When the fabled Green Knight first appears onscreen in David Lowery’s brooding medieval fable The Green Knight, audiences aren’t likely to recognize the actor under all the layers of costuming and makeup. But that penny might drop for longtime cinema fans when the creature first speaks. British actor Ralph Ineson has a distinctive gravelly voice, a low rumble pitched almost at the edge of hearing. In a recent interview with Polygon, Ineson says that was what Lowery was looking for when he cast the Knight.
“The first discussion was about how I knew he liked my voice, he wanted my voice for the character,” he says. “Then he was very keen to stress that he didn’t want it to be a CGI character, or a fully prosthetic character. He wanted to find a performance within the design he had.”
Genre fans have seen Ineson in practically everything they love, even if they didn’t realize it. He played minor roles in Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the Harry Potter movies, among many other films. Most distinctively, he plays the separatist Puritan William in Robert Eggers’ stunning period horror piece The Witch, leading an obedient, doomed family (including his Green Knight co-star Kate Dickie as William’s wife Katherine) out into the wilderness to live far away from the corruption he sees in the local settlement. His title role in The Green Knight is one of his larger and more distinctive roles. Even if no one can really see his face, he’s still setting the tone of the film, as a magical forest spirit summoned up to challenge the young would-be knight Gawain (Dev Patel) to the contest of honor that drives the story.
“It was a really strange experience,” Ineson says, about donning a ton of latex rubber and armor for the role. “On one level, it was incredibly uncomfortable, but there’s no way of getting around that. There’s no way you can have an actor play a character like that practically, and have it be a comfortable, pleasurable experience. I think you have to accept that.
“I couldn’t really open my mouth enough to eat. I had to use a straw to eat or drink. There were holes for my nostrils, and I had full eye contact lenses that were very scratchy. So I was basically looking through tears all day. I sound like a real whiny actor. But it was summer 2019, so that’s long forgotten about. I don’t remember the pain. I’m just looking at the really nice reviews, and going ‘Hee hee!’”
But he says the crew took “amazing” care of him, trying to make him comfortable in the getup. “People found ways of helping me rest — the headpiece was heavier on one side than the other, so after a few hours of holding up that weight, I’d get quite tired. They found me something like a dentist chair, so I could sit down between scenes and I didn’t have to hold my head up. There was a wonderful woman who looked after my contact lenses, and was constantly taking them out and putting them back in, because I was terribly sensitive to them, like the sensitive actor I am.”
The costume and makeup, Ineson says, took three and a half hours to apply, and an hour to remove, but he feels it was worth the effort. “The first day I was on set was the day I walk into Camelot on horseback. So the first time most people had seen me — the cast, the supporting artists, anybody — was the first rehearsal. So to be able to look around at the effect that this look had on people the first time they saw it — there were children almost crying. The child extras were just terrified. So from that moment, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m onto something here. I don’t have to worry about making him scary, making him intimidating. Right. That’s all done for me. I’ve just got to find the performance, find the fun in it.’”
The costume prosthetics, designed by another Game of Thrones veteran, Barrie Gower, were particularly difficult for Ineson, but he says their limitations helped him find the character. “To be in those prosthetics, with my ears covered and the lenses in, it cut down so many of my senses. I had to move so slowly. That movement, the pace I moved at, wasn’t deliberate. That was the pace I had to move at, because of the restriction. It helped me find the physicality.”
“But also, in the final sequence in the Green Chapel, all my senses were cut off. In that costume, I couldn’t eat, so I couldn’t taste anything. I couldn’t hear anything, it was like being underwater, because my ears were covered with latex. I had very bad vision because of the lenses. It was all about smell. And when I walked to the Green Chapel, to the location in this Irish forest, the wild garlic was just coming into flower. So walking through it, with my one sense being absolutely massively buzzing, being hit by this wild garlic, I genuinely felt like something of nature. It was quite overwhelming, in lots of weird ways. I never really expected I would find a character through smell. But I genuinely did.”
Ineson says his discussions with Lowery mostly centered on “the practicalities of what I’d be able to do within that costume,” given its restrictions. But while most of the latex on the head and body pieces were about an eighth of an inch thick, the latex around his eyes and mouth — “you know, the parts of your face you use as an actor” — were more flexible, “in places about as thick as a condom, but with big lumps of bark in it.”
Ineson says Lowery allowed him a lot of leeway to experiment with the character, and he found that the one dead end came whenever he tried to emphasize the Knight’s monstrous side. That was “just rubbish,” he says. “Whenever I leant into trying to make him scary, there was just no point. He’s already scary! Whenever I tried to lean my performance into being grand, tried to push my voice deeper, or make him more Shakespearian, it just felt ridiculous. It was much more interesting for him to be this huge, intimidating, somber-looking figure, but also just be somebody who’s actually quite funny. If you were to have a pint with him, he’d be quite funny. Behind the mask of the Green Knight, I think there’s a huge playfulness.”
In the movie, that playfulness is largely focused on Gawain, who Ineson describes as such a “feckless dickhead” that it impressed him when Dev Patel made him into a lovable character. “That performance is one of the best I’ve had the privilege to witness close-up. I’ve worked with some amazing actors, but Dev as Gawain is just incredible, so soulful and so true, and so real, and so vulnerable […] I mean, obviously helped by the fact that he’s one of the most beautiful men in the world.”
Lowery and Ineson spent significant time discussing how the Green Knight would be “authentically loving” toward Gawain, and how the character’s conflict between humor and horror was meant to be ambiguous to the audience. “We were both very much on the same page at the start that the most interesting thing about the Green Knight in this world was his playfulness. He’s a tester of man, and he enjoys that. And that’s kind of confusing. We’re kind of looking for, is he actually really nice, or is he merciless and horrible? You just don’t really know. Because there are flashes of him being a lovely, parental, loving figure, but obviously he’s about to chop your head off, so it’s a strange dichotomy.”
Ineson describes the Green Knight as “a windup merchant,” a “mischievous” figure who reminds him of his own family. “I felt there was a certain soul to him that was almost parental, in a weird way. He would challenge Gawain because he wanted the best version of him. So I wanted to bring that out. I have a 22-year-old son, so I related to the character — I want to push [Gawain], but I want to push him for the right reasons, I want a certain care and love to always come through. I think the challenge was to bring out that teasing quality, teasing his honor and his bravery out of him, making him be brave. I thought it was important that it was touching, even though it obviously ends up pretty gruesome at the end.”
The end of The Green Knight, which is clearly designed to send people out of the theater discussing and debating what happens next, comes straight out of that contradiction, as far as Ineson is concerned. But he warns against trying to predict the outcome through the original medieval poem Lowery adapted for the movie.
“There are lots of things we talked about, with what the Green Knight would get out of Gawain in that final sequence,” Ineson says. “I’ve talked to a few people about the movie recently, and I’ve found people want to take a lot from the poem, and their intellectual and historical readings of it […] But from my point of view, this is very much David’s interpretation. And although I’d known the legend of The Green Knight, and a lot of Arthurian stories, which I was very into as a kid, I didn’t know the poem. And I deliberately didn’t go into it.” He says he wanted Lowery’s script to be the “sacred text,” and he didn’t want to muddy that interpretation by bringing in outside elements.
“Film acting can be very easily overcomplicated, in my mind,” Ineson says. “If I start bringing in elements of the original Green Knight, there’d be hourlong discussions, with David going, ‘No, the reason I’m not going in that direction is this, this, and this. And I think those are not really interesting discussions for actors and directors to have.”
Ineson says he prefers to let a director define a vision for his work, and then to make himself part of it: “‘Okay, this is the character, how do you want me to play it?’ I think acting is much simpler than people sometimes try to make it […] I think the best performances tend to be brought out of actors by really good filmmakers, when actors give themselves up and realize that the job is pretty simple. It’s essentially to exist in the most authentic, real way, in that moment, on set, and let a great filmmaker do with that what they want.”