Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden spoke with Awards Daily about what it was like completely immersing herself in a world almost forgotten in modern history in Barkskins, National Geographic’s sweeping new epic on 18th century New France.
Frontier dramas notoriously put their female characters on the backburner, essentially erasing them from history. Instead, Barkskins creator and writer Elwood Reid chose to refocus history in a way that brings these neglected stories back to the forefront. That’s exactly what attracted Marcia Gay Harden to the role of Mathilde. She’s a part of history that comes without a blueprint, and she was up for the challenge.
Speaking with Awards Daily, the Oscar-winning actress spoke about what it was like diving into the psyche of a woman in truly unexplored history. What does a woman in 17th century New France do when she finds herself suddenly widowed in a world not set up for her? Where does that sense of resourcefulness come from? Harden takes the time to walk us through this one of a kind immersive experience and even spared a couple of minutes to gush on one of her favorite show, the Zoom finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Awards Daily: What initially drew you to this sweeping French-Canadian epic?
Marcia Gay Harden: Annie Proulx. I love her writing and was actually almost all the way through Barkskins when I heard they were working on this project. I knew I wanted to be a part of it, but at that point didn’t realize they were staying in the 1690s. My character, Mathilde, didn’t exist in the book, and there was no one for me to play so I didn’t think I would have the chance to be a part of it. I ended up speaking with Elwood [Reid, creator and writer], and he kind of refashioned her based on the conversations we were having.
It’s such an interesting world, an interesting story, and it is a part of history I don’t know a lot about. This is kind of the genesis of rampant capitalism that bled down from Quebec through Canada and into the United States. We were able to explore that through pace of character, in both the men and women, as they try to figure out to how to survive and get ahead in this world with no rules.
For me, there was a lot of drama there to work with, and I had never read a character like Mathilde before. She is so forward thinking but only due to circumstances in her life. It gave me the opportunity to transform into another time. That’s what I love to do the most as an actor.
AD: It’s been a while since you’ve done a period piece, especially one this far back in time. What was that experience like? I know that Elwood and the creative team recreated this world from scratch so I imagine it was pretty immersive?
MGH: It was just like you said. We were truly immersed in this world. You didn’t have to stretch your imagination to wonder what it was like. We were in those costumes trenching through the mud every day. It felt like we were living in the environment of the people. You are so right about the beautiful set being built from scratch. Each building was a working building with these thick, thick logs and dim lighting, mice running in and out.
We were definitely immersed in this world. It was challenging at times, but I am not going to pretend like it was an immense hardship. For me, it was wonderful to be in this environment because you really understood how much work these people did every day. If you wanted to bake bread, you had to grow the wheat, grind it down, spin the material. I think Mathilde works from five in the morning until one or two in the morning. I don’t think she gets a lot of sleep.
AD: One of the facets of the show that drew me in was the fact that it was filled with these rich narratives for women. Often times with these frontier or western period pieces the female characters are often put on the backburner, but not here. What was it like creating Mathilde without any sort of blueprint?
MGH: I found the women’s stories to be some of the more interesting stories of the show. Elwood didn’t want to create a revisionist history. My character isn’t a suffragette because that wouldn’t be accurate to the time. Imagining that every woman coming over would be this fierce pioneer would be a mistake.
Instead we tried to imagine why they would leave France in the first place. Why did they leave? What are their backstories? It was fascinating. Take the Filles du Roi for example. These were not sweet girls who kept their legs crossed. Most of them had what many would consider tawdry backgrounds. They had children out of wedlock and were escaping violence and poverty. Mathilde was also escaping something. These women had to be bold, brave, and fierce.
What I love about Mathilde is that her freedom exploded as soon as her husband died. He died, and she rubbed her hands together and said, ‘Here we go!’ At the time, women weren’t allowed to own property and were expected to give it back, but they were in a new world with new rules and she kept what she wanted to do. What we had to be careful about was not putting new world attitudes on an old world dilemma. Like I said, she’s not a suffragette but certainly there were women in that time who said, ‘You know what, fuck it. Don’t mess with me.’ She’s really practical. She offered this new avenue of work ethic to other women around her by bringing them to the inn and giving them different opportunities.
AD: Mathilde has these incredibly keen survival instincts, and I would argue that she is more resourceful than anyone else in this world. Where do you think they came from?
MGH: I think she becomes more resourceful as time goes along. She always knew about the kitchen, about cleaning, about planting – she’s super practical in that sense. This is heavy duty work. I’m sure she can handle a gun. I imagine she came from a rural background and that she had this knowledge, but I really wanted her to have a tremulousness about her so that she had somewhere to go. She begins the season by threatening someone with ‘I will club your balls into your belly,’ but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t in this Clint Eastwood-esque way. She is letting an idea of herself go in the same way she had to let her daughter go and let her husband go. She reached inside and found her strengths.
AD: Were there any other particular challenges throughout the shooting process?
MGH: It’s always hard to be away from the kids. Although on set, I passed the time by doing a lot of home cooking and baking like Mathilde would do. My oldest daughter had gotten me this cookbook of recipes from the 1700s, and it was interesting to see these robust ways of cooking. I would make food for the crew, pick zucchini from the garden ,and there were chickens on set, so I made a lot of zucchini bread. When you start playing a character, all around you things start to fall in your lap that remind you of that character and how they think.
I do love being on location because it grounds you. Filming where these things happened helped you realize the history and the pathos to it. We all know what happened here especially when it came to the First Nations People, they were lost. This is a story of the haves and have nots. We’re looking at history quite astutely right now, and we can see that the haves were people that took. They took things that didn’t belong to them whether that was land or people or riches. Then they made a huge life out of it.
AD: When I spoke with Elwood, he mentioned that he would love to explore this world and these characters in future seasons. Is revisiting Mathilde something that you are interested in doing and where would you like to see her story go from here?
MGH: I would definitely be interested in revisiting her. I don’t think the stories were done, and I felt like there is so much more to tell. I am wondering if she doesn’t become mean and vengeful and spiteful after seeing what we assume is Bouchard’s death.
Right now, we are all interested in how people grasp for power. Mathilde is now one of two older women in the village with conflicting views. I’m interested to see how she might possibly clash with the nun. I also told Elwood that if we continue this we need two things: we need a homosexual story, and we need more Black characters. There is so much unexplored territory in this world, and it would be great to follow the genesis of how people in a closed village handle this world.
AD: As I was sitting down for this interview, I was shocked to realize it has been 20 years since you won your Oscar. Since then you’ve paved a really prolific career for yourself in film, television, and theatre. At this point in your career what kind of roles are you looking for?
MGH: All I want is meaty roles with beautiful writing. Roles that come with a twist, a turn, and an arc. It doesn’t matter to me what year they are in. I love period pieces. I love working with fantastic writers, and I am looking for things that challenge me and inspire me to transform. Actors never want to play versions of themselves. They want to transform into other people. If I read a script and the character immediately resonates with me, then I am down. I love working all the time.
AD: I read once that you and your family are huge fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race. If it’s alright with you, I wanted to end the interview by asking what you thought of the finale?
MGH: We did watch the finale, and I thought it was amazing. First of all, they are some of the few people who leaned into Zoom and still managed to make it exciting. We were thinking Gigi Goode would just because that’s where it was going. It was the one time where my son and I said that we would love for any of the three to win. The winner, Jaida Essence Hall, is gorgeous.
Crystal Methyd is this fantastic, out-there artist, and I love how completely crazy she is! What was that thing she had on? She should do a one woman show. You’re too young to remember this but have you ever heard about Whoopi Goldberg’s one woman show? I would love to see her do something like that!
The way they were all able to transform their own living rooms was amazing, and they were all deserving. I need them to come do my makeup right now. Have you ever done drag before?
AD: I’ve never done drag before. I’m not much of a performer.
MGH: Ru says everybody should do drag. Of course my son does it, and I would love to. I feel like some of the characters I’ve played are drag. It’s so amazing.
AD: They just debuted Celebrity Drag Race. I would love to see you on it.
MGH: I know! I am going to beg Ru to get on. The stuff they do is hard though! I could talk about this forever.
Barkskins is currently airing Monday nights on National Geographic with episodes available the next day on Hulu.