A whaling expedition deep into the Arctic spells potential disaster for the characters of The North Water, the new AMC+ series from creator Andrew Haigh. The man behind such tender, intimate films as Weekend and 45 Years is boldly stepping into new territory here with a limited series that hews closer to Werner Herzog than Mike Leigh.
To lead this testosterone-fueled cast of very cold men, Haigh recruited Jack O’Connell, one of his generation’s finest actors. Known for such physical roles as a troubled prisoner in Starred Up, a soldier on the run in ’71, and a combination of the two as a POW in Unbroken, O’Connell is no stranger to putting his body to the test in the service of a part.
Here he plays Patrick Sumner, an army surgeon with a troubled past who takes part in the voyage as a way to escape his demons. Little does he know that far more sinister characters await aboard the voyage, namely Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), a vile beast who is essentially the personification of evil. Now, Sumner must face not only the brutal conditions but also the cruelty at the heart man.
I had the chance to speak with O’Connell about the excellent new series (our review here), what guides his decision-making when it comes to selecting new roles, and the experience of shooting this treacherous project, which shot further north than any television drama to date.
Mitchell Beaupre: Congratulations on the series. This is another exciting new role for you, adding to a varied career ranging from Starred Up and Unbroken to ’71 and Little Fish. What stands out for you when you’re deciding whether you want to take on a project?
Jack O’Connell: Largely it’s the director. Sometimes the character might not be exciting at first glance, but if you’ve got a good director at the center of it and they’re doing something very interesting then it’s going to elevate your work.
MB: Andrew Haigh was the man steering the ship here, which is something quite different from what we’ve seen him do before. What were your initial conversations with him like as he was explaining what he would be going for?
JOC: We talked mainly about the people that are within the story, and nothing really transcended that. To be honest, our conversations were always focused on the characters and anything more symbolic or on a higher plane was his department. I just put that trust there in Andrew to deliver on that aspect. That goes for all of the characters as well. Because the chaps were so contained for the majority of the series, it was important to know what everyone’s take on each character was. Obviously they only exist on a page, and I’ve got to give great respect to the casting on this because I think seeing all of those great actors there fills you with a lot of confidence.
MB: This shoot was the furthest north any television drama has ever shot before. How did those conditions impact the mood on set?
JOC: It amplified the whole experience, and really bonded us all together. Everyone got on board with a shared goal, and if everyone’s kind of dying then you’re in it together there. We’ve all got the same script and are committed to that, and to making something good. It was total cooperation in the Arctic when it came to what we would add, as there were so many people there all with their own task to pull off. You’re talking to a crew that feeds over 150 people and everybody’s cold and miserable, from the crew of the ship to the caterers to the set design, everyone’s got their own thing that they’re working on. It was total support throughout.
MB: Something that has always stood out about you as an actor is your physicality and how you put your entire body into a role. It strips you of affectations and leads to this naturalism in your performances. Is that something you find important when you’re getting into a character, that ability to throw your whole body into the part?
JOC: What I love about the job is that you’re always playing different people. In a lot of cases they have very little in common with me as an individual. To be able to lend myself properly in order to portray different characters is great. To have this invention from the start and this completely fictional idea and be able to kind of bring or attribute certain elements of yourself. What’s fun about playing period pieces is that you can strip down everything and really try to imagine how somebody else saw it, how somebody else expressed themselves.
I geek out over this stuff, thinking about how these guys my age living a few streets away from my own place would have such a different existence. I think about what media existed back then, and it’s only what was written and what was said with spoken words. Cameras didn’t exist back then in the same way, so the need to perform wasn’t there like it is now. Without going down a rabbit hole here, I really lose myself in the prep beforehand, and try to stay inside that thing long enough to eventually show that change in myself in the film or program or whatever.
MB: Was there anything in Patrick Sumner that you could personally relate to?
JOC: There are some things in the story where I could relate to him. I can relate to that feeling of imposter syndrome that he’s deeply in conflict with. I think on the template of class hierarchy that is very much programmed against Sumner, I can totally relate to that. There were little gateways where I could understand it for sure. I think it would be wrong for me to try and assume that my physicalization of that is anything close to his. That’s what excites me is that I can take on this man while still having these gateways into the sort of thing that he’s trying to handle.
MB: Did you learn anything about yourself through the experience of playing Patrick and working on this series?
JOC: Definitely. I think a voyage up to the North Pole for anyone is going to create this sense of achievement, and of feeling some sort of growth. It’s amazing to think that I was over there. That main takeaway for me is that we all got to experience watching polar bears in their natural environment coming into takes. I suppose that happens a little less these days. The advancements of green screen technology are so impressive that people are finding it less and less necessary to go out and actually be in those locations. You have to cherish that we were able to go out there and do that.
MB: To wrap up, I’d love to bring it back to that idea of directors and ask you if there’s anyone at the top of your list of directors you’d love to get to work with?
JOC: Yeah, there’s a lot, but Martin McDonagh would be number one for me. I don’t think he’d cast me in anything, though.
MB: Well, you’ve got the in with Colin now, so we’ll get the word out to him.
JOC: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]