The British character actor talks toxic masculinity and filming in sub-zero temperatures for Andrew Haigh’s The North Water.
Sam Spruell has a wonderful knack for playing horrible bastards. His CV reads like a laundry list of rogues and reprobates, from a vengeful gangster in Paul Andrew Williams’ London to Brighton, to a damaged soldier-turned-cop killer in TV’s Luther, to real-life hit man Jack “The Hat” McVitie in the Krays biopic Legend, to a racist bobby in Steve McQueen’s Mangrove. Cavendish, one of the chief antagonists of Andrew Haigh’s bruising, frost-bitten BBC mini-series The North Water, about an Arctic whaling expedition that goes south, might be the meanest of bunch.
It’s testament to Spruell’s skill as an actor, however, that the ‘villains’ he so often plays are never cartoonish or two-dimensional. Even if they’re not necessarily sympathetic, his characters are always compelling and hopelessly, tragically human. With its stark 19th century setting and Melvillean themes of male arrogance, greed and hubris – “masculinity failing,” as Spruell sees it – The North Water is an engrossing seafaring drama and a perfect vessel for Spruell’s formidable on-screen presence.
LWLies: The North Water was filmed on location in the Arctic. What was that experience like?
Spruell: We took three boats: one set boat and then two boats holding all the props, all the actors, all the crew, everyone that’s needed for three weeks in the Arctic. One of the boats was a sailing boat that was built in the 1950s; they spent weeks stripping it all back to the bare essentials. That’s exactly what their brief was: ‘We love this boat, but can we strip it all back, take all the bells and whistles out and make it spare.’ Then we went to the Arctic. It was an extreme place to shoot but it was also amazing.
Did you have to do any specific prep for it, to acclimatise to the colder conditions?
We trained in Svalbard harbour, rowing and just getting used to being on the water. But I think actors are really good at just throwing themselves into a situation. Essentially, when you do anything, you learn your lines, you think about the scene, you decide how you’re going to prepare for it. But then you arrive and whatever you prepared for is always going to be different, whether it be a room that you didn’t imagine you were going to be shooting in or whatever. This felt like a moment where you should learn your lines more than anything because of the cold, the wind. You were dealing with the elements quite a lot of the time.
Was that disruptive for the filming?
It was disruptive in the sense that we all had to leave set when the polar bears arrived. We had spotters, these amazing guys from either Scandinavia or Greenland, and they would be able to spot polar bears from miles away. Whenever they arrived, we’d leave everything on the ice – cameras, kit, everything – and just walk on back onto the boat. They’d come and sniff around a bit, and after a while we’d fly a drone towards the bear and it’d freak them out and they’d leave.
Just being there, you acclimatise very quickly. We spent a lot of time not shooting, and a lot of time looking for ice which was really telling in terms of where we’re at with climate change. It’s interesting because I think the show is about man’s relationship to nature – the scenes with the seals and the whale really capture that unrepentant urge to consume that defines us as human beings. There’s no notion of preservation. Yes, there’s Western nations making moves in relation to climate change, but China, which is the biggest polluter, are still saying we haven’t reached peak coal. There’s a disconnect and an entitlement that is explored in The North Water that I think is very relevant.
The show really makes you appreciate how brutal nature can be.
Yeah, that’s what’s so good about shooting it in the Arctic. We’re here in London, where on the whole you go anywhere and there’s quite a lot of people. In the Arctic there’s no one. You feel completely cut off. You can’t make a phone call, there’s no Wi-Fi. That sense of isolation created a really appropriate headspace to shoot the series in. It could’ve gone either way though. It could’ve been a fucking disaster.
In what sense?
Just in the sense that you’ve got so many variables, so many unknowns. And you’re working with an obvious movie star in Colin [Farrell], who I’ve got to say behaved completely un-movie star-ish. His work ethic, his commitment to the piece, was unerring. He was sometimes doing scene in -17 degrees with just a shirt and a jacket on. When you’ve got someone like that it sets the tone. It was brilliant that that happened, but it could’ve gone either way because anything can happen when you’re at sea for three to four weeks. We fell into a great rhythm of eating, working, sleeping. No distractions. No one could go to the pub. No one could go back to their families. Absolutely everyone had to make it work on this trip, which imbues the drama of what you’re making with some special spice.
It’s interesting you say that because obviously the story is very frosty and fractious; everyone is playing their own game.
On the face of it it’s an exploration of masculinity. Or masculinity failing, let’s say. Being limited in its scope and vision in order to find a solution. God, we’ve seen so much of that and I think it’s really brought into sharp focus here. Andrew gave me such a brilliant role. He said, ‘Just think like you’re in love with Drax,’ who’s played by Colin Farrell. It’s like how at school you idolised and adored the most conventionally able kids sometimes. Whether it be the athlete, or the most popular, or the most good looking, everyone fell behind that. I think Cavendish is a product of that sentiment.
Obviously, Colin is a very good looking chap with an abundance of Irish charm and sex appeal, you know. And that can have its drawbacks as an actor, because people are constantly trying to push him into parts that sell tickets. He can do that all day long, no doubt, but he’s also got a real brain on him. He wants to do good material and push his understanding of himself and everyone else. I’m sure he can speak for himself here, but I think he saw that in Drax.
It’s a very anti-movie star kind of role. He’s almost unrecognisable physically.
He ate like an animal! I was like, ‘Oh my god, he’s eating another kebab’ [laughs]. He was unbelievably committed. I don’t know whether that’s for me. That’s the kind of thing everyone seems to love to talk about nowadays, but the thing that’s most interesting about The North Water is the darkness that he and Andrew and all of us wanted to explore through our own characters and through our interactions with his character.
What was it then that appealed to you about this script?
When the offer first came through it was more about Andrew. I think he’s done some really clever, varied work and I just really like his stuff. I loved the basic simplicity of the writing. It felt like a western on the seas. When you read a script and you see that you’ve got a great character to play with, it’s just a joy. There’s lots of different facets to this guy, he’s so flawed but he’s always trying to keep it buried under this bluster and bravado. This story is dealing with the environment, it’s dealing with – for want of a better phrase – toxic masculinity, it’s dealing with philosophy and religion and capitalism. There’s loads of themes buried within it. I remember finishing the job and just feeling totally exhausted.
Is that a good sign?
It’s a great sign! It sounds pathetic, but I had a little cry and I’m not really a crier. We all put in so much and we had all been through the mill with these characters. There are jobs where it’s just a really intense experience, and this was one of them.
How did it compare to Mangrove?
That was different just in the sense that it wasn’t a story about PC Pulley. I can give him weight and I can try and find different layers to the character but in the end he is a function of a bigger story about the Mangrove Nine. The script can only dictate how dimensional a character is, do you know what I mean? In acting, you try and approach everything like you’re the lead of your own mini film within the film. You’ve got to almost trick yourself into thinking that your story is the most important story, especially if it’s a character like PC Frank Pulley. For that day, or for those weeks you’re filming, you’ve got to give it large.
Mangrove was really intense though. Just the nature of the whole piece. Also, it’s a story about a group of young Black people coming together to fight injustice. Essentially you have this group of characters, this group of actors coming together, sharing a space, being warm and supportive of each other. And then I was sitting by the side in my own space, being a pretty despicable human being. It was really a lonely job. I had really great support from Steve and I really enjoyed the demands he put on me – because you want to be pushed by your directors – but I do remember being really glad when it was over because it was a really lonely time.
Did it take you a while to decompress after The North Water, being such an isolated, immersive filming experience?
No, but actually, just to go back to Mangrove quickly, that was very immersive as well. In The North Water the surroundings, being in the Arctic, was hugely helpful, but in Mangrove, putting on a uniform, being in a court and seeing all the white faces in the jury and seeing all the Black people in the dock, that division created an atmosphere which in the context of acting out those scenes gave everything a charge. Everything, if it requires it, is equally immersive. With Frank Pulley, between every scene I would read a good chunk of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, which seemed to have a tone, a voice to it that I wanted to embody.
Is that how you think Frank saw himself?
I think someone like Frank Pulley would’ve felt reassured and vindicated by the sentiment of that speech and how it was expressed. It’s actually very helpful to conjure up the darkness, to establish the lifeblood of that character. It sounds so pretentious but you’re using anything you can get to create texture and depth, and that speech was very helpful. One thing that was difficult is that I’d be coming home to my family everyday, because we were shooting in London, and that was really hard. My wife would say, ‘Your ladishness is a few notches higher than it normally is, just try and bring it down.’ I never want to be that person but you can’t help it bleeding in sometimes. I suppose it’s a good sign in some respects but it’s exhausting for her and my son. The great thing about The North Water was we were so far away. Being on location is just easier.
What is it that makes you suited to playing these types of characters?
Some actors can access being upset, they can cry on cue; I can somehow access feelings that provoke fear or discomfort in the audience, or the other people I’m acting with. I think it comes from my dad. He was a very lovely, warm, brilliant man, but he was also very scary. He could be emotionally detached in a way that made him quite unreachable and that gave him power. I think it comes from where I grew up as well. I went to school in Kidbrooke in Greenwich. Around that time I knew quite a lot of nasty kids and quite a lot of hard, white Eltham kids, sons of hard, white Eltham dads. There was a lot of racism and bad feeling. I feel like I carry some of those people with me, even though I don’t very often play characters close to myself. I play characters that feel further away. Maybe all actors say that, I don’t know.
We’ve talked about Colin Farrell but The North Water also stars Peter Mullan, Stephan Graham, Jack O’Connell, Tom Courtenay… What was it like working with such a muscular cast?
Peter Mullan is one of my favourite actors. It’s almost like ‘Don’t work with your heroes,’ but he is one of my heroes. But the whole cast on this were great. Loads of actors are really good at working with a camera, but not as many actors are really good working in a two shot, and that’s what’s really exciting. Two shots are great because there’s no escape, there’s no edit, it’s just you two firing together. That’s what you live for as an actor. I have a scene in a tent with Colin doing that. I think the take is about four minutes, which doesn’t sound that long but it’s really long! That level of concentration and intensity… Both of us were working for each other and also a bit for ourselves. It’s that tension, you can’t beat it.
One other thing to note about The North Water is that it’s a period drama about working class people.
That never happens in a period drama does it? When you do see working class people in period drama they’re usually there for seasoning. What I loved about The North Water, it’s like a factory on a boat. You have a lead actor in Jack O’Connell who produces an intelligent, measured and instinctive performance… If one of our Harrow or Eton boys produced that performance they would be lauded for their intelligence. Jack’s telling a working-class story with the same degree of intelligence, but it won’t get lauded in the same way. Well, I hope it does because he’s a brilliant actor and it’s a brilliant performance.
What if anything did you learn from making The North Water?
I suppose the thing I did learn was filming in that environment with loads of moving parts, on a ship, is a complicated business. Sometimes when you’re trying to work out the structure and technical elements of a scene, it’s really hard. Lots of voices, lots of opinions. Sometimes there was a sense that it wasn’t working, that the components weren’t coming together. I saw Andrew listen, take everything on board, and have faith that it would come good. He wouldn’t panic, he would just concentrate on the task. That was a real lesson to me. Just keep focused on the task, don’t let other emotions come in and it will come good, especially if you’ve got good people and a good script. In a place as complicated to film in as where we found ourselves, that was pretty inspiring to observe.
The North Water airs on BBC Two at 9.30pm GMT on Friday 10 September.
Published 7 Sep 2021