Kevin Macdonald had just finished making State of Play, a movie about a lot of people in rooms hunched over sheafs of paper and computer screens, when he was given the opportunity to tramp around in the Scottish wilderness where he'd grown up-- oh, and he'd be making a movie in the process. Adapting the historical adventure novel he first read when he was eleven years old, MacDonald took off to the Scottish highlands as well as Hungary to make The Eagle, a movie about a Roman centurion and his embittered slave seeking a priceless artifact in the unknown wilds north of the Roman wall that marked the end of their empire in the second century.

Channing Tatum stars as the Roman war hero Marcus Aquila, with Jamie Bell as the slave Esca who accompanies him. Macdonald, who started his career with documentaries like Touching the Void and One Day in September before making his narrative directing debut with The Last King of Scotland, knew perfectly well that Tatum was an unexpected choice to play an ancient Roman soldier. His idea, as he told me in our interview in early January in New York City, was to depict the Romans as Americans, the closest modern equivalent he could find to the strength of the ancient Roman Empire. As for the mysterious tribe that Marcus and Esca encounter in the far north near the end of the film, Macdonald had to take a leap from known history and invent a people he calls the Seal Tribe, painting their faces in mud, speaking a strange Gaelic tongue, and led by a warrior played by A Prophet's Tahar Rahim.

I started by asking Macdonald about casting Tatum, an actor not given the credit both he and I think he deserves, and how he imagined the film not as a sword-and-sandals epic, but as a Western. We also talked about the invented Seal People tribe, and if he was playing off the classical trope of "dark skin= bad" or going for something else, plus casting Rahim over Skype just after A Prophet premiered at Cannes. The Eagle opens this Friday.

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