Netflix’s new original series Marco Polo is one of the most expensive shows in history. Clash meets Lorenzo Richelmy, the newcomer tasked with playing the central role.
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Violence. Sex. Drugs. Politics. It’s no big surprise to see that such themes in Netflix’s new original series Marco Polo have already drawn parallels with HBO’s all-conquering Game Of Thrones. It’s a vaguely accurate comparison – the most obvious difference being that Marco Polo’s narratives are drawn broadly from historic fact rather than fantastical endeavours.
What the two also share is a huge sense of scale. Reportedly budgeted at around $90 million for its initial 10-episode run, Marco Polo is said to be the second-most expensive series to date – a sum that’s only surpassed by Game Of Thrones itself. If such estimations are to be believed, the cost of the first series of Marco Polo dwarfs that of the first outing of its longer-established cousin.
The man tasked with stepping into the shoes of Marco Polo himself, to take such a huge project to Netflix’s global audience of 53 million people, is 24-year-old Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy. Despite some domestic success, he’s almost unknown outside of Italy (at the time of writing, his only Wikipedia profile is in Italian) which is surely a risk for a series pitched at a broad international audience: and even more so considering that he barely spoke English (“I was able to order a meal, but no more than that”) when he was first cast as the show’s lead.
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Marco Polo, trailer
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“I cast myself,” he says. “I really did!” Rather than wait for an invitation for an audition that in all probability wouldn’t have otherwise arrived, Richelmy shot his own video with the help of his director friend as well as his girlfriend. He didn’t get a response for two months. Then the call came when he was shooting in Italy – could he go to Malaysia the next day to meet with the show’s creator John Fusco, as well as executive producers/directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg?
“We did this audition and it didn’t go so bad, even though I was wasted from 20 hours of flying. I told them that I have a good feeling about this. Second, I’m Italian and I had already travelled a lot through South-East Asia when I was younger. I’d already been to all of these places that Marco Polo had been to. Basically, I said: ‘Guys, I’m Italian. I’ve been to these places. I wouldn’t be arrogant, but maybe I know Marco Polo better than you!’”
Back home in Italy, Richelmy received their feedback: yes, the team believed that he had a lot of potential, but they couldn’t cast a lead with such a limited grasp of the series’ main language of English. The deal was simple: Richelmy was to be provided with a dialect coach for a week to get up to speed, and if he did, he’d still be in consideration.
“No pressure!” he laughs with the calm determination of a man who on first encounter seems to possess the confidence to deal with anything. Sure enough, five days after a final audition with Prometheus actor Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan and casting guru Nina Gold, Richelmy was offered the part.
Most of Marco Polo’s life was well documented, but there are enough unknowns in his biography to give the team some creative license, to develop him according to their own desires.
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It’s beautiful to see how two great minds from two extremely different backgrounds can work together…
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“He was a great man, a great explorer – he went to a lot of places,” explains Richelmy, with an evident boyish enthusiasm for his role. “He was the first man to build a bridge between the East and the West, and build a relationship with someone from there.”
As we see from the initial episode, the only reward for Marco Polo’s epic journey along the Silk Road was to see his father effectively sell him to Kublai Khan’s court. “Of course, it’s based on a true story, but we can’t know the personality of Marco Polo. He was shy, beautiful with women, but I don’t really know. The cool thing was that we could create an entire world.”
While there’s plenty of naked flesh and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-styled action to attract an audience’s interest, it’s the relationship between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan that looks likely to hold their interest. It’s a connection that looks likely to sway between elements of master and servant, father and son, and, eventually, a serious rivalry.
“It’s like we’ve never seen two people who are so different, who relate so closely to each other. So we’re talking about the most powerful man in the Mongol Empire, almost a mythological man and monster, and a young Italian guy from Venice. What Kublai finds in Marco is a king without a crown. He’s surrounded by a lot of yes men. Marco knows Kublai is the king, but he’s still like, ‘What do you think?’ ‘No, this is shit’. It’s beautiful to see how two great minds from two extremely different backgrounds can work together.”
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In this huge production, I was the only Italian in the middle of everything – I couldn’t even understand ‘cut!’ at the beginning…
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After vastly improving is command of English in a limited time, Richelmy’s schedule normally included four hours of physical training prior to the day’s filming, in order to develop and maintain the muscular physical that Marco Polo’s hardened lifestyle would require. It’s an eye-watering schedule: circuit training; ab blasts; combat and self-defence training; fight choreography. But no matter how much he dedicated himself to the task at hand, surely the responsibility of fronting such a huge project was daunting?
“In this huge production, I was the only Italian in the middle of everything – I couldn’t even understand ‘cut!’ at the beginning,” he laughs, at what feels like a warm memory. “Just do it. That was the only option. You can’t think about it. If you really think about it, you’d just stay in the corner going, ‘NONONONO! Don’t call me, I can’t do it!’”
Naming Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix and Tom Hardy as three of his icons from the world of acting, Richelmy’s own journey is firmly underway, and has already seen him compared to the likes of Shia LaBeouf and Armie Hammer. His next move appears to be already written, for if all goes to plan this series could well continue for five or six seasons.
And as for those Game Of Thrones comparisons?
“I’m a huge fan of Game Of Thrones, of course, it’s wonderful. It’s well made, I love the action and the actors and the drama. What’s beautiful about Marco Polo is that it tells a true story. We can make people laugh and cry and everything, but at the same time school them about everything that was happening then. It’s the biggest true story that nobody knows.”
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Words: Ben Hopkins
Photos: Phil Bray for Netflix
Marco Polo premieres on Friday, December 12, 2014 at 12:01am PT in all regions where Netflix is available. More info.