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Interview with Colin Farrell who plays Henry Drax in The North Water

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The North Water is a 5-part series that begins in the UK on BBC2 on Friday September 10 at 9.30pm with episodes then shown weekly on BBC2.

Directly after the first BBC2 episode, all five episodes will become available on the streaming service BBCiPlayer.

The drama has already been shown in the US, having arrived on AMC+ on July 15 2021.

Colin Farrell plays Henry Drax

Who is Henry Drax?

The character of Drax in the novel and the script is incredibly intense to read and to play, in a joyful way, but he doesn’t consider himself to be intense at all. He’s just following his proclivities day to day, moment to moment, breath to breath.

He’s been a harpooner probably for the majority of his life – not that it’s ever specified – since childhood, or maybe just before or at the onset of his adolescence, that was probably when he first found himself on a ship as a cabin boy. All this is never talked about, but I imagine that he worked his way up from being a cabin boy to being a hand to a harpooner, and I think that he finds a sense of purpose and a sense of meaning in life when he’s on the water, when he’s involved in the hunt, which more often than not culminates in the kill for him, because he’s very adept at what he does.

What attracted you to the role?

It feels like a very honest character, albeit one raised in cruelty, and thereby exists in a world where he acknowledges the cruelty all around him and doesn’t even see it as cruelty, just that there is a natural order to things. He would be, without declaration of it, Darwinian, someone who believes in the survival of the fittest and of that being the natural order by which the world exists. More than any character that I’ve ever played he is a character that lives without compunction. He has no apology for anything that he says, does or feels. It’s an extraordinary character to have the opportunity to play.

What attracted you to the show?

We had it stacked in our favour – everywhere you looked there was incredible skill. Wardrobe, the make-up department, the people who helped us as, a cast, to create this world and to create our individual characters, extraordinary set design and set decoration as well, those who create the world in which we inhabit. It’s an incredible tapestry of detail, otherworldly detail, something so foreign to me.

There have not been very many films and stories that take place around the whaling industry. Out of interest and curiosity and fun, I looked around, and for such a dramatic moment in the history of man, pre-Industrial Revolution, there are not that many stories, so it was wonderful to be immersed in this world that was so exotic, so brutal and so different.

How was filming in the Arctic?

I did feel that death was just around the corner at any given time, that we were just one mistake away from someone falling into the Arctic sea and either very quickly getting hypothermia or sinking under the weight of the waterlogged costume. There were also polar bears around, who were beautiful and elegant and majestic but also apex predators. It was a very profound experience for us all to share.

None of us had been up to that part of the world before, we were all seeing it with child’s eyes. We all went through whatever we went through individually, missing our children, our lovers, our wives or husbands, because we had no communication, no email… it’s only three or four weeks but three or four weeks in a world in which we’re so used to having such accessibility at our fingertips. I found it really hard not to be able to be in contact with my guys, but it certainly created a bond between us all.

How was working with Andrew Haigh?

I experienced from him this incredible sense of ease, incredible commitment to the material and to pushing away any aspect of artifice to get to the truth, or what Andrew perceives through Ian McGuire’s source material to be the truth, to what Ian was angling towards.

Andrew was insistent that we went up to Svalbard. Usually they would shoot this film in a tank. You might go out on to the Irish Sea, or maybe off the coast of England or Scotland, a little bit towards the North Sea, and you’d do a week or two out there and get grand vistas, but Andrew insisted that we went up there, up to the 82nd parallel.

He is really specific, really particular, but wants you to play, is not oppressive in how he directs, does not want to control any of the actors, very supportive, very inclusive of everyone, the whole crew, and not beyond listening to the opinion of anyone with anything to say, no matter what department they are in.

What were your highlights?

Going where we went to initiate the process of telling the story, the first four weeks up there, and hanging out with the crew of the Activ, the ship that is the whaling ship, the Volunteer, in the piece. Hanging out with Jonas, the captain of the Activ, and his crew, Guillaume, Andreas, and Martin, all of them, they were extraordinary. You pick up things by symbiosis, by being close.

And the environment did so much, it instantly created a sense of tension and pressure. Your body, physiologically, is responding in a way and with an aggression that my body has never responded to the environment with before, because it’s never been in an environment like that. Even that, instantly, whether you like it or not, removes you from what is familiar in your reality, my reality.

There wasn’t much room for rehearsal, but we had a little time to get familiar with boats and rowing. We had this collective communal experience, and then each of us had our own individual profound experience of being up in that beautiful, hostile part of the world.

What was the atmosphere on set?

If you’re doing a piece that feels as much like a collective as this does, where there is really no hierarchy, then, as has been said before, I have never it felt more relevant than with this job that ‘there are no small parts’. There aren’t small parts, there are parts with one line and parts with 1,000 lines, but each element in this, each person who has a line or is floating around in the background is so important. The idea that we would all be as engaged in the story was really important, for Andrew, for all of us, because of the shared experience that we had in this remote part of the world for four weeks.

Did you do the polar plunge?

I’d like to deny that I ever did it, but lovely Roland then decided to put it on his Instagram. That was lovely, one of those rites-of-passage things, the polar dip. God, it was cold, to state the obvious, a dip in the Arctic ocean, it was terrifying. I only went in the once, but I think Jack O’ Connell went in a couple of times. He got the bit in his teeth. I was in and out fast. It was cold.