Alex Moreland talks to the cast of Jamestown – Naomi Battrick (Jocelyn Castell), Niamh Walsh (Verity Rutter), Abiola Ogunbiyi (Maria), Abubakar Salim (Pedro) and Ben Starr (Dr. Christopher Priestly) – about power dynamics, the importance of likable characters, and more…
Do you think it’s fair to say that the series is ultimately about power and authority – how it manifests, and how people wield it over one another?
Abiola Ogunbiyi: Power means something different to everyone in this room. You can be using it, or it can be used against you, and I think – especially in the landscape that we’re dealing with, [in the] 1700s in a completely undiscovered land, with a lot of danger – that is kind of where the drama comes from. We’ve got all of these people fighting with each other, and trying to figure it out, and trying to make it work, but also getting it wrong – because we are human beings, and that is what human beings do – and making bonds and making friendships and sticking up for our friends. In Season Two, as you will see, as the characters get to know each other more and develop their storylines, their bonds [are] created against all of what they are up against.
Niamh Walsh: Yes, and Season Two is kind of a game changer because while Season One was all about power and control, and women being passive and walked over, Season Two is a completely different world. It is about ownership of a person, a deplorable new low, it’s just completely different.
Abiola Ogunbiyi: It is also about watching people seeking the various things that will give them more power, and how power can increase and decrease. We’re coming into this with less power, because of something that we were born with, because of that circumstance, and people keep using their intelligence as a power tool, as well as their wealth and success. There are so many different levels of it in this series. I think you can use that one word because it covers so many levels, such as sexual power and physical power and emotional manipulation, so it’s really interesting. It is going to be really interesting for the audience to see how each character uses that power against others.
Naomi Battrick: Another reason why it is so interesting and brilliant is because all of these powers are predisposed to who you were when you were born, where you were in the world, and you will look back at this historically and see that as a time that wasn’t really moveable. Do you know what I mean? If you were born in a certain status or class, or whatever you want to call it, moving around that is difficult. But, because we’ve taken it into a new place, you have these people that are fighting against all those social descriptions. That is where the drama comes from.
Ben Starr: Here’s another interpretation of exactly the same thing everyone’s already been saying! It is macro/micro. What is power? Is it the ability to engage in precipitous choices, but as we all know, that is the person who simply says, “yes” as opposed to making the choices [the one with power]? And as you guys said, on that micro level, where does that power over one’s will come from? Who has a say over it? I would say that this series, more than ever, is about power, but in a diverse range of ways. It could be quite interesting to examine, you could write an essay on the dispersal of power.
Ben Starr: You could, because Bill [Gallagher, series creator and showrunner] has a very interesting examination of power and to look at it from that point of view would bring out a whole set of things about how incredibly complex power relationship. It is so detailed. You have one character that experiences this, and one character that experiences that, and you have that in every single relationship, such as the power that Jocelyn had over Samuel, but what happens when Samuel isn’t there? That is a terrifying nuance, where the power would really lie in that relationship, or it might not lie at all. [There’s also] new people, [for whom] power is a thing that has never really been afforded to them – how do you seek power when you face adversity?
[pause] It is a powerful show about power and power and stuff and power!
Well said! Do you think that, as a historical drama, Jamestown is more reflective of modern concerns than being about the past in a literal sense?
Abubakar Salim: Anything about anything is a product of the time of when it was made. We all know that. You go and study history; history is not the study of what happened, history is the study of how it was recorded. It always has been, so this isn’t possible to get away from.
This show, when it was made, at this time, [was made] because there was a climate in which we were looking for shows like this, and it was telling a story that hasn’t been told before but would have happened, but told in the point of view of a society that was looking to see history in a different light. Ten years ago, this show would have been told completely differently, and it would have been told differently decades before that. I think this is a product of its time, so this is reflective of universal values that we can all look at.
Niamh Walsh: Even the history that it is based upon isn’t fiction, it is a construction; it was written by, exclusively, white men, so that is its own type of conceptualization. So, whatever you are basing your story on is limited because we were not there, we’ll never know. Even the kind of secret historical truth we’re all looking for – I don’t think it exists – [isn’t] objective truth.
Ben Starr: Yes, and we have spoken about this at length, about this idea about how this new empowerment of women has only just started [in real life], and [people say], “Guys, this didn’t just happen, this has existed“. It isn’t as if it only happened overnight. It’s not about this thing just happened, it isn’t about ourselves in the 21st Century making this stuff up, this is what would have happened. It’s not fake.
Some of the characters are complicit in the oppression of others – how important do you think it is to have likable characters?
Niamh Walsh: That’s the thing about modern television, because there is this temptation to make these shows “modern-ly” good, and our baddies are the only ones that inhabit an uncomfortable historical truth, which is unfair. You also have this responsibility to show accurately that there is so much bulls*** that we have all inherited – and [Abiola] can probably speak on it better than I can – like you were saying earlier, there was religious justification for what was going on. The higher-ups were saying, “This is okay” – how do you paint pictures of good people who want to say “No, it isn’t“?
Abiola Ogunbiyi: We all want to be good people, but I think we do good actions and bad actions, all sorts of actions, small moments in time. I think the result of having a very multi-dimensional character is that it is relatable to someone. So, even if someone thinks “You know what, I don’t identify with that character but if I were in that situation, that is what I would have done with that specific action“.
I think the relationship is built, I can’t identify with Maria in a concrete sense, but I am not in that environment, not in any of those conditions, but – if not in the degree that she has – I have suffered from loss. I have been depressed. I have looked to people a different race from me for support. Maybe not racially, but just in another situation. I think, throughout all the characters, there will be instances where people will identify with them. Maybe it is the nature of drama that you do have the fancier character, a flamboyant character or a weak character, or a more motherly character, but it’s when they’re all together…
Abubakar Salim: I think it’s what you do with that likeable character that’s important. I feel like, again, [that] there are awnings and shades of each and every character, which you will agree with and write about – but as a series, as you like that character, as soon as you get into that one shade of that character, you’re already looking at that person thinking “There’s a part of them in me“. So, there may be something ‘wrong’ – not that you disagree with it, but at the same time, it’s like, “Okay, great. They’ve just done something that I completely disagree with but just a second ago I was agreeing with it.” Already, you’re agreeing as if you were someone being told the story, you’re already hooked in. So, you’re like, “Okay, I’m getting all these conflicting thoughts and views. What does that do to me?”
That is what is really important about liking the characters. During the first episode, watching it and seeing Pedro say “Come on, this is women’s work” – that kind of throwaway comment is quite sexist, but at the same time, he’s also supposed to be this lovely, dashing, sexy, sort of character.
Naomi Battrick: It’s true.
Abubakar Salim: It’s like “So, you can love me,” but does mean that you’re agreeing with the phrase, “this is women’s work”? I feel like it is important what you do with that character, rather than whether you like the character or not.
Ben Starr: Likability is linked to empathy, which is linked to humanity, so we can have that with anyone.
The best character, hero or villain, that you’ve ever seen on television, [are] the characters that you root for, but sometimes you don’t want to root for. The most iconic television character for the past 10 years, Walter White, is a man who is a complete antihero, and that’s allowed because of the breadth and length of where we are to experience that. [It’s] the advantage of working on a television show, where we can show the shades of these characters.
One might assume what Jocelyn would be about for someone, but the lengths she is forced to go to, over the course of not just one series but two series, and the variety that she is put up against, and what Pedro and Maria are put up against [subvert that assumption]. They are going to do things that one might see as morally reprehensible, but it’s that moment of humanity that we see in them, that makes it so compelling, makes us feel complicit in their actions.
That is masterful television, and that is what Bill has been able to do – [get audiences to] watch a person do horrific things, but at the same time, to agree with those choices in some way. That is the spark of humanity that we see in that moment, that television allows us to really feel conflicted and that’s what are moving moments. Certainly, for me, watching film and television extensively, it is literally everywhere. Those are the moments you come away from. This season, in particular, he has created so beautifully, and is able to capture you when you’re not aware and suddenly you’re crying or laughing, or whatever. It’s great, it’s really great. Watch it!
Picking up on various things you’ve all said – what do you think makes your character stand out amongst the ensemble?
Abiola Ogunbiyi: I think we’re all incredibly individual. I don’t think that there is something that we individually put down and say, because Bill has created these incredibly different but also that you were saying earlier, universal characters. We all have our own story, and we all have our own tree diagram of little tiny things. He puts all these people together.
Like I said, something that Bill says he really loves doing is establishing characters, who they are and who they’re about, and who their friends are and all that, and eventually being seen together and then saying “That’s weird. Why would they do that? That’s interesting. That’s funny. That’s human“.
Abubakar Salim: It must be so exciting, because normally in a question you can’t answer like that – like heroism or my fear, or the colour of my hair. It’s the fact that they are so individual, and all so human, we all stand out, but not to the point of being ridiculous. It all just makes sense.
Niamh Walsh: Harmonious.
Abubakar Salim: It’s a great show.
Naomi Battrick: Even when – it is certainly variable, even reading the scripts – whenever a character does something, there are little surprises in it. God knows, a lot of stuff you know is coming or not coming at all but I have yet to read a scene or seen words where I’ve gone “Really?” No one has ever done anything out of character. When people do things or say things, you say, “Of course” because Bill has established our trajectory so fiercely, so that whenever the character does anything it’s exactly what I knew she was going to do, because I know who she is, because of how he has written her. It’s really carefully calibrated. I think you said earlier that everybody literally has their own voice.
Niamh Walsh: It’s where you have started with these characters, but then he starts writing for you, he starts writing for you, and it is so natural.
Ben Starr: There’s a moment that happens, later on in the series, where they combine two varied humours; what happens when you put two different humours together, a very exciting combination of people, under a very elusive circumstance? What would happen if you put two polar opposites together that you wouldn’t expect to be there? What you get is so unexpected – two characters who you understand at a base level but put them together and what you have is alchemy.
Naomi Battrick: It makes sense, when you see it happen, you say, “Oh, yes, of course.”
Ben Starr: It is a really lovely thing. There are, of course, many more combinations to explore, and hopefully going forward, that allows for multiple series to come; you can have a lot of different combinations, not just the two people together but the changing of the times and the exterior problems as well as the interior.
Abubakar Salim: It doesn’t feel forced, it really works. It’s natural because this is their world, and of course these people might collide now and then and its brilliant.
Do you do a lot of preparation and research, or has it reached a point where it’s quite intuitive for you in terms of your performance?
Niamh Walsh: We are gifted with the set, so, actually, unless you are doing something very precise, like hammering or making a sword – I don’t know about you guys, but I found myself in the first season doing a little research to get my head into it – but, actually, when you turn up, it’s all there, you don’t need to be thinking about it in your brain, because it is all there. I know you said Abu, that the world you have to create is [your character’s past], because that is what you were bringing with you, which you don’t get once you turn up, so that a whole other ball game.
Abiola Ogunbiyi: The stakes are different, because this is a new place that has come at the expense of everything. A lot of my research was about their life before coming into Jamestown as I think, at least Maria’s perspective, centres around everything that has been taken away from her and the efforts of some of the people around her to get her to accept where she is.
I know, personally, doing a lot of research to build that character, so that you can come into a series with 18 other fully fleshed characters is really important, but like Naomi said, I got to the point in the script where I was not about to go back and start researching about the circumstances that my character is going through. They have been in this environment of Jamestown for several weeks, with these characters and its built to the point that history is now the episodes that you did. History is Season One, which also informs it, but now, you’ve got the environment around you to play off of and that is kind of what makes the work deeper and more exciting. Jamestown is like a living system, tobacco fields are growing, and it feels like a life in there, and you’re really spending time there as a character and as an actor.
Ben Starr: We also get the episodes or read the episodes and we probably are not going to read it again, except our lines, so you kind of forget what is going on [outside] your own storyline – which isn’t a selfish thing, it is just the kind of thing that you do, you have to determine what is the “nitty-gritty” – so there are times where you can literally not know what has happened to some characters. You are coming into a scene and you are expecting a certain outcome and you’re [surprised] – and it is a genuine reaction because you’re not interested in other people’s worlds.
You have to kind of focus on what your storyline is and that is also really interesting – that does bring a different tempo, two tempos, just kind of bumping into each other, [which] is a really exciting thing to do. There was a moment where I had a scene with Steve [Waddington, who plays Marshall Redwick]. Steve was going “I don’t know, I don’t know what is important about this scene” and I’m like “It is a huge moment for me Steve” and he’s like, “Oh, is it? Okay, great“! You don’t realise what it is about because there was a lot of nuance to what this scene was actually about between me and Steve, but he didn’t really understand it because he was coming into it from a very different point of view. For him, it’s just him coming in and asking for some help, but for me, it’s about a lot more than that and it is a fascinating thing. It just comes very naturally because you know what is going to happen in the story, but you don’t understand what the character wants from it because you’re just focusing on your stuff.
Abiola Ogunbiyi: Sometimes it is useful to go in with the throughline for your character, in the context of this show, but I think the writing creates that. You can do your work and come and sit in the screening room and say “Wow, I did that and 18 other people did that as well” – and that is how we have a show.
What can you tell us about what’s in store for your character across the season? Avoiding spoilers, of course.
Namoi Battrick: I think with everyone that is already established, you just delve deeper into that character, and who they are and why. There’s also, a level of acceptance now, of Jamestown and of what that is, so we’re no longer fighting against that anymore. In Season One, there was always that devil on our shoulders, being like, “this is a s***hole and we can’t live in it without maladies” but in Season Two, we’ve accepted that and we’re moving forward. You get the opportunity to delve a little deeper into what those women really are, almost like what we would have been at home. Does that make sense? We’ve accepted that this is our home now, we’re not going home. Everything else is a spoiler.
Ben Starr: James Reed was hanged in Episode 4 of the first season. I mean, he didn’t die, and there is that sense of loss, but they wouldn’t kill a main character. The beginning of Season Two, you have a very key character die, and I think that is the theme for the year – characters understanding their own mortality. This is a show that is willing to sacrifice people, [which] is incredibly brave. It will continue to happen, whether it’s a lead or not – you will watch people die, because we’ve heard about people dying and what that means, and what loss means, and how people to deal with that, and I think that is incredibly important because it makes you aware of your own mortality. As soon as you are aware of your own mortality you start doing things that are quite irrational and without logic and that is what Season Two seems to be, people doing things that even they themselves cannot explain why they’re doing it.
That makes it really compelling because if the character is out of control, then what are we to believe? There are going to be moments [where] every person in this room is pushed to – yes, every person in this room – something completely insane. Everyone in this room is pushed to the extremist of extremes of their characters, in a completely different way, and it’s exciting because we would all be bored if we were all logical and calm. It’s crazy, it’s nonsense!
Abubakar Salim: My mum used to say, when she used to watch TV with her mum, that there was this golden rule: heroes never die. What I found is that this show breaks that rule and as soon as you break that rule, anything can happen. That is what is quite exciting about this – you’re getting hooks and all sorts of undercuts and different directions and you’re just having a lovely time right now.
Niamh Walsh: You’re playing on the ownership and value of people; you will push people to their limits in conditions like you have in Jamestown. [It’s] similar to today, because though you will be watching it from a historical perspective, there is no limit as to what people will do when they believe a certain thing about the way they’re entitled to treat people, and the things that they are entitled to in a quest for power and survival and to create a new life for themselves. How many people do you need to step on to get so far and to build this great place?
Finally, then – what’s the main thing you’d like audiences to take away from watching Jamestown?
Niamh Walsh: Bloody good stories.
Naomi Battrick: It’s a really great story.
Abiola Ogunbiyi: It’s a new perspective, I think, on a historical period that even very educated people don’t know a lot about.
Abubakar Salim: I think, for me, I would hope, after watching the show or even an episode, that they would want to dive more into the actual truth of history, rather than the history that we have all understood. There is that hope that they are almost aspiring to know more about each individual character, rather than from a point of view of truth, rather than necessarily a sanitised version of it.
Ben Starr: All the people that I know that have watched it, didn’t really watch it when it came out – but they watched it in a box set. My doctor, he watched it in two days, and my dad, he watched it in two days. It compels you to watch more. We’re not doing anything visually crazy, we’re not saying that we’re going to play punk music over the top of it. We’re going, “Here is a great story. It is very well made. There are diverse performances. Enjoy.”
At the height of it, it is an enjoyable show. Hopefully, you will kind of get a new perspective on the way things might have actually been. I’m not claiming that it is historically accurate, but it is inspired by events, performed in a way that people will find entertaining. I think that is the most important thing that you can take out of it.
Thank you very much!
Jamestown is available now on DVD and Digital Download.