When it comes to the craft of acting, Elliot Knight is a force to be reckoned with. While he may not be a household name at the moment, his unrelenting drive and dedication to his craft have quickly established him as one of the most versatile actors on the scene. His incredible range and an insatiable appetite for creative exploration continue to turn the heads of both critics and fans alike. Already a fan favorite in his native UK, with the titular role on “Sinbad” under his belt, Knight made his U.S. network debut in 2014 in the critically acclaimed ABC series “How To Get Away with Murder.” He recurred as Aiden Walker, the fiancé of Michaela Pratt [played by Aja Naomi King]. This role set the stage for him to start building a relationship with ABC and eventually lead to his one of his most ambitious roles to date. In September 2015, Knight joined the cast of the longstanding hit ABC series “Once Upon A Time” as the iconic character Merlin. Having premiered season five on September 27, Knight brings the most famous and powerful sorcerer and magician of all time to life. This season, “Once Upon A Time” will detail the characters’ quest to find Merlin in order to set Emma [Jennifer Morrison] free from the powers of an ancient darkness and to defeat it once and for all, before it destroys everything.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Elliot Knight to discuss his journey as an actor, the challenges he has faced along the way, his process for bringing characters to life, roles on “How To Get Away With Murder” and “Once Upon A Time,” and what we can expect from him in the months to come!
Let’s give everyone background on you and how you got started on your career. What intrigued you early on about acting?
Every since I can remember, and my mother tells me, I was always performing in one way or another. I was always running around dancing or acting along with movies that I would watch, especially Disney movies. I was always doing something as a kid that was in that realm of performance. It just ended up being something I was drawn to throughout school and something I really enjoyed. It was one of the only things I wanted to pursue once I finished my basic education. It was really the only thing that interested me, inspired me and that I was passionate about. So, I auditioned for drama school, went there for three years and then, just before I finally finished, I got my first job! Really, I feel at times that it almost happened to me. It was always something I would have done but I have been very fortunate to have fantastic opportunities that seem to line up in a really great way. It is just one of those things that happened, so I like to think it is something I would have always ended up doing no matter how it worked out! That is just the kind of person I am, I guess.
Who had a big impact on you and what you do as an actor, both in front of the camera and in your real life?
I definitely had some great teachers. I had one in particular, Mrs. Collins. She wasn’t even my teacher in school. The school I went to was a grammar school, a sports college. It is like extended study of high school and you can stay on for over two years. I was in pretty much all of the sports teams and played rugby for seven years. I was on the hockey team, played basketball for a year and played futbol, so I was very sporty and active. I enjoyed that but school really put emphasis on sports and then other elements. When I said I wanted to do drama, I remember most of the teachers didn’t think you could pursue drama as some type of career! No one advised me to do it, apart from my drama teacher at the time. Then this substitute teacher, Mrs. Collins, came in and was my savior. She told me all about drama school and helped me audition two scenes. I got in on my first year and auditioning was brilliant. In terms of actors and actresses, I have been asked this a couple of times.
When I realized I really liked doing this and watched movies or TV shows to see different characters being portrayed, I would think about how fun it would be to portray them. I looked around me and realized that other people who had similar interests and wanted to pursue acting for whatever reason had all of these role models to look up to because they were similar to them. Not only did they look similar or their roles were similar to what they would perceive as everyday life. What I noticed, at a very early age, was that there weren’t many roles being cast with people who I related to or felt I was similar to. Obviously, they were people happening but at that age with the things I wanted to do, I didn’t really become aware of any actor who I looked at and said, “That could be me one day.”
As I was growing up, I loved watching wrestling. I watched WWF before it was WWE! The Rock, Dwayne Johnson, was my idol because he was this really cool, likeable, mixed-race guy, who served as a great inspiration. When you are that young and trying to find your place and identity, race is one of the most obvious things to me. Growing up, I had to figure that out. To be honest, it made me even more determined because it made me want to do it and become a person who could fill a gap where that role model wasn’t there for me. I have always said, “The best thing I could hope for is that maybe I could serve as a role model or source of inspiration for someone else who is young and may feel there aren’t as many roles open to them.” I am happy that I have been fortunate enough to get roles where I can say to them, “Actually, I’ve gotten to do some really cool stuff! My race isn’t something that has held me back in any way and there is no need for it to be.” Sorry, that is a very long-winded answer to a very simple question! [laughs]
Actually, it is very cool to hear that and see where you are coming from. Very inspiring! Many people here in The States first noticed you with your role on “How To Get Away With Murder.” Tell us about the series, how you got involved and the impact it had on you.
I initially came across “Murder” when I auditioned for the pilot. I auditioned for the role of Wesley, actually [played by Alfred Enoch]. That is how I knew about it. It was being directed by Michael Offer. I had worked with him the year before on the final episode of “Sinbad,” a series I did here in the UK. He was brilliant! I went in and screen tested for the role and really liked it but I didn’t end up getting it, so I ended up doing a different pilot. I worked a little bit that year and did a movie. As soon as the movie finished, I got a call saying, “Hi, there is this part on ‘How To Get Away With Murder’ that they would like you to do.” To be honest, before I even knew what the role was, I said, “Yes!” I remembered how much I had loved the first script. Viola Davis was playing Annalise Keating and I already loved her! I was like, “Any opportunity to be a part of this project, I would love!” I said yes and they sent me all the things for the character and I loved it even more. It was great! I really like the story, I liked the character and I had a great time! It was a lot of fun to work on! It was very mysterious because you never know what is happening or what is about to happen, you know?
The cast includes some amazing talent, yourself included. What did you pick up from watching some of these seasoned veterans do their thing?
I loved watching Alfred [Enoch], who is playing Wes. I think he is doing such a brilliant job. I remember watching the pilot when it came out because I knew about the show and he is a fellow Brit as well. It has been great to see someone come from the UK and be one of the leads in this really big show and do it so well. I know for a fact, just having met him briefly when I was filming for it, he is really committed to bringing truth and heart to this character he is portraying. I have really enjoyed watching his transformation because he has definitely transformed as the series has gone on, not just his character but as an actor. I feel as an actor, he has really grown into the role he is playing, so that has been great to watch. Viola [Davis] is a master class. I love watching her do anything. I was able to have a chat with her when I was on set. She reminded me of my mom actually. I felt that same level of comfort around her. Chatting with her was so easy and safe. She was great! Aja Naomi King, who I did most of my scenes with, was a lot of fun as well. There is a lot of talent on that show and it really shows because it is doing so, so well.
That role led you down the path to another big series, ABC’s “Once Upon A Time.” Was the series on your radar before you got involved with it?
Yeah, I had heard of it because a bunch of my friends have watched it, along with friends of their friends and they were crazy about it. I hadn’t seen it myself because I really don’t watch that much TV. I am very strange! I am on it but I hardly ever watch it! I got a call asking if I would meet with the creators, Edward [Kitsis] and Adam [Horowitz]. I said, “Of course! I would love to!” I didn’t know what it was about but I went in and they told me about the show and how, in season five, they were going to introduce the character of Merlin. They told me what they were thinking for him and what they wanted to do. They said they were interested in seeing me for the role. Of course, I knew who Merlin was and of course, like I was saying, like the little kid who saw all these roles I wanted to do but I didn’t see anyone like me doing them, I said, “I would love to do this! I would be so grateful and honored.” I auditioned for the part after the meeting. They announced on my birthday that I got the part! I said, “This is the best birthday I have ever had!” [laughs]
What did you bring to the character that wasn’t on the written page? Do any parts of your own personality show through?
I think, definitely, from what I have seen, and even more than I realized, there is quite of bit of me showing through. I am the kind of actor who likes to draw on my own personal experience and I am very instinctual and intuitive. A lot of my understanding of the character comes, in some way or another, from within myself because I like to have it be truthful rather than exhibitional. I have really enjoyed getting to have a little bit of fun. I think it is a much more interesting dynamic having a light and fun character enter a very dark and heavy conflict, rather than someone very serious and stoic coming into an already very serious situation. I have definitely had a lot of fun with it, maybe too much! [laughs]
What was it like coming in as a newcomer to an already well-established series like “Once Upon A Time?”
The regulars on the show know their characters so well, so it is very smooth for them. It didn’t feel difficult to fit in. To be honest, I was more looking forward to doing the part than being nervous about it. Also, the show has such huge fandom, they were already being so supportive of me and very supportive, even before I started filming after I had been cast. I have to give credit to them! This is a show were a lot of new characters come in from time to time, throughout all of the seasons, and I am sure the experience is the same for other actors as well. The support that you receive, the comments and seeing people’s excitement for the character you are playing really does energize you to deliver an inspired performance. Just to have that thought in the back of your mind and know that millions of fans of the show can’t wait to see your character is amazing. You get to play this character, so don’t be nervous about it, enjoy it! Enjoy the fact that there are so many people who are so excited to see something you are a part of. They were definitely a big help!
Is there a process you go about when taking on a new project and start to build out a new character?
I am very funny with characters. When I hear that I am going to get the role and know I am going to be doing something, I start out very intellectually. I will go out and buy a notebook and sit down and write notes. I will write things even if it doesn’t make sense and write until I am in the mindset of this particular character and until I feel very comfortable with who they are and being in their body. That means I have 25 notebooks just laying around my apartment that have two pages or more pages written and are never used again! After that point, it becomes very intuitive to me and instinctual. I’m more of a feeler than a thinker. I don’t want to be too weighed down by trying too hard to be something, I would rather relax and allow myself to be something. There is a big difference, I find. It has lent itself to allow myself to be Merlin because he is a character who is very fun, light and easy. It is almost effortless, you know? You can’t try to be effortless, it is an oxymoron. That isn’t the case for a lot of roles, so it has been interesting and different to have this role that requires a different approach to give an appropriate light to Merlin.
You built a very eclectic resume with the characters you played. That is great on many levels. What is the biggest challenge you faced so far as an actor? Is there a role you feel is a creative milestone for you?
I think the best thing about this job is that you are always learning. In life, everyone is always learning, at least that is what we should be doing. There are always new experiences to be had and to keep things fresh. I am aware that I am learning more with every job that I do. It is not just learning more about myself or how to do things but also learning what is challenging or difficult to me. Of all the roles I have had, “Once Upon A Time” and “Sinbad” have been the fun and both were a set in the fantasy world, which I love. Those are the two roles where, if as a child I wanted to grow up and act, those were the two I would have wanted to do. I grew up an only child, until I was 9 years old, and I was always making up names in my mind, speaking to imaginary people and acting out scenes in my head or out loud and doing the kind of things kids do. I feel like my personality lends itself to those genre of shows. Probably one of the least significant jobs that I did was almost one of the most enjoyable in terms of the unique challenges it presented. I did this guest spot on “Law & Order UK,” where I played a young father who just found out he was a father of this 2-year-old boy, who he did not know about the whole time. He is suddenly thrown into this situation where the biological mother has gotten back with the father and arranged for him to basically kidnap their child, who had been adopted by a couple. The plan is to take the child back, so they can run away. That was a very grown up character for me to play. Even though he was a young man, it involved a lot of maturity to understand the situation and relate to it. Even though that was only a few days of filming, a small guest role, I really enjoyed it. That might be one of the roles that stands out to me as being different.
With this array of characters under your belt already, it is clear the future is bright for you. Do you have a dream role?
Yeah, there is. The more that I talk about it, I feel as if I might jinx it but the ultimate role for me growing up, one that has always inspired me, is James Bond. I grew up watching all of those movies with my dad and it has always been a character I have loved. I mean, who wouldn’t want to play James Bond? There are obvious grounds to break in terms of the casting of that role, which in time I have no doubt will happen. I have never let that stand in the way of how much I would like to do it. If I ever have the opportunity to be Bond, that would be the ultimate role for me. That is definitely my end goal, if you would like.
That would be amazing! Elliot, you can serve as a great inspiration to a lot of young people with your work and who you are as a person. What is the biggest lesson we can take from your journey so far?
The biggest lesson, and one that I am still learning, is never to doubt yourself. Don’t ever doubt the value you have as an individual because you might be different from what seems to be valued. So, if you want to be an actor and see someone on the screen who, for example, looks completely different than you and everyone is celebrating how they look, don’t feel there isn’t value to the way you look. Don’t feel that because someone portrays a character in a certain way that is not still valuable that you have a portrayal that might be completely different. That is the lesson I am learning all of the time, to value myself as an individual and to respect the value that other people have. Whether it is something to my tastes or not is irrelevant. Everyone has something to give, yourself included. I would like to think that would be a nice lesson.
Are there charities or causes you might be involved with that we can help shine a light on?
In the past, I have donated to quite a few deserving charities. Stonewall (www.stonewall.org.uk) campaigns for equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people across Britain and The Big Life Foundation (www.biglife.org) which is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Africa’s wildlife and ecosystems. In addition, I would hope people would also check out the SumofUs.org. SumOfUs is a movement of consumers, workers and shareholders speaking with one voice to counterbalance the growing power of large corporations. I donate to them all of the time. They’re great!
That is great! Before I let you go, I have to ask, where should we be on the lookout for you next?
I shot a movie last year called “Takedown” with Ed Westwick and Phoebe Tonkin. We are hoping for that to come out next year, so there isn’t too much of a wait. Hopefully, that will be the next thing people can see me in. I am playing a character called Marsac. I’m English, which will be nice. A different mix of being American and English, so this job has been nice for that too! [laughs] That is very different and is almost like a “Hunger Games” survivor tone. That will be the next thing!
I am sure it won’t be the last we see of you by a long shot, Elliot! We will definitely be out spreading the word on all your work! Thank you so much for your time today!
Thank you so much, Jason!