Celebrated actor David Thewlis returned to television this sprint with a plum role in the National Geographic limited series Barkskins, based on the novel by Annie Proulx. Here, he plays the complicated New France settler Claude Trepagny, a visionary landowner who has great designs on the New France territory. If only his religious beliefs and romantic appetites didn’t stand in the way of achieving greatness.
Thewlis gives the kind of performance that highlights most actors’ careers. He paints a larger-than-life character driven by ambition and madness, a condition perhaps worsened by the relative isolation of New France. It’s a role that Thewlis relished playing, a gift given by series creator Elwood Reid in whom Thewlis developed an immediate respect and trust.
“I thought he had great integrity as a novelist himself and had great integrity. I hadn’t read the script by that point. I’d only looked at the first 100 pages of the book and saw the wonderful possibilities,” Thewlis remembered. “I really trusted Elwood’s take on the whole thing. I’m always wary of getting into television when you haven’t read all the episodes, and I think you have to have a huge leap of faith to commit yourself to these things.”
Once committed, Thewlis needed to settle on the appropriate interpretation for Trepagny. He immediately recognized Trepagny as a man of great passion and clear motivations. Thewlis loved the inherent contradictions and ambiguities within the character. Was he smart or a fool? Was he charming or obnoxious? Was he likable or a bully? Was he religious or a heretic?
All of those conflicting traits gave Thewlis something he always craves, a meaty role into which he could really dive and experiment.
“You always try to do something that’s not going to bore yourself. You need to keep yourself entertained,” Thewlis explained. “I thought there was a lot of scope to be creative with the part.”
So much scope, in fact, that Thewlis concerned himself with not going over the top. It’s a worry worsened by the fact that he mostly interacted with two other actors throughout the shoot and did not see how the rest of the cast performed their roles. He didn’t want to be an anomaly in terms of a performance, but he was also aware there are comic relief aspects to the larger-than-life character.
One aspect of the shoot that Thewlis did not anticipate was the shooting location. Shot in the Canadian wilderness, the Barkskins production crew found themselves faced with extremely hot temperates in a humid, mountainous locale riddled with bugs and mosquitos. Thewlis, in particular, found the mosquitos loved him as he was “bitten to hell,” receiving nearly 100 bites in a single day. He wondered whether or not he’d bitten (no pun intended) off more than he could chew.
Given that Barkskins covers the first 100 pages of the book, would Thewlis return to the location to film a follow up should the opportunity arise?
“I really loved working in that environment, even though I just said it was a very difficult environment. It was so incredibly, breathtakingly beautiful, and I grew to appreciate it very much.”
Barkskins is now streaming on Hulu.