All hail Atlanta actor Kerwin Thompson as the king on Disney+’s ‘The Quest’

As King Silas on the new Disney+ series “The Quest,” Atlanta actor Kerwin Thompson absolutely rules.

Within the eight-episode series, a unique mix of reality competition show and a high-fantasy story that filmed at a castle in California, a group of eight real teenagers participate in an immersive adventure to save the kingdom of Everealm, which is under attack from an evil sorceress. The teens are surrounded by actors such as Thompson who play out a scripted story. Alongside King Silas, fictional characters such as princes, princesses and a mage guide the teenagers along the way as they compete in challenges and work together to triumph over evil.

Credit: Courtesy of Disney+

Credit: Courtesy of Disney+

“This show was a perfect blend of scripted story and unscripted interaction,” Thompson said during a recent Zoom chat. “The cast has the script. We know what’s going to happen [outside of the improvised interaction with the teen contestants]. We have designated lines that we have to say. And when we are doing our thing with one another, then it’s filmed as a normal show with multiple takes and camera angles.”

“The Quest” followed different practices when the real teenagers, called Paladins, were involved, though. The atmosphere was immersive, helping the teens believe that the story they were in was full of stakes involving magic and warfare.

“It was kept real for them,” he said. “When we’re dealing with the teenagers, the Paladins, they are fantasy fans, and they know they are participating in a television show. They know that much. But they suspend disbelief for themselves a little bit by ignoring the cameras. Otherwise, they know nothing. They don’t know anything except for what our characters tell them.”

Thompson said the show accomplished this by never letting the teens see him or other cast members out of character or costume.

“They never interacted with us at any time, except when we were shooting with them,” he said. “So we kept the immersive fantasy alive for them. They never met Kerwin or interacted with Kerwin. They only saw King Silas when he summoned them. When we shot with them, it was like theater, baby. One take, and that was it! And the cameras were far enough away that the Paladins could forget about them and just interact with us.”

Improvising when necessary while integrating scripted lines was a skill Thompson said he learned on Atlanta stages.

“I know for a fact that theater prepared me for this,” he said. “I think great theater actors are perfect for this show because we’re not used to having a second take. We’re used to having to roll with whatever happens: good, bad, planned or unplanned onstage. We make it make sense.”

Though he worked at many Atlanta-area theaters, including Essential Theatre, Theatre Buford and Aurora Theatre, Thompson credits one role above all others with preparing him to play the fantasy king. In 2016, he starred as the powerful Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who conveyed the church’s power to King Henry VIII in “Anne Boleyn” at Synchronicity Theatre.

“The character had all of this sway and influence over the King, so I realized my presence needed to be huge without being over-the-top,” he said. “I had to have presence, gravitas, power and regality all in my behavior for the show to work. Whether I have two lines or 200 lines, when I step onstage, people need to gasp and feel like I’m in charge. Training for that was the foundation for King Silas.”

On “The Quest,” King Silas commands respect in every room he inhabits because of Thompson’s physicality. He adopts a regal stature and carries himself with bold power, which causes the Paladins and the other characters to bow before him.

Credit: Brian Jones

Credit: Brian Jones

“It’s very much in the back and the shoulders, perfect posture, being more erect rather than sunken down,” he said while adjusting his body on the Zoom chat. “Being sunken down looks more subservient. You raise the chest up and the chin up just a little bit, not too much, just so you can look down your nose at people. Even if you’re looking up at them and they’re a little bit taller than you, you’re looking down your nose at them.”

The actor’s voice and movements are also key to conveying status.

“You have to lower the register of your voice, bringing as much James Earl Jones to it as you possibly can,” he said. “Very much speak from the diaphragm. Your voice needs to boom without yelling. It commands authority without fear. And sometimes there’s so much you can do with a look, rather than speaking. While someone else is speaking, the way you engage with them, look at them or adjust your blocking without speaking, you can intimidate them.”

King Silas is a warm, diplomatic and heroic character throughout “The Quest.” Thompson said the show was a terrific challenge for him because its approach to storytelling was new. Though it was a reality show, none of the Paladins ever address the camera directly or break the “fourth wall.” The fantasy story is told in a direct, genuine way full of urgency and tension.

“Stepping up to that specific challenge was exciting because it was new; there’s nothing like it,” Thompson said. “We were creating a new genre.”

“The Quest” has not been renewed but might yet return.

The actor also felt that it was a terrific privilege to play a Black king on a television show for families.

“The one thing that I want to make clear is the awesome responsibility I felt to portray Black royalty in a dignified, sophisticated, intelligent, courageous way,” he said. “There was a responsibility I felt to play this particular character in this particular medium. Because when I grew up, you didn’t see Black people in anything medieval, like we didn’t exist. I know better because Black people exist everywhere on the planet. You can’t go anywhere and not find us. We’re the original people. That’s just what it is. So when I don’t see Black people in medieval things, I feel like we’re being purposefully left out, and that’s insulting.

‘But now little Black and brown kids are going to look at television and see a Black king. And that’s going to be normal for them! That is going to inspire them to realize that not only can they aspire to the heights of power, but they are already regal. They have those regal qualities within themselves. And maybe they’ll carry themselves with more dignity. It’s a trickle-down effect.”

Now living in Atlanta and Sacramento, Thompson returned to Georgia after the Disney+ series wrapped and has taken acting jobs on camera. But Thompson said he likely won’t return to an Atlanta stage.

“Atlanta doesn’t pay their artists well enough for it to be worthwhile to do stage, and that’s just the bottom line,” he said. “Even when I was on that circuit, I was outspoken about my opinion of it. The solution is paying a living wage to these artists. Coming back to Atlanta theater is not going to happen unless they pay a living wage and it’s a show that I want to do.”

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL


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