The Letter for the King‘s Thaddea Graham shares shocking twists, unexpected allies, and what the Letter has to say about girl power.
This interview alludes to spoilers for The Letter for the King on Netflix.
If you’ve already watched Netflix’s latest original fantasy The Letter for the King, you’re probably very interested in what Thaddea Graham has to say for herself. (And frankly, if you haven’t, you should.)
Graham, who plays the keen-bladed and keen-minded aspiring knight Iona, guides her mercurial character through battles, babysitting, and a cascade of plot-twists. Through it all, Iona maintains her intensity, single-mindedness, and ability to see what others around her miss, all of which make her a particular standout among a sparkling and spunky young cast.
We spoke to Thaddea Graham about Iona’s choices, being a boss, and what’s next for the Netflix series.
Thaddea Graham talks being the biggest ‘Letter for the King’ badass
What drew you to the story of The Letter for the King?
Thaddea Graham: I actually hadn’t read the books when I got the audition, and when we did it was only a couple of sides in a scene. But instantly I was just so drawn [to it], especially to Iona because of how strong she was and how unapologetic she was about that. I really love that you have this really strong female character. I think it’s quite empowering to see on screen, especially for younger viewers.
But after I read the scripts, those little sides, I went and read the book and I just fell in love with it. It reminded me of when I was younger, and I used to read books like The Famous Five, all these adventure mystery stories. I always just wanted to be in them. And I love The Letter For the King [because of] that connection and seeing these young people just trying their best to fix problems that the adults have created. And seeing young people going on this journey. They are just normal people in extraordinary circumstances, and I think that’s so interesting to watch.
I love that Iona is probably the biggest badass in the series.
She is, she’s feisty!
But watching the trailers, you wouldn’t necessarily think The Letter for the King is a woman-forward show. It does eventually focus on a triumvirate of ladies, Iona, Lavinia, and Queen Alianor, kicking ass in different kinds of ways. What was it like for you to be such an important part of that?
It was incredibly empowering and it felt really special. And actually, at the time when we were shooting it, I don’t think we realised how big of an impact these female characters would have. Only after seeing the edit and talking about it, post-production-wise, it was like “Oh my god! This is really cool! This is bigger than we thought!” And I think it’s very impactful.
In the original books by Tonke Dragt, Iona doesn’t exist. All the novices are boys and Will Davies, our showrunner, he had conversations with Tonke to adapt it for a more modern audience. His including Iona, I think, is very very important, so that we see these females being represented. And all the female characters are so strong — it’s never really overtly said, “Oh she’s really strong and that’s weird because she’s a girl.” It’s just accepted. It doesn’t matter what gender these people are. They’re just strong characters and I think that acceptance is incredibly, incredibly powerful.
I would love [it if] one day that we just have strong characters, regardless of gender. I think we’re definitely making a step forward, but until then we do need to make a point of these strong female characters.
Absolutely. Especially in fantasy, where you have so much room to make these things normal.
Absolutely! I really wish that when I was younger that I had someone like Iona, or Queen Alianor, or Lavinia, to look up to.
So Iona is a really a complicated character, right from the start. What do you think led her down the path of becoming a knight, and then what follows after?
Well, it is mentioned in the series a little bit that her parents aren’t around anymore. Her parents died when she was younger, and I think she just had to grow up extremely quickly.
She learned by doing, and I think a lot of that came from her parents. They taught her how to defend herself and forage for food, and craft her own things. Everything she owns I think she made herself. So for her, the option to become a knight, it’s a purpose, and it could be a path in life. I think [Iona is] very headstrong — once she focuses on something, I think there’s no stopping her.
Iona’s path changes pretty dramatically as the show goes on. Why do you think she decides to change course?
Once she realizes there are so many more complex things going on in the world, and that actually being a knight probably isn’t what it’s all cracked up to be. Hearing Arman’s dad talk about he’s not really having fought in any wars — [knighthood is] all about politics, and it’s about lying. I think she sees behind the mask a little bit. And it’s like “Oh right, okay. That’s not actually what I want to do now. I do want to be noble and I want to be loyal. And I’m going to do it my own way.”
So, to get into spoilers, it’s really cool that both of the major twists in The Letter for the King are about the girls, not the boys we’ve been led to believe are more important characters.
Yeah! Yeah. It’s so cool!
In regards to Iona’s twist, her decision to side with Jaro, what do you think her thought process is behind those decisions? She doesn’t just make one choice, she really goes all-in.
Yeah! [Laughs] I think when she meets Jaro the Red Rider and they have this conversation where he says, “You know, people like you and me, we have look a little further afield for opportunities”– I think that really resonates with her. We always spoke about those two characters being like two lone wolves. When two lone wolves see each other in the wild, it’s like ‘Oh hang on. I see a little bit of you in me, and me in you. I’m not going to fully trust you because I don’t really trust anyone. But I almost respect your strength.”
And Jaro, you know, has his own ideas and he’s a very strong character and I think Iona sees a lot of herself in him. And I think that she knows that together, they can be an unstoppable force. I think when she looks at the other novices she kind of thinks, “You guys are pathetic.” She’s the driving force of the novices because she keeps them on track.
I think Jaro and her get to be a great partnership, but I think that she’s definitely redeemable. The choices she’s made, I think, [are because she has] nothing fall back on. She doesn’t have a family and a castle to fall back on even if she becomes a knight so like, what’s that even mean anymore? So she looks to Jaro as her new kind of path in life, I suppose.
That’s such an interesting relationship. You don’t expect the power dynamic to flip as much as it does. By the end of the series, it’s almost like she has him on a string and he’s following her around.
Absolutely. I love that dynamic. I love that it’s a constant power play. And to really know she’s winning is a fun thing to play. At the end it’s really interesting that she rides off and he has to follow her. I love it just as a visual image as well. He’s so adamant that this little girl is not going to control him, but then he ends up following.
I definitely got, like, Arya and the Hound vibes, from Game of Thrones, and it scratched that itch perfectly.
So tell me a little bit more about Iona’s potential redemption. What do you think it would take for her to find her way back to the novices?
I think, for me, when I was sitting with Iona for what, all of the eight months [of production,] like I said, she’s such a lone wolf. She doesn’t have friends. She connects to animals more, and to nature, more than some people you actually have to have a conversation with. But I do think the novices do get under her skin a little bit.
And so I realised, she maybe thinks they’re idiots, but they could be her idiots. And there’s a fondness there that I don’t think she’s fully accepted yet. But maybe in season 2, if we go again, there is a kind of loyalty there. They’ve been on such an awful journey together, that if they were in trouble I think she would definitely, definitely go back and help them if they needed it.
I also think she would doesn’t think they can cope by themselves, so she’d probably go back and help. Not probably, she’d definitely go back and help. That’s what I think anyway.
To me, the best part of the show is watching all the chemistry between the young characters. What was that like behind the scenes? Were you the Iona of the group? Like, ‘Get in line, idiots.’
I actually think… probably, yeah! I mean, all of these characters, on paper they’re strong and themselves. But really seeing everyone bring them to life and put a little bit of their own personality into it was really special, and I think it really grounds the characters.
We hung out a lot off set. We all lived in the same apartment spaces, so we were constantly neighbors for eight months. And we hung out and played music and went rock climbing and stuff, so that bond was there already. And then on set, it was just so much fun. I feel like it was a very special experience because you know, you meet new people all the time in our job and people are lovely, and they come and go. You always say you’ll stay and touch and you don’t. But we really have, and I genuinely feel like we’re a little family.
It was really special that we [all] got to play on screen together, as well. Because a lot of the time Lavinia and Iona don’t really see each other, so it was really cool to do that. I was actually watching Episode 5 the other day, and I think it’s when Tiuri’s trying to harness and control his powers and Arman’s dressed up in this suit of armor and Lavinia tells us all to stop messing around and concentrate — she gives me this look.
I remember shooting that and Ruby [Ashbourne Serkis] looked at me, and I threw a look back and I was thinking “They’re never going to use this. We’re not even acting, it’s just Ruby and I glaring at each other and that was a bit of fun.” And that made it into the cut! It’s honestly just an absolute dream playing with her every day.
So, have you heard anything about The Letter for the King season 2?
We haven’t heard anything much about Season 2 yet. I really, really hope we go again. I’d do it in a heartbeat. It’s such a wonderful show to be a part of and a place to work in with those people, and all the head of departments, and the writers. It’s just lovely. And there’s definitely more to be told in our world. And I want to see what happens next!
And is there anything we can look forward to seeing from you soon in the future?
Yeah. I’ve just done a BBC show called Us, which I think will come out in the next couple of months. I’m not sure what’s happening now. And I’m currently working on a show called The Irregulars. It’s another Netflix show. It’s kind of based in the Sherlock Holmes world, or universe, and it follows the Bakerstreet Gang. So that’s a lot of fun.
I don’t think I’ve played a role yet that doesn’t have dirt on a scene. I think I’m being typecast!
The Letter for the King is now streaming on Netflix.