Matthew Lillard on ‘Barkskins’ bringing the real essence of the past to present

Matthew Lillard plays Gus Lafarge in National Geographic’s latest limited series, ‘Barkskins.’
National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks

There are some shows that go the extra mile when it comes to telling a story, and National Geographic’s latest limited series based on the bestselling novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx definitely falls into that category.

‘Barkskins’  takes audiences back over three centuries and follows a group of settlers fighting to forget their past lives and begin again in the New World while simultaneously navigating their own battles with the land, elements and each other. One of those contenders is Gus Lafarge played by Matthew Lillard, and he, like his peers, will stop at nothing to gain what he believes is rightfully his at all costs.

Aside from the characters, a lot went into creating the world where ‘Barkskins’ takes place, and Lillard gave Metro an inside look at how the show-runners, actors and everyone behind the scenes were able to create a series that truly is a work of art worth your time.

What initially drew you to this project?

To be completely transparent, the show-runner is one of my favorite creative people in the world, Elwood Reid, he was the show-runner on a show I did ‘The Bridge’ that won a Peabody six or seven years ago. Whenever he calls I will come running because he’s such an incredible storyteller, he’s very collaborative and I love the way he works with actors. It’s the best way to be in partnership with a creative.

Lafarge meets with Cooke (Thomas M. Wright) in Cooke’s office. National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks

Did you end up getting to read any of the novel by Annie Proulx that the show is based on?

I did, I read the first half—it’s a big book. Reading the first couple episodes of the show, [it] does divert from the book to some extent, so at some point I was trying to directly relate it to the book and it was getting a little overwhelming. But she’s an incredible writer, you fall in love with the world that she creates, and I think that Elwood does an admirable job of taking the world that Annie created and putting it into this eight-episode tapestry of storytelling—it’s pretty incredible.

When we meet your character, he’s involved with some shady people. How would you describe Gus? What do you think his motivations are driven by?

I think that a lot of people in that world at that time were fighting for their own and were finding ways to grab land to take care of themselves and take care of their families and come to the new world to expand and thrive. There’s an undertone of all of these characters that are trying to grab as much as they can—land, prosperity, and really take what they believe was theirs. So I think Gus was trying to set up his family to be in a position to own land. [He] wanted to be able to take care of his family in a way that he believed he deserved.

National Geographic

There is a lot of violence surrounding the show and characters, is it difficult for you to get into that mind frame as an actor?

Yeah, you know, the funny thing is I’m the nicest f**cking guy you have ever met in your life. I mean I try to be kind almost to a fault, so the fact that I play these horrible characters, my mother and father are so dismayed and my mother-in-law is personally trying to get me to change my career choices because she has to explain to all of her friends that I’m a nice person. But yeah, as a young kid coming up in the ’90s, I had no care whatsoever to what parts I played. The more violent, the more extreme, the better for me as an actor because I love making those big choices. As a father of three, I’ve passed on really great projects because they’re too violent. I just can’t wrap my head around [it.] Someone recently just offered me the role of a pedophile and I just don’t want to bring that in the world and it doesn’t inspire me. The older I get, the more I feel responsible for the choices I make. That’s not to judge what people do—obviously with the creative process, you’re making whatever you want—but for me, I have the ability to say no. The older I get, the more I consider the ramifications of the acts of my characters to the greater good, and I just choose not to be apart of it.

So, was it the show-runner that really made you say yes to this violent role?

Yes, let me try and dig myself out of my last answer—I do pass on violent roles, and this guy is horrible, but there is something about that time period. There’s a different set of laws and a different need. The violence is about survival and I feel like he’s trying to survive in a world that is equally as violent. I feel like he’s doing it for the betterment of his family and his kids.

The one dynamic I really like was with your character and Marcia Gay Harden’s character [Mathilde]—how was it working with her and the rest of the crew/cast?

Yeah, she’s awesome. The thing about working with Marcia Gay Harden, the longer you’re around, you realize that there are people that have spanned this career. The people that have been around for a long time and have been through the ups and downs and the ebbs and flows and sort of have a different understanding of the career then you did when you were young, [they] have a penchant for telling stories. We’re sitting around and sharing great stories of the past and who they’ve worked with, and Marcia is one of those actors who likes to be in the community of other actors, so working with her was a treat because in between takes you’re telling stories and just talking about days of old and memories that she had. That sort of actor is a gift to work with because you’re passing along the legacy of our craft, and you’re passing along the stories of our careers. Carol Burnett was the same way. Brian Dennehy would do that. Burt Reynolds would do that. The idea of people talking about careers is really lovely, you could sit and listen to her tell stories for hours. Then when she gets on screen she’s just like a beast, a full-blooded actor, she’s great.

Mathilde (Marcia Gay Harden) in Le Grand Inn. National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks

How was it filming on location in Quebec?

It was crazy. It was a show that you drive an hour [to] from your hotel, you are a million miles from electricity and you’re an hour and a half from any sort of city grid and it provides itself with its own set of challenges. But, at the same time, it really sinks you into a world. As you’re walking through these trees to get to a swamp, and the bugs are real and you’re not going back to your trailer to watch CNN between set-ups—it gives a different sort of weight to production because you’re not slipping out of it as easily as you would with a modern show. You’re living in your costumes and you’re living with the people next to you and it just gives you a different sense of the weight of the world that you’re performing in. So I think it’s awesome and super fun. When you walk into the village of Wobick, you walk around and you see the carpenters building houses with hand-made tools and building it as they would have done in days of old, the exact same way—there’s a piece of you that’s humbled. They built it, and it became an operational village, they have a pasture with chickens and horses and cows and a big pasture of corn and gardeners every day tending to everything, you just don’t see that. The costumes were the same thing. The idea that they would go through all of that to create the feeling of the set speaks to the commitment to do this show right, and you want to live up to what they’re creating.

Overall, what do you hope audiences take away from the show after watching?

There’s content and television you consume because it passes the time and it doesn’t challenge you and it sort of goes in one ear and out the other. I think every now and then somebody comes along and decides to make art and there are shows on television right now that are doing that. I think that the level of storytelling in ‘Barkskins’ is something to settle into and enjoy. People are trying to make incredible television and I think that it deserves your attention for that. But for me, the reason I think it’s worth people’s time, there’s a whole bunch of incredible actors, a whole bunch of incredible behind the scenes people that are striving for something better than average. I think it achieves it, and it’s worth your time.

‘Barkskins’ premieres on National Geographic May 25. 

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