Let’s start in Nebraska, with a love story. There’s a military dinner for the RAF pilots stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha. A young nurse named Barbara is on the guest list. She’s desperate to attend – RAF pilots? Yes please! – but her best friend and fellow nurse Edie is proving reluctant. Come on! implores Barbara. It’ll be a fun night! They’ll be in uniform! Eventually her friend relents.
At the dinner, Edie finds herself seated next to Ray, a visiting pilot from Lancashire. Perhaps not the obvious soulmate for an Italian-American nurse, a reluctant Iowan whose mother sailed into Ellis Island as a child, but love doesn’t need to be obvious, it only needs to exist, and before too long it does. A relationship turns into a lifetime. He proposes, she accepts. They move to Lincoln, England, planning to return and raise a family in the States once Ray gets his American pilot’s licence. The family happens; the return never quite does. (A fact that Edie will still bring up, during the occasional marital dispute.)
Three decades later, the daughter of Edie and Ray is sharing the story of their courtship over coffee in Picturehouse Central. While her parents travelled continents, Eliza Butterworth travels time: most notably to the Dark Ages for her role as Queen Aelswith of Wessex in the Netflix series The Last Kingdom. She also starred in Victorian whaling drama The North Water and next year will join a family of 1980s South London gangsters for Nick Love’s A Town Called Malice. On current linear trajectory, expect a Black Mirror in 2024 and Star Wars by the end of the decade.
But first there is the last season of The Last Kingdom: the climax of a journey that began in 2014, with Butterworth barely out of RADA. Then just 21, Butterworth has aged roughly a decade per season as the series strides through history and the bloody formation of modern England. (See what I mean about time travelling?) She’s lived with Aelswith for eight years but sees little of the formidable Queen in own personality.
“She’s so starkly different to me. She’s like the opposite end of the spectrum. The parts of her that come out are the parts that are so deeply embedded in me that no-one will ever see them. All the scary ferocity, the anger. She can be very manipulative, very calculating. A lot of those things are on the surface with her, but with me they’re super, super deep.”
They really must be deep: Butterworth is one of the most gregarious interviewees you could hope to encounter. Her enthusiasm is as boundless as the Nebraska sky. Whatever the subject – film, theatre, Yorkshire Pudding, the 1970s, Northern England, Southern Italy, London, Budapest, the countryside, dentistry – Butterworth will have a positive take on it. I imagine a night out with her is the closest you can come to living in a musical. Plus there’ll probably be karaoke.
Alas: you won’t find many show tunes in The Last Kingdom, but the battles, romance and political intrigue offer rousing compensation. Over five seasons and half a century, a growing army of viewers has watched Alfred the Great and his children wage war against the invading Danes. Aelswith started as a relatively minor role but Butterworth has developed her into a key player, a character of depth and nuance.
Many series have been touted as ‘the next Game of Thrones’; many series are still touted as ‘the next Game of Thrones’. (This mission statement made more sense eight years ago when Game of Thrones was a worldwide cultural phenomenon, untainted by a final season that didn’t drop the ball so much as puncture it, jump on it, and throw its remains into the neighbour’s back garden.) There are obvious parallels between Wessex and Westeros but The Last Kingdom has forged its own identity, and fanbase.
Butterworth identifies season four as the gamechanger, the one where the series broke into the mainstream. Lockdown obviously helped – as did the absence of Game of Thrones. The lack of fantasy might reassure fans over the forthcoming endgame: there’s no chance a dragon will symbolically burn down the throne of England or Alfred be succeeded by an omniscient human tree. A further bonus: Bernard Cornwell finished the book series in 2020. (Cornwell, a prodigious writer of historical fiction, has knocked out 12 novels – eight in the Saxon Series alone – since George RR Martin released A Clash of Kings.)
As previously mentioned, Butterworth could put a cheerful spin on the apocalypse – but she is especially effusive when discussing her castmates. Take David Dawson, King Alfred the Great and Aelswith’s husband. “I’d only done a little bit of film experience so I’d just watch him like a hawk. See the way he would embody King Alfred: his physicality, his voice, his attitude. Everything just completely changed. He morphed into a totally different person. I honestly owe a lot of my screen acting skills to David Dawson because he taught me everything I know. Whether he knows it or not!"
Her on-screen children Millie Brady and Timothy Innes are “literally like my best friends in the whole world. We’re all the same age but I’m their mum!” (Brady and Butterworth refer to each other as “Mama Moose” and “Baby Moose”.) Series lead Alexander Dreymon, “the kindest man alive”, buys presents for the cast and crew at the end of each season. “I’ll really miss the family of The Last Kingdom,” says Butterworth, and not for a moment would you doubt her words.
A millennium and change after Aelswith’s journey reached its end in 902AD, a young girl left the Italian village of Sant’Arcangelo and began a journey of her own. She boarded a boat, along with her parents and her many siblings, and sailed across the Atlantic to New York City. On arrival, the family travelled west to the town of Fort Dodge, Iowa, and found a bungalow and settled there.
The girl was Edie’s mother, Eliza’s grandmother – Dolores. Grandmother and granddaughter never met but every summer the Butterworths would fly to America and stay at the bungalow where Dolores and her siblings grew up. “Pick-up trucks, cornfields,” Butterworth reminisces of Fort Dodge. “It’s a cute place. Although my mum used to joke ‘there’s no culture there, just agriculture.’ Which used to crack me up when I was a kid!”
Eliza harboured no childhood dreams of the stage – indeed, performing for strangers could reasonably be filed under ‘nightmare’. “I was the shyest kid on the planet. My mum used to get a bit worried because I never put my hand up in class. But in the playground I was the clown, I was always doing goofy voices and making my friends laugh. So she knew I wasn’t naturally shy with my friends.”
Keen to instil some confidence, Edie dispatched her teenage daughter to summer theatre school. “I was absolutely petrified! I hated the thought of it!” Yet Mother knew best (ain’t it always so): a joyous few weeks culminated in a triumphant performance of Saturday Night Fever at the Lincoln Theatre Royal and a “completely different person” emerged from the course.
She discovered the passion, she developed the talent. A few years later, her drama teachers encouraged Eliza to audition for RADA. She’s accepted the first year. “I don’t think I would have tried again or waited. I think I would have gone, OK, it’s obviously not my destiny. I was thinking of being a dentist.”
A dentist? She laughs. “I know! How random is that?” Not entirely random, once you remember her mother was a nurse – but why dentist? “When I was a child I always had braces so I was in and out of the dentist. I had a bit of an affiliation with the dentist because of that.” (As someone also doomed to braces for roughly three centuries in adolescence, I can think of many words to describe my relationship with the dentist – ‘affiliation’ is low down that list. Still, good for Butterworth. It’s either empathy or Stockholm Syndrome.)
Orthodontics’ loss proved theatre’s gain. Her parents are very supportive of their daughter’s chosen profession. “My mum’s got a Google alert on my name. She’ll send me articles that I’ve never read myself. She knows more about my career than I do!” In which case – hi, Edie! Hope you’re enjoying the read.
In 2021, Butterworth joined a slightly higher profile family, playing Princess Eugenie Windsor in the stage production of The Windsors: Endgame. She loved every moment: the audience, the songs (there were songs!), the cast. “Being on stage with legends like Harry Enfield, Tracy Ann Oberman, Kara Tointon. It was just mind-blowing! Again, I watched them like a hawk, I learned so much from them.”
“Every night was totally different. Each audience was a whole other bag that we had to work out as we were on stage.”
One storyline involved Beatrice and Eugenie attempting to rehabilitate Prince Andrew’s reputation. Their duet, ‘Innocent’, included lyrics such as: “But Daddy cannot sweat, we said, then watched their case unravelling / He’s not a shifty sweaty bloke who goes round Jimmy Saviling.” Updating the song for 2022 would cause even the most hardened satirist to perspire.
“It ended at the right time!” laughs Butterworth. “It definitely teetered on the edge of danger!” Imagine if the show was still running? “Oh, I think they’d have to change it. That entire storyline wouldn’t be able to fly. It’s just too close to the bone.”
Butterworth’s Wikipedia states her to be an alto and mezzo-soprano singer, ballroom and flamenco dancer, and percussion player. I have to check my phone to ensure I don’t forget a talent when reading them off to her. Is everything on the list in her creative locker?
“Pretty much,” she says. “Although a lot of the skills written there are what I learned at RADA. They gave us formal dance training: we would learn ballroom, the waltz. We had a flamenco dance teacher. We had a phenomenal singing teacher. So all those skills were practically learned at RADA – even fighting! Sword fighting, unarmed combat, all those skills. I can definitely do all those things but I wouldn’t say I’m a professional in any of them!” Nonetheless, best to take her word on the sword fighting.
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One of her best friends at RADA was a girl named Patsy Ferran. “We used to do hip-hop covers of really cute, dorky songs. She’d have a ukulele and I’d do a bit of beat-boxing, bit of drumming on my legs.” The pair would blast out fusions of Adele and James Blake, with added ukulele. Ferran, incidentally, won a Critics’ Circle and an Olivier Award in 2019. RADA graduates do not fuck around.
Butterworth’s next project will take her to 1980s London – and more appealingly, 1980s Tenerife. Nick Love’s Sky Max series A Town Called Malice will follow the trials (ahem) and tribulations of the Lords, a notorious South London crime family. (Why the title isn’t House of Lords is a mystery for the ages.) Butterworth is Carly, wife to Lex Shrapnel’s Leonard. Expect few ukuleles, but plenty of beatings, and perhaps even a little boxing.
Her excitement is palpable as she reels off the cast – Shrapnel, Martha Plimpton, Jack Rowan, Lex Shrapnel, Tahirah Sharif – bestowing each member with their own adjective: “Fantastic, amazing, phenomenal, fabulous.” Family patriarch Albert Lord is played by professional badass Jason Flemyng. “Meeting him yesterday was like the best moment of my life. I’ve always thought he was the most extraordinary actor.”
There’s something more than a little extraordinary about Eliza Butterworth. An hour in her company would make even Scrooge experience a pang of joie de vivre. It’s an impressive quality, one that should hold her in good stead for whatever the future may hold. I hope it holds singing, and flamenco dancing, and maybe the odd sword fight. I’m certain she’ll be laughing regardless.
The Last Kingdom Season 5 streams on Netflix from 9 March