Inuk Greenlandic actress plays lead female in new AMC horror show about Franklin’s expedition

Interview by Sara Frizzell for CBC News, 24th February 2018

Missing for 170 years now, the bodies of the 129 crew members of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition likely litter King William Island, Nunavut.

The remains that have been found show signs that in their last moments, those men ate each other.  

If these are the facts of the real-life Arctic mystery, perhaps it’s not surprising that  the story is getting a fictional horror treatment in an upcoming television series.

The Terror premiers on AMC on March 26.

Named for one of Franklin’s two ships, HMS Terror, the show blends facts with Inuit legend and is based on the novel of the same name by Dan Simmons.

Commitment to accuracy

Nive Nielsen is the lead actress. She’s an Inuk woman born in Nuuk, Greenland.

She says she grew up hearing through Inuit oral tradition where the ships went down and what happened to the men, but before starring in the show, she said she’d never heard the English account.

“I was kinda surprised how it was perceived in England,” she said. “I didn’t know the English part of it, so it was interesting that Franklin was a wealthy man out on an adventure and a prestigious expedition and then how horribly it ended.” 

Nielsen studied some anthropology, which, she says, helped her have meaningful conversations with people on the television set about what life would have been like in the Arctic during that time.

When considering the role of Lady Silence, she said she appreciated the show’s commitment to research and accuracy. 

“There isn’t a lot of roles for Inuit people,” she said. “I thought it was nice, that they were actually combing throughout the Arctic to find a real Inuk actress, it’s nice that they are trying to stay true to the culture because a lot of the times, you see movies and they just put on people from other cultures to play our parts and it’s not very accurate.”

Nielsen is better known for her music, with Nive and the Deer Children, but acted in The New World in 2005.  

Getting the role

“I was home coincidentally, which I am not very often, I’m mostly out on tour, and it was on the radio news that they were searching for an Inuit actress for this, but I was super tired,” she said.

Then she was tagged in a Facebook post advertising the role by a friend and she thought maybe it would be fun to audition.

By the time she got a call-back, she was already back on tour with her band across Europe, so she continued to audition over Facetime and Skype, eventually they called her to Budapest, Hungary, for a final screen test.

Nunavut actors Johnny Issaluk, Apayata Kotierk and Vinnie Karetak were also cast in the show.

Filming took place in Budapest and an area of Croatia, that Nielsen says looks a lot like the Arctic—windswept and treeless.

Unfortunately for Nielsen, the temperatures were not comparable.

In keeping with the show’s dedication to authenticity, Nielsen’s costumes were made of real caribou fur and were so warm she had to wear a cooling vest underneath that pumped ice water.

Using the right dialect

The real Franklin ships are still submerged in the ocean near Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, so the show built a full re-creation in the Budapest studio.

The dialect of Inuktitut that Nielsen speaks is different from what is spoken around Gjoa Haven.

“They were having me speak the Netsilik dialect, so somebody in Netsilik was translating all the lines I was supposed to say and pronouncing them into a phone and then they would send them to me and I would just listen to them again and again and pronounce it the way that they would over there,” she said.

Nielsen said the grammar was different and the Netsilik dialect has a special “r” that she says she’d never heard in another Inuktitut dialect.

‘Crying and screaming for 9 hours is very tiring’

But harder than mastering the language, was handling the emotional life of her character, who was nearly always avoiding some conflict, desperate to survive.

“It was a challenge and it was harder than I thought it would be, it was very demanding, emotionally I had to really be way out there, it’s all extreme circumstances … every day,” she said. “Crying and screaming for nine hours is very tiring.” 

Nielsen says she had the support of a great cast to learn from.

“I don’t think I could done this five years ago. I think it really helped me that I’d been playing music for so long and standing on stages long enough to be comfortable in front of a lot of people just staring at you.”  

Nielsen says she’s interested in doing more acting work, but for the next little while, she plans to stay put in Nuuk as she is expecting twins in the near future.

This summer, she plans to tour Canada with her band.

This interview was originally published by CBC. It has been reposted here for posterity.