It must be hard to play a sword-wielding heroine in a time after Game of Thrones, forever in the shadow of Arya Stark and her Needle. Such was the feat in front of Katherine Langford in her new show, Cursed. Premiering today on Netflix, the fantasy show—based on the 2019 book by the same name—reframes Arthurian legend through the point of view of Nimue (or as she is more commonly known, the Lady of the Lake).
Langford, in the starring role, seems acutely aware that GoT's and Arya's legacy looms large over the fantasy genre. But that doesn't mean she's willing to succumb to the comparisons.
"It's kind of sad that there are so few women that we see fighting or with swords in this genre—at the epicenters of this genre—that as soon as there's one that's kind of similar it becomes a talking point," Langford tells Marie Claire.
In fact, other than their access to swords, Arya and Nimue have very little in common. Nimue—a young woman burdened by her extraordinary magical powers who must embark on a journey to protect her people and serve her family—could more fittingly be compared to Mulan or Katniss Everdeen or Harry Potter. And considering that Nimue is regularly bestowed such designations as demon or "Wolf-Blood Witch," a more fitting GoT comparison might be Daenerys Targaryen.
Langford continues: "As a credit to Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, the fantasy genre has amassed such a huge mainstream audience. What makes these fantasy pieces stand out is they put their own stamp on the genre. We know what Game of Thrones looks like; we know what Lord of the Rings looks like. As we were filming, [we were] finding out what makes this Cursed, what makes this unique identity ours."
In its 10 episodes, Cursed never seems to find any type of identity, unique or otherwise—the legend that serves as the show's inspiration feels like an afterthought, with fantastical elements shoe-horned into what would have been better as a coming-of-age story—but Langford manages to captivate. Her Nimue is vulnerable. She's smart. She makes you want to root for her.
That initial vulnerability is what attracted Langford to the character. "We see her in the beginning of the season as a really breathless young woman. She's on the cusp. She is an adult, but she's still not 100 percent there. She hasn't quite come into her womanhood yet. She's been ostracized for having this mysterious curse that she doesn't understand and other people don't understand so they fear it and they also fear her," the actress says. "That initial adversity that she's grown up with made me really curious about her."
For anyone following the 24-year-old's career, her standout performance shouldn't come as a surprise. She blew critics away in 13 Reasons Why, grew a cult-following in Love, Simon, and held her own against heavyweights like Jamie Lee Curtis and Chris Evans in 2019's Knives Out.
Langford signed on to the Netflix show before seeing any scripts. She explains she was a "huge fan of fantasy" (as a child, Mars Attacks was a favorite movie) and Frank Miller's work (he illustrated the book and worked on the show). She simply read Tom Wheeler's manuscript before committing to the role. (Wheeler also acts as the show's executive producer, screenwriter, and showrunner.) She credits Nimue's "honest" story to Wheeler's willingness to collaborate on the character's journey.
"Part of Nimue's story as a woman is she's told she's never able to be in a position of power, so when she does possess the sword and is told the sword belongs to the 'One True King' it never even crosses her mind that she could use this sword. And there's a really powerful moment that changes her thoughts towards that. During the rewrite, that moment disappeared. So I went to Tom and said, 'This is really important. Nimue needs to have this moment.' Out of the conversation, he wrote this really beautiful [scene]."
Such emotional awakenings make up the show's (only) memorable moments. It's those instances, not her sword, that puts Nimue among legends like Arya or Mulan or Frodo Baggins—something that Langford realized while filming.
"When it comes to these hero genres or these hero stories, it's not just about putting a woman in a man's shoes and telling a hero's story with a woman at the center," she says. "Cursed is not only the retelling of Excalibur and the Arthurian legend, but it's also an opportunity to tell the story of a heroine and all of the obstacles that are specific to a woman on that journey."
Though the quiet moments are the show's strength, Langford also executes commendable action sequences that would put any of her fantasy contemporaries to shame. She learned sword-fighting and horseback-riding in just four weeks and says that, as a former athlete, she reveled in the physicality of it all. She shares a particularly gruesome story of filming the show's pinnacle fight scene, rolling around in mud and fake blood made of sugar syrup in 111 degree heat, while wearing three sets of armor during wasp season.
"One of the things I'm really proud of in regards to Cursed is the way that these women are written highlights their capabilities. That's something I worked on a lot with Nimue—making sure she didn't become this damsel-in-distress. For example, if Nimue is running and then she falls over. Why does she fall over? It's about honoring the capabilities in someone and acknowledging the obstacles they have to overcome."
Literally and figuratively, Langford proved that Nimue is a fantasy character to be reckoned with; she is her own woman and not just another fantasy archetype. But if we must make the Thrones comparison, Cursed is perhaps best compared to Arya's "House of White and Black" storyline from the show's fifth season: pointless and circuitous and un-impactful. But, regardless, Arya will forever be remembered as the one who took down the Night King. And similarly, thanks to Langford, Nimue's legacy will now have its proper place in Arthurian legend, despite the show's shortcomings.
"We have always been heroes as women," Langford says, "I just don't think we've been recognized as heroes, particularly in stories. I think [this show] is a small step into that direction."
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