What got you into swords and sword fighting in the first place? And how did you become “Samantha Swords?”
I’ve always loved European swords, from a really young age. I wasn’t interested in other culture’s weapons, or satisfied with what I saw in movies or the reenactment world. When I discovered in 2006 that there was a rich martial tradition around medieval swordsmanship, I felt it was confirmation of something I had always known deep down, and I could focus my passion into research and training.
In 2012, I had a big break after we wrapped on ‘The Hobbit’ and I decided to prioritise my work as an artist. I started new social media accounts for sharing my illustration and my activities, and used the nickname I’d sometimes been called when people were saving my number in their phones- it was how some of my friends thought of me. So when I started to get noticed the next year, everyone used the name I had on my accounts. It stuck! I’ve always been clear that it’s a nom-de-plume, but it’s easy to remember, and a great description of what I do.
What was it like and what was your role in the famous Weta Workshop?
It was wonderful working with the team at Weta. The workshop gathers such amazing, world-class artisans, and the level of skill and creative potential under one roof is phenomenal. It’s full of contrasts though, because you have the boundless creativity of the people and resources, but it’s all constrained by the limitations of a practical film production. No project is ever the same, and the team have to adapt constantly to new challenges. It’s not exactly restful! I think that’s what makes it so truly great, though, is being able to thrive under that constant pressure.
My role was ever-changing. Weta have dozens of fabrication departments and when I first got started, I didn’t have a particular specialised background. So I went wherever there was need for a technician. Over the years I got to work with props, costumes, armour, prosthetics, metal, wood-work, the leather room, sculpting and 3D modelling, the miniatures department, painting, molding… I can’t quickly name all the jobs I did, but I had exposure to most of the areas of Weta. Learning under all those top artists in their fields was an extraordinary experience.
Also, being in an environment of shared excellence teaches you that once you hand over what you make to someone else, it’s no longer yours. That’s a really important lesson to learn as an artist, to value the skill over the object, and to not take what happens to your work personally.
From the looks of your social media, you engage yourself in many different martial art experiences. Some people fear “jack of all trades, master of none.” What’s your opinion?
Well, I’m definitely a Jack! I think there’s no problem with increasing your knowledge and skills in all areas as long as you know what is most important and can commit to doing it professionally when that skill is needed. As a freelancer working in a competitive, highly-creative and also punishing industry, being able to adapt and upskill fast is vital in order to thrive. That behaviour might be damaging in a more stable career, and I can see how the idea of being a Jack could be threatening to many people. It’s uncertain and risky, and requires a lot of energy to be able to constantly adjust to new challenges. Ultimately, if you are a Jack, I think it’s important to be able to know yourself and to be aware of whether the kind of growth you’re doing is about avoidance of a difficult challenge, or exploration of an exciting new area that could bring knowledge and perspective to what you do.
In 2013, you entered and won the Longsword division in the Harcourt Park Jousting Tournament. What was that tournament like? And was that different from any of the other events you’ve done in the past?
The tournament was part of a much larger, established sports event which centred around jousting, and brought competitors from maybe ten different countries. In previous years the longsword and other ground martial arts had drawn a large pool of fighters, but for several different reasons it was much smaller in 2013. I wasn’t thinking about winning at all, just wanted an opportunity to test my training and so I was very relaxed about the whole thing. It was very different from my other competitions, which had felt much more stressful, and each time I’d really cared about the results. My tension always worked against me, of course, so not fretting about the event was the best thing I could do.
The judges running the 2013 event were testing a new rule set as well. It favoured defensive fighting to avoid the constant mutual strikes that plague many weapons-based tournaments. In my year, we all started with hit points and had to defend them, rather than the usual method of claiming points from an uncooperative opponant. It emphasised caution, self-defense and was completely suited to how I had been training.
The story of me winning that event has really got a life of its own. Even though I’m proud of how I fought that day, it’s been extremely odd to have so many people focus on only that, especially when there is so much more going on in my life and in the HEMA community.
Since that winning the longsword tournament, have you ever considered continuing and competing in HEMA competitions? If not, how come?
I’m not huge into competition at the moment. When I was actively competing, I was much younger as a martial artist and all I wanted to do was fight! That was fun for a few years, but once I understood how hard it is to actually judge competitions, my interest shifted into learning good self-defense rather than being good in the ring. They’re quite different ways of fighting and training. Much of the dominant HEMA scene is centred around large, impressive competitions, which is terrific for expanding the community! It’s so exciting to see how large we have grown in such a short time. I feel bad that I’m not interested in going to them right now, but even before I’d gotten well-known, I’d decided to take a break and focus on other areas of improvement. Currently I really enjoy smaller events where people can share their training and spar informally, and test things out. There’s so much I want to learn.
What style/method of longsword do you study (or have you studied)? What made you gravitate to this style and/or stick with this style?
I love Fiore Dei Liberi’s tradition, and the Getty Manuscript. The wealth of anatomical information that ‘The Flower of Battle’s artist included is extraordinary, and I feel it’s still largely untapped. Also, it shows an efficient and practical system that’s more about the fighter than the weapon they’re using. That approach really appeals to me now. That’s such a turnaround from when I was young, where all I wanted was to learn about the sword. Now, I want to understand everything around the sword as well.
Being in the film industry as well, what parts have you played and what part was your favorite so far?
In the film industry, for every movie that gets made, there are at least five that don’t. Most of my favourite acting parts have been for productions that have fallen over. And, because of the high level of confidentiality, you can never talk about them or take photos or anything. Not including theatre, all my favourite roles have been for films that were put on the shelf. Sorry! All I can say is that they have been action-adventure characters who have a bit of depth to them, and I loved that.
How do you juggle your life – with acting, sword-making, writing, traveling and instructing?
Juggle is a good description! Some times of my year are busier than others, and I have to work very hard to stay on top of different commitments. I put a lot of hours into everything, and cut out the things I think are a waste of my time so I can focus more on what’s important. Sometimes I don’t mean to cut things out, but they just drop off the side anyway. For the most part, my work is project-based so I have a clear start and end, and can fit my different activities around that in block periods. Having seasonal interruptions does get frustrating when I want to build on something over a long period, though. And it makes it really hard to train. I have to be flexible about how and where I practice, and be disciplined enough to keep it up when I’m away from traditional training places. It’s not easy, but I love that I get to do so many things.
For anyone wanting to get into historical fencing for the first time, what would be your advice?
Find someone or something to get you started, and make time in your week to practice. Having a clear inspiration is important, as well as a space you can go to learn. You don’t need a club, but it does help. Most swordsmanship clubs are warm and welcoming, but if you feel like it’s not a good fit it’s okay to look elsewhere. If you’re nowhere near a club, you’re in good HEMA company: so many groups begin really modestly, with a few people figuring out how to fence together in the middle of nowhere. As long as you have clear safety practices, there’s no reason you can’t set something up yourself. There is so much support online- the HEMA Alliance will guide you to good resources.
Get the best tools and equipment you can, within reason. You can always sell it if you find you don’t want to commit to swordsmanship long-term. Having good tools will help your education more than anything other than a good teacher. If it’s your first time using weapons, practice control and coordination before applying speed and power. Accuracy is much more subtle in sword arts, and an inch of contact with a sword is much more lethal than the same with a kick or a punch! As much as you can, always reevaluate and test what you’re learning. HEMA grows from individuals taking on research and challenging what they find. That’s part of the excitement, too- we all have a chance to contribute to genuine exploration of something nearly lost in the past.
Apart from your profession, what else does Samantha like to do in her free time?
Anyone following my Instagram knows that I have a great love of animals, as well as getting out and about. When I’m at home I’ll read or draw or play video games or watch Netflix, often covered with several of my rats. They’re really loving and intelligent and bring me a lot of joy. I like fixing things, or making new things from broken ones. I also adore going hiking or snowboarding, and when I can I go into the mountains for a week. My responsibilities make that hard at the moment, though.
What is your favorite fictional character and why?
My favourite character of literature is Lisbeth Salander, from the Millennium trilogy. She’s extremely strong, fierce, wildly intelligent, free of doing what people expect of her, and wants to be left alone. She’s an androgenous anti-hero and I never get tired of reading those books, even though they cover very difficult subject matter. I don’t feel as attached to the movies, although I like the casting choices in both the Swedish and American versions. My next favourite character is Hobbes, of Calvin and Hobbes. I feel I don’t need to explain him, though.
We’d like to thank Samantha for providing answers to these questions and if you have any additional questions, please comment below and perhaps we can have her answer them in the near future. If you want to learn more about her, you can find her on Facebook and Tumbler.