The Terror is a study in tension. Bleak, awful, terrifying tension.
In the mid 19th century, two British ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus found themselves trapped in ice — only to be discovered by recent explorers in the last few years. AMC’s miniseries is based upon American author Dan Simmons’s brutally beautiful dramatization of the events, which imagines what happened to the crews of these ships as they faced the frigid landscape, starvation, and worse, the myths and monsters of the North.
Filming The Terror naturally posed some challenges for stars Tobias Menzies and Jared Harris. “It was cold. They saved money on the old ‘breath thing,’” Harris quipped to reporters over a brunch interview at TCA.
Menzies plays Commander James Fitzjames, an upper-class officer who has bought and cajoled his way to the top of British Navy, and Harris plays Captain Francis Crozier. Actor Ciaran Hinds plays Captain Sir John Franklin, the initial leader of the expedition. But everything’s not pomp and circumstance with Franklin’s crew. In fact, there’s a huge amount of tension between Fitzjames and Crozier. Well, tension, rivalry, and bitterness.
“Crozier has made three trips to the Antarctic,” Harris explained. “In his opinion, although he’s second in command, he wasn’t put in second command. Fitzjames is given the position of crewing out all the ships because of his relationship with Franklin. [Fitzjames]’s really second in command and he’s been put in charge of things that [Crozier] should have been in charge of.”
“So he’s sort of sulking, really. Crozier’s sulking and he’s got a bad attitude and a chip on his shoulder,” said Harris.
If that sounds a little petty, Harris and Menzies explained that there’s also a more pernicious beast dividing the two men: prejudice.
“[Crozier]’s Irish. These things mattered in that time…and that has held him back, whereas my career has been the opposite of that.” Menzies said. “And then both of us through being forced together through circumstances and through the incredible pressures that they experience those two winters in this place kind of strips us all down and we find out a bit more of what’s underneath.”
Harris concurred with his co-star’s reading. “[Crozier] sees Fitzjames as really not having earned his position that he’s got or the entrees as he has as society as things that are denied to him because he’s Irish. And he has the experience, but because he’s Irish and he’s looked down upon and seen as a second class citizen.”
“They make assumptions about the qualities that they have as people and they’re actually wrong,” Harris continued. “One of the things is that gets revealed and almost surprises each character is what they discover about themselves in terms of what their nature is like. Yeah, prejudice essentially is what is in the way of these two characters.”
Menzies said, “One of the things I love about the show is in a way, the journey between these two characters is very much that they get to a place of greater humanity. Greater humility I think is…forced into humility. There’s a sort of hubris and arrogance in the man when he starts off on the journey.”
Freezing temperatures and frosty relationships aside, both stars made it clear that working on The Terror was something of a delight. Menzies said that he was pulled to the project on the strength of the pilot script alone. “Beautiful writing. Very kind of restrained and the confidence of storytelling didn’t feel the need to explain too much. Rich on the detail,” he said. “And also, as soon as I started to dig around in terms of the naval history that it was telling…that was also an incredible story.”
And Harris admired how the show refused to conform to one specific genre. The Terror is an historical tale, a military story, a drama, a psychological thriller, a supernatural mystery, and a tale of horror.
“And that’s of course what Dan Simmon’s book was,” Harris said. “And what was interesting about that is there’s nothing of [the supernatural] in the first episode, but you knew that that was there and they really cleverly hinted towards sort of an airy quality, sort of unsettling quality that they ventured into a place that they didn’t understand.”
“I think it’s a mistake to characterize it straightforwardly amongst a show or movie. It’s more psychological than that, it’s more thematic,” Menzies said.
Harris added, “I think that’s representative of the unknown.”
This interview was originally published by Decider. It has been reposted here for posterity.