's come up with this in his own head. He's created a monarchy; he's created wars that have happened before. And to land in it unapologetically, to walk [towards] creatures and see them for the first time, and maybe not even have them explained until later? That is – I mean, come on. It’s gold dust.

That's what drew me in immediately. It just starts off so quick. You’re right there, and you feel so immersed in it.

Tamzin Merchant: Yeah, in the middle. There’s history, and there's what's coming next. It doesn't feel like we're starting at square one; it's like we're starting somewhere in the middle. And there's all this shit that’s – sorry, I shouldn't say shit – that's happened. You just have to kind of catch up as it goes.

How about you, David?

David Gyasi: For me, I've been out of work for a long time. So, I thought, “Give me anything!” No, that's not actually true.

Do you know what? I read this maybe five years ago, and it really stopped me. It moved me so much that I actually phoned my agent and said, “We have to prioritize this.” And it sort of came, and it went away; it came, and it went away. Literally every job that I was doing up until we got the green light, I was saying, “Can we phone the Carnival Row people and check what is happening?”

Tamzin Merchant: Yes, I did that too!

David Gyasi: Why would I do that? Well, very early on in the script that I read where you get a baby fairy wash up on a beach, and that image just blew me away. Because, around the time that I read it, we had a Syrian refugee wash up on a French beach. And the two things really kind of stifled me. I just felt like this has its this has its finger on the pulse, and how has Hollywood been able to react so quickly? Because it wasn't like then a baby fairy washes up on a beach, and everything else about the storyline is rubbish. It was so well-rounded.

Andrew Gower: Or just about that, as well. It’s not just about that. Exactly. I mean, that's

David Gyasi: It’s just an iota. That's all it is.

And then I was like, “I'm really digging the script. This is happening, right?” And my agent was like, “This script’s been knocking around for 10 years.” That's great. And I thought, “Wow, why is that still relevant?” And then I thought, “Don’t be silly. It's relevant at any point.” Even 2000-odd years ago, you had a pregnant woman and her husband running from the mass genocide of, like, we're gonna kill kids. Knocking on doors and going, “Can we come in?” “No room.” At any point during our history, that kind of thing happened.

Andrew Gower: It was 1984-esque.

David Gyasi: 1984, absolutely. So, for me, it was that. And then you put on the dress. Like, “For this character, David, you're going to have horns, and this is what's going to happen.” And there's a dynamic here that's interesting to explore, so I was committed even before they offered me the job. I am ready for this.

Andrew Gower: You call up a girl, before she even agrees to dating you, you’re like, “I’m dating you... This is what we’re going to call our children.”

One thing that's great about all three of your characters, and when you guys share the screen together, is that every single scene advances the story in some form or fashion. It changes the perspective that you have on every single one of those characters. What is the status of each of your characters when the show starts?

Tamzin Merchant: Well, I think Imogen is bored and kind of infuriated by the fact that all she gets to do really all day is dress up prettily, stand by a window, and wait to see what gossip leaps past. She's frustrated, and I think she doesn't realize [it] and kind of gets woken up during the first season of the show. She's pissed off and just irritable, and she's bored. She's a caged bird. You first see her through the bars of the cage, I think, where she's looking at these little birds that are her pets. It's quite a creepy metaphor, but she's this caged bird.

I just love that about her, because she's not like this damsel standing around a window. She’s standing out a window, and she’s like, “F***! What's happening with my life?” She’s there, but she's not there as a damsel. She's there's as this pissed off individual, keeping this bonfire of frustration and anger and all of her feelings just about in check. And I think that is really cool, because the female characters on this show, across the board, are complex. They're dynamic, they're empowered, and they can be subversive. It's really brilliant. It's not one thing, like one person stands for one thing. So that was really cool.

But, specifically for Imogen, that's where she's at. She's waiting for something.

And Ezra?

Andrew Gower: I'm handed a gift, basically. In the sense that before you even meet me, or when you meet me, I'm holding this family secret. Meaning the fact that I'm the gentleman responsible for ferrying [fae refugees] into the city is gold dust. For me, gold dust to play.

Also, you're trapped in the cage, and I'm probably me keeping the cage together – trying to keep it together. It's a quite interesting playing a Victorian man whose father was wealthy and a watchmaker, and I had inherited this money and –

Tamzin Merchant: We’ve inherited the money.

Andrew Gower: That’s basically what I'm dealing with. The “we,” not me.

Great point to meet somebody who already, in episode 1, has a secret. And then for that to unravel in the first episode, and then for this to happen almost inevitably. Obviously, not in episode 1, but just for the audience to see that unraveling.

Ezra kind of has his eye off the ball. And the amazing thing about this script is he doesn't realize how forward-thinking his sister is. He doesn't realize it, because ignorance. Again, as we said, it's an important subject in a world like this to play a character with ignorance; to see that character on screen. And lucky enough, with season two, you can then see maybe what happens when the ignorance is chiseled, and Pandora's box is opened.

I really don't want to give too much away about how this one ends. David, Agreus is my favorite on the show. 

David Gyasi: Thank you very much. I don’t why I'm saying thank you, I didn't create him.

Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne in Carnival Row Amazon Prime

But you did! He has a ton of great lines. I love when he buys the painting, and he says, “I didn't buy it for me. I bought it just to see the look on this guy's face.” But there's so many powerful moments that this character has. Can you talk to me about what his status is on the board? It's not probably what you would expect going into it, but once you find out more, it opens everything up.

David Gyasi: I find that such an interesting question, and we've not been asked that at all. Thank you for that. And it's an interesting one, because his status is twofold. “What is his status in terms of how society views him?” is one thing, and “What is the status in terms of how he views himself?” [is another].

So, let's start with the first one. Society kind of goes, “There's humans at the top, then there's all these other fae folk.” You can prioritize which ones you want, maybe the faeries because they look pretty, a little bit higher than these ones, and these ones, and then these ones – and right at the bottom, you get the fawns. And that's where they stay. So, they do the dirtiest jobs. Services, they do the wash, they’re in the mire.

Then there's Agreus version of who he is. He kind of does away with that whole hierarchy and just goes, “You know what? I'm here to take over. I’m here to do this thing. So, I'm going to find the most expensive house. Which one – is it that one? I’m going to buy that one with cash.” And he does that.

For me, his mind – that's really the starting point. He has no limitations, although society tries to put them on him. HE doesn't have them; doesn't accept them. And I find it also very interesting, when you are someone that's going through life, and you want to serve yourself. He has this intention, which I think his secret is to kind of dispel all of these myths. He's buying artwork, and he's not even sure if he likes it, but his motivation is to see other people's reactions and to change other people's opinions. That's a kind of mad existence.

There is a scene, I believe in episode 1, where you see Agreus on his own. He's got this expensive house, and the furniture is all like glorious and a little bit lavish. Does he like it? And it's mirrored with Imogen, who's on her up and looking out and seeing stuff and not sure if that kind of fits. And then, I would even say, there's Ezra going, “This is the way things must be.” And it's not working, but this is the way things must be. “If we all get it right, it will all work.”

So, there's these really interesting energies, rather than just going, “What if? What if you follow your heart? What if I follow my heart? What happens?” And that is scary.

You also make a great point because, as Ezra has made his money exploiting the faes – in a similar way, so did sort of your character. There's a great moment where your character says, “To be part of the humans, you got to play by their rules.” Can you talk to me about how Agreus made his fortune?

David Gyasi: I could. And I've had more revealed to me in terms of talking about the headlines in season 2. There are two things about me talking about that. One is that me talking about it will never be as exciting as you watching it, but here's what I can say about it. Have you listened to Jay Z’s 4:44 album?

Yeah.

David Gyasi: What's interesting about that album and interesting about his earlier stuff is, his earlier stuff is hard-hitting. It's like, “Woah. That life.”

And now, we're talking to someone who's – is he a billionaire? He's made a billion. How do you go from the ghetto to that? And is it possible to do that earnestly? Then what does that say about what kind of world we've created, where in order to jump levels… Is there a path that you can do that?

It's an interesting question, and Andrew said earlier that this show gives us questions more than it gives us answers. 

Andrew Gower: It’s the best aspect of life. You’re not given a book on life; there's no book on life. Just like this show. You pick it up and, forever, you have so many questions.

I know. As soon as it ended, I couldn’t wait for season two.

More: What to Expect from Carnival Row Season 2

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