Interview by Sean T. Collins for Vulture, 22nd June 2018
O Captains, my Captains: For viewers of AMC’s survival-horror masterpiece The Terror, Jared Harris and Tobias Menzies steered the ship. Harris plays Captain Francis Crozier, the embittered alcoholic officer in charge of the show’s titular Royal Navy vessel, while Menzies’s cocksure Captain James Fitzjames holds sway on its sister ship, the Erebus. Based on the 2007 novel by Dan Simmons, their story is a fictionalized account of the real-life mystery of the ships and their crews, which vanished without a trace in 1848 until the wrecks were found deep under the Arctic ice nearly 170 years later. Early on, this odd couple’s personality conflict generates a lot of that story’s dramatic heat.
But soon, the cold of their doomed expedition — as well as malnutrition, mutiny, and “the thing on the ice” called the Tuunbaq, a demonic bear that has been cut loose from the Netsilik Inuit shamans who control it — changes the temperature of their relationship. By the time the season comes to its tragic, terrifying end, Crozier and Fitzjames are fast friends, and an audience attracted by the horror element has been similarly transformed, warming to deeply endearing performances from Ian Hart as the gruff explorer Thomas Blanky, Paul Ready as the kindly Dr. Henry Goodsir, Adam Nagaitis as the calculating mutineer Cornelius Hickey, Nive Nielsen as the quiet but canny indigenous shaman Lady Silence, and more.
Familiar faces from high-end TV dramas like Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Expanse, Outlander, Rome, and The Crown between them, Harris and Menzies harness the tension between power and vulnerability as the leaders of The Terror’s crew. Their performances, along with drum-tight writing overseen by showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, invest the story with empathy that belies the grim setting and challenges the white-man’s-burden imperialism of their mission. It’s acting that alters our understanding, rather than conforms to type — the best kind of acting there is.
With the just-announced second season of the historical-horror anthology series in the works — focused on Japanese-Americans during World War II and helmed by a new creative team — we spoke to Harris and Menzies to learn from their successes, their characters’ mistakes, and why they disagree about “pink” cocktails.
Honestly, I’m just happy to see you two together again. I was surprised how attached I became to these characters, and how the audience’s love for them drove the conversation around the show.
Jared Harris: You always hope that people will fall in love with the characters you play, the way you do yourself. But David and Soo always had a very strong idea about the relationship the audience was gonna have with each character. I remember Soo saying how it was gonna be this incredible emotional moment when the Tuunbaq died. I laughed and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. No one cries when the shark dies in Jaws.” “No, no, this is different! The Tuunbaq represents something completely different, and there are going to be tears when the Tuunbaq dies.” I just thought she was nuts, but lo and behold. [Laughs.]
Tobias Menzies: A huge part of the show is the variety — how characterful it is. The source of that was David and Soo: the sheer level of detail in their research and their writing, the amount of attention and thought paid to all of the characters, no matter how big their contribution in terms of screen time.
Harris: If you think about a traditional Hollywood narrative, your main character would have discovered the Northwest Passage; well, Blanky does. Your main character would have come up with the way to kill your antagonist, but Goodsir does. David and Soo had a different idea of what the narrative propulsion of the story was, and they found a way to tell it through all the characters, rather than that traditional model where it’s a vehicle for a specific character, and everyone else is a sort of dream-character in that person’s mind.
It makes you feel like you’re watching the actions of what they actually were: a crew trained to work together, even if that relationship breaks down over time.
Menzies: Absolutely. The two ships, and the group of men we follow through the story, are a society. Through the lens of that society, Dave and Soo attempt to investigate scenes that are applicable to all societies. It has a universality, and that’s very conscious on their part. Even though it’s a group of white males, [the showrunners] were very intent upon it not feeling like a narrow constituency, or applicable to only a narrow group of people. There was a broadness in terms of what it is to be lost, what it is to face your own death, what it is to find connection or brotherhood.
As Tobias points out, this is a story about men — “difficult men,” as in many other television dramas. But there’s a degree to which the show is picking that apart. Even in circumstances as dire as these, there are other sides to masculinity, and other ways men can relate to each than conflict.
Harris: You tried to imagine yourself in that situation, and what it would be like. Yes, it’s a society of men, it’s a society of rules, it’s a society that’s trying to replicate and export empire. But one of the operating themes is the idea that these people are being stripped down from whatever conceits they had to an essential kernel of truth about themselves as individuals.
Did I think it would be some sort of modern political treatise on masculinity? I didn’t think about that. But I definitely understood that as a representation of male bonding, there was more to it than just “friendship.” In a way, these people loved each other. Not “in a way” — they definitely loved each other. There was real, real love between my character and Blanky. There grew to be real love between my character and Tobias’s character.
There was respect. There was antagonism. There was a brotherhood. There was a sense of family. This was the family they ended up having, and in Crozier’s case, it was the only family that he was ever gonna have that would ever mean anything.
It’s the story of a kind of father, Sir John, who dies, and the sons, Crozier and Fitzjames, who are left to figure out how to live in his absence.
Harris: There were loaded words in the story that people would utter, and those words were “father” and “son.” They were very specific and quite insistent about where those two words would be used within the story. It was this idea that psychologically, you have real parents elsewhere, but you transpose those relationships onto the power figures in play. And there’s a paternal reaction that the officers take towards their men, and the fact that they feel responsibility for their lives.
Menzies: Obviously, it was inherently an interesting time to be doing a drama in which the vast majority of the characters were male. Again, one of the good things about the writing is that various different shades of relationship and connection are explored. Yes, most of them are male relationships. But as Jared says, it’s a meditation on family, on leadership, on hierarchy, on class … All those things are almost as important as the fact that most of the characters are men. In a way, actually, because they’re all men, the other themes pop more.
That reminds me of the effect that the big, bulky winter uniforms have on you as performers. They limit so much — from body language to just differentiating between two people at a glance — that the work you do with your faces takes on even more importance. It pops.
Menzies: I would almost make a counterargument. Since they’re all dressed quite similarly, it reduces the bandwidth of the palettes, in terms of both color and body language. So when someone does make a gesture, especially with the physical mores of the time, it really lands. If someone takes someone else’s hand, that physical contact is very charged.
With Hickey, so much his spiraling violence is communicated to the audience when he’s stripping out of his uniform. That was almost more alarming than the murders themselves.
Menzies: [Laughs.] Yeah, because you haven’t seen anybody’s body for eight hours, or …
Harris: …since he was whipped. You haven’t seen a body since Hickey’s body was exposed to be punished as a boy.
Is it too much to say that even as he’s murdering people, choosing to remove his own clothes is a way of reasserting control over his own body?
Menzies: As well as needing his clothes not to be bloodstained, but yeah, it resonates at the other level as well.
Harris: That’s the murder, but then why was he in his underwear when he tried to confront the Tuunbaq? It wouldn’t have been an accident. There would have been some kind of psychological logic behind it.
There’s an intimacy to death on this show, and not just with Hickey’s murders. I’m thinking of when Crozier assists Fitzjames with his suicide, massaging his throat to work the poison down.
Menzies: Quite early on, it felt like the story we were telling couldn’t bear much bombast or demonstrative performance. The performance had to be very authentic and real, and that feeds into even the bleakest or most intimate moment, which in this case is death. That had to be handled with care.
Harris: It was not a complicated scene, in the sense that it was contained within that tent. It was kept to a skeleton crew so you didn’t feel like you were trying to replicate this moment with this giant machine around you. It was allowed to be very private, personal, and intimate.
It sounds like a love scene.
Menzies: You have to be careful with those scenes.
Harris: You have to be respectful of what Tobias’s needs were in a scene like that. He has to imaginatively put himself through that circumstance. You’re not helping him if people are standing around eating curry out of a plastic container, farting and making jokes. It was respectful.
Menzies: All these people are dying not where they should be dying, in a way. They’re all lost, both actually and psychologically. That emphasizes — hugely — who you do that dying with. Arguably, it brings an intimacy or tenderness to that act. All of them have had a lot of who they are laid bare and stripped away. You see death in a different way after those experiences.
Harris: At a certain point, you keep losing people with every single episode. The band of survivors shrinks and shrinks until … and then there was one, and then there was none.
Jared, you’re in a unique position in that your character survives, alone out of everyone on the two ships. But in the final shot, you’re not alone: There’s a Netsilik child with you, snuggled up in close physical contact. I was struck by that continuity of intimacy — how important it is to literally be in touch with other people.
Harris: A lot of people were confused and thought, “Is that Crozier’s son?” But again, this goes to the way David and Soo told the story. They decided, “Well, it will be very clear that the boy is 6 or 7 years old, and it’s only two years later, so it can’t possibly be Crozier’s son.” They’re very smart, the way they would do things like that. Human beings see a picture and immediately impose narrative on that picture. David and Soo didn’t feel like they needed some kind of dialogue, like. “Oh, will you look after my son for me?” That’s spoon-feeding narrative to the audience.
But at the same time, they get across what they want to get across, which is that he’s been accepted, which hadn’t happened up until that point. It was part of the chip on the man’s shoulder, his burden if you like. He’s found a family of sorts.
Looking back, do you have a favorite moment from shooting?
Harris: Pag Island.
Menzies: The time on Pag Island? Really? That’s interesting.
Harris: Yeah, that was a fantastic place for us to shoot. It was totally different when we were in Budapest, because people were in and out from London for their bits. Once we were on Pag Island, everyone was there for six weeks, so we all got to hang out properly. And it was just gorgeous. So bleak and beautiful. The [tourist] season hadn’t started yet, so we had the run of the town to ourselves, and there was a really lovely feeling to it.
Menzies: In terms of filming, I think [my favorite moment was] finally doing our long walk-and-talk with you, up there on the high ground of that island.
Harris: Yeah, that was good. We rehearsed that a lot just the two of us. We would go for walks around the little town.
[Your favorite part] wasn’t playing against Pag F.C., Tobias? Taking on the locals?
Menzies: You know what? That was a bit of a letdown, because the day before I pulled a muscle in my leg so I couldn’t really play. I remember being disgusted about that. That might have been a high point, but not for me.
It might have been watching you order pink drinks around various continents. [Laughs.] Jared is very partial to a pink cocktail, so I saw more pink cocktails than I think I’d ever seen.
Harris: Yes, yes. I do love pink cocktails. My theory is that pink cocktails are very potent.
Menzies: You mean they’re more potent the pinker they are?
Harris: Yes. The only thing more potent than a pink cocktail is a blue cocktail, but …
Menzies: What? I’m going to accuse you of false science. What the hell is that? Blue is better than pink?
Harris: No, blue cocktails are very potent as well, but you’re properly forewarned when you look at a blue cocktail. Pink cocktails look quite friendly. They have an umbrella in them, some sort of fruit … they look innocent, and boy do they pack a punch.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This interview was originally published by Vulture. It has been reposted here for posterity.