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'Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell' star Bertie Carvel brings the magic for new BBC America series

Bertie Carvel, best known as the evil headmistress

Bertie Carvel, best known as the evil headmistress in "Matilda the Musical," costars in "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," in BBC America's series premiering Saturday. Photo Credit: BBC America

A lot of critics called Bertie Carvel's Broadway debut "Matilda the Musical" a magical show, but his latest work is even more seriously entrenched in magic.

Carvel -- who originated the role of Miss Trunchbull in "Matilda," from the original run at Stratford-upon-Avon in England to London's West End through to Broadway -- stars in BBC America's adaptation of Susanna Clarke's award-winning novel "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell." The story, which takes place during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s, is set in a world where magic exists, but has fallen to the wayside. The two title characters are helping to bring magic back to the forefront. Carvel stars as Strange opposite Eddie Marsan, a regular on Showtime's "Ray Donovan," who plays Norrell.

amNewYork spoke to Carvel, 37, about the show.

Did you know the book before joining this production?

Yeah, I knew it really well. I was given it by some friends who knew my taste and knew how much I'd like it. And then like all books that people give me, it sat on my shelf for a number of years gathering dust because I have too much else to read. When I finally picked it up, I ... devoured it in days. It's probably my favorite novel of the last 10 years. It just aligns with so many things I love. It's literature, a sense of humor, a sense of history, culture, but also magic, storytelling, the fantastic. I'm not the sort of actor who casts himself in things and dreams of playing such and such a role, but in this case, I really did think this is a part I could play. But I just assumed someone more famous would get the part when the time came. All I can say is, thank god those guys were busy.

How did you create your interpretation of Strange?

Well, really just by knowing the book so well and having lived with the character and the story in my imagination for so long before I even read the script. I waited for the scripts fully expecting them to be a [ravaging] of this wonderful novel that I loved so much and I found them to be the opposite. I found them to be wonderfully faithful to the spirit and the tone of the original.

Did you get to meet Susanna Clarke?

Yeah, she came to set a couple times and was just charming, incredibly generous, gentle, kind, supportive, quiet. Said some very nice things. ... She was extremely gracious and seemed thrilled to see her characters come to life.

Being such a fan of the book, did you fawn at all when you met her?

I don't fawn. [laughs] I was enchanted, is the word. I suppose I was star struck inasmuch as her imagination is clearly such a towering force, and I had been, as you said, so awestruck, spellbound is probably a better word, about what she's written. In person she is so unassuming and just nice, gentle is a good word. The two things almost don't add up. Although I know from another experience, people of great talent often are the quiet types. She just couldn't have been more charming.

You lived in New York for a while with "Matilda." Did you enjoy your time here?

I loved it. I had just the most amazing time. It was kind of a fairy tale. I got there by doing something I really believed in that started relatively humbly at Stratford. ... You always dream that the thing that goes wide is the thing that happened for all the right reasons and this is exactly that. ... Nothing could have prepared me for the mania that your city has around shows that have a buzz around them. It was really, truly an extraordinary experience.

Where did you go when you were homesick for England?

I don't feel like New York is a kind of place that has much time for people being homesick. You know what I mean? It feels to me like the sort of city where if you're homesick, you should go home. I think the right attitude to New York is to put your face to the wind and breathe in, and just do it.

On TV: "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" premieres on Saturday at 10 p.m. on BBC America.


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