“Can you see anything?”
“Yes, wonderful things!”
And truly, they were. The now-legendary words of Howard Carter to Lord Carnarvon on November 4, 1922, as he held out his candle and peered into the tomb of Tutankhamun, have come to convey all the drama and hope engendered by the pursuit of dreams. The story of the 20th century’s greatest archaeological discovery was perfect mini-series fuel, not least for the fascinating dynamics of the unlikely relationship between social misfit Carter and Carnarvon, a whimsical hobbyist aristocrat. It has triumph over adversity, it has a love affair, it has adventures aplenty, and it has characters that are a gift to a screenwriter; so we’re delighted that ITV Studios has done the decent thing and provided us with this autumn’s Television Event, casting Max Irons as Carter and Sam Neill as Carnarvon. We spoke to Max Irons to find out more.
How did your role in Tutankhamun come about?
In the traditional way… I got sent the script, I read the script, and I loved the script. Sometimes it’s… a bit of a chore having to read scripts. This one was a real pleasure.
And how soon did you know you loved it?
Oh, within 10 pages. I used to love reading adventure books as a kid. And this story would have been a perfect book for me. It was a golden period of history—what was happening in Egypt at that time was fascinating. Carter was different – this is what I think separated him from a lot of the other people out there at the time. They used to build these hotels in the middle of the desert, and all these English and Americans and French, they used to come out—and Egyptology and archaeology were very fashionable—so they’d just go and they’d dig around. Carter wasn’t one of those people. He wasn’t upper-class, he wasn’t wealthy, but he was very educated and he really knew his trade. The quality of the writing helped, but it was the world… It appealed to the child in me.
Might Carter have been on the autism spectrum?
A lot of people have said that. I don’t know if he was. I just think he was very single-minded. You know the notion of being “sound”? Carter was not considered to be sound. He didn’t do things the way that they “should” be done. He was a bit of a loose cannon. When you read his diary, he spoke of the connection through time and space that he felt when he was discovering shards of pottery—not gold and treasure and jewels, just shards of pottery—and he felt through that piece of pottery he could feel a connection with the family that would have been using it thousands of years ago. That’s the kind of imagination he had, and that love and that obsession was what was driving him.
Great store was set at that time by observing social norms, and perhaps he didn’t fit in with that?
I don’t think he really cared for it, and I think he thought that maybe it was getting in the way of other more important things and that perhaps a lot of the people that were out there were there for the wrong reasons—the fame, the glory, the monetary reward.
Tell me about what you do to get in role.
This was a real guy who people knew and people love and people are very interested in what he said and what he did, so I felt a bit of a responsibility, and I was slightly intimidated by that. So I did a huge amount of research; I read his diary, I read accounts of him, which varied wildly—which was telling, I thought. It usually just begins with just an instinctive notion of what emotionally drives a person, and then trying to map that out, because when you see something through your own eyes it’s your understanding of the universe that’s building theirs. You have to actually map down what it is they need from life, what it is they want, what they’re scared of, all those things.
Silly as it is, there’s certainly a point that you do that, a moment where that’s useful. Yeah.
How long did you take to film?
Two months, and thank God, we were in the desert and we were up on the Namibian border in this beautiful valley. We had these amazing set designers who recreated the whole scene.
What was it like working with Sam Neill?
I love him. When I first met him I was very scared of him because he’s quite dry and he’ll just look you in the eye and not give anything away. I always said to him, be honest with me, if I’m doing something wrong just tell me, I won’t take it personally. Which he did on odd occasions. But we had a good time.
Is this going to be your Brideshead?
It’s kind of my way of asking what it’s like growing up with famous parents.
You can ask that if you want. But no, I don’t think this is going to be my Brideshead. I think Brideshead was very particular, at a very particular time, and meant a very particular thing to a lot of people. This, I hope, will mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but it’s different…
Your Riot Club cast… how close are you? Are you a bit of a Brat Pack for our generation?
Me? Them? No. Nonsense.
Are they all your friends?
A couple of them are my friends, a couple of them are my friends by proxy, but I am the most antisocial person that exists. I have very few friends and I call them very rarely. My girlfriend is constantly telling me I have to make more of an effort, and it’s definitely true. So in terms of being part of any Brat Pack, no truth to it whatsoever. Nope. Camping. That’s what I like to do. I love it. You’ve got a little bag, and what you need, exactly what you need. Cleansing.
The screen friendship between you and Carnarvon is fascinating.
They understood each other. They were perhaps two people who perhaps weren’t always understood—Carnarvon was, in the right light, but they endured, their relationship endured, through all the ups and downs, through Carter being incredibly difficult, and they nurtured each other.
Weren’t you tempted to keep the moustache?
No, it was the worst. I don’t know how people live with them – in fact, I JUDGE people with them now, because I know how unpleasant that is and I think, you still suffer every day, for some misguided reason…
And what do you think it says about them?
VANITY. That’s what it says about them… No, I’m kidding. No, it was the worst. It took me a month to grow the pathetic excuse…
What is relevant about this tale now—what will resonate?
I don’t know. I always struggle with questions like these. I don’t know what’s relevant. I just really hope people will enjoy it and it will pique a few people’s interest in a fascinating period in history, make a few people open some books or read about some stuff. I think Carter’s one in a million, one of those great people who is very good at what they do and loves what they do, and does it for the right reasons, does it honourably and with love and care, and inadvertently makes one of the greatest discoveries ever, and does it with style and grace… and that’s a great story. That’s all there needs to be. —Anna Blomefield
Photo credits: © ITV Plc