If you only ever knew about Marco Polo from the swimming pool game, you’ve been missing out. The Italian merchant spent over 20 years in Mongolia in the 13th century, meeting and advising famed emperor Kublai Khan, thus making one of the first connections between the Western World and the East. And now, thanks to the ever-more-ambitious Netflix, he’s getting the biopic treatment, in the form of an epic, multimillion dollar series starring relative newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy, an Italian actor who learned archery, martial arts, horseback riding and, notably, English to take on the role of the explorer. We chatted with Richelmy about his big role, which he did in near-flawless English that made us feel bad about not knowing a second language.
So among all those skills, what was the hardest one to pick up?
Hmm, well, English. Definitely, it was English because the pressure for it was big. As an actor the language is like half of your job.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable with the language?
Well, the time I had. [laughs] I had seven weeks before we started shooting. Then the fact that we shot chronologically helped me a lot. At the beginning of the show, my English is different, my body is different and then I kept training in both of them for the whole shoot. And then if you look at a frame from the last episode and a frame from the first one, they are two different guys.
Much of the shooting was done in Malaysia. Where in the country were you?
We were on the south near Singapore. We had these brand new Pinewood Studios, which were amazing — the biggest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just a big theme park with 700 people from 27 countries from all over the world, just creating and working every day. It was incredible. It was just massive.
How do you describe your version of Marco Polo?
My Marco Polo, he is of course curious about things. He’s never satisfied. In this way he’s a little bit like Kublai Khan. He has this quality where he’s totally the first modern man. He was the first man to build a bridge between east and west. I focused my job on the fact that he never judged. He watched these things that were totally different, and maybe evil things, and gross things, and he always finds a way to understand the reasons behind them. He’s an open-minded guy and a fearless guy.
How historically accurate is the show?
The script is pretty much attached onto reality. Every character, every man, every year, except really like one or two are all true, all real. Do you know the Hall of Five Desires in episode 2?
It’s called the hall of five desires and it’s true, it existed. It’s not just a way to show some naked girls and that’s why I’m happy [with] the way [show creator] John Fusco and everyone else are trying to show this. Of course it’s entertaining, and of course there’s a lot of stuff of fiction, of romance, but the skeleton, the base is all true.
As an Italian, do you find Polo’s reputation to be different here in the States?
Yes. It’s totally different. You have here the swimming pool game. In Italy, we know him as a big guy, but not so big. In China, he’s a hero, a big hero. So it’s beautiful to see how the different cultures have accepted this.
Had you heard of the swimming pool game before?
No. [laughs] The first time I heard it was from a German.