'Marco Polo' Star on 'Game of Thrones' Comparisons, Making Viewers "Horny About History"
Lorenzo Richelmy also talks about learning English for the role and his future in Hollywood
All 10 episodes of Netflix's newest original series, Marco Polo, are now available for binge-viewing. Originally developed for Starz, the epic drama is set in 13th century Mongolia and follows the life of the famous Italian explorer. The cast is lead by Italian newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy in his first ever English role, and also includes Benedict Wong, Joan Chen and Zhu Zhu.
If a new language wasn't enough, Richelmy had to learn sword-fighting, kung fu and horseback riding for the part, too. "It was an adventure for me," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. Here, the actor discusses the show's comparisons to HBO's fantasy drama Game of Thrones, the series' $90 million budget and his future Hollywood ambitions (hint: it doesn't involve being on People's Sexiest Man Alive cover.)
As only an Italian speaker, how did you tackle the English role?
It was my first big thing in English. When I heard about the project, I said to myself, "I can do it." I called my agent, and I did an audition and sent it. I proposed my own version of Marco Polo, and it worked. They told me I had to improve my English. So I started English like six weeks before we started shooting. In the beginning of the story, you’ll see that my English is pretty dirty with a strong Italian accent, but by the end of it, it’s pretty fluent and I was much more confident on set.
What was the casting process like for you?
My agent initially said, “No, the casting directors said that you are not fit for it,” and they were looking for the role for like three years, all over the world — Australia, New Zealand, everywhere. I called a great director-friend of mine and I begged him to help me out with the audition, and we shot it in his room with sunlight and my girlfriend playing Kublai Khan, following just my own taste and my own version of it. So I send it straight to Nina Gold, and I didn’t hear anything for two months. Then eventually I was shooting another movie in February, and they called me. My agent said, “Oh they watched the audition, they love it! They want you to go Malaysia.” I was like, “I waited for two months. I almost forgot about it!”
In what ways did you see the $90 million budget reflected on the set?
The set was amazing. We worked with Academy Awards winners — Tim Yip won the Academy Award for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The costumes are so rich. The detail of everything is unbelievable. In a period show, things around you are so well defined and precise. There was a whole philosophy behind it. We had a Mongol adviser, a Chinese counselor to track and be sure we’re not doing something too fake or strange. I still have in my office three different coins used in Venice and four different coins used in Malaysia. I’m talking about steel coins created just for the show, and the detail of the coins that nobody will see in the show was incredible.
Are the show’s comparisons to Game of Thrones fair?
I’m a fan of Game of Thrones. The comparison fair in that we are talking about the biggest epic TV series until now, Game of Thrones, and this is meant to be another big one. That’s the only reason to compare them because the story is completely different. This is a true story. It’s like comparing Django Unchained and The Last Samurai — it’s two big movies, but two completely different subjects. They are completely and deeply different. Game of Thrones is wonderfully well made, but we’re talking about fiction. We have dragons, women giving birth to monsters and we are in that world of the medieval court that we know — everything is Lord and Sir. Here we are showing the court of Kublai Khan, who nobody knows about. It’s an untold story. Who knows about the culture of Mongolians during the medieval era?
Did you have to educate yourself about that historical period for the role?
First of all, John [Fusco, the series’ creator] gave me a lot of books to study. Then I realized how great that man was, more than what you see from the history books. I have been lucky because I’ve been to all the places Marco Polo has been when I was a kid, so I can relate my memories and my stories. There is an astonishment when you are a kid and you see such things. The great thing of the show is that the things are true. Real things in that moment, Mongolia in the medieval era, were more magnificent, compelling and thrilling than our best imagination.
How would you sum up Marco Polo to a prospective viewer?
The show is sexy, and of course a bit violent, but the real aim of the show is to make you feel horny about history (laughs). We have the chance to educate people and entertain them about a period they don’t know.
Surely learning English has opened lots of doors for you. What’s next on your radar?
I have no other ambitions right now. I’m doing the best thing I can imagine. Really, I’m so happy with this job and I’m happy with my life in Italy. I will never move to America. I would love to stay here and work here. Of course, I would like to work in the Hollywood system, but not the Hollywood star system. I want to be an actor, but I’m not going to be the new sex symbol of America. I just want to keep my life as it was before and not change it so much.