INTERVIEW: Jared Harris talks “unique” new AMC series The Terror
In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin led a voyage of exploration of the Northwest Passage of the Canadian Arctic. The two crews of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror never came back.
Based on Dan Simmons’ bestselling supernatural novel, The Terror is a new television series set to enthral and surprise audiences. What happened to Franklin’s lost expedition?
We sat down with series star Jared Harris, who plays the captain of HMS Terror Francis Crozier, for a chat about what to expect in the new series.
Did you know anything about Franklin’s lost expeditions before you started the show?
Nothing at all. That was the appeal of it – this was completely new material, a unique story. I loved the script, I loved the intelligence of the writing, the restraint of the story-telling, it was very confident.
For example in that first episode, Franklin pulls something solid out of his mouth and it’s a metal ball he puts down. That’s the beginning of the storyline about the lead poisoning that’s in the canned food. The more insecure writer would have been like ‘good lord, what is it? That it seems to be a bit of lead. I wonder how it got there?’. In this you put the camera on it and you know it’s something. I thought that was fantastic, that they didn’t think you have to tell the entire story right off the back.
Did you pick up the subtle elements of horror when you first read the script?
One of the things that they did in episode one that they had to cut out, is when Hickey’s gone down into the grave. There’s two things that happen there. One is that he steals the ring. The second thing is, once he’s down there, he looks up and there’s this huge polar bear. He gets terrified by the polar bear, but it’s a cub. When he gets out, he’s so angry he kills the cub. Later on you see this mature polar bear come across this carcass of the baby cub and eat it, which introduces the idea of cannibalism. So there’s this very subtle idea of how they’re going to introduce a story thread into the whole show without pointing giant fingers at it.
Could you tell us a bit about Crozier and where he’s come from to get where he is right now?
Crozier is based on a historical character. He was Northern Irish in a slightly different context to what we have of it. The island was a single entity, there wasn’t a border, and the concept of Republicanism was just beginning to take shape. He would have identified very firmly with being British. He joins the British Navy at the age of 13 and he sees himself as being an agent of the British Empire if you like. Later on in life he comes to a realisation that even though he’s British, he’s still Irish. There’s this glass ceiling about how fast he can advance.
By the time you find him in this story, he’s by rights the most experienced polar explorer of all the three captains on board of the ship. He should’ve been in charge of the expeditions but wasn’t. When he sees Fitzjames on board he knows that if they discover the passage, he’ll be written out of the history. It’ll be Franklin and Fitzjames’ achievement.
How do you start with portraying a guy who was a real person?
You read everything you can. You look at the photographs. They took the portraits of the senior members of the expedition, and you can see really clearly that Franklin and Fitzjames wear their status. They’ve got the gold braid on their shoulder, the gold hats, they wear their rank. Crozier doesn’t have any of that, he saw himself as a sailor first and foremost.
Would you say this is more of a historical drama with some supernatural elements as opposed to a supernatural drama?
It gets pretty weird. As we dig down into what happens, it gets pretty weird. It’s based on Dan Simmons’ book completely. All the themes that are there in the show are in Dan Simmons’ book. I would say it’s a kind of survival story. It’s an adventure story with supernatural elements, based on a real historical event. If it was just a historical event, it would be on the History Channel or National Geographic.
How would you cope in an expedition like this?
There are certain things I remember reading and going, ugh, that’s disgusting. One of the things in Dan Simmons’ book is that he’s always describing what they are eating. After a while one of the safest things to eat is this biscuit, but the biscuit would have been infested with weevils, so you were pulling these maggots and stuff out of it. I think the food would have been very difficult.
I think the paranoia as well. One of the aspects that they do write into the story, but it was completely imagined is the noise. When the ships get stuck in the ice, you just hear them really slowly being cracked by the ice, the timbers starting to shatter and break, and it’s a constant moving of the ice against the ship as the ships struggling to maintain its soundness against it. The noise was constantly hearing things pop and break. At some point, you’d imagine something significant is going to go and we’re done for.