Shawn Ashmore news information gallery media print forums main

Sci Fi

Must Sea TV
Ursula K. Le Guin's Classic Earthsea Universe Debuts on Sci Fi in an Original Four-Hour Miniseries
- Tara Dilullo

He's just a kid, but he's going to be a wizard one day. He's still in training, his powers untested, but by the time he's grown, he may turn out to be the greatest wizard of them all. Think you know who we mean?

Surprise -- his name ain't Harry.

His name is Ged. He's the young hero of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, which has stood as a landmark fantasy literary series for 36 years. Le Guin's tales of a foreign, vaguely Earth-like world covered in oceans with only island kingdoms and steeped in magic captivated readers for decades on the page, but it was long considered impossible to translate to film because of the sheer scope of the otherworldly environment Le Guin has constructed. Mages and priestesses, temples and talking dragons, labyrinths and wizarding schools: all of it a visual dream just waiting to be created, but more importantly a budgetary and logistical nightmare to construct.

Fast-forward to the present day, in this post-Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings age, where Tolkien's own impossible trilogy proved to be quite possible, books are now getting a second look -- including Earthsea, which debuts in miniseries form Dec. 12 and 13 on SCI FI. Of course, not every project gets a Rings-scale budget, but with the incredible advances in CGI and the right person behind the scenes, creating a world from scratch isn't the impossible task it once was.

In the case of Earthsea, the person best suited to guide the transition was the legendary Robert Halmi Sr. The Peabody and Emmy award-winning producer of almost 100 television films has seen the tremendous ebb and flow of the medium, even the near-death of his particular forte, the epic-scale television miniseries. "This genre needs to be done," Halmi says resolutely. "It's a wonderful thing that cable came to the rescue of movies and miniseries, while broadcast networks abandoned it and stuck to junk."

With cable now welcoming his particular brand of event television, Halmi was able to revisit works he would never have considered in the past. "I read Earthsea when it was just published. I read it and I just loved it, but I said, 'I cannot do this! How can anybody do this?' I couldn't do it in the '70s, in the '80s or in the '90s. I couldn't have done it maybe six years ago. When SCI FI called me and said, "We have this project," I said, 'Geez, I wanted to do it all this time!" But this is the year we can do it, because the CGI is now so good that I can create really believable CGI characters that can physically interact with humans. I tried to do it in Dinotopia, but it wasn't quite perfect yet. Now we can do it, and we can shock the people!"

Successfully transitioning broad literary works into films (Hallmark's Don Quixote, Animal Farm, and The Odyssey) that still honor the fan base, yet are adapted to fit the new medium by the best means possible, is something that Halmi has perfected over the years. Selecting like-minded collaborators, such as director Robert Lieberman (Fire in the Sky) and trusted actors like Isabella Rossellini (Thar), Halmi is able to bring the artist's vision faithfully to screen, even when the author is not directly involved. "We are using the first two books [A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan] in this film, and this is the only American sci-fi book that deals in this world. Because it comes from America, it comes with all the American traditions. That's why it's multicultural and multiracial. The script is incredibly rich. Something that Earthsea has that lots of fantasy projects don't have is a morality and a spiritual side. This has a maturation aspect to it. It has people who believe and people who do not believe. It could very easily be translated to today's society and problems we have now.

"Miss Le Guin was not involved in the development of the material or the making of the film, but we've been very, very honest to the books," explains director Rob Lieberman. "We've tried to capture all the levels of spiritualism, emotional content and metaphorical messages. Throughout the whole piece, I saw it as having a great duality of spirituality versus paganism and wizardry, male and female duality. The final moments of the film culminate in the union of all that and represent two different belief systems in this world, and that's what Ursula intended to make a statement about. The only thing that really saves this Earthsea universe is the union of those two beliefs. So I've tried to ground it in a great deal of reality. We have things that we find read and familiar, as well as the unfamiliar and the fantastic."

The core focus of Le Guin's books, that of the individual journeys of mage-in-training Ged (Shawn Ashmore) and priestess Tenar (Kristin Kreuk), is also the focus of the miniseries. The hero, Ged, is a remarkably fallible young man, who upon releasing his magic potential is impatient to grow into his incredible powers. His journey of self-discovery are a coming-of-age story, which charts his evolution from an inexperienced son of a blacksmith to the protégé of the master wizard, Ogion (Danny Glover). In the miniseries, Ged travels Earthsea, going to school to educate himself in his magic and all the while fighting the temptation to use his powers for evil. Ogion mentors the young man to harness the depth and breadth of his powers, which will ultimately help reunite the factions of their mystical land. At the same time, the orphan Tenar begins her own parallel journey when a sect of powerful women led by High Priestess Thar take her in. Tenar is then groomed in the ways of their religion so she can one day lead them all in the fight against the evil King Tygath (Sebastian Roche). Separately, this young man and woman will grow into their potential, and through a series of visions of one another will find that their destinies are inextricably intertwined.

Thus the emotional resonance of the entire story is grounded in the connection of these two characters, which made casting so integral to the success of the adaptation. "I tend to try to cast things organically and that feel, initially, when you look at it right," says Lieberman. "when you put Kristin Kreuk next to Shawn Ashmore, they look like the bride and groom on top of the wedding cake. They look somehow like they belong together. They are the lovers of this movie and doesn't meet until the last 30 minutes of four hours, so it's an interesting journey that brings them together."

"Kristin is a really good, sound, complicated actress," he continues. "I think she has a kind of tenacity. She's small; she looks petite and beautiful, like an icon, but she has tenacity, and I like that about her. And Shawn is the same way." Halmi concurs adding, "Rob and I looked at a few guys, and Shawn had that "thing." He's a rebel; he's a nonconformist guy. That's what he is in real life, and he gave a new dimension to Ged. He's a wonderful actor, and he took to the role, took to the rebel part of it, and took to the other part of it, the spiritual part of it, and it turned out to be fantastic."

As a lifelong fan of fantasy and sci-fi, actor Shawn Ashmore was humbled and excited to be cast as the lead in such a respected work in the genre. "It's basically an epic journey for Ged, and it's an opportunity for a young actor to play a character that has a huge character arc," says Ashmore. "He goes from a headstrong kid from the middle of nowhere to this prophesized wizard. It's about Ged, as a wizard, taking control of himself, whereas the priestesses believe in destiny, a higher power, so it's the combination of the two. There is this theme of fate and destiny coming together; Tenar and Ged's characters become one. Their love brings unity and peace together, which in turn brings Earthsea back together. It's this unique journey and struggle by two individuals coming together, and it brings the world together."

"It's such a great genre to work in," says Kreuk, a veteran of several sci-fi and fantasy roles. "This has been wonderful for me. It's really easy to fall into this place, and it's so easy to imagine." Detailing her character's background, she offers, "Tenar is an orphan when she comes to the temples, which is where all of the priestesses live. They all work on their faith and protect the world from evil. She ends up becoming named the next high priestess and is quite shocked by this news, because there's somebody else in the order who she thinks probably should have gotten that position. But Mother Thar believes in her, and so she sticks by them and she's willing to fight for them, but she's a little different from a lot of the other priestesses in the sense that she's a little more laid-back. She's still very self-contained, but incredibly strong."

Halmi and Lieberman knew it was just as important to find the right mentors for these characters, bringing on actors who could easily inspire the characters to become more. The added element of a color- and culture-blind reality in the Earthsea universe allowed them to make more interesting casting options. "You never see a wizard film done in England that has any kind of color in it, because that's a different world," says Halmi. "We have no mythology here, so we create out own. I picked the best actors for the role, and Danny Glover is the best actor for [Ogion]. The character is not about color. Danny's such a great actor, he can do anything, and so much of him -- his voice and his stature and his appearance -- he's almost a natural. And Isabella (Thar), she's unique and wonderful. She oozes all the great feelings we ask her to, whether being spiritual or a goddess!"

With the right actors in place, the other part of the puzzle was transferring Le Guin's Earthsea environment from page to screen, making this world fully live for the participants and then the audience. "The books really don't indicate a specific period, so it was quite a blank sheet of paper that I was given to create this world," says Lieberman. "We decided we would create a world where each island would have its own culture and specificity to its period. It's all in the past, and ranges from about the 12th century , with a bit of the Renaissance in it, and there's even a bit of Dickensian things to it. Most of the lighting is done with candlelight; some of the scenes we've got like 400 candles burning. So there's an amalgam of different values, but from the beginning I went into it saying, 'I want to create something very real.'"

Lieberman's mandate for reality carried all the way through to the costumes as well. "In preparation, I put together what I call the CDC, the character development committee. Right from the beginning, we had meetings once a week. I brought in the makeup artist, the wardrobe and the extras casting person, and they sat with the production designer and myself. We put up a picture of an actor that we're thinking of using for a part. What does makeup and hair think about that? What does wardrobe think? Should he wear that? Should he wear a wig? Should he have a beard? Should he not have a beard? None of my wizards are wearing the pointy hat. Nobody wears that. Like with Danny, we didn't want do do the Dumbledore [Harry Potter] thing, with the big long white wig and wand. We created Danny's wardrobe to be very distinctive. It's very period, but I wove, ever so slight, some African-American values into the hat, and some things that were indigenous to his character."

All the attention paid to environment-building wasn't lost on the actors. "There's just such really great detail in the sets, from the castles to the markets," says Ashmore. "It's a pretty amazing, rich-looking world. I mean, it's unbelievable. Just being able to slip on a cloak with these knee-high handmade boots. Everything we're wearing is so authentic, and I think it helps get into it. When you look in the mirror, you don't necessarily recognize yourself." Kreuk agrees: "The sets are really beautiful. The priestesses live in a very Moroccan desert-type land, whereas Ged comes from this really lush, rich background, so you get the look of pouring rain, and then you get stark desert beauty. There's just a lot of variety to it, which I think will be great. Plus, British Columbia [where it was shot] is stunning, so to get those vast landscapes isn't very difficult."

For all the carefully planned grandeur and effect, Lieberman says the overriding goal of the project is to really capture the essence of Le Guin's Earthsea books. "My sense is that the movie will work if the audience hooks into the lead character and the lead character's journey. If it's believable and you keep it credible, then everything else is just an accoutrement. It's just an embellishment. Its fun to watch that, but at the end of the day, it is Shawn Ashmore's performance and Ged's journey that will keep the audience riveted. It's a good journey," he enthuses. "It's a really good journey."

Shawn Ashmore - Ged

Shawn Ashmore's most recognizable characters share a common theme, that of a young man recognizing literal powers from within, then coming to terms with the great gifts and sacrifices bound to those abilities. In his role as Bobby Drake in the X-Men films, the possession of mutant abilities ultimately cuts him off from the normal world. Now, in Earthsea, Ashmore's character, Ged, follows a similar path as in impetuous young mage learning to control his inherent magic potential while fighting to stay on the part of good, rather than evil.

"They're both young men dealing with their responsibility of having a power," Ashmore says. "I think the difference between the two is that Ged, at the beginning, is slightly less responsible and prepared to deal with it. He's this strong-headed youth that grows up in a small place with no sort of mentor to teach him how to deal with these powers. He's left on his own to start this journey to find the man he's suppose to be and the man he wants to be.

"Ged's an interesting character for me," he continues. "Essentially he starts out as a young strong- headed kid that grows up on a small island in the middle of nowhere. He's a blacksmith's son, sort of working-class guy, but he has these visions and these ideas that he's meant for something more. I think he feels like he's being held back. I know he knows that he's suppose to be powerful and he uses it as a way of showing off. Ged's biggest obstacle is himself. A lot of the negative things that happen to him in the story he brings upon himself. The interesting part is that if he didn't bring these things upon himself, he would never become the person he's meant to be. So as he becomes more mature and deals with a lot of things, he becomes more humble and realizes that inside each one of us, there is an evil and there is a positive side."

Ged's journey from unsure youth to mature man is the core of the Earthsea miniseries, giving Ashmore the burden of carrying much of the film on his shoulders. "This is definitely the most intense project I've ever work on for sheer amounts of scenes and days that I'm actually working. It's an adventure everyday."

Ashmore says a big part of that enjoyment came from working with Danny Glover, who plays Ogion, the master wizard who helps set Ged on his true path. "I think he was a really, really great choice for Ogion. He's very calm. I mean, he's very intense, but he just sits back and holds everything in until he needs to. He commands a real power; it's in his eyes and the way he speaks. I think he's very, very grounded as a performer, and it just makes Ogion a really interesting character."

While Earthsea takes place entirely in a world of fantasy, Ashmore says the themes of the piece have a resounding anchor in reality that will appeal to all. "Earthsea is basically this sort of mystical fantasy world that allows all these different types of people to congregate and travel. It's a pretty diverse, interesting world. But honestly I think it revolves around the characters. It's based in a fantasy world, with elements of magic and mystical creatures, which is sort of a constant in fantasy or sci-fi films. But I think the characters and the themes, in the sense of Earthsea and Ged' journeys, is about becoming whole. All the negative things that happen to him he brings upon himself but if he didn't overcome these obstacles he never would realize who he really is, and that's a classic learning process. I think that, character-wise, everyone can sort of relate to the struggles that the characters are going through in this film."

© Sci Fi / Transcript by Pam