Jared Harris tells Chris Schulz how The Terror’s most shocking moment played out on set.
He’s always played supporting roles. Big roles. Important roles. But never the lead.
Fringe. The Expanse. Professor James Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes. King George VI in The Crown. Most memorably, he was troubled money man Lane Pryce in Mad Men.
But it was on the set of The Terror, Amazon Prime Video’s ambitious retelling of a doomed Arctic expedition in the 1840s, that English actor Jared Harris found out exactly what was involved in being a leading man.
There, on the island of Pag in Croatia, Harris had to film a scene so horrifying it’s likely to be the grisliest, most visually upsetting television sequence you’ll see this year.
Maybe any year.
“Yeah,” pauses Harris. He’s on the phone during a break in Los Angeles where he’s filming a new HBO show about Chernobyl.
TimeOut’s just asked him what that day in Pag was like.
“Yeah,” he says again. There’s another pause. Harris appears lost for words.
Finally, he exhales. “That was pretty grim.”
Harris is remembering the climactic scene in the finale of his slow-burn series The Terror. It’s not a huge hit, but the based-on-a-true-story show about two European ships searching the Arctic has been building traction.
Those that have seen the Ridley Scott-produced period drama have raved about it. It has a 92 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The show has spread by word of mouth, much like The Americans and The Wire. Chances are, if you like those shows, you’ll love this.
In it, Harris plays Francis Crozier, the captain of the HMS Terror, a ship which, alongside the HMS Erebus, was tasked with taking 129 men into Arctic ice to find the Northern Passage. Once found, it was thought it would open valuable trade routes between Europe and Asia.
Things quickly went wrong when both ships got frozen into Arctic ice, just a kilometre apart.
The Terror’s 10 episodes are based on that time. Things get increasingly bleaker and bleaker for those stuck on the doomed mission. There are issues with lead poisoning tins of food. Sailors’ teeth start falling out. They start beinghunted. Search parties are sent out to find help. Many don’t return.
After several winters stuck in below freezing conditions on the frozen ships, the decision is made to abandon ship and begin the painstakingly slow journey across land, hauling supplies in heavy life rafts. People start dying. Others get hungry.
Which brings us to that grisly day on set. Standing next to a table featuring a carved-up character, Harris was forced to do multiple takes in which he sliced off a piece of foot to eat.
“What was really grim is that prosthetic life-size model was incredibly accurate,” Harris says, recovering his memory. “I was at the bottom of that model, staring up his arse, as I sliced his heel off.”
If you’re wondering, the foot was made out of gelatine. “It was pretty disgusting,” says Harris. “It is palatable the first seven or eight times you eat it [but] you’re doing it 20 or 30 times because of coverage. It was making me gag by the end.”
All those shots, from all those angles, is a sign of just how much work went into making The Terror as accurate as possible. Luckily, filmmakers had plenty of historical books to guide them, as well as Dan Simmons’ best-selling book, which reimagines the incident as more of a horror story.
A scale-model boat was built on a Budapest soundstage, doubling for both ships. That’s where most of the show was shot, and producers were even going to refrigerate the set to mimic Arctic conditions.
“It was so cold for the first couple of months they didn’t need to,” says Harris. “We went through typical film-making: you’re freezing cold in the beginning, by the time you get into spring you’re wearing Arctic gear, so you’re sweating like a maniac.”
See? Being a leading man is tough. Ask Harris to name the hardest scene to shoot, and he doesn’t mention slicing the bottom off a mate’s foot. Instead, he reels off a list.
An action scene involving a mythical beast was made difficult when Harris broke his ribs. “You have to suck it up, there’s no question of stopping,” he says.
Multiple scenes of crewmen pulling boats full of supplies across ice weren’t faked, says Harris. “Hauling those boats was really difficult. They weren’t paper boats, they were real boats. We were hauling them across all this scree.”
Then there were all those dudes. With only one main female character, Nive Nielsen playing Inuit Lady Silence, The Terror is mostly about blokes, doing incredibly blokey things. Harris says they found some ways to solve any problems.
“We got into competitive sports to work out our issues. There were a bunch of people that loved to go go-kart racing. We had karaoke competitions. We put together a football team and we took on the local Croatian soccer side,” he says. “They beat us badly.”
But, much like it might have been had he actually been there, stuck on an ice cold boat, with nothing to do, and nowhere to go, his men dropping like flies, Harris says the thing he found hardest was farewelling his fallen comrades.
“In a way, because I’d got to know all these people really well, seeing these people die and saying goodbye to them, knowing it was their last day, that was difficult,” he says.
Spoken like a true leading man.
This interview was originally published by the NZ Herald. It has been reposted here for posterity.