Watching the expansive three-part miniseries “Klondike,” Discovery’s Channel’s first scripted project (starting Mon. Jan. 20 at 9:00 p.m.) will leave you cold. Literally. Thanks to cinematic imagery, storylines that highlight the high stakes (and fleeting rewards) of the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, and three nights of avalanches, typhus and murder (yup, it’s all there — the miniseries is based on Charlotte Gray’s 2011 book “Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike”), you’ll not only feel the cold, the intensely dangerous plight of these adventurers will send a chill through your veins.
Bill Haskell is our intrepid main character, and his journey from naive optimist to hardened warrior is made all the more real by “Game of Thrones” star Richard Madden, who knows a little something about wearing heavy, muddy costumes and facing deadly odds. Madden may finally get to ditch the dirt for his next role as Prince Charming in “Cinderella,” but the Scottish actor approaches every role with the same enthusiasm — even when particularly dangerous scenes like one he faced on “Klondike” give him “nightmares.” Shortly after binge-watching “Klondike,” I spoke to Madden over the phone about rolling in the mud, speaking “American” for three months straight, and why he loves having homework.
In the movie, your character develops a wonderful friendship with Meeker (Tim Blake Nelson).
That’s what’s so nice, really, is you don’t expect this relationship to come together at all, actually, then these two men come together and find a real, proper and true friendship, which is wonderful, really.
Not everyone in the movie is based on a real character, but what about Bill Haskell?
Bill Haskell was real. I actually found a book he wrote two years after he left the Klondike. It’s been out of print 100 years, but a printer started printing it again and I found it, and I kind of used that as my bible when it came to making Bill’s character. He was a real man. Sure, a lot of it was fictionalized, but he did go down the rapids, and his boat did turn over and he lost all his supplies, and he was in the water. It’s dangerous, so there are a lot of things in the show that are pure fact.
How great to have so much source material!
I know! I’m so lucky!
With “Game of Thrones,” you obviously had plenty of reading material, and you also have that with “Cinderella” to some extent. How important is that to you?
They’re really amazing things to have, when you have other source material. But something like “Cinderella,” we don’t really know much about Prince Charming, so you have to go at it fresh, which is really just another kind of challenge, another way of doing things. It’s great having source material, but when you don’t, you just have to work in a very different way, because you have to create all the source material from your own brain or from some other reference points.
I would think, with “Game of Thrones” more than “Klondike,” that when you have people who are loyal readers of the books it can be nerve wracking to create a character who might be dramatically different than what they’re expecting. That was certainly the case with “Thrones.”
It’s kind of funny, especially with something like “Game of Thrones,” with the thing I’m calling my character, there are hundreds of thousands of people that read this book and knew this character before I knew anything about him. You have to be delicate with how you can portray characters other people are having a worship over. But at the same time, that’s my job. I interpret other people’s work. Even “Game of Thrones,” I interpreted the books, I interpreted the script that the two writers have based on the books, so we’re all just interpreting. You make something that’s as truthful to your interpretation of that character as possible you should be on the right track.
Of course, having those books on hand also means the bad news about Robb Stark was out there before you ever took the job. I know you tried not to read ahead as not to inform your character with information he wouldn’t have yet, but when did you find out about the Red Wedding?
I got told instantly. I think a lot of people had a joy in telling me straight away. “Robb Stark, do you know he dies?” I got that quite a lot.
I didn’t know the gory details until I actually got to that point in the book, I asked people not to tell me, but I knew I got slaughtered quite horribly.
In the books, we see a vision of Robb Stark post-mortem. No chance you’re coming back for that?
No, no. I’m definitely not. My character was killed to a point where Robb Stark won’t be returning at any point.
I guess if they wanted that scene they could use a dummy. Or parts.
I think so [laughing].
Watching “Klondike,” it was so visceral and unrelenting it actually made me feel cold after a certain point.
Imagine how I felt!
I think that it really kicked in for me by the third part of the miniseries how miserable and deadly it really was for the people who went through the Gold Rush. I was really happy that it was a miniseries for that reason — I don’t think I would have felt the crushing weight of what it was like if this was just a two-hour movie.
I think that’s why I loved it when I first read it. All these things stack up against him from the start. They’re boys setting off on an adventure, basically, when the avalanche happens in the first episode, that’s the first point Bill realizes he isn’t on a big fun adventure, that this is quite dangerous here. We could be dying here and no one would know who we were and our families would never know what happened to us. I think that’s when it started to change.
And when [someone – no spoilers] gets shot, I think that’s when the piece turns into a totally different show. That’s what was fascinating. All these things stack up against Bill, [someone] being killed and it’s cold and this environment, and every time he was pushed to the point where he would stop and lash out and become the man Belinda [Abbie Cornish] doesn’t want him to become, he somehow holds on to his humanity. That’s what’s fascinating about him to me, how someone can have all that stacked up against him and still be a good man, that made him a fascinating character for me.
Although I would have liked a slightlier happy ending.
I know! I know! (laughing)
You’ve mentioned that you liked wearing the heavy costumes in “Games of Thrones” because it informed your performance. Was that true for you on “Klondike” as well? You were definitely bundled up.
We had every extreme when it came to weather. We had absolutely sweltering heat, then having to pretend it’s cold, then [it was] freezing cold and you have to pretend it’s warm and there’s mosquitos around when you’re actually shaking from the cold. We had basically every season.
Was it hard to focus on lines and character when you’re trying to remind yourself to shudder from cold? Or just not sweat?
That’s part of the job, isn’t it? When you’re not in studios you don’t have any luxuries, you can’t control the elements, so you have to put up with those extremes. But these characters up there, they put up with these extremes all the time. They ran the risk of typhus or disease or dying from the cold, they had to put up with these things so I can’t really complain as an actor. Having done the research I understood what this world was like. Genuinely, it would be absurd for me to complain about being too hot when people went through this in real life and actually died of it.
I knew the fatality rate was high during the Gold Rush, but it struck me watching this that you probably had a much better chance of dying than making a buck.
Absolutely. You had a better chance of dying or starving to death or freezing to death or being murdered for the lick of gold you actually did have. The chances were really up there.
You’ve worked with tremendous actors throughout your career, it seems. Do you even have nerves or a fan reaction to meeting some of your name co-stars anymore? The cast for “Klondike” is pretty great. Tim Roth, Sam Shepard, Tim Blake Nelson…
Yeah, stunning actors. I think meeting someone like, meeting Sam Shepard, that was someone who was kind of important for me, because I’d read so much of his work and watched him as an actor since I was a kid, then being on set doing a scene with him and thinking this is really surreal. It’s such a joy I’m getting to act with actors of this caliber, that was really special. Not only that, but being able to act with younger actors I’d seen in different pieces and thought they’re really brilliant like Johnny Simmons and Abbie Cornish, top class actors I think who do some really brilliant work in this. So it was kind of a dream.
You nailed the American accent, although it seems over here we have a hell of a time doing the reverse.
[Scottish] is the hardest accent to do, for sure. I kind of made a decision when I flew to Canada to start filming, I made a decision about what my voice was going to be and I just stayed in that voice for three and a half months, I stayed in it the whole time to kind of cement that, because I didn’t want anything to break the believability of that character.
It did take a lot of work, but like anything else, with accents, I know people who can snap them on and off, which is a great talent to have, but with me it’s like a muscle, your vocal chords are just mucles I have to train to get them to do the things I want them to do, like any other part of my body I would train, I have to train my mouth. It becomes second nature to you, and you forget you’re speaking in another accent because you spend more time in it than in your own voice. I found that easier to do in Canada, because people could understand what I was saying. The Scottish accent’s a bit hard to comprehend.
You learned mountaineering for this role. I’m not even sure I know what that is.
There was lots of climbing and hiking. The best skill I learned was dog sledding. That was a) really fun and b) quite difficult to properly tune into the dogs. But it’s fun.
How hard was it for you getting Bill Haskell out of your system? Was it harder than walking away from Robb Stark?
There is something to that. With “Game of Thrones,” I have a character in the back of my mind for six months, then step back into their shoes literally. With “Klondike,” the best of this three-part format in getting to tell this massive story over a longer period of time than I could with a film or something was I get to do my research and get myself so prepped, and you get to just dive in, get to immerse myself completely.
And when it’s over, you do need a bit of a break. I spent more time in someone else’s voice than i do my own, [when] I spend more time in someone else’s words than I do my own, you need to make sure you get a bit of down time to be yourself, because otherwise you can spend the whole year being other people and you lose track of yourself a little bit. You have to make a conscious effort to let go of a character and say goodbye. Especially when it’s such an intense period emotionally and physically and mentally you’re just exhausted. You have to be aware of what’s going on in your head so you can kind of step back from that and make sure you can shake off one character so you can start another.
I had a hard time shaking off “Klondike,” but then I binge watched.
That’s probably the best way.
I don’t think so! I felt a little beaten up.
You were as exhausted as the characters were at the end, thinking, my God, give the guy a break!
I can’t stop thinking about Meeker and his little orange.
It breaks your heart.
There’s a scene you shot on a frozen lake that was pretty memorable. And scary. Was it as scary to shoot as it looked?
That was an extreme day. I think that was my second day of shooting, actually. It was at an altitude at this frozen lake, and the way it’s cut together it doesn’t seem that long, but it was a massive expanse of the frozen lake I had to cross… slipping and sliding with the awareness I didn’t want to fall through and get sucked in as well. The river is fast flowing, so it was kind of terrifying, and I had nightmares for weeks because I can’t imagine anything worse than dying like that. When you fall through the ice like that, the ice comes back up so you can’t get out of the hole that you fell through. You basically don’t have a chance of surviving.
We were out on these frozen lakes for a couple weeks. The ice was really thick, but it was melting and sometimes it would drop underneath you. It was quite scary. And we shot that scene, it was my second day of filming, it’s such an emotional, exhausting part of the story, it kind of ripped a lot out of me. I’m down to my shoulder in the ice cold water, and I was exhausted. They pulled me out of that and got me into a car for a make-up change, and I just looked in the mirror and I had a nose bleed. This can’t go well. This is absolutely as intense for me as the characters going through it. It’s kind of weird the lines that get crossed.
Wait. The ice seals the hole you fell through?
You know when you fall through the ice and it smashes? Well, that ice you’ve broken through just comes back up and closes the hole you’ve fell through. That was in my head a lot of the time. And also It was a massively heavy costume, and while they’d tested the ice and there wasn’t a chance I’d fall through, there was an absolute terror of the concept that you could fall through and be sucked under. It was really terrifying.
The scene of you rafting on the rapids also looked pretty terrifying.
I tried to think it was a studio and we could turn the rapids off or just turn them down if it got too intense, because otherwise there was no chance I could throw myself into them, because it was ice cold river rapids. I had to convince myself of something. There are so many safety things put in place, but at the end of the day, you’re throwing yourself into an uncontrollable river, and at the end of the day you can’t control nature. I think the show teaches you that, and we very much learned that while shooting.
Given how physically demanding “Klondike” was, I’m trying to imagine what you do to relax. Maybe sit very still and watch TV? I’m guessing you aren’t playing extreme sports and bungy jumping.
It seems that what I do in my spare time lately is go to hot climates because I’m so cold most of the year. So, hot climates, and I still do a lot of things from jobs, like horseback riding I try to do as much as I can, that’s something from “Game of Thrones.” I’m not climbing up mountains or going down river rapids, but there are still some things I try to enjoy that are less dangerous.
I guess taking on an iconic character like Prince Charming is scary in its own way, isn’t it?
It’s quite terrifying and sadly I’m not allowed to talk about “Cinderella” at all. But another time.
So many scenes are so terrifying in “Klondike.” Did we cover the worst?
Those were pretty bad, going up the mountain and the river rapids. Someone setting an avalanche in the morning in case there’s not an avalanche and getting smothered by the snow. That was another good one.
How could I forget the avalanche? Did you manage to have any fun on the set?
All of it was fun. For all I can say it was miserable and cold, but I look at as my job, as the thing I really really enjoy. I had a ball, really, every second of it. I had such a great relationship with all the other actors, it was a joy the whole time. I was telling my director, we had a lot of fun regardless of what we were doing. Some of the crew were amazing. There were days when it was easier for me to roll around on the ground in the mud than for them to pour buckets of mud on me, and Costume would say, hey, before the next scene can you just lie down and roll around in the mud? And I’d do it, and there were some great times when the first director would lie down and do it with me so I wouldn’t feel so rubbish about doing it. We had fun in our own weird little ways.
I hope you were one of those kids who loved mud puddles.
There’s no way I could be precious on this about being dirty. I had dirt under my nails. I think I was still washing dirt off a few weeks later.
Man, you are committed!