Adam Nagaitis, who plays Cornelius Hickey on AMC’s The Terror, discusses the importance of Hickey’s drink with Crozier, what he understands about the Tuunbaq that others don’t, and the mission he’s truly on.
Q: What, if anything, did you know about the expedition or Dan Simmons’s book before you were cast?
A: I’d never heard of the expedition and I hadn’t read the novel, so I really didn’t know anything about it. As soon as I’d begun the audition process, I grabbed the novel and scanned through as quickly as I could, looked for the word “Hickey” and tried to find some information as quickly as I could on his journey. Once I was cast, I was told by [Executive Producers] Dave [Kajganich] and Soo [Hugh] to quickly put that down because the character they were going to create was not the character from the novel. I never went back to the book until much later on when the show was basically finished. I didn’t want to have any influence.
Q: What aspects of the show, and your character, Cornelius Hickey, did you most connect with when you first read it? How is Hickey different from other members of the crew?
A: Once I started reading the scripts, the writing drew me and it was such a fantastic story. Character-wise, [after] talking to Dave and Soo, we started to work together about the idea of this person who finds himself on board this ship who is not who he claims to be. The intrigue came from primarily knowing that I was going to be playing somebody who was playing somebody or who was pretending to be somebody else. He was an imposter. Applying that knowledge to the scripts that I was given became doubly exciting because I could see all the intrigue and all of the maneuvers that were made. You could see him come to life. My task was really to create, with Dave and Soo, a believable backstory of who this person really is. I wouldn’t want to impose my ideas on an audience, but creating that was the most fun before we started shooting. There are clear ideas about the character Cornelius Hickey that are applicable to the real person – not necessarily the real Cornelius Hickey in real life but the real person that my character is. He’s an underdog and he’s looking for his place in the world. He’s trying to understand where he fits in this hierarchy on board the ship and in the world in general – not just on board the ship [but] before he even gets there, why he finds himself there, what he’s running from and what he’s running to. Those ideas intrigued me – the idea of understanding who you are, what value you have, where you stand and how to make the best of your situation.
Q: How does Hickey feel when Crozier offers him a drink in Episode 2? Do whatever good feelings Hickey has for Crozier in that moment vanish when he reads his letters in Episode 3?
A: It’s a huge moment. It’s a big deal to be socializing with the captain and to be drinking when there’s limited stores of alcohol. Other people in the crew, like Gibson, read it as just the gesture of an alcoholic. Hickey is predisposed to see gestures from the universe as illustrations that he’s worthy and that he’s capable of ascending his birth in ways that people in his position wouldn’t normally be able to ascend. He takes these approving signs from the universe as just one more wink. He expects someone like Crozier – who’s an intelligent, practical man – to see and to recognize Hickey’s intelligence and Hickey’s abilities. When it is recognized, it’s not really a great surprise. It’s a mutual acknowledgement of “you see me and I see you and I like that. It doesn’t come in the form that I would most like.” It’s drinking, first of all, and Hickey doesn’t drink because you lose control when you drink and then you’re no good to anybody. It [also] comes in the form of one Irishman bonding with another Irishman, which is not really Hickey. So, it’s two wrong gestures, but evidence of a worthy observation on Crozier’s part that he’s accurately diagnosed this person as worth his time and worth conversing with and having a drink with and worth being in his study. That moment is such an important moment. That initial meeting never ends. It never ends.
Q: In Episode 4, Hickey seems to suggest he and the Tuunbaq are connected. What do you think he understands about the creature that others don’t?
A: The interesting thing about this story is the playing with genres, when each character discovers what genre they’re in. We go from a horror genre to a survival genre, etc, and Hickey never gets anywhere near a horror genre because he’s been basically living in a low-level horror story his whole life before he got anywhere near the ship. His life before that has been what I would call a low-level horror story. He goes from an adventure story, when he first gets on board, to discovering that he’s in a survival story and ahead of the rest of the men. He discovers it when he sees the resignation letter that Crozier’s written in Episode 3. He discovers that the hierarchy is dissolving and he’s grateful for that heads-up because now he can make plans ahead of time. When the bear looks right at him, again it’s a mutual respect. It’s an acknowledgement that this supernatural creature acknowledges that the person we know as Hickey is worthy. “[It] doesn’t rush at me,” he says. [It] acknowledges him, looks right at him and walks away. It’s just one more sign from the universe.
Q: Does finding the letter affect how Hickey sees Crozier as a man?
A: Hickey’s most interested in the truth of what people are feeling as opposed to the performances that they are delivering. People’s performances are just not as interesting as the truth of what they are really feeling. That’s something that he’s constantly looking for. The problem with that is he can’t know how to value these relationships until he knows the truth about these people. When he finds the resignation letter, it’s a massive insight into Crozier and in that moment, he doesn’t know what to do with it. He stumbled on this document that proves that the ship is in peril and that the expedition is in trouble. It means that Hickey becomes ready to make some bold moves. He realizes that he’s stuck in this reactive mode in this hierarchy on board the ship and he needs to start making choices about his own destiny. He understands that command is fractured and things are only going to get worse. He knows that it’s a slow-motion disaster. He knows that when hierarchies crumble, it pulls people down with it.
Q: When Crozier punishes Hickey in front of the men for retrieving Lady Silence, what does that awaken in Hickey? Is that a point of no return for Hickey?
A: That moment unleashes him. Crozier’s really created a problem. If there was any part of Hickey left that had been waiting for someone else to value him or someone else to confirm his value or to appreciate his value, that is now gone. That has been lashed out of him. He’s no longer looking for someone else to confirm his existence – that is a childish impulse. He has this tremendous release when he’s lashed. Finally, he understands that if one wants to be a master of one’s life, one needs to dispense with those childish impulses…whatever they may be. In this particular circumstance, it’s being acknowledged or being seen for your unique power or your intelligence.
Q: In Episode 7, it becomes clear that Hickey is putting together men for possible mutiny. For him, is he on a mission of revenge? Glory? Something else?
A: It’s not revenge and it’s not glory. It’s practical. It’s switching from a reactive mode to an active mode. Hickey understands the word “survival” differently. To him, it doesn’t mean going back to England. It means recreating yourself. While he was dispensable in the original empire that he came from, he’s starting to realize more and more that there are other empires that are worth exploring and they might give him a higher position in the ranking. When you stop being reactive, it means that you start being ambitious. You’ve discovered your power. You’ve discovered your strength and you have had all of your perceived weaknesses lashed out of you. You have nothing left to lose and you’re going to be very, very dangerous to people. It’s a recognition that the universe is offering these circumstances. Hickey is an incredibly adaptable survivor. That is what he does best. He’s has a very high introspective I.Q.. He doesn’t lie to himself. He’s completely honest with himself, pragmatic and practical. He doesn’t see the value in revenge. He doesn’t see the value in glory, but he has questions. He has questions that he wants answered and he has things he’s seeking.
Q: Why do you think Hickey kills Lt. Irving? How does he see that playing out as part of his larger plan?
A: It’s less about murdering Irving, though that is enjoyable to him and satisfying on some level. It’s more about realizing that it’s a chance to kick one of the legs, metaphorically, out from under Crozier … If it were Hudson or Little or someone else, a different lieutenant, he would have killed one of them. It’s no mind to him, but it just happens to be Irving and that’s further proof that the universe approves of it. He happens to be hiking with Irving and Farr, so the universe is saying, “Hey, I’ve offered this to you. I know that you need to do this strategically. I’m going to give you a bonus and you’re going to be hiking with a man who you don’t happen to have a great deal of respect for to begin with.” Aside from the fact that he’s had a part in his lashing and all these other things, that’s not really as crucial to Hickey as practicality and trying to move to something a bit larger. The other thing is he knows Irving is one of the most pious of the lieutenants, which makes his murder by savages all the more operatic.
Q: When we learn that Hickey isn’t really Hickey at all, how do you think it shifts what the audience understands about Hickey?
A: It really speaks to who he’s not. For an audience, all bets are off because they now have absolutely no idea what this person is capable of. They now cannot make any assumptions about what he’s willing to do or what he’s capable of doing. The idea of who that man is that goes on this journey and why he goes on it is something that everybody is welcome, from that moment on, to start speculating about and to start to understand the power that it gives this person that we call Hickey. It means he’s unpredictable and we have no clue what he’s capable of. They learn who he isn’t as opposed to who he is.
Q: Is Hickey aware of his hypocrisy – that he’s performing – or does he not see it that way?
A: I disagree. He’s not performing at all. He answers to a different name and when he’s asked directly about particular facts of his life by Crozier about being Irish, he answers it that he’s Irish. Other than that, he’s not performing or being anybody else. From the moment he steps on board that ship, he was himself. He simply had a different name and nobody on that ship knew the real Cornelius Hickey. He was free to be himself, so he’s not performing. Don’t mistake that. He’s not himself playing the character of Cornelius Hickey and then becomes himself again. He’s completely himself. It’s everybody else’s ignorance, not his performance. Dan Simmons’ book uses Cornelius Hickey as the chief antagonist, but we had this concern that the real Hickey existed. He had relations and they’re still living. Dave and Soo knew the story needed some kind of intrigue from the inside, from within the ranks – a catalyst that would begin the movement of the revolt. We understood why Dan chose Hickey to be that person in the book, but we thought we had a chance to evolve it even further. That’s really where we came from with that. He is never performing. He is always completely himself.
Q: Of all the “terrors” that plague the men on this expedition, which would you be most afraid to face?
A: I’m not a huge fan of the cold. I don’t like being cold. … The bear, yeah, it would be pretty frightening. There are many scary things, but the idea of being cold for three years straight and having frostbite, that would do it for me.
Q: What was your favorite aspect/memory of shooting the series?
A: Being able to collaborate and to be part of creating the character with Dave and Soo was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Incredible” is the only word to describe that experience. Being able to work with people like Jared [Harris] and Ciarán [Hinds] and Tobias [Menzies] and Ian [Hart] – people who I’ve admired as actors for years – is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Hopefully it’s not once-in-a-lifetime, but up to this point, it was once-in-a-lifetime. It was just wonderful to be part of the story. Wonderful.
This Q&A was originally published on AMC’s The Terror website. It has been reposted here for posterity.