An Interview with Dan Jones

Today I am honoured to have Dan Jones on the blog for an interview. Dan Jones is a well-known and highly respected historian who has written books on the Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses and the Magna Carta. He has also presented television documentaries on British Castles, the Wars of the Roses and the Great Fire of London.

Sam Morris: Firstly, thank you very much for agreeing to this little interview. I know my readers will be really excited to see you on the blog! First question then – Growing up, what was it that initially sparked your interest in history?

Dan Jones: I started vibing history in school, relatively late, I guess. You may think I was inspecting battlements as a six-year old or being chaperoned around monuments before I could talk, but put that thought out of your mind. I was about the age of 15 when I ran into a teacher at school who made history burst into life. His name was Robin Green and he taught Tudor history like a demon dog, got me hooked on it and helped push me towards studying it at Cambridge.

SM: You’ve written a range of books with topics from the Tudors through to the Templars – which era of history is your particular favourite and why?

DJ: Well, evidently I have something of a yen for the European middle ages, and particularly for the history of England between about 1150 and 1500. But I couldn’t say for certain that I have a clear favourite. I tend to pick subjects I either know or imagine I will enjoy spending three years wrestling into submission, and I work to a plan. So the Templars was a subject that had some very flimsy overlap in terms of subject matter with my earlier books on Plantagenet England – but it was also a way of easing myself into the history of the crusades, which is an area I intend to stick with for the next few years.

SM: Regarding your upcoming book on the Templars, I myself have visited Templar castles over in Portugal – the Convento de Cristo in Tomar is a personal favourite. Is there a particular place associated with the Templars that made you think “hang on a minute, I’d love to write about these guys?”

DJ: Not really – I just had this instinctive sense that the Templars was a subject that would draw in regular people who don’t read a lot of history, get them intrigued and have them clamouring for more of the same. As regards Templars locations, I have spent a lot of time in the Temple Church in London, which is a true gem on the outskirts of the City, now surrounded by barristers’ chambers, so a hub in the middle of lawyer-town. William Marshal’s tomb is there.

SM: You are regarded as a young and ‘hip’ historian – what advice would you give someone wanting to break into the field of history? (This is something I could have done with before writing my first book!)

DJ: Work hard, read a lot, write a lot, and know exactly what you want to write about. I have had such a weird career that I don’t think I can offer it up as a model pathway – but I don’t think the basics are hard. Graft. Meet people. Specialise. Enjoy.

SM: You studied at university under the eminent David Starkey. What was it like to be taught by someone so respected in the field?

DJ: Well, it’s a long time ago now, but I remember turning up to David’s lectures in my first year at Cambridge, despite not having signed up for a Tudor history paper. I just knew that I wanted to be around someone so manifestly brilliant and (at that time) impossibly famous. I buttonholed David after a lecture one day and demanded that he supervise me (i.e. that he spend one academic term teaching me one-to-one for a single hour, once a week – this is the structural basis for all undergraduate history teaching at Cambridge, or was when I was up at least). He said yes, and then duly came up from London once a week to do the job – a task for which I now realise he was not paid or thanked or rewarded in any meaningful way, and which I basically took for granted at the time. He was a superb teacher, who besides sharing his knowledge of sixteenth century England also took it upon himself to teach me how to write decent prose. I owe him a huge, huge debt of gratitude.

SM: What are your interests outside of history?

DJ: Sport: I write a sports column for the London Evening Standard. Also, I was for a while in my twenties one half of a fairly dreadful DJ combo. Our biggest gig was Ministry of Sound… on an under-sixteens night. We had the knack of emptying any dance floor within three songs.

SM: Following on from your book on the Templars, have you got any other projects in the pipeline?

DJ: I’m working on a lot of TV stuff, as usual. But my next book will be a collaboration with the brilliant digital recolourist Marina Amaral (marinamaral.com), who colours in old black and white photos – to astonishing effect. We are doing a book called The Colours of Time – a new history of the world from 1850 to 1950 and I am loving every second of it.

SM: For a little bit of fun – who should win the Iron Throne?

DJ: Oh, give it to someone who doesn’t want it. Pod, maybe. Or Grey Worm. I am finding the endgame of Thrones rather less enjoyable than the first six seasons.

SM: Whilst writing my books, I found it incredibly easy to get distracted and also found myself hating my subject quite a lot. When you’re writing, do you find yourself getting put off and how do you go about getting your head back in the game?

DJ: Put your cell phone in another room. Turn wi-fi off on your computer. Stop reading this interview and do some goddamn work. Discipline… there are no tricks except for controlling your own environment and practicing self-denial with focus and intent.

Dan’s new book, “The Templars” is out on 7th September and available on Amazon.

Mark Ryder: “Cesare Borgia is the most diverse and complex character I have played” (An interview with actor Mark Ryder)

Today I am deeply honoured to be hosting an interview conducted by Dragoș Moldoveanu of the AISR with the fantastic Mark Ryder who plays Cesare Borgia in “Borgia Faith and Fear”. The original interview can be found here.

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We had the unique opportunity to interview the talented and modest young actor Mark Ryder. Born in Northern Ireland, Mark is best known for his role as Cesare Borgia, the ruthless and brilliant Renaissance figure.

Dragoș Moldoveanu: Mark Ryder, I am deeply honored! Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions.

First of all, how did you start acting?

Mark Ryder: I started acting when I was in secondary school around 15. I always enjoyed performing. I did a lot of musical theatre as a teenager and got my first professional job when I was 18 – “Five Minutes of Heaven”. I’ve been working in television and film ever since.

D.M.: What are your favorite actors?

Mark Ryder: I love Joaquin Phoenix – utterly convincing and captivating in all his performances. Best actor in the game is Jennifer Lawrence.

D.M.: What is your favorite character that you have performed?

Mark Ryder: Cesare Borgia, no doubt. The most diverse and complex character I have played and perhaps ever will play. The role was an immense challenge. The evolution from the first episode to the last was remarkable.

D.M.: What was your first reaction when you heard you will play the role of Cesare Borgia, the illustrious Renaissance prince?

Mark Ryder: I couldn’t believe it. You never know what is around the corner in acting and life. I was working in a veterinary clinic over the summer to pay the bills and I was on my lunch break. I got a call to say I was playing Cesare and starting next week. Life turned around in one phone call. I worked the rest of the day in the clinic with a giant grin on my face.

D.M.: What did you know about the son of Pope Alexander before the developing of Borgia series?

Mark Ryder: I knew nothing about the Borgia family. Whenever you’re sent an audition you obviously do as much research as you can to prepare for it. I read articles online about the Borgia’s to try and get a sense of the character. We’re not taught about the Borgia dynasty in history class in Belfast.

D.M.: How can you describe the relationship on the set with the other actors?

Mark Ryder: Three years spent every day with the same people in a foreign country – you’re going to get very close. The relationship with the actors on set was particularly close on Borgia and something I believe is very rare. As we were all from different nations, there was no rivalry between actors in the way there might be in England where most people know each other or know a friend of a friend. Everyone just wanted to have the best time. It created the most amazing family atmosphere. We ate together every night and partied at the weekend.

D.M.: Can you please describe a day on the set?

Mark Ryder: 5.30 – wake up and get picked up by the vans. It was very hard to get out of bed.

6.15 – arrive at the shooting location – get breakfast, go through costume, hair/makeup. I used this time to learn my lines for the next day.

8.00 – start shooting. The day always starts slow. Normally we shot 4-5 scenes per day depending on how complex they were; sometimes 1 or 2.

13.00 – lunch break for an hour. Eat as much as possible. I always tried to sneak in a 20 minutes nap for energy. Working 14-15 hours a day, you need to sleep as much as you can. One day in the third season I fell asleep 5 times on set… I’d usually have 3 espressos every day as well for little boosts of energy throughout the day.

20.00 – that’s a wrap for the day! Head back home, learn lines for 2 days ahead. Sleep like an angel.

D.M.: How did you work with Tom Fontana, the series` creator?

Mark Ryder: Tom is the most important man on the set. He runs the entire show. I loved having him on set because of his knowledge and understanding of the characters. Directors would change but Tom was involved throughout. Everything in the show started off in his brain, so if I ever needed help with a moment in a scene, I knew I could rely on him.

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D.M.: It was difficult for a Northern-Irish actor to interpret an Italian Renaissance historical figure?

Mark Ryder: Not at all. The cast was hugely international, it didn’t matter where we were from. It is funny though that a little lad from Belfast played the great Cesare. Different cultures speak differently with their bodies and gestures. Italians are very expressive with their hands. It took me some time to gain a full understanding of that. In the first season I played Cesare very tight and restricted in his body, maybe I should have been a little more Italian and expressive.

D.M.: Cesare Borgia was a hero or a villain?

Mark Ryder: Both. He did some great things and some terrible things.

D.M.: Do you consider yourself a celebrity?

Mark Ryder: Absolutely not. Borgia is not big in my own country so no one knows who I am. I hope to keep it that way.

D.M.: Thank you, Mark, for your kind answers! In the end, can you address a few words to your fans?

Mark Ryder: Lots of love to all the fans of our crazy show. I’m very proud of what we have achieved and so your support means a lot.

This interview was conducted by Dragoş Moldoveanu, President of Asociaţia „Institutul pentru Studii Renascentiste” (The Institute of Renaissance Studies Association – AISR), author of the book Cesare Borgia, Prințul Renașterii. O cronică în două volume (Cesare Borgia, the Prince of the Renaissance.     A two volumes chronicle), 2014, Bucharest.

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A huge thank you to Dragos and the AISR for allowing me to host this interview. I’ll be doing a lot more work with the AISR this year so please do keep an eye out. Also please do check out Borgia – available on Netflix and also to buy on Amazon.

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