Heath Ledger couldn’t wait to get to Prague. The actor wasn’t expected there until production started on A Knight’s Tale in the spring of 2000, but he was anxious to explore what would be his home for the next five months. After a quick call with writer-director Brian Helgeland, who was on location developing the medieval action-comedy, Ledger flew out to join the filmmaker and prepare for his first leading role. Considering the city’s cheap accommodations, Helgeland realized he might as well invite the rest of the cast to keep Ledger company. “There wasn’t some big fancy hotel where we were blowing our budget every night,” Helgeland says. “So everyone just started showing up.”
Under the impression they needed to spend a few weeks learning to work with horses, actors Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk, who’d play Ledger’s two lifelong pals in the movie, hopped on planes to Prague and found they had nothing to do. The pair attended some costume fittings and briefly trained for an early sword-fighting scene, but otherwise, their days were wide open. “We learned that fight, which took an afternoon, and then that was it,” Tudyk says with a laugh. “The rest was just to go hang out with each other, drink and become friends. And that’s what we did.”
Over the next couple of weeks, the main cast—including Rufus Sewell, Shannyn Sossamon, Laura Fraser, and late-arriver Paul Bettany—built a quick rapport throughout the Czech capital. “They were out carousing, shutting down night clubs and bars and stuff like that,” Helgeland says. Because the Velvet Revolution had taken place just a decade earlier, Prague had retained all of its medieval architecture, and without a busy tourism industry, daily walks through its winding streets and nightly pop-ins to local pubs helped everyone get into character. “None of us knew anybody that was there at that time, so it gave us a chance to bond and get all that introductory stuff out of the way,” Addy says. “It was useful in terms of what it allowed us to bring to the table. We were already a unit.”
Before shooting had even begun, Helgeland had a massive head start. After all, A Knight’s Tale is built on the relationships of its cast members, particularly the motley crew that surrounds its dashing protagonist. Released 20 years ago this week, the movie follows William Thatcher (the late Ledger), a peasant who assumes a noble identity with his two squires, Roland (Addy) and Wat (Tudyk), in order to compete in traveling jousting tournaments. Along the way, the trio inherits Geoffrey Chaucer (Bettany), a gambling-addicted writer, and Kate (Fraser), a widowed blacksmith, into its faux-knightley family. Though the plot centers on William’s quest to “change his stars,” win over Princess Jocelyn, and defeat a villainous jouster, its heart and soul belongs to William’s makeshift band of misfits.
Helgeland’s script pivots from the period’s stuffy cinematic tendencies to highlight the jovial nature of its ragtag group—its easy camaraderie, impromptu shenanigans, and unique talents. As a result, the ensemble leaves an indelible mark on a movie that has over the years grown into a beloved hangout classic, one tethered to the idea of “living life with the fullness of each other’s company,” Addy says. Against its anachronistic, rock ’n’ roll soundtrack and upbeat, modern riffs, A Knight’s Tale “just looked like a bunch of friends having a laugh making this preposterous and fun movie,” Bettany says. “And that’s because that’s exactly what was going on.”
By the mid-1990s, Helgeland had established himself as a prolific Hollywood screenwriter. Within the span of a year, he’d earned writing credits for 1997…