For his most recent screen role, Nathanael Saleh played Piak in the Netflix Original Series The Letter for the King, and last year, he had a cameo role in Days of the Bagnold Summer, where he played Alex. With the release of Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns in 2018, Nathanael was cast as one of the lead children, John, working closely with Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and he was also part of the recording of the soundtrack for the film. Starting his acting career at Playbox Theatre Company, Nathanael then went on to have his first screen role as Arthur in Game of Thrones and he has recently finished work on a new Netflix series, yet to be announced. Speaking with Nathanael, he tells us about playing Piak in The Letter for the King, working on Days of the Bagnold Summer and being in the cast of Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns.
You were most recently seen in The Letter for the King as Piak, how did it feel booking the role?
All I remember is coming back home from school, feeling tired because it was a Monday, and my agent rang to tell me that I’d nailed the role. I felt that at my final audition I could have done a lot better, so I just remember being very surprised, and overjoyed at the same time.
Can you tell us about the character and what did you enjoy most about playing him?
Piak just doesn’t have a care in the world. He’s supposed to be ten years old and he doesn’t know anything about the world yet, so he just does what he wants to do without a second thought. But when his brother dies, he realises that life is a serious business. He was a really great character to play because I could forget everything that was going on in my real life, and just have fun.
Do you have any highlights from your time filming the series?
I had to learn to ride a horse, so that was something new for me. I still try to carry that on now, but it’s not always possible when I’m away working on a project. And yeah, sword fighting, that was fun! Although everyone else in the cast was bigger and stronger than me, and more advanced in the fighting, I still really enjoyed it. And of course, going to New Zealand for three months was pretty amazing as well – British countryside on steroids – and then Prague for three months straight afterwards which was another amazing place. It felt like I got to travel all over the world with the series!
What was Days of the Bagnold Summer like to work on and how was it playing Alex?
It was a fun little project for me because the part of Alex was just a cameo; I think I had a total of three days shooting. But I was very excited to meet the director Simon Bird, once I realised who he was from The Inbetweeners. Then it was two years from my last day of shooting until I saw the finished product when it was released on Amazon, and it was brilliant to see how good Monica (Dolan) and Earl (Cave) were in the leading roles. It was only then that I got to know what the full story was about because I’d only seen my tiny part, and I thought it was really touching.
How was it being cast as John in Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns and what do you remember from your first day on set?
The first thing I remember was when my dad met me in the school playground and told me I’d got the part. I was screaming and running around, and my teachers were asking me if I was alright, but I was laughing and crying at the same time and I just had to tell somebody! Then the first day at Shepperton Studios, I remember coming out of my dressing room and walking down the corridor, and Julie Walters came out of her dressing room right by me, and my mouth dropped open like a goldfish and I just stared at her! Then Ben Whishaw came along, and then Emily Blunt was there, and Lin-Manuel Miranda – my head was just turning in every direction at once! I could tell right from the get-go that this was going to be one magical shoot.
What was it like working on the soundtrack and being in the recording studio?
I remember seeing the orchestra for the first time, and hearing them play live. When we did our rehearsals, we used just a piano, and during the shoot we had backing tracks to sing and dance to. But after the shoot, when we did ADR and some sound recording, we heard the orchestra playing the songs live. It was very different – quite mind-blowing how big the sound actually was!
What are some of your favourite memories from your time with the cast and how was it seeing the completed film?
I got on really well with the other kids – there were about twelve of us in total because as well as Pixie (Davies), Joel (Dawson) and me as the three Banks children, we had acting doubles, picture doubles and stunt doubles too. But the adults were great and gave as much time to us as possible; whenever Emily Blunt brought her daughters on set, she would come and have her lunch with us on the double decker café bus. All the adults helped to make it as magical for us as they could.
There were lots of other highlights – one I could pick out would be flying on wires. We had to be strapped into a full body harness which always seemed to take ages, but once we were up in the air, it was completely insane!
When I first saw the completed film, I’d never seen myself on the big screen before, so I felt a bit self-conscious for a while; but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t absolutely love the film itself! Just seeing everything that you’ve been doing and talking about for months coming together into a two-hour film in the cinema was an incredible experience.
Your first screen role was playing Arthur in Game of Thrones, how was this?
To be honest, I didn’t really know what was happening at that point! I was about nine years old when we went to Spain, which was where we shot on location for the first time. Seeing all the cameras and equipment around the set for the first time, learning all the different departments like the ADs, the grips, sound guys, costume and makeup and everything – I had no idea how making a film really worked before. Although I’d always known I wanted to be an actor, seeing that put a whole new perspective on it all. I just want to do it more and more now.
Do you remember what it was like seeing the set for the first time?
I think the first time I went on set was in Qyburn’s lab, because Arthur was one of Qyburn’s “little birds”. The scene started out with me and Anton Lesser, who played Qyburn, just sitting down and talking – which was quite intimidating, but it was also quite cool. The scene was choreographed out for the kids (the little birds) as well, so we all had our places to go and stuff to do. But you know, just working with the director for the very first time was something I will always hold on to.
You began performing at Playbox Theatre Company in Warwick, can you say more about this?
Well, you know, Playbox is my home, there’s no question about that. It’s basically been my life, and I wouldn’t be here where I am today if it hadn’t been for them. I’ve been part of Playbox since I was about three in workshops, voice sessions – they do all sorts, like musical theatre and circus and Shakespeare, and then of course the massive productions that they do. There’s such a fun atmosphere and vibe there, all these young performers getting together and having the time of their lives.
I first got involved through my older brother who went there before me. I remember my mum took me there one day, and I was dressed up as a pirate, and I couldn’t get out of character for the whole day. Because my brother was actually quite successful at Playbox, one of the directors, Mary, who saw me as a pirate that day, had high hopes for me, so I’m hoping that I’ve matched her expectations!
Did you always know you wanted an acting career and where does your love of performing come from?
Performing in some way or another is sort of all I’ve ever known really. I’ve never had a backup plan if it didn’t work out – I just knew that if I wanted to be an actor, I was going to be acting, or doing nothing at all! It’s in my blood as well – both my parents were on-stage performers and they loved it, and my brother did theatre and now has his own film company, so we are a very acting-based family, and we absolutely love it.
What do you enjoy doing away from your career?
Oh, you know, the usual teenager stuff. Most recently I’ve been doing gaming on my laptop and a bit of VR. Also, I love parkour, doing flips and things on my trampoline. I’ve also made some stop-motion animation films.
Do you have any favourite TV shows or films to watch?
There’s no particular genre of film or TV I choose to watch – if it’s good, I’ll watch it. One of my favourite more recent films is A Quiet Place, and the reason I like it is that I could understand a bit about how it was created. And as a story it was so intense and emotional, and such a unique idea.
What are you hoping 2021 brings for your career?
I really want to just keep working. During the lockdown that started in 2020 when I was faced with nothing but online schoolwork, I just wanted to get out there and travel and work. Today, a year later, I’ve just finished shooting a new Netflix series, which was quite a groundbreaker for me because I felt such a deep connection with my character, and I had just the best time with all the people on set. Now I’m about to move on to something else, so I’m really looking forward to that. So, I guess I’m getting what I wished for because there’s only a three-week break between the series I’ve just finished and the new one!
Follow Nathanael on: