Jack Donnelly is living the dream. Having grown up the eldest of four brothers, playing with “every weapon going,” and a big fan of fantasy who’d love to go to Comic-Con “just because of the other shows that are there!” the part of swash-buckling adventurer Jason is a dream come true for the young actor probably best known from House of Anubis or as Misfits’ White Rabbit (though he has also carried out the obligatory British Actor Apprenticeship of being in Doctors). “I’ve been out of drama school six years, and you hope you get any job, you just want to work,” Donnelly says. “All the way through the auditions for this I was doing catering for private parties, topping up champagne glasses and handing out food. I’d done bits and bobs, but when this came along, [and it] has swords and battles and horses, and the character and the script’s so good, I thought ‘If I could get this it would be brilliant,’ but it’s such a massive part, I thought they’d go for someone more experienced.”
He may be a relative newcomer, but Donnelly is no stranger to showbusiness, as he comes from a family of entertainers; Dad a retired actor, Mum a dancer and choreographer, one brother an actor, one a model and one in Cirque du Soleil. “I knew I wanted to be an actor quite early on,” he says, “before I even knew that that’s what [Dad] had done. It was good because [my parents] really understand the industry. They understood how hard it was and they knew what it meant to me. But at the same time, I’d do plays and stuff, and where other parents would come up and say ‘Oh, well done, I loved it!’ my parents would be there with notes!”
His character Jason, Atlantis’ leading man, is a newcomer as well, to the mysterious city of Atlantis. “He’s a bit of an outsider,” says Donnelly. “In the first few episodes, Jason is discovering everything for the first time – it’s all new, and I think the audience go with him on that journey and discover it through his eyes.” This includes the survival skills required for life in Atlantis. “Jason’s never held a sword before,” Donnelly explains. “You expect him to be brilliant straight off the bat, and there’s an epic sword fight, and he’s pants! But he gets better as it goes on.” He remains a little bit socially awkward, however. “There’s two sides to him, there’s the heroic side, but at the same time he’s a bit socially awkward, a bit goofy. He’s not quite a man but he’s just older than a boy and in scenes with Ariadne, who’s his love interest, he tries to be cool but he’s not!”
Jason arrives in Atlantis looking for his father, and that longing for a lost parent is an important part of what drives him. “His father went missing and was assumed dead when he was very young,” Donnelly tells us, “but there were things that he said to Jason before he left that left unanswered questions, which meant that he couldn’t put it to bed like everyone close to him could. It’s something he’s been wrestling with and I think that is what has almost stunted him in every other personal relationship he’s had.” Luckily for Jason, he meets Hercules and Pythagoras just when he needs them the most. “I think because of his past, he’s not great socially, he’s never really had close relationships with people,” says Donnelly. “When we find him in this world, it’s the first time he makes real friends, with Hercules and Pythagoras. It helps him grow as a person.”
It’s the humour and the bond between the three central characters that, we’re told, is the heart of the show. “They’re not stock characters,” Donnelly insists. “You don’t have the funny guy and the action guy, and the serious one; it runs much deeper than that. And I think you discover that straight away in episode one – Jason has a tendency to see things in black and white, and within the first episode he’s faced with something and it’s not until he sees this really hard moment between Pythagoras and Hercules, who are such good friends, and he can see them struggling with something, that it opens his eyes.”
This fictitious bond is reinforced by the real one between the actors. “I’d met Rob once before,” Donnelly tells us, “only briefly on a night out a year before the audition. When I heard that we were doing a chemistry read together, I just prayed that he still remembered me! I have friends that have worked with Mark in the past and they all say ‘Mark Addy – nicest guy you’ll ever meet,’ and he just is, he’s so easy-going. They’re just funny, funny guys, and I think that helps. And we spent so much time together and we all live in this same apartment block, and we’ve been to dinner every night together since we started shooting, so I think hopefully you see that in the characters.”
Like his co-star Robert Emms, Donnelly has loved the amount of work he’s done on horses for Atlantis, despite having got off to a shaky start. He’d never ridden before – “Only when I was about ten, on a pony round the New Forest being held by an old lady.” This didn’t put him off going for his dream role at all, as he confesses, “I told them in the audition when they asked, ‘Yeah! I can ride. I’m good!’”
Luckily, three days’ training with his co-stars in France soon had him comfortable with the horses. “I was slightly nervous. I was excited about it until you get close to the horse, and you realise, ‘This thing’s massive!’ But Mark and Rob had ridden a lot before and Rob said, ‘As stupid as it sounds, they pick up on your vibes, so if you’re calm and you love your horse, then you’ll work with it much better.’ [So] I just bribed my horse with sugar cubes and Polos and hugged him the whole time. Once we’d done a day on it I just wanted to be on it the whole time, and we got quite good.”
Even a group of twitchy Moroccan stallions couldn’t put him off. “The trainers [in France] warned us, ‘When you get to Morocco the horses you have there are slightly different, they’re all three or four year old stallions, and they’re young boys and they just want to fight each other and bite each other and charge off.’ And that was exactly the case!” None of it could faze Donnelly and Emms though. “They have horse handlers there to look after us – as soon as they shout ‘cut’ the handlers are right there. There was one day, all we were doing was walking scenes, and you spend that much time on a horse, and you know the horse wants to go and you want to. [So] there was one scene that all we had to do was just walk about twelve paces, and we had a big open space, and as soon as they shouted ‘cut’, Rob and I just kicked and charged off as fast as we could! We watched the producer going ‘Nooooo! Oh god’, and we said, ‘We’re sorry, but hey! Look what we can do!’”
Horse-riding is not the only action Donnelly has been involved in. In addition to “a lot of sword-fighting,” he’s been doing parkour training and gymnastics. “I’ve been training with the stunt co-ordinator Dave Forman for five weeks. We started with roly-polys and cartwheels and built up to front flips and parkour and trampete work, so I’ve been doing all that and incorporating it into the show. I love all that stuff.”
He does nearly all his own stunts. “The only times I haven’t are when we have two units working at the same time, [so] if I’m on one unit and they need me for the other, they’ll use a stuntman. There are two stunts they wouldn’t let me [do]. They wouldn’t let me jump off a fifty-foot building into a load of cardboard boxes even though I asked – until I saw it done and thought ‘No, let him do it!’ I do a somersault in one that is me but then they turned it into a double somersault, so you see me take off into the somersault and the other guys does too, and you see me land out of the somersault. But as far as I know I’ve done everything else.”
This involves a few more creative bits of weaponry, in addition to all the swords. “I use a washing-line stick, and anything to hand. The other day I had to hit a stunt guy in the face with a watermelon, and we did it from sixteen different angles. They were cutting into [the watermelon] so it broke easily, but on one of the takes I think it hadn’t [been] cut enough and you just heard this massive crack. The first three takes it was funny but after that… I don’t envy the stunt guys. But it looked great!”
One of the side effects of all this stunt-work is that not all the scars you see on Jason are fake. “Through my own fault, in the third week I managed to stab myself in the arm with a bamboo knife during a stunt!” Donnelly tells us. “They had to send me to A&E. It was the last hour on a Friday night, I showed up at this tiny little A&E near the forest where we were filming, in costume, [saying] ‘I stabbed myself!’” Donnelly is fairly sure he knows what the hospital staff were thinking – “‘This guy’s a nutcase!’ And now I’m scarred. It adds to the character.”
Donnelly is also familiar with some of the stories that the series plays with, and feels this familiarity is part of the appeal of the show. “I grew up on this stuff and I love swords and epic adventures and warriors,” he says. “For some reason that’s the stuff that stays with you from primary school, so I knew about Jason and the Argonauts, I knew about the story of the Minotaur, and Medusa, but as I’m going through this I’m picking up more. There are storylines in this that I questioned and said, ‘That’s great, have you just come up with that?’ and they said, ‘Oh no, this is linked back to this and this and this, this is Greek mythology,’ and you realise that everything is linked in. The writers really do their research on it so I’m learning more as I go on.
“For me, the fact that you do learn those stories at such a young age [means] you take that with you and this show incorporates all of that. For a lot of the time we’re staying true to myth, and then there are cross-overs and we play with it as you would in any television show, so the audience can’t guess everything that’s going to happen by saying ‘Oh, I know that.’ I think that’s what fascinates people.”
Of course, the biggest thing the audience knows about Atlantis is that, ultimately, the city is doomed, though that’s an issue that’s on the back-burner for this first series. “In the first episode you learn of something that happens in Atlantis that is an annual thing that’s really bad for the city,” says Donnelly. “It’s very different to our world – the way they do things and their views and their values. We come to the story at a key time.” Not that our hero has much time for doom-mongering. “The Oracle tells [Jason] things about his own fate and his own destiny, [but he] doesn’t buy into destiny and fate,” Donnelly says, “though others tell him ‘it doesn’t matter whether you do or you don’t, you’re making these decisions but they were always going to happen.’ He just can’t get to grips with that.”
Jason’s more immediate problems, however, are likely to centre around the Queen, Pasiphae. “She’s got her own motives,” Donnelly explains, “and her plan is sort of coming to fruition as Jason arrives in Atlantis, like a wild card. And they don’t match up. He doesn’t know about her, and she doesn’t know about him, so there are things happening that the audience will see, but I don’t know if the city’s aware of it.” We’ll just have to wait until the show airs to find out what these mysterious plans are…
Atlantis premieres on BBC One on Saturday the 28th of September at 8.25pm. Read our spoiler-free review of episode one, here, and look out for interviews with the rest of the cast throughout the week.
Juliette Harrisson is a Classicist, writer and Trekkie. Read more of her thoughts on the pop culture career of the Greeks and Romans at her blog, Pop Classics.
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