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Interview | Colin Farrell on making The North Water: ‘It’s a relief that no one died’

Farrell and Stephen Graham star in the gritty new thriller about an 1850s whaling ship. However, the drama wasn’t confined to the screen …

Nothing shocked me about The North Water,” says Colin Farrell, stroking his straggly beard. “If I want to be shocked, I’ll go out at 3am and see someone homeless in the street. That’s shocking because it demonstrates apathy that results in abject cruelty. This has blood, seal and whale killings, murder, rape, mayhem. But however brutal that seems, it’s a film set. It’s all artifice.”

Artifice, yes, but The North Water, a five-part series based on Ian McGuire’s 2016 novel, feels significantly more physical than most BBC period dramas. An unremitting production whose A-list cast pushed themselves to cold, physical extremes, it follows the ill-starred voyage of the Volunteer whaling ship in 1859. Stephen Graham’s pragmatic Captain Brownlee and crew – Farrell’s monstrous harpooner Drax and Jack O’Connell’s intellectual, laudanum-addicted surgeon Sumner among them – are sent into Arctic waters by a whaling magnate scheming to escape a dying industry. They know their mission will be dirty, bloody and poorly paid; hunting whales and seals and flensing their blubber in a tough environment.

If sticking This Is England’s Combo in charge of a crew including Alexander the Great (Farrell) and Skins’s nihilistic Cook (O’Connell) sounds like a shipwreck waiting to happen, the casting is strikingly nuanced, with most actors playing firmly against type. Even so, perhaps the most unexpected figure here is behind the camera: writer-director Andrew Haigh, best known for such intimate contemporary character studies as the queer romance Weekend and the Bafta-nominated later-life marriage study 45 Years, feels a surprising choice for an epic period piece.

“I was sent the book and my agents thought it wouldn’t necessarily be in my wheelhouse,” he admits. “But within 50 pages I knew I wanted to make it. To some people it’s bleak and violent, but I love that about it. It seems to say something very important about what drives us as human beings, so it made sense for me, somehow. It tuned into everything else I’ve done.”

Equal parts historical drama, murder mystery, adventure thriller, philosophical treatise and survival yarn, The North Water offers Haigh plenty to go at beyond the visual contrasts of claustrophobic cabins and Arctic vistas. To the strangeness of Werner Herzog and the spiralling madness of Heart of Darkness, he adds studied realism and unflinching honesty. It reflects his interest in people for whom morality is a shifting, negligible concept. Surgeon Sumner’s veneer of civility disguises a latent hardness and memories of serving in India – the colonial racism he witnessed there resurfacing when the crew encounter the local Inuit population. His surface decency is challenged by Farrell’s opportunist Drax, a man who thrives in mean circumstances and argues that “the law is just a name they give to what certain men prefer”.

Unburdened by regret or conscience, Drax represents the natural end point of the contemporary obsession with personal freedom. “I’ve never played a character with so little compunction or apology or who does things this despicable,” says Farrell of a figure who is as barbaric to his fellow man as he is to animals. It is November 2019 and we’re on a sprawling soundstage in Budapest that encompasses the docks and taverns of Victorian Hull, the innards of the Volunteer and the interior of a mission cabin. Two weeks from wrapping, Farrell looks drained.

He’s gone Farrell ... Colin as Henry Drax. Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/Harpooner Films

Drax’s sheer presence on the page demanded a startling physical transformation from Farrell. “Colin reminds me of Bluto from Popeye,” Graham observes accurately. “A colossus, a monster of a man.” Farrell, all brawn and heft, explains: “I ate a lot and lifted some heavy weights. I looked at Victorian boxers and dockers, trying to get the belly and the muscle. It was not done under the supervision of medical professionals at all and was really ill advised.”

The impressive Budapest set is nothing compared to the backdrop for the first month of filming. The shoot began in September 2019 at 81 degrees north – just 500 miles south of the pole, and further north, so the producers believe, than any drama has filmed before. “What makes the book so fantastic is that it feels so visceral,” says Haigh, who rejected insistent hints that a Hungarian car park might be a cheaper substitute. “You feel the cold in your bones, smell it, taste it. I wanted the show to reflect that.”

Significant logistical challenges ensued. The Activ, a reinforced wooden schooner that doubles as the Volunteer, joined an icebreaker and an accommodation ship on a two-day voyage north of Svalbard in Norway. Once the crew finished its daily hunt for floating pack ice on which to film, a race against the encroaching darkness began while spotters kept watch for polar bears, rifles cocked (to fire warning shots, Haigh clarifies). One day a walrus popped through the ice mid-scene; another, the Activ had to haul a split piece of ice together to rescue stranded crew members. For an inveterate planner such as Haigh, it meant a lot of quick thinking and improvisation.

Thanks a tundra ... Stephen Graham with Andrew Haigh. Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/See-Saw Films

The cast felt in safe hands – more or less. “I had no reference to that part of the world or how borderline clinically insane Andrew is when he’s in pursuit of truth,” says Farrell. “He’s not genteel, he’s a fucking animal, but he’s deeply kind. That said, the day they said: ‘We’re heading back to open water,’ I’ll never forget the relief I felt that nobody died.”

“I was terrified,” Haigh admits. “We all were. None of us really knew what to expect. You’re on a boat, no internet or mobile reception, in close quarters for over a month, eating three meals a day together. There were some big personalities, but everyone got on incredibly well.”

When a bar opened on the observation deck for two hours every night, teetotallers Farrell and Graham hunkered down in their cabins to watch The Hobbit and Netflix, respectively. “They kept it open longer than two hours sometimes,” growls Graham. “Whoever told you that is a liar! On occasion I had to say: ‘Could someone please lower the music?’ Just not using them words. I can assure you, the music was lowered … ”

Only once did bravado overtake common sense, as several cast and crew took on the polar plunge, jumping into the Arctic waters in their pants. Naturally, daredevil O’Connell did it “several times”, he says. “I had to! There was an unspoken thing – if someone didn’t do it, they demoted themselves. I’ll be diplomatic, but everyone who did it was a winner.”

Ship wrecked ... Jack O’Connell as Patrick Sumner. Photograph: Katalin Vermes/BBC/See-Saw Films

Otherwise, the cast – all-male on the Arctic leg of the shoot – understood that the drama was not about showboating masculinity but what lies beneath it. That the only women with any dialogue over the five-hour series are a housemaid, a sex worker and an Indigenous Christian convert makes The North Water an outlier in the contemporary TV climate – an irony not lost on Haigh, whose pieces tend to give voice to lesser-heard stories. “It’s investigating the nature of masculinity, the good and bad,” he says. “There should be room for those stories, too. In fact, it’s a good time to tell them this way: just having men together allows you to say something more truthful about that.”

“It brought up a lot of stuff and was very intense,” Farrell says cryptically, “but it created a bond that I’ve only really experienced on [Oliver Stone’s maligned 2004 historical drama] Alexander. That was a very extreme experience as well, not just in how brutally it was ravaged by the critics but also in going through the fire, a really profound experience, with a bunch of people. With this, we were telling a very ugly story in a very beautiful place. The vastness was extreme, the danger was extreme, the proximity was extreme. It was life-changing.”

Not a natural seafarer – “I’ve been on the ferry to Calais once” – Graham was stunned by their surroundings. “It was quite a spiritual journey,” he says. “I took a photo while we were having a little kickabout on the pack ice, jumpers for goalposts, then sent it to one of my mates who sent me a photo of [Ernest] Shackleton with his crew doing the exact same thing.”

Stay frosty ... Jack O’Connell, Roland Møller, Gary Lamont, Sam Spruell, Gerry Lynch and Philip Hill-Pearson in The North Water. Photograph: Nick Wall/Nick Wall/BBC Studios/AMC

The North Water is punishing but never gratuitous. The restrained performances ground the sometimes baroque onscreen action, and its commitment to realism makes for uniquely immersive television. Crucially, its themes emerge slowly and organically, to the insistent undertow of violence either threatened or enacted. It reflects the cruelty and bleakness of life for many working-class men in mid-Victorian England, and the greed of those who got rich from exploiting them as crude resources.

“These aren’t explorers or naval officers heading off to search for the Northwest Passage,” says Haigh. “They’re working men on essentially a floating factory. Wealth overrides everything else: a rich person in Hull is perfectly happy to send working men to their possible death to kill whales and destroy the world’s natural resources in the process, all for his own enrichment.”

“Sumner is disadvantaged within the class system,” adds O’Connell. “That’s something I’ve got my own relationship with, always feeling like you’re trying to make up for something. God knows what would have been in store for me at that time [in history], a snotty-nosed kid from Derby. A lot of my grandparents’ grandparents come from slum areas so I’d have probably felt very fortunate to have found that level of work [labouring on a whaler].”

Haigh, too, has been considering the resonance of a story that, while alien in so many ways, depicts a world shockingly close to our own. “It is about men struggling to exert their dominance over nature and over each other,” he says. “And to what end? It certainly doesn’t seem to bring contentment and happiness in this story. We only have to look around us to see that we haven’t changed that much since.”

The North Water starts 9.30pm, BBC Two, 10 September

In 2020, filming had to be paused due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The remaining block of filming was successfully completed at Black Hangar Studios, following carefully Covid-compliant guidelines.

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