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Interview with Tom Courtenay who plays Baxter in The North Water

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What is The North Water about?

The story is set in Hull in the North of England – which happens to now be my hometown – in the late 1850s. It’s near the end of the decline of the whaling industry and it’s very nice for me to be speaking with my native (regional) accent as a Hull ship owner called Baxter, who feels that the bottom’s fallen out of whaling and so he wants to devise another way of making money.

Why does the book The North Water lend itself well to a TV adaptation?

I saw someone describe the book as Dickensian – it’s got a lot of very rich characters. It’s dark, but it’s also literature. And the language in the piece is good language. I’ve been mostly a theatre actor in my career and it’s lovely to have that kind of dialogue to speak on screen.

Why were you attracted to playing this role?

It’s kind of fun to play something that is the complete opposite of me. Somebody very sure of himself, who has money and I suppose enjoys the power that it brings. Despite being somebody who is not at all like myself, I did find it helpful to use the Hull accent, because I was brought up near the fish dock there. Now the fishing industry in Hull is deceased, and of course they weren’t fishing for whales then, they were fishing for Garden Haddock. I think the Hull accent does help me with that feeling of getting into the character of Baxter.

How are you able to relate to your character?

I don’t know that I can relate to the character of Baxter. There’s a sort of northern thing of saying things as they are, which I do have a feeling for. But, I could never be as brutal as he is, so it was quite fun to pretend to be ruthless.

How do you prepare for new roles?

We were on holiday in Whitby [a northern seaside town in Yorkshire] and I went to the whaling Museum there and was shown the harpoon guns from the era, which my character complains about because the guns meant that there were less whales to catch. I was told that the harpooners didn’t like to use guns because they prided themselves on their strength. The harpoon a massive thing to wield – you’d have to be strong.

What’s it like working with Andrew Haigh?

Well, Andrew sent me The North Water, and I said, “Andrew, how could you possibly imagine I that I could play such an awful person?” and he said, “Oh, we’ve all got madness in us”. But I did 45 Years with him and it was a big thing for me. I’ve never been so excited to get a screenplay like that out of the blue and it was lovely to be with him again. I thought his film Lean On Pete was wonderful – I’m a great admirer of him. He’s got a very light touch and very jokey, but I think he’s gifted and he’s certainly done a wonderful screenplay from the book.

How do you think that the audience may respond?

I hope audiences will relish the characters. The young surgeon has to discover himself, and then there’s the essence of evil that’s played by Colin Farrell. He’s an extremely un-evil person, having met him.

What is your favourite scene in The North Water?

I’m just happy to be in it and working with good people. And at my age, what fun.