Written and directed by Hugo Blick, The English stars Emily Blunt as Lady Cornelia Locke, an Englishwoman who travels to America in 1890 to avenge her son's death. There, Cornelia has a chance meeting with Eli Whipp, a member of the Pawnee Nation and former calvary scout, played by Chaske Spencer. Having witnessed countless atrocities in his life, including one particular massacre that continues to gnaw on his conscious, Eli is in search of his own piece of land where he can begin building a future on his own terms.
The pair quickly form a partnership, saving one another from the many physical dangers that lurk in their beautiful but violent landscape, while also finding in each other the first glimpse of love and hope that either has experienced in a long time.
"I've never been put in a situation like that," Spencer tells Metacritic of his character's seemingly constant battle for survival. "But if something like that happens, I hope I have my own Cornelia somewhere around the way."
Eli and Cornelia's slow-burning love story unfolds as the pair travel on horseback through middle America to Wyoming, where David Melmont (a truly sinister Rafe Spall), their shared target, continues to wreak havoc on the lives of anyone with whom he comes into contact. While some justice is exacted in the form of Melmont's death during the finale of The English, Eli and Cornelia's involvement in his murder and Cornelia's declining health bring an end to any hopes of the pair sharing a future together.
Here, Spencer talks to Metacritic about The English, including his experience working with Blick and Blunt; what music he listened to every day on set; and how he wants audiences to remember Eli.
An aristocratic Englishwoman and a Pawnee scout are two characters audiences haven't typically seen on screen in leading roles in a Western. What research did you do to build and understand the character of Eli?
There was some research given to me by Hugo Blick about the Pawnee Nation and the Scouts, but that only took me so far. Then I had to find other bits and pieces to bring Eli together. Hugo had a huge part in that. He helped give me a good roadmap of where I needed to go.
I started doing research on Vets, on Vietnam Vets, and Iraq Vets because I felt like that was about right where Eli would be. I went through the scripts several times finding beats and things here and there. I came in with all this energy, but it is also Hugo that helped direct me.
It was a fun character to play. We are two totally different people but it was fun to put on Eli and go into work every day. I had a good soundtrack on Spotify. I would blast Bruce Springsteen right before I would go on set.
The killing of David Melmont is built up throughout the series and it's Eli who gets to deliver the final blow. Do you feel that helped him relinquish some of the guilt he had been carrying over the massacre?
The way I approached Eli, I think he had been around so much death and destruction that I felt he was a bit numb to it. I felt that the character choice I made with Eli was that [Melmont] needed to be taken out and that's what happened. But I don't feel like with Eli that he holds onto too much stuff because it's too painful.
In Episode 2 when he explains about losing his wife and child, you can see that he's holding that back as much as he can. A lot of the Vets I talked to were very closed off. You're not gonna get past that. I could use that for Eli to make sure that he's very internal.
Was there ever a discussion around who would land the final blow to David Melmont, because there's no shortage of people who wanted to deliver that?
[It was always Eli.] I like that it wasn't a big Hollywood shootout with a fight. It was done very realistically, I thought.
It's a very "kill or be killed" world that Cornelia and Eli live in, but they still have kept their humanity in an inhumane place. Were there any scenes that gave you pause about including?
No. I felt that Hugo wrote such a perfect script for these characters. He had been sitting on these characters for quite some time. I like working with writer-directors because that's their baby and you go right to the source. It was set in stone how it was going to play out.
It's easy for audiences to fall in love with the love story of Cornelia and Eli, and it's heartbreaking to see them say their goodbyes at the end. Was there ever a discussion about the pair riding off into the sunset together?
There was some talk, but at the end, you know they can't stay together. That's the sad part of the whole journey. It's almost like two ships passing through the night. They're on this adventure and there's a lot of potential for them to keep going, but the reality of the situation is that they're not going to be around much longer. That's the sad part as well.
You just wish that they could get together and live a happily ever after life. [But] I like that they don't. It's more of the drama and what could have been. It's the same old story and audiences love that. I love it too.
What surprised you about working with Emily?
Just how down to Earth she is and what a phenomenal actor she is. I've been very lucky. I've worked with a lot of really cool and really great actors, and she's up there. It was just easy. When you're working with someone so good, you don't really feel like you're acting and that's how I felt working with her. We just eased into it. It was really quite pleasant.
Eli is quick to say that he'll take the full blame for David Melmont's death, which is a move that feels very in line with his character as an honorable person and someone who would want to protect a mother and her son. What do you want people to remember about Eli?
That he has a lot of integrity. That he was a man of his time and that era and I hope that audiences love the character so much that they make him stand, like a Man With No Nameor Hombre with Paul Newman. I hope the character is etched in people's minds when the series ends.
I know when I finished watching The English it stuck with me for a couple of days. I know when I see a good movie if it stays with me. It lingers with me, and it's not about Cornelia and Eli and our performance, it's the other characters as well. [Hugo] built a world that is so fascinating and familiar yet unfamiliar. I think that between those lines is where The English is really at and it stays with you. I still think about some of those characters.
Even though Cornelia and Eli don't end up together, we do see that she survives, as does the son of Touching Ground. What do you think happens to Eli?
I think he finally finds his land and he becomes a farmer and he meets someone and has children again. I think he finds that quiet part of his life that he's always been looking for.
Get to know Chaske Spencer:
Millennials will undoubtedly recognize Chaske (and his abs) from The Twilight Saga where he played werewolf Sam Uley in New Moon (Metascore: 44), Eclipse (58), Breaking Dawn - Part 1 (45) and Breaking Dawn - Part 2 (52). On the small screen, Spencer played Deputy Billy Raven in the drama Banshee (66), Dominic Masters in Blindspot (65), and Chayton Dockery in Sneaky Pete (76). Most recently, Spencer starred in Wild Indian (74), a role that earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.