Netflix’s latest original series tells the story of famed Italian explorer Marco Polo. Marco Polo begins when Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) is left in the court of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong). In Khan’s court, Marco is trained in many skills, including martial arts, for his future expeditions.
We spoke with Richelmy by phone from New York before the series premiered. Richelmy is an Italian actor and Marco Polo is his first English speaking role, which is of course for American audiences. Marco Polo would have spoken Italian. All 10 episodes of Marco Polo Season 1 Premiere on Netflix December 12.
Nuke the Fridge: Is Marco Polo a lot more reluctant than we might have thought from the legends?
Lorenzo Richelmy: Well, yes, you can say that. When I first read the story of Marco Polo in the history books, it was written that he was known as a great merchant. Then when John Fusco, the creator of the series, gave me a lot of books to get into the culture, to get into the character, I just thought: is that true? He’s known as a great merchant and he stayed 20 years in the Mongolian empire and wrote nothing back? What kind of merchant was he? So there’s something missing. Then I found out that yeah, he went there and he stayed 20 years close to the most powerful man on earth. Then when he came back, he was trying to say to the Italians, “Guys, we have a civilization there that we’re not considering and probably is greater than ours.” In Medieval Italy, the church was so powerful and the Vatican, so the pope cannot accept that another person exists more powerful than him. That’s why we know Marco Polo as the merchant or as the liar. Now we know that what he told was the most realistic version of the book The Journey of Marco Polo, 85% of it is confirmed and the other 15% is uncomfirmable. He was meant to build a bridge between east and west, so after all these books I found out oh, geez, he was kind of one of the greatest men in our history.
Lorenzo Richelmy: Of course, that was part of the fiction. It’s not all real, of course. The base line is all true. Then of course he probably didn’t know how to fight with Kung Fu, but I have to learn it. As everything, I didn’t even know English before. It was basically a big gym. I had to do these six weeks training in almost any possible sport. I had to train in Wushu that is like Kung Fu, then swordfighting, Mongolian wrestling, archery, horseback riding and then English. It was nuts, an intense period for me. But yes, quite an adventure. For me, it’s been really an adventure but I would say for all of us, because shooting seven months in Venice through Kazakhstan to Malaysia was intense. So for me, everything was totally new.
Nuke: I didn’t realize you hadn’t even spoken English before. Did that make reading the script and learning the lines even more challenging?
Lorenzo Richelmy: It was the biggest effort of my life. I was able to communicate in English but I traveled a lot, so I was able to order a meal, but no more than that. Communicating and acting was just completely different. That was my biggest challenge.
Nuke: Is your Marco Polo a great lover also?
Lorenzo Richelmy: Of course, he’s Italian. My Marco Polo is not a Marco Polo we all know. We are seeing the young Marco Polo so my intent is not to show the Marco Polo we all know. It’s the guy that eventually became the great explorer. So that’s interesting. We know what he did but we don’t know how he did it. That’s my job. I’m Italian and I traveled a lot. In my childhood I’ve been doing the Marco Polo thing so I can relate to him. I build the character with me, always. There’s always a part of the actor in the character, but in this case it was pretty much living with me the adventure of being in this massive production, being the only Italian who couldn’t understand anything. Then month by month getting more confident and comfortable with everyone, with work, with English, with martial arts. We shot it chronologically so in the beginning it was a weakness, but then eventually it became a strength of the character.
Nuke: We see in the beginning that Khan forces him to go exploring in the beginning. Was he not much of an explorer at first?
Lorenzo Richelmy: He wanted to be an explorer but he didn’t know how to do it. He’s forced to stay there but then he realizes that it is the place he wants to be. Of course, it was not the most beautiful way to be left in the Mongolian court. So you see how he can relate himself to the Mongolian court and that world and can really get into it. It’s more true that he was not born an explorer. He became an explorer.
Nuke: This is a real discovery for you because they wanted to find an Italian actor. For those of us seeing you for the first time on Marco Polo, what was your background? Did you do a lot of Italian movies and TV?
Lorenzo Richelmy: Yes, I was doing good in Italy in my career. My parents are both actors so I started pretty early. When I first got on a stage I was four with my mother. My only line was, “Here’s the chicken.” Then when I was eight I did my first real job. Then I did this show on stage for two years. After that, my mother got worried and she wanted me to study. I was too little to work on things so I quit until I was 16. When I was 16 I asked my mother again if I could sign with an agency and she told me, “Okay, but I’ll tell you something. Get your best marks in school.” [I said,] “I will do it.” I was not a brilliant student but I did it, and after that I started working in Italy. When I was 17 I did a pretty famous TV series that brought me nice popularity, big popularity but then after that, everybody I was working with told me, “Man, you have talent but you have to study if you want to really be an actor.” I was young. I was 18 so I said why not? Why not try everything? Why not be really immersed in it? I went to National Drama School of Italy. It’s pretty big and famous, one of the oldest ones in all the world. I did it and when I finished my school in late 2011, after six months I was working so I’ve been really lucky. But yes, I never considered the American market. Of course, I’ve considered it but as a later on thing. Then when I heard about this vision, I did cast myself. Nobody called me for this audition. I just heard about it and then I decided to do this self tape and I sent it over.
Nuke: What big TV show were you on as a teenager?
Lorenzo Richelmy: I liceali, like high school people.