On April 14th, ABC will premiere their four-part miniseries Titanic, written by Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe winner Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey), featuring both fictional and historical characters, from the passengers in steerage to the crew, to the upper class guests who shared one of the most frightening and epic events in history.
Cleverly constructed, each hour follows similar events on the ship from different points of view, piecing the stories together until the final segment, airing on April 15th, brings all the characters together for Titanic’s final moments. The event marks the 100th anniversary, to the day, of the sinking of the ship.
Linus Roache portrays First Class passenger Hugh, Earl of Manton, who is traveling with his wife Louisa (Geraldine Somerville) and their daughter Georgiana (Perdita Week), a suffragette who has recently been arrested in a demonstration.
A consummate actor, Roache is best known in the States for his role as Michael Cutter on Law & Order and as Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne, in Batman Begins. I spoke with him yesterday about revisiting the Titanic.
I’m so glad they’re playing the first three episodes here on one night, because Episode Two is so important to the concept of the piece.
I think they made a mistake in the UK [playing an episode a week]. You don’t get the narrative style, you don’t get invested until Episode Two. Originally the idea was to air it over four nights consecutively.
You were young when the Titanic was found in 1985. Did its discovery interest you?
Yeah, I was fascinated by it prior to it being found. I was a huge fan of the novel Raise the Titanic. The whole notion of this undiscovered wreck, and the idea of things being trapped in air pockets and being perfectly preserved underneath the ocean. So there was a very mysterious, romantic idea surrounding it, and the Raise the Titanic novel captured that.
When you were approached about the miniseries, were you surprised that they were going to be doing Titanic again?
I wasn’t too surprised, and I responded to the idea for two reasons.
Jim Cameron’s movie was quite a long time ago, and this is the centennial so the idea of doing a piece of event television to commemorate and celebrate the human spirit I felt was a very good idea, and a cool way to bring everybody together around the centenary.
Also the fact that it was going to be a very different approach, it wasn’t trying to compete with the Cameron movie and it was an attempt to tell the story of the whole ship and the different classes.
I would imagine any actor when hearing something is written by Julian Fellowes, would just say, ‘Okay, I’ll do it,’ without even reading it.
Yes, you do. You don’t worry about it, you just say yes. When I heard he’d written it, I just thought, ‘Oh, I hope the part’s good.’
Was the Earl of Manton a real person on the Titanic or is he made up?
No, I’m fictitious. I felt quite liberated by that because I didn’t have to pay any credence to historical facts, and I don’t have to get letters from descendants of the family saying, ‘He wasn’t like that.’ A lot of the characters [in the miniseries] are based on fact, but it was kind of fun to be fictitious.
What kind of research did you do? Titanic is so famous, I’m sure you didn’t have to study the event, but the society and the class system were so different at that time.
You’re right, you don’t need to study the Titanic, they didn’t really study it themselves. They just knew they were going on the best ship in town and getting a trip to America.
So the emphasis of the research was what would it be like to be an English Lord, an Earl, at that time in history? What would your day look like moving in that society? Geraldine Somerville, who is an old friend of mine, who plays my wife, read and studied a lot, and we also had an etiquette advisor who we spoke to.
We just tried to immerse ourselves and shift our sense of consciousness back to a point where you had that sense of entitlement and didn’t feel guilty about any of it. It was normal. That’s how you lived, you had servants and your day was organized around social events.
Julian’s strength is he can write to that. He knows that world so beautifully, and he makes it very accessible. He doesn’t alienate you and make it so far removed that you can’t relate to it.
Somehow he finds some humanity in it, I think often by throwing all these characters together and seeing how they conflict with each other.
It seems like your character is much more socially open to the lower class, where you wife is horrified to mingle with them. Were the views of men and women different at that time?
It’s a great question. I don’t have a leg to stand on with any kind of historical context to answer that question. All I can answer is however snobbish or superior some of those attitudes seem, what Julian does, and what Geraldine does, is bring so much humanity to it.
You see a human being who’s struggling with that system. They’re trapped in it somehow, so she’s as much a victim of her own ideas as anybody else is.
A lot of the press in the UK were saying, ‘Oh, she’s such a bitch.’ Really she’s a victim of her own class, and Julian creates a character where you see how human that is to be a victim of that too.
You shot this in Hungary, did you shoot it on a ship or is it all green screen and CGI?
Nearly everything was shot on a purpose built set in a studio in Budapest. And the set was a working set that had multiple layers and levels to it.
So you could walk along the Promenade Deck, and then you could go up a flight of stairs and there was the Lifeboat Deck, and there was the Bridge, and then you could go down the stairs and go into the steerage compartments.
It was very intricate and beautifully done, and a very accurate recreation. And then there was a big water tank that we worked in that had multiple sets built for different pieces.
What was your experience like doing the water sequences?
The conceit of the story is we hit the iceberg every night and at the end of Episode Two there’s a group of us trying to get the last collapsible lifeboat off the ship. That sequence was quite demanding, not because of the water, but because each time we did it we had to start dry.
So as soon as we’d gone through the sequence we’d have to go out and get changed, get dry, get fresh make up on, fresh clothes, and go back and do it again. I think we did it about seven times in one day, and that took 12 to 13 hours.
This miniseries has a big budget, but it’s still a fraction of the money spent on Jim Cameron’s film. Did it concern you that people would compare them?
Not really because it’s like apples and oranges. I’m proud of this piece because it tells the story of the whole ship and all those different lives, and that wasn’t the purpose of the Cameron movie. It’s a very different venture.
I signed up for this because it was a character driven piece, and the epic disaster movie is not what we were going for. In my mind, I thought, ‘That’s going to be a very small part of the whole filming experience.’
Funnily enough, all the acting sequences went very quickly and all the action stuff is what takes all the time, and my main memory is running around the deck trying to find a lifeboat and being dumped in water!
You’ve worked here in the States a lot, how do you compare working here to working in England?
I love both, I really do. I love the freedom of the craft here, because the American movie industry and TV industry is so much larger.
The main difference I think sometimes is just more of a sense of irony and a sense of humor which I think the Brits often have more of a tongue-in-cheek approach to what we do, which I kind of enjoy. So I end up laughing a lot .
Are you going to go and see Titanic in 3D, or do you feel you’ve been on the ship and you don’t need to?
(he laughs) I only recently saw the Cameron movie actually. I probably would go and see it again in 3D. Yeah, I’m going to go and get my glasses!