Based on the 2016 bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx of Brokeback Mountain fame, National Geographic’s scripted drama series Barkskins is a savage trip back in time to the wild frontiers of the late 17th century. Set in the wooden settlement of Wobik, now the Canadian province of Quebec, the show features an ensemble cast that includes David Thewlis as the wealthy but eccentric landowner Claude Trepagny and Marcia Gay Harden as wily innkeeper Mathilde Geffard, keeper of the local community’s secrets.
Speaking during Deadline’s Contenders Television virtual event, showrunner Elwood Reid explained that it was Proulx’s consummate world-building—the book spans over 300 years—that inspired him to adapt it.
“As a writer, you’re always looking for those worlds that aren’t on television,” he said, “and it had these really interesting core characters in there [too], so I was immediately drawn in. Claude Trepagny is a character that, early on, jumps off the page, and, again, that’s a character I have not seen on television before. When you’re a writer, you’re always looking for those unexplored areas, and Barkskins ticked a lot of boxes for me.”
Thewlis concurred with Reid, explaining that Trepagny’s complexity made the show impossible to turn down. “I tend to always want to do something that I haven’t done before,” he said, “and I couldn’t have chosen a better role than Trepagny because he’s so extraordinary. It’s such a treat for an actor, because he’s always two things: he’s a wise man, but he’s a fool, he’s kind and he’s cruel, he’s a bully and he’s vulnerable, he’s charming, but he’s obnoxious… Sometimes he lives in a modest log cabin, and at other times he resides in an ostentatious manor house. That’s not your regular guy! So I was just drawn to the absolute craziness of the man.”
Surprisingly, the character of Mathilde doesn’t appear in the book, but Harden lobbied hard for the part, knowing just what she could do with it.
“I was drawn to the book first,” she said, “and it was such an exciting world [to be immersed in], with these people battling and exploring and fighting just for their various survival. And I had a conversation with Elwood and sort of was really trying to convince him why I would be the best person for the role. [Although] Matilda wasn’t in the book, [Elwood] was creating this woman who battled against the odds of the time for her own power, in this teeny little village, stuck in the middle of these woods surrounded by hostile elements.”
Reid and his cast agreed that the show’s extraordinary production values helped everybody find their way into the story. “Our production designer hand-built everything the way you would have built them [at the time],” said Reid. “These were not two-wall sets—we built the village. It gives that feeling that they’re not [on a soundstage], and there’s a rawness that I sense in all the performances.”
Check out the panel video above.