When newcomer Rege-Jean Page got the part of Chicken George in the limited series Roots, he found it “massively intimidating. It was a huge responsibility and quite a weight to carry going in,” he says. “It was very, very heavy.” The 1977 version of the slave saga still loomed large in his mind as the highly-influential piece of programming he’d watched as a child in the U.K. “It was a massive honor to be able to take on something that important,” he says, “that’s not just loved but also important to people’s sense of identity, that starts with a whole conversation about the identity of America and the rest of the world, that’s carried so close and so personally with people.”
The remake–simulcast on History, A&E, and Lifetime–is an updated and refreshed version of the original. It also stars Forest Whitaker, Anna Paquin, Lawrence Fishburne, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Anika Noni Rose.
What was the scariest part of taking on this iconic series?
Walking in and taking on something that millions of people around the world already own, already have in their hearts and already have a very strong idea of what it should and shouldn’t be, and so it’s hugely intimidating. But it’s an honor that can turn into a really useful fuel, a really useful fire to work with. It was a millstone around my neck for a little bit. For the first couple of weeks I was really feeling it, but eventually you kind of figure out how to flip that onto your back so it gives you momentum rather than dragging you down.
How did you prepare for the role?
I kind of take an abstract angle on this stuff sometimes. I watched the old Roots again and then tried to forget everything, just whatever was important would stick to the sides. Then I read the script aloud and tried to get to know George as much as possible, the same way I’d get to know you. I listen to what he’s saying in this script, trying to figure out why he’s saying it. When I get confused, I ask questions. “Why do you talk so much? What’s with the smoke and mirrors? What are you hiding? What don’t you want to face?” The thing that I was most concerned with was playing the man and not his circumstances. He’s all about defining himself by himself and not by his circumstance. I read the original book, I was on 50 pages a day and strict schedules to get me through it. I kind of sat in Louisiana for about three or four weeks before we started shooting, and made sure that I could go walk around the town under cover. Until I could pass for a Southerner in real life, I wasn’t ready to be a local on screen and represent… not only represent the South to Southerners, but represent the South to the rest of the world. It’d be massively irresponsible to misrepresent people who have historically been misrepresented for so long, and that’s the import. It’s not just a personal thing, it’s the fact that this is hugely representational. It’s something that people hold dear to them because it’s a flag bearer for them. It’s a representation of an entire people, of an entire struggle, and so you have to be respectful and representational in that way.
What was the moment you realized, “I really want this part”?
Well, I mean, you kind of work towards, “I really want this part,” because there’s the excitement of the size of what Roots means, and then there’s also an absolute terror of the size of what Roots means.
Why was now a good time for a remake?
The first question I think most of the people involved asked themselves, if not everyone, was why? Why are we doing this? For what reason are we messing with this incredibly important thing? How high do you have to shoot in order to improve upon something that is so loved? Then when you start examining that and go OK, hang on. The world has changed in 40 years, what’s changed in the world in 40 years? What is lacking? What can we do to honor and respect this thing by shining it up and giving it new life, retelling a very, very much loved fable? The conclusion I came to was mostly about humanizing it. I don’t like history as an abstract. I don’t like historical people as an abstract. One of the great things I love most about acting is actually giving myself history lessons that make sense to me on a human level, because you sit in school and you learn about numbers and names. In what order and in what year did this fat man murder his wives? See what I mean?
What did you find relatable about George?
I related to all of his flaws. His ego, his pride, his arrogance, his ambition. The fact that this extraordinary man wants to be defined by absolutely nothing but the value of himself in a world that continuously told him he has no value. He has no intrinsic humanity, no intrinsic value, and no right to ambition. And just the extraordinariness of a man who completely disregards all of that and does it all anyway.
What sort of feedback have you had personally from viewers?
The feedback has been absolutely overwhelming and it’s very new to me so I’m not totally sure what to do with it. People have been sending me very personal stories about their journey to finding pride in themselves and their identity in America, particularly as people of color, though not just. It’s kind of come from all angles. People saying very personal things, people saying, “I recognized myself in this,” which I think is the most important thing when you make art anyway, no matter what kind of art.
Did those chickens give you any trouble?
Of course they did. I trained for two weeks in just how to handle the damn birds before we started. Chickens are basically little dragons. There was absolutely no surprise that this is where dinosaurs went. They’re these little, mean, muscular dinosaurs. The first one I picked one up, it gave me a great big scratch right down my wrist. It’s only just healed there. It was there for a few months. I’m kind of disappointed it’s gone, but I had it all the way through filming, so that was a useful little reminder.
You’ve done a pilot for ABC called Spark–what can you say about that?
It was pretty much about as far from the plantation as I could get, which was a useful and semi-deliberate decision. It’s kind of a sci-fi, steampunk romp. I play this kind of dashing biker who gets to zip around the place with all kinds of adventures. It’s kind of high-fantasy, high-powered, and a little bit Game of Thrones-y.