Nothing But TV Interview: John Boyega on BBC One's Watership Down.
Airing this Christmas as two special feature-length episodes, BBC One’s Watership Down uses Richard Adams’ bestselling novel as its source to bring an innovative interpretation to the much loved classic.
Adapted for the screen by Tom Bidwell and directed by Noam Murro, this tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of rabbits as they flee the certain destruction of their home. Led by, stout-hearted brothers Hazel and Fiver, voiced by James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult, the rabbits journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, towards the hope of a better life.
Watership Down’s star cast also features the vocal talents of John Boyega, Olivia Colman, Sir Ben Kingsley, Tom Wilkinson, Gemma Arterton, Peter Capaldi, Mackenzie Crook, Anne-Marie Duff, Taron Egerton, Freddie Fox, Daniel Kaluuya, Rory Kinnear, Craig Parkinson, Rosamund Pike, Jason Watkins, and Gemma Chan.
Who do you play?
I'm playing Bigwig. A rabbit with a dark past - a lot of wars fought, a lot of scars to show for it. A rabbit who is tough, stern and has a really deep sense of family. He’s a great character to play and, for me, the strongest and the coolest of the bunch.
You must have been excited to join the project?
I was excited because I had no clue as to what the production team were going to do with this. When I first heard about it through my agent I didn’t know it was going to be CG, and I didn’t know that it would have this amazing British cast attached. Actors like James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult, and Daniel Kaluuya - all great actors who are doing really well at the moment and, for me, it was a great opportunity to join them. I was also curious as to how they were going to do this, because the 1978 film was in 2D and it was devastating. I was devastated, I can’t lie. It was too much - it was bloody and looked a bit strange and as a kid taking that in was very scary. But this version, whilst still animation, looks a lot more real now, and it’s so interesting to take that approach. With CG you can add a sense of reality, which increases the emotional stakes for those watching it.
How do you prepare for a role like this?
You have to have a deeper sense of imagination when performing, because you’re in a booth - you're not there on a set, and you’re not able to react off anything. And in Watership Down the characters are consistently constantly moving, so you have to imagine whether at any one point you're running through a lake or crossing a road when a big car comes by, for example.
For me, it’s playing. There are certain types of roles in which you can just play, and for me this is one of those roles. You just use your imagination. So I’m pretending to choke in a snare, or if there’s a scene where Bigwig’s eating I'll get a bowl of grapes and do the scene with lots of grapes in my mouth. I try as much as possible to re-enact what the character’s going through.
And on top of that, it all happens with the animators. They do all the magic, and our voices breathe life into the magic they do.
How does Bigwig differ from other roles you’ve played?
I’d say that I always seem to be playing characters who haven’t found their path just yet. You meet them at a point where the film starts and they haven’t found their part or their place. Whereas with Bigwig he kinda knows where he belongs, but he just discovers more about himself through his connection with Hazel and the other bunnies. He finds his leadership, but has to go through a whole journey to discover that. It’s quite a bit different to the other roles I’ve played. Finn: Stormtrooper. Jake: Jaeger pilot. Bigwig: rabbit. I'm versatile, man!
What attracted you to Watership Down?
I wanted to be part of a great animation. Animation is something that I’m quite passionate about, and this for me was the chance to be part of a sophisticated story with a great team - and also to be part of a story that I remember growing up with. I like to be a part of things that have had an effect on me growing up. That’s why I’m part of Star Wars and Pacific Rim - it’s my way of being a part of that again.
What sets this adaptation apart from any previous ones?
I think because this Watership Down is told across four episodes you’re able to really discover and get to know the intricacies of the characters in a really intimate way. It just allows the audience to really get into that world. And the TV format makes you excited about watching the next episode of something. This is accessible to everyone on the BBC, and it's a new version of an old story with an obviously phenomenal cast. It gives a great new take on an old tale.
Why should BBC One viewers tune in?
It’s a nice opportunity to sit down with the family for an evening of Christmas animation, which is also something a little bit serious. There’s a great balance there. The whole family can watch it and all get something out of it. If I had kids I’d definitely sit down to watch Watership Down with them. To watch them cry…! No, I’m joking. It’s a fun family adventure - it’s got great VFX and a great cast of actors with recognisable voices, and it’s something I think everyone will enjoy.
What’s made the story of Watership Down so successful over the years?
I can only speak from the British perspective on this one. If you go out to the countryside, you'll see a hare or a squirrel roaming around, and for me anyway there was always that curiosity of what’s it’s like for them in day to day life. I think the journey they’re on intrigues a lot of people. The story is timeless, too. Yes it’s a story about rabbits, but actually what they’re going through resonates on a human level.
Watership Down airs on BBC One at 7pm on Saturday 22 December, and 7.20pm on Sunday 23 December.