Jack Donnelly jumped into his auditions for BBC America's fantasy series "Atlantis" using a few well-placed bluffs.
"I lied through my teeth," he said, laughing, during a recent phone call from London.
When asked by producers if he had a gymnastics background that could help him play Jason, a young man who sword-fights, rides horses and leaps from rooftop to rooftop, he dodged the question by telling them about his younger brother Harvey, who is a gymnast in Cirque du Soleil.
"And they're like, 'Amazing, that's great,'" the 28-year-old said. "Once I got the part they sent me off to a stunt coordinator … and I said, 'Listen, I don't even think I can do a forward roll.'"
After weeks of training, Donnelly was doing all sorts of stunts as Jason, the series lead character who is shot through a gateway to the mythical land of Atlantis, where minotaurs and two-headed dragons aren't that unusual.
Jason befriends Pythagoras (Robert Emms) and Hercules (Mark Addy) and the threesome cross paths with creatures and characters from Greek mythology.
In the series' third episode premiering at 8 p.m. Dec. 7 on BBC America, Jason and his friends are forced to jump over charging bulls to pay respect to the Greek god Poseidon. Donnelly actually jumped for the scene, but the bull was added to the shot later so there was little chance for injury.
He wasn't so lucky when filming a sword fight scene. He landed in the hospital after a mishap with what should have been a rubber knife.
"I blocked one of the knives that was being stabbed at me but it went through my elbow. We finished the take and it was all good," he said. "We were about to move on and I looked down and had this hole in my arm."
He's fine now, but if you see a scar on his arm it's likely real, he said.
Donnelly's looking forward to more action now that the series, created by Howard Overman ("Misfits"), Julian Murphy and Johnny Capps ("Merlin"), has been renewed for a second season.
Playing Jason is the actor's biggest role to date after appearing in British TV episodes including playing the White Rabbit in Overman's "Misfits," which led to another bluff from the actor during his "Atlantis" audition.
"I tried to make it seem like I knew him when I was auditioning, 'Yeah, yeah, I know Howard. I've been in his other shows,'" Donnelly said. He and Overman didn't meet until later.
Donnelly talked more about playing Jason, working with his costars and washing up naked on a cold beach in Wales.
Congrats, this is kind of your first big big role, isn't it?
Yeah, absolutely. Thank you very much. Yeah, it's the biggest thing I've done by quite a way. I've done little bits and stuff in England—episodes of stuff, coming in and doing a few lines and a few plays in like fringe theater just outside of the West End. But this sort of has taken on a whole new level.
I haven't gotten far enough in "Misfits" to see you as the White Rabbit yet.
No worries man. It's just me as a big white rabbit going around and killing people with a golf club.
We don't actually even see your face, do we?
You don't even see my face. Yeah, but it was a job and I wanted to do it. I thought, "Yeah, that's a pretty cool part to play. Who else can say they've played a giant killer white rabbit?"
The creator of "Misfits" is also one of the creators of "Atlantis?"
Howard Overman—the same guy who created "Misfits." He created this. And it was funny because when I met him for the first time at the "Atlantis" read-through he spoke to me and he said that he'd been told that I was in "Misfits" when I was auditioning.
And he was asking, "Who was he in ‘Misfits'?" He was wracking his brain trying to think who I was because he's seen all the episodes. And he goes, "I can't remember this guy. This is really bad." And then he ended up phoning and trying to speak to them saying, "When did this guy come in? Who did he costume as?" And then it dawned on him and he was like, "Oh, he was the White Rabbit. That's why I never saw his face."
But, yeah, I tried to make it seem like I knew him when I was auditioning, "Yeah, yeah, I know Howard. I've been in his other shows."
But you hadn't met him?
Yeah, that's right. I hadn't met him because I came into "Misfits" just doing the one episode. He's not on set the whole time because he's a creator and writer. And then, yeah, when I auditioned for this I met him once I'd been offered the part. I had like a first meeting and read through which is the first time I met Howard. But I'd met the other two producers, Johnny and Julian.
I was going to ask you if because you had been on "Misfits" that made auditioning for this any less nerve-wracking, but I guess not.
Not even a little bit, yeah. Not even at all. I thought it might help but, yeah, not even the slightest bit. But there you go.
During the audition process did you think oh, I got this?
As the audition process went on—which lasted for months, you know—I got to know more about it and I then got to understand the scale of the job and how big it was, which just made me even more nervous. I thought, "Yeah, this looks like it'd be a mass success."
And I thought it would be amazing if I could get this. But honestly, by the time I got to the end of the auditions I thought, "They'll go for a name. They'll go for someone with a much bigger CV that's already been recognized." But if I can do a good enough audition maybe they might like ask me to come back in and play a small part further in the series.
So that's what I was kind of holding out for. But as it turns out they were willing to take a chance on a relative newcomer and that's it. And so everything changed from that moment really.
How'd you celebrate?
I went to Pizza Hut with my dad because I thought, "You know what, this is the last time I'm going to be able to eat pizza or carbs for a long time." And then I hit the gym the next day pretty hard.
They stripped you bare in the first episode.
Yeah. Pretty naked, yeah. Washed up on a beach, which we shot first in Morocco and then we had to go to Wales in the middle of winter. So that was only shot a few weeks before the first episode came out. So I was coming out of a freezing cold sea with no clothes on in the middle of winter. I was going, "Yeah, what a magical city this is."
Tell me a little bit about Jason. What is your take on what's driving him and what he's like?
When you meet Jason he's an outsider coming into Atlantis and the whole world is new for him. And I think as the audience discovers Atlantis and what it's about they're seeing it through Jason's eyes because it's all new to him. It's a strange new world. And I guess we find out about the character mostly through his relationship with Pythagoras and Hercules, played by Robert Emms and Mark Addy respectively.
I think you've got these big Greek myths and it is an epic fantasy drama with lots of fighting and monsters and stuff. But the heart of it, I think it's a buddy series. It's really about the relationships between these three guys and their friendship.
I don't think Jason is a fully formed character yet. I think he's led a quite sheltered, closed off life up until he comes to Atlantis. And he finds everything starts to connect for him and make sense. And he learns more about himself and who he is through his relationships with these other guys. ... He has a really strong moral compass but at the same time he's quite stubborn and a bit hotheaded and sometimes he's too quick to react to stuff without thinking what the consequences might be.
And he doesn't seem all that surprised about his situation.
Yeah, I thought that. … But I spoke about this with the producers. I said, "How much of the story do you want to tell of Jason being new to this world and everything comes as a surprise and wrestling with that?" And they said "not a lot. We're not looking to tell a big fish-out-of-water story."
The way we spoke about it, the way I justified it to myself was I think because he was born there, because he's from Atlantis, it makes sense to him. He's starting to come alive and be himself. And I think being so far away from another world, being on Earth for 25 years--it's been death to him. It's the same way, I guess, Superman feels when he goes and gets energy from the sun and everything.
His powers start kicking in. This is Jason I'm talking about. You know, that's why he adapts because suddenly for the first time in his life everything feels right and he feels alive. And yes, it's very different this world, but I don't know necessarily about if that happened to anyone in the modern world now whether you would be striving to come back. Atlantis, for all its monsters and magic and stuff, it's still a pretty cool world. I don't know if I ended up there I'd say, "Yeah, I'll go back to 2013 London." Yeah, I might stick it out for a bit as well. So that's how I justified it to myself and he adapts as quickly as he does.
Even if you get attacked by a two headed dragon?
Even if you get attacked by a two headed dragon, yeah. Absolutely.
Talk about working with Mark and Robert. I love the buddy story going on.
It's brilliant. That's probably why I feel the luckiest and where the best part of the job is.
I'd met Robert Emms once through mutual friends, just completely randomly on a night out about a year before the audition. And he'd just come back from his "Warhorse" premiere and we got on really well that night. And I thought "what a lovely guy." I didn't see him again until my final audition when they asked us to come in and do a chemistry read together …
I said, "Oh I know Rob, yeah." I thought, "Oh God, if this guy doesn't remember me; I'm about to get really, really embarrassed." And when he came in I was like, "Hi buddy." I was thinking "please, please don't show me up." But it was great and it was fine.
And I've got friends that have worked with Mark before on "Game of Thrones" and stuff. And everyone I'd spoken to just said "Mark Addy, he's the nicest guy you'll ever meet. So down to earth. So friendly." And it holds up. I mean that's exactly who he is.
So the three of us have spent every day together. We've had breakfast, lunch and dinner together for the last seven months and they're just great guys and incredibly funny. And I think that's what made the job so much fun to do, because they just have me laughing all day. I think as the series progresses that stuff's come through more in the character relationships.
I think there's a real turning point for the series from about Episode 6 or 7 onward. I think the storylines get darker but on the other side of that the characters, and especially that buddy relationship in the middle, gets much funnier. Rob and Mark, both of them, suddenly become much funnier characters because they're funny people in real life and I think the writers saw that.
Did you have jitters starting out, since this was such a big job?
Absolutely massively so. Yeah, I mean, in all honesty I think I spent the first six to eight weeks waiting to get fired. I just thought, "Oh man, I'm too nervous." I was second-guessing myself and I was nervous going in every day.
I was so happy to be there because I thought, "This is something I've dreamt about. This is like a big break if ever there was one." I was so grateful but at the same time I thought I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to pull this off. I was nervous about being on camera. I was second-guessing all my choices I was making.
But the producers and the directors were lovely and it just got to the point after about six weeks where I thought, "I'm going to ruin this for myself if I stay this way seven months. I have to find a way to relax."
And you know what? I credit Rob and Mark with that a lot. Because like I said they are such nice guys and so funny, once I started having a laugh with them I started to relax a bit and ease into it. And then the whole thing just became fun. It didn't really feel like work at all. It was brilliant.
But, yeah, at the beginning I just--yeah I was terrified.
You shot some in Morocco, you said. Was the base in France like with "Merlin?"
We shot in Wales in fact. Yeah, we were in a studio in Wales that they built there and then we shot the three weeks in Morocco as well. And we just found out we've got a second series and we're going again next year and we'll go back to Morocco and possibly somewhere else which they haven't told us yet to do some more shooting abroad. But the most part it was filmed in Wales.
Did you know how to do all this stunt work? Horses, swords, all that kind of stuff?
Nope … They built me up and then taught me how to do front flips and back flips and all this running and jumping off walls, which was great fun to learn. And horse riding as well. Again, I didn't have a horse in the audition room so I said to them, I was like, "Me? I'm an excellent horse rider. I mean, you know, really good." And then they'd send us up to France and I had to learn to horse ride from there for the first time. So that was it.
Was that difficult?
It was OK actually. I really enjoyed the horse riding. Robert Emms has done quite a bit as well. In fact, Mark has as well, but Rob had done it recently on "Warhorse." So he was good. He helped me out ... They had great trainers to teach us in France where we went for three days. But then when we went to Morocco all the horses we had there were like four-year-old stallions who either didn't want to go at all or wanted to go absolutely hell-for-leather and fight each other. They were a bit nuts, so that was quite fun having to go on that. But, yeah, I think the horse riding was one of the best bits.
How about the sword play? Did you play swords when you were a kid?
I did, yeah. That stuff was really fun to do. I'm the oldest of four boys. I have three younger brothers and we all grew up in like the forest over here so this sort of genre, these films, I grew up watching these. And we used to dress up and play swordfights all the time. And I think just bringing that now to this role, it didn't feel that different. I mean the swords are a lot heavier and they're metal and you're really going for it. You're not fighting with like wooden sticks like when you're a kid. But it's the same principle so, yeah, all the swordfights and stuff—I had a great time doing that.
Did you and your brothers bull jump when you were kids, too?
Yeah but, I mean, I'm fighting CGI dragons on a green screen now and bulls on green screen. I just used to make them up when I was a kid. I just used to get my brother to pretend to be it. … You just sub my brother for a CGI monster.
The bull-jumping, you guys jump but obviously not with a bull in the ring?
We did. They went to Madrid and they shot the bull in Madrid. So that was all done separately. And then they shot with us in the studio in Wales. And they mixed the pictures together. That absolutely took the longest to film. ... The bull jumping took three weeks just to do all the bull-jumping stuff because it was so technical the way they were filming it and trying to work out the timing with the bulls. …
We had a few stuntmen in, I believe, for some of the other characters but yeah, I had a tramp pit built into the floor so I was running and jumping. And I had the director shouting at me, "OK, the bull is coming at you now, now, jump!" And I had to jump and like flip over and one time fall on the floor and another time land it. So, yeah, we shot that from quite a few different angles. So that was good fun to do.
With all this training you could probably appear with your brother in Cirque de Soleil now?
Well, that's what I said but he seems to think differently. He doesn't agree. He's like, "OK, you've learned to do a couple of forward flips but what I do is a whole different level." I've seen what he does. He's not wrong, but I like to wind him up about it anyway.
I heard you got injured.
Yeah, I did. I did in the third week. We were doing a stunt sequence for Episode 2 and we used like rubber knives in the fight sequences, but we do have real knives for all the close-ups. For some reason one of the real knives had been brought ... into the stunt sequence.
On this one take—it was the last take on a Friday night about five o'clock in the evening—I blocked one of the knives that was being stabbed at me but it went through my elbow. ... We had to stop and I got rushed off to the hospital to accident and emergency. And I was still in full costume as well so I don't know what the doctor thought as I was walking in covered in blood and costume saying, "Yeah, I kind of got stabbed in the forest." He was like, "All right." So, yeah, the stitched my arm up and then—thank God it was on a Friday so I had the weekend to heal and get over it. And then I was back on set Monday morning.
Let's talk a little bit about Jason's back story. My theory after these three episodes is the Oracle is his mother.
Interesting. Yeah, I've had a few people say that. I'm not going to say anything. It's far more fun if you find out. I do like the backstory with Jason's mother. I've heard some people have been guessing it right. Other people have a few more stories that are out there. But personally the storyline that I like the best is the Medusa-Hercules storyline. That is my favorite storyline throughout the whole thing.
He finds out quite early that his dad's gone but that's still driving him, right?
Absolutely. … He knows a bit more than he did before but that's always going to be the thing that's driving him. It was the thing that drove him to go looking for his dead father in the first place. … I will say the audience will know more than Jason by the end of the series. And that's all I'll say.
This feels a lot like "Merlin" in that it plays with Greek mythology like that played with the Knights of the Roundtable. Were you a big Greek mythology buff?
Not a massive buff but I knew my stuff. I knew more about Greek mythology than I did about the Arthurian legends. I think because over here you get taught this stuff in school around about 10 years old. Of all the stuff you learn in school, so much of it you forget when you leave. But because the Greek myths are so rich and it's interesting and you've got monsters and characters like Medusa in there you just sort of retain it. That's fun to learn. So I knew all that stuff.
And as I said, being one of four brothers growing up on these sorts of films like the original "Jason and the Argonauts," that stuff sort of just stuck with me. So I knew a fair amount of stuff coming in but the writers really do their research. There's other stuff that I've learned while filming that I had no idea about. And you find out stuff you think that's just thrown in there because it's good writing but actually it links back to some ancient text or some Greek myth I didn't know about.
I think what's interesting is what is as fun as they are, they've been interpreted and remodeled so the writers don't just stick exactly to the myth. But also because then the audience would know exactly what was gonna come. If you knew the myth then you could tell what was coming next. I like the way they play with it. It keeps it interesting.
Is your Jason the "Jason and the Argonauts" Jason?
I've had this talk with the producers because at first, with the Minotaur, I knew it was Perseus who killed the Minotaur. So I spoke to them about that and they said, "Yeah, you are a mixture of Perseus, Theseus and possibly Jason." But now that I've just found out we've been commissioned for a second series, you know, you do have an idea of where the series will go. And actually I think he does become Jason of the Argonauts. That's what they're hinting at. In fact, I don't know the ins and outs and the details, but I think that's definitely a possibility for where it goes.
You and your brothers all have ended up as performers of one sort or another. How'd that happen?
I come from that sort of family. My dad is an actor and my mum is a dancer and a choreographer. So, you know, it's in the blood. And then they never put any pressure on me or my brothers to do anything like that. We just sort of fell into it. My brother Sam is a year younger than me, he's an actor as well. Then my brother Harvey is a gymnast who just, by coincidence, ended up in Cirque de Soleil. Then my youngest brother Finn is a model. So, yeah, not the most academic family in the world you could say. But sort of all fallen into different areas of performing in one way or another. We're really close as a family as well.
Last question: Are you ready to be a heartthrob?
I don't know. You know I was thinking about that. I was thinking, "Well I don't know how to really take that." But actually all three of my younger brothers are ripped. I mean they're in such good shape and they are good looking guys. So when you're the ugliest guy in your own family it doesn't really add up that you can then be a heartthrob to anyone else. So it sort of keeps me in perspective. I'm like OK, that doesn't really work then.
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