It's still pretty early in the game, but it seems pretty clear already that Once Upon A Time Season 5 is the most exciting in the show's run thus far. Not only are we dealing with the Savior going dark, but we're also journeying across realms and back to the Enchanted Forest as we head to Camelot in search of Merlin, the most powerful wizard of all who knows more about the Dark One (and how to destroy it for good) than anyone in any universe. Bringing such an iconic figure in Arthurian legend to life on Once is certainly a daunting challenge, but it's one that actor Elliot Knight is totally up for. Sitting down with Bustle, Knight opened up about his approach to the role and how he hopes Merlin will fit into the Once world. So how do you bring such an incredible sorcerer to life — once you get him out of that tree he's trapped in, that is?
"Human and real are the two key words for me, that's what I like to focus on and that's how I see any character that I approach, whether it's in a fairy tale land or the world that we know," Knight says. "What makes a character interesting is the human nature and their real motivations — I focus on that. I didn't focus so much on trying to be a recognizable Merlin, because clearly I'm not a recognizable Merlin considering all the previous incarnations we've seen."
Knight, who is black, is the first non-white actor play one of Once's main characters; although people of color have played supporting roles like Ursula and Poseidon on the show, none have been as crucial to the plot as Merlin is set to be. Knight praises executive producers Adam Horowitz and Eddie Kitsis for being so "open-minded" about casting him in the role.
"It could be so easy to say that since every wizard in any show or movie has very similar iconic look, they should stick to type," he says. "I just love that they have gone completely against that and thought that doing it differently could be just as good, if not better."
Visual representation aside, one thing is clear about Merlin: he's a shrewd and powerful magician — perhaps more so than any of us even realize just yet. Viewers have been led to believe that he's the key to Emma's ability to rid herself of the Dark One, but his reach goes even beyond that and into the history of magic itself. So how has Knight prepared for such a role, and how does he avoid the pressure that comes with taking on such an iconic character?
"I don't worry about trying to come across as the typical old wise wizard," Knight says. "I focus more on finding out his story, finding out why he is who he is, who he really is and what it means. I wanted to know where he lies in the world and how he ties into everything, all the characters that we know already and about to know and what his relationships are with those people, and really focus on that and then the writing and the magic then takes care of itself."
"Obviously," he continues, "[the Once writers] think very intricately about the story they're planning and how they want things to tie in, so I can't focus on that, because a lot of time I don't know what's happening and I find out as I am going along. I just try and focus on the heart of him and make sure that is there and then the rest hopefully falls into place."
Whatever Merlin's story ultimately turns out to be (and I have a sneaking suspicion that he may end up being a tad darker than he's been portrayed in previous incarnations), it appears that Knight is making the best of the opportunity and enjoying the challenges of bringing Merlin's story to the Once world.
"What I love about playing him is the fact that he is so steeped in all the history of magic that exists in this world," Knight says, adding, "It's really nice to come into the show as a new character, because... everything is a discovery, everything is new information, so you have to go a whole process of learning and understanding and settling in. It's a really great and rare opportunity to come into a show and almost feel as if, in terms of what you know, your status is higher than anyone else. You come in knowing all the answers to all the questions, more than the questions even these people know to ask, and that's a really fun thing to be able to play around with.
Also then, of course, there's the whole being-a-wizard thing. Says Knight, "I love doing magic!"
Yet being Merlin isn't all fun and games. The actor says that the most "challenging aspect" of the character is his extraordinary age.
"I really enjoy getting to be this person, but at the same time, it's weird acting as someone who classically is like, who knows how old. He almost transcends age; he's just an ever-present being," says Knight. "I have no experience of that, so that's a bit of a challenge. To be honest, I just enjoy doing it so much that I try not to think about it too much. There's so much to think about in terms of the stories and understanding what's happening and what sort of timeline and how it all works out. I'm more of a feeler than a thinker, so that makes it a little easier."
I'm sure that will all come across on screen as we get to see more of Merlin and how he figures into the Once mythology. I don't know about you, but I can't wait.
Images: Isaac Sterling Photography; Jack Rowand/ABC