Marcia Gay Harden (‘Barkskins’) on how she’s ‘never seen anyone like’ Mathilde on TV [Complete Interview Transcript]

Marcia Gay Harden plays Mathilde Geffard on the Nat Geo series “Barkskins.” She is a previous Oscar winner for the film “Pollock” and a two-time Emmy nominee.

Harden recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Riley Chow about what inspired her to become a part of “Barkskins,” what it was like to shoot in Quebec and the uniqueness of her Oscar win. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Marcia, we’ve seen you onscreen for over three decades. You have an Oscar and a Tony. How or why did you have it in you to get out there into the wilderness to film this show? 

Marcia Gay Harden: Well, first of all, I’m a working mom, so it doesn’t matter how long I’ve been working. I want to still keep working. But this was something new, Riley. It was a time that I know nothing about, a situation that I know very little about, which was the moment when people were coming from France to New France, which is in Quebec, in Canada, and trying to occupy it and they were fighting the English and the Hudson’s Bay Company and the native people there as well, the Iroquois, the Wyandots and they were all just fighting against each other for control of his land. It’s based on a beautiful Annie Proulx book, which people may know her work from “Brokeback Mountain” or “Shipping News.” I love her writing and I was already reading the book and I loved it. And then when I heard that Elwood [Reid] and Scott Rudin were doing this, I was like, “OK, I’m begging. I want to be a part of it so much.” And she was just like a woman that I’ve never seen anyone like her. I don’t know this character in television. I’ve never seen a television show that was going to cover this kind of thing. It was kind of this scary, exciting time of exploration and battle and it wasn’t a hard decision, actually, to make actually to join it. 

GD: Is she in the book, your character, Mathilde? 

MGH: That’s a good point. She’s not, right? People will say it’s a story of the deforestation of America, the Americas, I should say, from the 1690s through to modern day. And really, it’s a story of the haves and have-nots. It’s the story of how one indentured servant goes on to becoming a billionaire and he’s the kind of conniving one. And then the other indentured servant who’s a really loyal one marries a native woman and they go on to have nothing. And we know that’s the true story of Canada and the U.S. that the native peoples didn’t end up with a lot and the billionaires were the people who sort of raped and pillaged the land. So that’s what the story is and you track them over about 300 years. Our story just sticks in the 1690s. So it’s the first 100 pages of Annie Proulx’s book, and Mathilde is not in it. You’re so right. It really focuses, mainly the first 100 pages, mostly it focuses on the loggers, or the barkskins and the early pioneers, the settlers, the men. It focuses on the men, how they came over, the struggles they had, what a testosterone-driven environment it was. But there had to be some women there. So when I was speaking to Elwood about it, I felt like a dork. I said, “Elwood, this character is not in the book, right?” And he’s like, “No. I’m writing her completely.” And then he sort of took off and wrote this woman who’s incredibly strong and incredibly nurturing,  but she’s also a real ball-buster. He literally gave me a line that said, “I will club your balls into your belly.” He wrote that after he knew that I was going to play it. I was like, “Yes!” 

GD: I don’t know much you want to say, but they call this a limited series. As you were just talking about, the book spans centuries. So do you know if there are plans to come back for a second season or if it would be with the same group of characters? 

MGH: Yes. We hope there’s plans. I think right now everything is just so uncertain and our premiere got pushed up a bit. We weren’t planning to premiere until November. And then you kind of wait and see if people like it or not. I can’t see how they wouldn’t. By the time we get to Episode 8, it’s like a slow start, slow start and then it’s go, go, go, go, go. There’s a lot to take in, but by the time you get to 8, you’re like, “No, don’t end! How could you end right there?” So I’m really praying that there is a Season 2 or 3. I know that Elwood had the opportunity to write every year, a new decade so by the next time it would be Trepagny’s servants who carry this story forward. But he said, “No, these are really rich characters. I’ve got a great cast. I want to stay with these people.” So if we do have other seasons, I think we’ll spend a couple years with these people and if people love the show, maybe eventually we’ll go on to the next generation, which means my character dies out. 

GD: Tell me more about how the show was moved up. We thought that “Genius” was going to be airing in that end of May slot for Nat Geo. They didn’t finish. Now you’re airing here. What does that change for you in terms of press or anything else? 

MGH: Well, what happened was that “Genius” got shut down and we had already finished shooting. We were in the can ready to go. So it kind of made sense that we would go now. I think serendipitously, it’s a story about survival against all odds and their struggle for survival was against everything hostile in the environment. I think people draw some correlation right now, to how we come together as a community, etc. I try not to stretch it too far because I feel like all the concerns are universal concerns. All the desires are universal desires and any human desire and human emotion and human struggle is timeless. We’re still going through the same struggles now that we went through then. We just have washing machines instead of wringing them out of the pole, right? So they decided once “Genius” wasn’t going to be able to go because they got shut down, they decided to move us up. And I think what happened… I mean there’s nothing adverse, it’s all great, it’s just that we didn’t really have time to prepare audiences to do the little bits of press. So this is just amazing. I’m glad we’re getting to do it because I think we want to raise people’s awareness level of what’s coming. The show’s opening Memorial Day weekend and we want people to be watching and talking about it and sharing it. 

GD: Yeah, the show’s coming very fast. We don’t have a lot of information about how it’s made. What can you tell me about shooting up in Quebec? 

MGH: Oh, it was awesome. We were staying in Quebec City, which is really dangerous only because they have every great restaurant you could ever want to go to. You’re trying to fit into a corset and you’re like, “I just really want to go to that restaurant and have a glass of wine and something to eat,” but in truth, it was pretty amazing because in Quebec City itself, the buildings, some of them are that old because Quebec City was forming as the center. And so we lived in Quebec City. Maybe we shot one day there and then we would drive out 40 or 50 minutes out of town to the deep forest. And they had built… not they. Her name is Isabelle Guay. She was our production designer and she was French Canadian, I believe ‘cause she was talking about her ancestors. She built a village in the middle of the forest and it was stunning. The village that you see in the show, you walk through the walls, there’s the walls and then there’s the trees encroaching on the outside. You always get that sense of the forest coming in and she built everything. And it’s a working village. You don’t have to play. You don’t have to imagine. You’re really slogging through the mud in your corset, heavy skirt, and you’re really going into where the wood was hewn. And there’s really chickens running around outside and pigs and ox and real stuff growing in the garden, so if you’re like, “I wanna do a scene where I’m picking eggplant.” “OK, that would be over here,” and you could go shoot that scene. It was so venerable in a way. It was so beautifully done that you felt like, “I better be as good as the buildings are because this is something pretty incredible.” She also built an Indian, or native or, right now, all the names are different, but then, of course, they said Indians, she built an Indian village and she built a mansion, the doma. All those things are real and then they built the sky house, sky table. 

GD: Now, on this show or you’re trying not to get stabbed by children and you’re trying to run to get to the river. What kind of new challenges as an actress did you find this character provided? 

MGH: You know, I do physical things anyway, so that part of it, the physical stress, duress, whatever wasn’t difficult for me. I think the fun for an actor is transforming. The fun is wearing a wig and wearing costumes that make you feel like the character. The accent was a challenge for all of us. It was a nightmare because we were kind of going in with the mistake that everybody sounds the same and that there is one French accent and we should know exactly what it is. And that’s not real. That’s not life and that doesn’t in any way exemplify where these people came from. My character came from the north of France, another character comes from the south of France. Another character comes from America or from England. So everybody sounds different and we had to relax into that and allow for that. Mostly we had to just go no matter where you’re from, if you have a different rhythm the way you think your country sound is we will know. Like, France has a rhythm. And Italy has a different rhythm. And Japan has a different rhythm. So if you can just play a little bit with the rhythm, all the audience knows is you’re from someplace else. Because in a day we would have been speaking French to those English people who were coming into our village. And we would sometimes make them speak French to us and we would pretend like we didn’t understand their French because it was so bad, like that. So the animosity of language would have been set up right away. We don’t have that. So all we can do is give you a sound to make you remember we’re different. The French are different from the English. So I think that was the tougher part for me. I do know that David Thewlis will say for him it was the physical exertion, hiking up a mountain in the middle of mosquito swarms and with a hat and a veil and just being as hotter than hell, in men’s high heels. So that was for him a bigger challenge. For me, like I said, I’m kind of used to the physical. It wasn’t tough. It was fun. 

GD: How was it working with David Thewlis? 

MGH: What a dream. I mean, of course, we all know from “Harry Potter,” right? From “Naked” and from “Harry Potter.” I’ve love him for a long, long time. I think he’s incredibly talented and he’s incredibly gentle and he’s such a smart actor. We didn’t have any scenes together. We had one. So I was slipping notes under the showrunner’s door, Elwood’s door, going, “Please write me a scene with David. Please make sure David and I get to work together,” because I just always wanted to work with him. But our trailers were next to each other and I will tell you, Riley, I made a mean prune tart. I used to bring my prune tart to set. The secret is you put Armagnac in it.

GD: I saw it on Instagram, actually.

MGH: Yeah! Yeah, it’s really good. So I fell in love even more with David Thewlis the day that he asked for a second piece of my prune tart because I used to bring it into the hair and makeup trailer in the morning when it was still hot. I’d wake up at like five to put it in the oven to be ready when I got picked up at six and I’d bring it in, it’d still be warm. David said, “I think I’ll have another piece of that.” I was like, “Yes! Thank you!”

GD: So this past cycle, we also saw you on the first season of “The Morning Show” and I was watching the show, and I think you first appear at a function and you’re giving a speech, and I’m like, “OK, that’s a fine cameo.” But then you just kept coming back and you made it through the whole season. So I’m wondering, was that a surprise to you that the role ended up being so big or was that always planned? 

MGH: No, because when you do television, you don’t get to see the full scope of it from the beginning. I knew that she was in at least three episodes because they sign you on for three. But I didn’t know how she was going to end up going. Because it’s loosely structured around Maureen Dowd, who is just such a ballsy woman, so smart and such a great reporter, I guess they were developing the story that she would break the story and that she would kind of find responsibility and culpability in the company. So it was lovely for me to find that because I knew she wouldn’t be a light character, but I didn’t realize she would be so important to the story. And she really was and I had met her once. She dropped her phone at the Oscars party. And I didn’t recognize her and I was running after her to give her a phone and handed it to her and said, “Excuse me, you dropped your phone, ma’am.” And she had a beautiful gown, she turned around and went, “Thank you. I’m Maureen Dowd.” But “The Morning Show” hadn’t aired yet and I said, “OK, that’s great… ooh! I’m playing you! I am playing a version of you, kind of.” And she was so cool because when the show aired, she said, “You know, I really didn’t think that that story could be told, again, freshly and with a lot of intelligence etc.” And she said, “You guys did it.” So that felt really nice. She’s a great lady. Not just because you complimented us. That helped (laughs). 

GD: Do you have anything to say about Season 2 of that show? 

MGH: I don’t know what Season 2 is. I mean, it’s got to be the demise of the company. It’s got to be the turnover, I guess. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if they’re shooting now or if they were shooting. My feelers are out but I don’t know. 

GD: And finally, I watched “Pollock” last night. Are you aware that, at our site we’re always talking about the Emmys and the Oscars and every single year we talk about your Oscar win because art’s always subjective but yours is the one that kind of defies all the statistics, that you weren’t nominated for various awards and you kind of surprised us at the end. Every year we say, like, “OK, well, maybe this person will win or maybe it’ll be like Marcia Gay Harden.”

MGH: Oh, I love that! Listen, I look back on it and I can’t believe it to this day, especially when at the time it was kind of new for me. Not that acting was new for me, but the race and the Oscar race and all that, the campaigning, all that was new for me. So it’s not that I didn’t think anything of it. But I think I didn’t really think about the statistics in the way that I do now, almost, however many years later. Now it seems like it would be impossible. I was nominated for nothing. No SAG. No Golden Globe. No this, no that. Nothing. I mean, I did win the New York Film Critics’ Award. That was maybe it. And then to be nominated and to win, it was phenomenal. It’s hard not to get choked up even now.

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