Ben Barnes Meets His Idol Samuel West (Two Caspians)
Listen to the full 40-minute conversation:
In this #NarniaDay episode of Talking Beasts: The Narnia Podcast, Samuel West and Ben Barnes compare their experiences playing Caspian in the BBC series and Walden Media movies. Ben recalls as a child watching Sam in the role. They also discuss the possibility of another actor portraying the character in Netflix’s upcoming Narnia movies and series.
Thank you, Patreon supporters, for submitting questions for Sam and Ben! You can still view the full unedited video of this conversation here.
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- Anna Popplewell on What Led to Susan’s Fall
- Reviewing BBC’s Prince Caspian
- Ben Barnes Talks to NarniaWeb About ‘Dawn Treader’ (2008)
NARNIAWEB (GLUMPUDDLE): Good morning, Sam.
SAM: Good morning to you.
NARNIAWEB: And Ben, good to see you again. You might remember I interviewed you on the set of Prince Caspian during filming.
BEN: Of course I do! I remember when I got this job, and Georgie, Anna and Will–experienced veterans of being in the films–were telling me that NarniaWeb was where we were to get all the honest reactions. (laughter) So it was actually one of the first things I came across when I landed in this world.
NARNIAWEB: I remember you telling me that you grew up with the BBC versions of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Ben Barnes: I absolutely did. I still have my combined copy of Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I was 8 when I watched the BBC versions. They are utterly magical to me in every single way, even though there are sort of stuffed beavers being clearly thrown from one AD to the other in front of the lens. They are to me perfect and magical in every way. I won’t hear a single word against it.
Samuel West: So, as long we have a vote and it’s confined entirely to 8-year-olds, I think the BBC might win.
BEN: Or just the two of us.
SAM: (laughs) I know exactly what you mean about throwing beavers to ADs. But yes, it is lovely when you meet people when it first came out or first met it when they were 8. It binds you together in a sort of shared childhood experience, as I suppose being 10 when the first Harry Potter book came out, or even being 8 when the first Narnia book came out in 1950 or thereabouts.
NarniaWeb: For you, Sam, was it strange seeing Ben take on the character in the newer movies? Was it weird seeing someone else in the role?
SAM: Not at all! I thought he was marvelous. I didn’t see them when I was small because they didn’t exist and I’m extremely old. But no, I went to see them when they were released. First of all, I was quite jealous that he got to play Prince Caspian, because I didn’t. That was a very clever casting decision, not that I didn’t love Jean-Marc Perret’s performance as the young Prince Caspian, but to have an older Caspian so that you have the continuity through those two books.
I liked Ben’s performance because it was dashing and brave but full of self doubt and duty and truth, all the things that happen to you if you’re a thoughtful king or prince, which of course Caspian is. I think the films are terrific, although they do have budgets roughly 100 times what we had at the time, they used them extremely well.
You mentioned before we started, Ben, that the Pevensie children have an advantage over Caspian when he arrives, in that they’ve already done one, but they are also as you say kids. You have to hit the ground running and they’re veterans with one year already.
BEN: It was interesting about what you were saying about Harry Potter, this device that’s used so often in children’s literature, putting the protagonist at the age of the person that you hope will be most engaged with reading and watching it. They are learning about the universe that they’ve discovered as you are reading about it. And obviously, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe you very much are one of those Pevensie children and then by the time you get to Prince Caspian, they’ve been to this world before and although they are discovering new things, that baton is passed to the Caspian character, and even though he’s grown up in that world, he is asked to switch allegiances and confused by the world outside of the castle grounds.
But I was never very interested in any of that. I was interested in getting to be Sam West. I wanted to be the king, who knew what was going on, who was in charge and who had the answers. That was partly to do with me being far too old to be cast as Prince Caspian, a 25 year old playing a 13 year old or whatever he’s supposed to be. But knowing we’d follow up quickly with the next one and I’d feel a little more comfortable.
SAM: You knew you were going to do the second one by the time you started the first?
BEN: We didn’t know for certain but it was very much part of the plan. And it was always my favorite of the stories, Dawn Treader.
SAM: It’s interesting. It has a very different character from the other books. There isn’t really an antagonist. He’s not set up against a witch or a big baddie, there are some slavers on the first group of islands but they are quickly disposed of. It’s much more about what you learn about yourself.
BEN: It’s a series of allegorical challenges. It’s almost like little biblical stories, like the dipping in the water that turns things to gold, the turning into the dragon, the repercussions of that behavior. The imagery was always so clear.
SAM: Yes, you get one moral per island. (laughs)
BEN: Visually, it works really well to show something being dipped in gold, to show the dragon scales, to see these things was always really enticing.
NARNIAWEB: Sam, when you got the role, did you know how well-known the books were? Did you have pressure in stepping into that character?
SAM: I suppose I was slightly saved from that by not playing the book that was named after the character of Prince Caspian. Obviously I knew they were enormously famous and big and I owned them.
Professionally, I was enormously pleased about getting the job. I did get a place at Webber Douglas, a drama school that doesn’t exist anymore. And then I was offered a film called Reunion filming in Berlin. I asked them, “Can I put my place off for a year?” and Webber Douglas quite properly said, “No, you need to reapply.” So I did the film. It felt like being paid not to go to drama school, even though I really wanted to go. And I told myself if I wasn’t working in a years time, I’d reapply. But if I am working, then I wouldn’t. But in a year’s time, I was in Narnia.
I remember coming home one weekend having driven from Milford Haven on the west coast of Wales. My mother asked me what I had been doing that weekend, and I told her I was on a beach in chain mail talking to a dragon. That was precisely what I was doing. That was what kept me out of drama school, so I never went and I should have gone; many things would have been better if I had.
That was my perfect summer of 1989. And it was a beautiful summer, you can see in the adaptation actually. There’s a lot of sun when it’s not dark and we’re not fighting sea serpents. When Lord Bern and I are walking down this long staircase having a conversation after he bought me and doesn’t know who I am, that was filmed in a place called Tresco Abbey Gardens which is easily the most tropical place you can get to in Great Britain.
NARNIAWEB: One thing you both have in common is starring alongside Warwick Davis who played Reepicheep in the BBC versions and Nikabrik in the Walden version. Ben, I’m curious since you were such a fan of the BBC adaptation. How conscious of that were you? Did you talk about that with Warwick?
BEN: I was aware of it, but I was too busy being star struck by the fact that Willow was there. He’s got such an immediately sunny disposition. He was extremely naughty and funny. I still have videos on my phone that I’ve never shown anybody, of him and I behind the scenes goofing. I had this huge, long cape, and he would sometimes stand behind it and I would lift it up and he would walk out. I had another video where he and Peter Dinklage, they both had these horrible, but beautiful to look at, beards and wigs and bald caps that had to be maintained every five to seven minutes, and Weta Workshop did a brilliant job, but he was so fed up with their ongoing maintenance. He would pretend the makeup people were crazy and would say, “Stop that! What are you doing?” He made a game out of it, he made it funny.
He was utterly enthused and committed to being there which I gather he has been on everything he has done and that’s why I think people love him.
SAM: That’s a beautiful tribute. If you forgive me for looking over my shoulder, I’ve got one of Warwick’s noses somewhere and looking to see if it’s here. (laughter)
NARNIAWEB: Just lying around?
SAM: No, it’s a latex Reepicheep nose from 1989. It was pinned against that wall as a sort of trophy but eventually it got so hard that it fell off and I’ve got it in a box, I should have gotten it out.
NARNIAWEB: Well, that’s not quite as romantic as the props Ben has – his sword. But very notable.
BEN: Which I will wheel out at any opportunity.
SAM: Well, I do have my little gold hat. No, I agree. That absolutely chimes with my experience working with Warwick. He was a veteran. He was still a teenager. I can’t remember how old he was when we started. I remember when he did his exit from the film, when he waves to the children, Alex Kirby the director, turned to the director of photography and focus puller and said, “How was that?” The focus puller says, “I don’t know, I was crying too much.”
NARNIAWEB: What better compliment for an actor?
SAM: Exactly. He embodies the Reepicheep character of nobility, strength, honor, but also above his station and above his size. We worked with such a range of people of all sizes. Guy Fithen who plays Rhince, he was about 6 feet 5 inches, and Warwick was 3 foot something. I remember just stopping to notice how tall people were. One day we went to Warwick Castle, and I think we went because Warwick thought it might be named after him. It’s a medieval castle where all the doorways are quite low. All the adults banged their heads. I have a picture of Warwick strolling through the doorway which was exactly the right size.
BEN: I have exactly the same experience from the films. There was this actor and stuntman named Jimmy who would stand in for Warwick and Peter who was even smaller than they were all the way up to Shane Rangi who would play all the minotaurs. I’m sure you’ve come across him Brian, he’s a magnificent Māori actor and stuntman who played a lot of the characters from the movies. They put him on these sprung stilts.
NARNIAWEB: They were called power risers.
BEN: That’s what they were called.! I know they had a cool name and I knew I wouldn’t remember it.
SAM: (laughter) That sounds a lot better than sprung stilts. I want power risers!
BEN: And they put him in this big animatronic minotaur head. He was leading the charge at this electronic gate that was slowly rising and he was at the front of this pack of marauders, and because he had this animatronic head on, he couldn’t see that the gate wasn’t going to be open enough for him to clear and sure enough he clanged right into it and was immediately knocked out on the ground. Talk about sunny disposition. He stood up and brushed himself off and would say, “Okay, let’s go again.”
NARNIAWEB: And he was fine. Better to have a good story than a good time.
SAM: Well said. Yes indeed. One other thing I was also going to mention is that Kenny Baker played one of the Dufflepuds so that’s the only time I ever worked with R2-D2. I get into the cast of Star Wars through Kenny Baker which is pretty cool.
BEN: The many things I was looking forward to about shooting Voyage of the Dawn Treader was not because of the books, but because of the BBC version. I had the imagery in my head. I wanted to stand on the bow of the ship like Sam, and I wanted the wind in my hair like it was in yours.
BEN: The scene with the Dufflepuds, I remember being excited about shooting that and remembering how it was in the BBC version with that design of that sort of single shoe they wore.
SAM: I want to say one more thing about the scene with me standing by the sail looking up and praying for a wind which I remember being a particularly wanky moment that I would probably do differently now. I was being so terribly serious.
BEN: (laughs) I loved it.
SAM: I remember David Thwaites, who played Eustace, played me on a little show that the children put together on the ship back from the isles and I remember a particular bit where he stood against the mast and looked up and pretended to be me looking very seriously, and I rightly got the piss ripped out of me for that.
BEN: And then later I pretended to be you in that moment in the exact same way.
SAM: (laughs) I’m really sorry.
NARNIAWEB: I have a few questions from our Patreon supporters. Tricia wants to know how much the Narnia books influenced your performance.
BEN: I think it was more about the screenplay. Especially in Prince Caspian, I felt there was a disparity between my older age and the character’s age in the book. I felt incapable of being 13, that there was going to be a forced innocence in my performance.
I have been fortunate to be involved in several projects of well-known stories. I always have this curated list of moments from the books which you’re hoping to get into the adaptation, the lines you hope you’ll get to say.
I remember in Dawn Treader, them having a conversation about Caspian asking about the Pevensies world, when they ask, “Is it true that your world is round, and if so, have you been to the other side where people are upside down?” I remember thinking that was a lovely part of his character which was the curiosity. I think that was sort of missing from our version, that I didn’t ask them about their world. But I was far above my pay grade at the time.
Now, however, doing things like Shadow and Bone, I will go directly to the author or show-runner and ask if we could find a moment to portray this fascinating aspect of the character. But I hadn’t earned that privilege at that point in my career.
SAM: On the whole, I think that’s helpful for the writer. I mean, they can always say, “Yeah, I’ve considered that and it doesn’t really fit.” That’s a useful answer, and while that may not be what you want to hear, on the other hand you’re the one who has to play the part. And if you’ve got to play it over a number of stories as you did, and as I am now, you know if I go to Ben Vanstone, our writer from All Creatures Great and Small, and ask, “I’m not sure we’ve seen much of this before…” and well, I think that kind of thing is helpful for them.
I had a slightly easier time I suspect because it’s a pretty straightforward adaptation, much of the dialogue is straight from the book. That might have pleased the book fans but maybe not everyone else. It’s four episodes rather than one film. Each island can be exciting in its own right and you can have a sort of “story of the week.”
What Ben said about curiosity is very useful. Otherwise, why isn’t Caspian at home? He’s got this thing he has to do, people he’s got to find, and doesn’t know how. But at the same time there’s a slight wanderlust, he’s turning himself into the person he’s going to be when he gets back.
It’s a bit like going to America. I played George the VI in a film with Bill Murray ten years ago called Hyde Park on Hudson, and it’s about George the VI and Elizabeth his wife going to see Roosevelt. And they had a very successful time and when they got back he turns into the king he needs to be. And I think that’s similar to Caspian.
NARNIAWEB: Here’s a question from Darby. She wants to know how you think Narnia has influenced you professionally. Both of you played Caspian relatively early in your careers.
BEN: I would say it introduced me to this massive film experience. That was the one advantage of coming into this family who had the experience of making this successful adaptation in the first film. There was a focus on enjoying it and having people’s families around. Sam mentioned filming in this golden summer. We were in Australia, and I was a bit older and I didn’t have my family there, but I would sit with Will Poulter’s family, Will who played Eustace utterly brilliantly.
SAM: A wonderful performance, I agree.
BEN: He called me Uncle Benji, and he would invite me to watch the cricket with him, and he was just the sweetest boy. And of course Skandar and Georgie were there, and Anna and Will came up for a short time. Whatever challenges there were, but I never forgot to enjoy doing this kind of work. Especially in a fantasy project, you can have focus, have your curated list of things you’d like to get into the film, stay up late thinking of that fierce argument of whether or not you’re going to wear that hat, but enjoying it is so important.
It’s not a lesson every actor gets taught very early on. They are trained to take it very seriously. And that sort of behavior can breed on set and sooner or later no one is having a very good time.
SAM: Yes, that’s true. There’s a wonderful Mads Mikkelsen quote going around that says something like, “I want to have a career, but actually how I have a career is by thinking about what I’m doing in the moment is the most important thing I’ll ever do.”
BEN: I couldn’t agree more.
SAM: I’ll send you the quote, Ben. But that’s how you get a career, you do a number of those things and then you look back and say you had a career. You don’t have a career by planning to have a career. You just enjoy the job you’re doing.
BEN: Part of enjoying it is being proud of it.
SAM: That would be my main note now to myself as Caspian. I would just say, “Relax and enjoy it a bit more.” I was a rather serious child, I’m still rather serious adult, but much less so.
BEN: If you remember it as this golden summer, then you must have enjoyed it.
SAM: No, I did enjoy it at the time, but my performance is a little bit staid I think. It doesn’t matter.
BEN: To me, you were golden.
SAM: Ah, you’re so sweet.
NARNIAWEB: That golden wig.
BEN: Was it a wig?!
SAM: Yes, it was a wig!
BEN: Oh! You just destroyed my life!
SAM: No, I did have very curly golden hair. And Jean Marc was partly cast because we looked quite like each other because he had this golden hair. And then in-between I did the film Reunion where they straightened my hair. And when I came back they asked, “What the hell have you done with your hair? We’re going to have to make you a wig.” I was absolutely baking in that wig. I think when we were filming, they had one of the hottest days in Wales for a century. And I’m wearing basically carpet.
But I do want to answer your question as beautifully as possible, at least as beautifully as Ben has. I remember it being as sort of a child. Although I did carry many happy things on, because I was friends with some of them, particularly Richard Dempsey who played Peter, who has remained a mate, who I didn’t of course act with because he ‘s not in Dawn Treader.But he was around because we filmed Prince Caspian at the same time. He became a professional actor while the others really didn’t.
I felt close to these people even though I was about eight years older than them. And when the last episode was shown on Christmas Eve 1989, and the three children held hands and looked at the painting and Eustace says, “Did it really happen?” It’s a slightly rushed, uneven ending. And I just remember weeping for the rest of the day. I was at home watching with my parents. My parents are both actors, and they asked me, “What’s the matter with you?” I just cried for the rest of the day because I realized that was the end of my childhood. That final episode drew a line under the beautiful golden summer. Even though I was 23 and had been to university, that I couldn’t call myself a child anymore and that I wouldn’t go back to Narnia. And I remember that being like a force of a blow.
So in a sense, a sadder and a wiser man I rose the morrow morn. It was Christmas day and that was the beginning of my adult life. It wasn’t until Narnia had been made and shown when I realized that chapter was over.
BEN: That’s so lovely.
SAM: It’s sort of what happens to Edmund and Lucy, because they are told at the end that they can’t go back because they are too old.
NARNIAWEB: Esther wanted me to ask you about Netflix. As both of you might be aware, Netflix is developing their own adaptations. So Ben, you might be about to pass on the baton to another Caspian. Would you have any advice for any future Caspians?
BEN: I’m sure it would be as different as the 1989 version was to ours. I can reveal actually at this point, that both Sam and I have been asked to be in it…well, no, that’s not really true. (laughter) But they should.
SAM: And why not, frankly?
BEN: We’ll be playing the very old lords.
SAM: Mavramorn! (laughter)
BEN: I’ll be in Warwick’s beard as the starving lord on the rock. Maybe I can do an Aslan voice. No, I will defer to Sam for that one.
NARNIAWEB: In all seriousness, there could be a cameo in there somewhere.
SAM: That’s the problem for me. I just hear Aslan as Ronald “Ronnie” Pickup.
BEN: You’d be a brilliant Aslan. And I can be a badger or something.
SAM: I think if you’re lucky enough to play a named part that is played by a number of people over the years, whether it’s Doctor Who or Hamlet, that there’s never a sense that you’re the best one, just that you get to carry the torch for a bit and pass it on to the next lucky person.
BEN: And that you shared something. It kind of thrilled me a bit when you were 23 or 24 when you did that. Because it made me feel like your experience must have been more akin to mine than I thought. Again, that painting at the end is a very powerful image for me. It’s about sharing something. That’s very much in the spirit of these stories.
SAM: That said, it would be lovely to have a cameo in it. I remember what I wanted to say, a piece of advice to anyone playing Caspian. Just have fun, watch your predecessors or don’t watch them. But there is a certain amount of duty with Caspian. I find it really touching that Ben has watched my performance, because what Caspian is supposed to do as king is very much part of his character.
BEN: It’s a guardianship.
SAM: Exactly. “How do I play this part” is not a thing you generally ask yourself, but if you’re a king, it is. There’s this javelin-like inheritance coming down from your family tree to pin you where you are. Caspian manages to escapes that and goes off on a ship and has about a year to figure out who he is.
BEN: They talk about that when you play the king, the other actors will play that status for you. But there aren’t people around in either book to sort of treat him like a king.
SAM: No, you don’t have a lot of courtiers around, do you?
BEN: So, you have to dig down inside all those little allegories and find the right choices.
SAM: And also, when you’re on a ship, he calls you “your majesty”, but actually the captain’s in charge. If you don’t do what he says you’ll drown.
NARNIAWEB: Sam and Ben, thanks so much for being on Talking Beasts. It was great to get you guys together.
Transcribed by SkilletDude