How The Terror Crafted Its Haunting, Perfect Series Finale

Interview by Karen Han for Vanity Fair, 21st May 2018

Star Paul Ready on bringing Henry Goodsir to the edge—and the… unique souvenir he considered swiping from the period horror series’s set.

It’s common practice for actors to take souvenirs from set after a project is done. After filming Misery, James Caan kept his character’s typewriter. Sir Ian McKellen took the key to Bag End from The Lord of the Rings. On AMC’s The Terror, Jared Harris took his character’s sunglasses. His co-star Paul Ready had something else in mind, but he hit a certain snag: “I don’t know what the etiquette on asking for your dead body is.”

By the time period-horror series The Terror draws to a close, its characters have suffered—and, in every case but one, succumbed to—lead poisoning, scurvy, starvation, murder, immolation, and cannibalism. The show, adapted from Dan Simmons’s 2007 novel of the same name, offers a fictionalized account of the doomed Franklin expedition, in which two ships traveled to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage and never returned. Naturally, its body count is high.

Though every single death carries weight, that of Henry Goodsir may just be the most heartbreaking. Ready’s character is the heart of the show: despite the various calamities that have befallen him and his comrades, he still sees hope. “This place is beautiful to me even now,” he tells Crozier (Harris) midway through the finale, after they’ve both been taken captive following a schism in the crew.

This purity of spirit, as well as Ready’s tremendous performance, makes it all the more wrenching when he dies—not by disease or at the hands of his captors, but by suicide.

“He was always in love with the natural world and the environment, and had great hope for people. But I think it was the people that let him down,” Ready said in an interview, explaining Goodsir’s decision to cover himself in—and then ingest—poison before slitting his wrists. “I felt it was, in a weird way, a final love letter to the natural world, to life. . . . I think he thought the best thing he could do was try and poison everybody, or most people, so Crozier could escape.”

The suicide sequence is one of the show’s most striking moments. It’s the second scene to take the audience directly into a character’s mind, cutting to split-second images representative of their thoughts—but unlike the death of Captain John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds), which plunged the viewer into a horrible sense of disorientation and despair by whirling in and out of focus, Goodsir’s death is calm, and strangely beautiful. The show’s musical score, which has only grown more dissonant over the course of the season, is suddenly melodic, and Goodsir’s final moments are intercut with shots of objects from nature set against a white background. “That’s the bit he wanted to remember,” Ready said. “One of his dreams in life would be to be that person who recorded nature, and the beauty of it. When I saw [the scene], I loved how simply and purely the objects were laid out in his mind. I think he was going back to somewhere where he was happy.”

It’s small comfort considering that the next time we see Goodsir, he’s been stripped and laid out on a slab of wood for the men to cut off and consume what flesh they please. Like most of the effects on the show, the cadaver was a physical prop rather than a C.G.I. creation, and quite intensive to make. “I was laid out on a table, practically naked, while I was covered in the mold by I don’t know how many people, because I couldn’t see them, but I just felt lots of hands on me,” Ready recalled, confessing to a little bit of claustrophobia. “The head was the most intense. I had to go quite zen about it, because you can only breathe through your nose because your mouth is entirely covered. . . . But then to see it, what they did is astonishing. I almost wanted to keep it, except it was a bit creepy.”

Still, he has a key part of Goodsir with him: Ready grew out his character’s sideburns himself, though the rate at which they grew caused some issues with continuity. “Sometimes the fact that we were shooting out of order was a problem,” he laughed. “My sideburns were going out of control, and we had to find a way to pin those back so we’d look like we were in the same episode.”

Continuity had to be taken into consideration on a less visible level, too. Over the course of the series, each character undergoes a transformative journey, with Goodsir in particular changing from a timorous junior doctor into a man certain in his convictions. In Ready’s words, “he learns to trust himself”—in part out of necessity given the extreme circumstances, and in part thanks to his relationship with Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), which the actor characterized as similar to the bond between siblings.

Charting that character change—in or out of order—was a daunting prospect, particularly because The Terror is, by his own admission, the biggest project that Ready has ever worked on. Goodsir is also something of a stretch from the other characters he’s played on TV, from Kevin in Motherland (which airs in the U.K. on BBC Two)—who gave Ready a chance to show off his Chaplin-esque instinct for comedy—or Lee in Utopia (on Channel 4), one of the most ruthless characters to grace the small screen in ages, and who Ready described as Goodsir’s “polar opposite.”

If The Terror is expanded into an anthology series, as has been hinted at, and follows the American Horror Story casting model, we may get to see even more sides to Ready, who stands out even in the company of heavy hitters like Harris, Hinds, and Tobias Menzies. Still, this season has been a feat in and of itself. “You felt like you were really part of something,” Ready said of working on the show. “I don’t know how rare that is, but it felt special.”

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