Harry Potter actor David Thewlis on his epic new drama Barkskins

Harry Potter star David Thewils and Cilla actor Aneurin Barnard star in an epic new drama about 17th-century settlers in Canada. Here they reveal some of the challenges they faced during filming....

Harry Potter star David Thewlis and Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard (War and Peace, The Goldfinch) head the cast of Barskins, a new eight-part drama based on author Annie Proulx‘s hefty best-selling novel.

The drama begins as a double bill and follows settlers as they arrive in New France, now part of Canada. From the rich and powerful, to traders and servants, the new arrivals fly their flags in Canadian colonies, each with their own ambitions for the land and personal motives for being there.

But little do they know that a massacre is just around the corner, which will change everything for everyone in Barskins…

Barkskins

A long boat sails down the St. Lawrence River carrying new arrivals from France to the New World in new drama Barkskins

“It’s the 1690s, and lots of different types of people are trying to settle in New France, completely taking advantage of the indigenous nations and taking land from people,” explains Welsh star Aneurin  33, who plays a trader working for Hudson’s Bay Company.

“You meet a lot of immigrants attempting to set up shop and start a new life, dreamers trying to find their feet and people ducking and diving, willing to sacrifice anyone for anything.”

MORE: Everything you need to know about new C5 thriller Deceived

Barkskins

David Thewlis stars as Claude Trepagny

Harry Potter star David plays Claude in Barskins…

Harry Potter and Fargo star David Thewlis, 57  plays Claude Trepagny, a landowner who arrives in the settlement of Wobik ready to make his mark. Thewlis was initially daunted by the project. “I didn’t know the book and wasn’t familiar with the story at all,” he recalls.

“I had read the first two episodes and I loved the scripts, but it felt like a big leap of faith to throw myself into this project, because it was so epic and such a complex role. The writing is enormously articulate, almost Shakespearean in places and I was given a lot of monologues and complicated dialogue to deliver, so I hunkered down and tried to learn this stuff that didn’t resemble anything I had ever tackled before.”

Barkskins

Cilla star Aneurin Barnard plays Hamish Goames, a trader working for the Hudson’s Bay Company

He became completely engrossed in the project, which starts with a double bill, as the cast began to film in Canada. “I became obsessed – my room was covered with lines all over the wall and I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he admits. “Seriously, I couldn’t read anything else or watch any movies, I spent all my time learning.”

However he reveals there were some unwelcome visitors to set while filming. “I loved the project but I hated the wildlife – I had a bug the size of a mouse under my wig once, that was a challenge!” he remembers.

Trepagny (David Thewlis) speaks to his servant Rene Sel (Christian Cooke) in the Trade Hall in Wobik

Cemetery Junction star Christian Cooke on his part in Barskins

Cemetery Junction star Christian Cooke, 32 plays Trepagny’s servant, Rene Sel. Christian also recalls the stresses of long but rewarding filming days in Canada. “It was so remote and cut off, there was no phone signal. We’d get there in darkness at 3am and do a 19-hour day but it was a privilege to be in such a beautiful place to tell the story rather than being in a studio in front of a green screen.”

Christian also had to learn a new skill for the role, the art of wood chopping. “I really enjoyed it – I did my research and spent four days working with a forester so I was champing at the bit for those scenes. Health and safety stopped me felling the huge trees, but I enjoyed the bits I could do.”

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Hamish Goames (Aneurin Barnard) and Yvon (Zahn McClarnon) arrive in New France in Barskins. (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)

It was a physical job for all the actors involved. Aneurin remembers the frustrating test of trying to steer a period boat. “An old, traditional canoe has no balance whatsoever – they are round-bottomed so you’ve got no help whatsoever to stay afloat, as we started to realise,” he says.

“We did several rehearsals, but we went in the water every time. Luckily, we managed it when it came to filming, which is good because we had no doubles or change of costume!”

Barkskins

Hamish Goames (Aneurin Barnard) stands outside of Le Grand Inn. (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)

And the challenges didn’t stop there. The attention to detail on this production left the actors wearing uncomfortable costumes and filming in demanding conditions. “It’s hard when you’re wearing knee-high boots, the mosquitos are biting at any bit of skin they can possibly find and you have to try to look cool on screen,” says Aneurin.

“We had bags and big heavy muskets to carry, which they filled to get the proper weight, the ground was always uneven and then you’re wearing solid thick leather hides and an itchy wig. But you want the series to look as truthful as possible.”

Barskins begins on National Geographic (Sky 129, Virgin 266), Tuesday August 4th, 9pm  for a double-bill 

Pictures: National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks

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