On a windy, starlit November evening in Beverly Hills, a crew of sharp-dressed saints (and a few strangers, like me and fashion photographer Gerald Pierre) descended upon the Saban Theatre to participate in the world premiere of National Geographic Channel’s new film Saints & Strangers. The movie, which airs in two parts beginning with Part 1 on Sun, Nov. 22 at 9/8c, is an epic telling of 1) the Mayflower pilgrims who wanted religious freedom, 2) the opportunists who wanted land and wealth, and 3) the Native-Americans who met both groups in the New World — but this time as it really happened in history. It’s not the 3rd grade trace-your-hand-to-make-a-turkey version. It’s the true story of Thanksgiving, and its superb production value and storytelling is truly a sight to behold.
The glamorous stars who arrived on the yellow carpet — yes, not red, but National Geographic yellow — were also a sight to behold. Directed by the acclaimed Paul A. Edward (“Lost,” “Man On Fire”), the film boasts a phenomenal, stacked cast: Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”), Anna Camp (“The Help”), Ron Livingston (“Band of Brothers,” “Office Space”), Ray Stevenson (“Thor,” “Thor: The Dark World”), Raoul Trujillo (“Apocalypto”), Meganne Young (“The Giver,” “Black Sails”), Maria Vos (“Dominion”), newcomer Jessica Sutton who is making her debut in “Saints & Strangers,” Roxane Hayward (“Death Race: Inferno”), Barry Sloane (“Noah”), Tatanka Means (“Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials”), Michael Jibson (“The Bank Job”), Kalani Queypo (“Slow West”), Vere Tindale (“Dominion”), Del Zamora (“Robocop”), and Michael Greyeyes (“The New World”) — just to name a few of the many talents who contributed to the film. (Read the full cast and crew list here.)
Another interesting thing about this film: they shot it in South Africa and casted several notable South African actors. I’m always hearing about the wave of English actors conquering Hollywood, but maybe it’s South Africa’s turn — especially when you see how talented the South Africans are in this film. Three out of the four actresses I interviewed on the yellow carpet were South African — Meganne Young, Jessica Sutton, and Roxane Hayward.
As Hayward (who plays Susanna White) said to me: “My favorite part [about being in ‘Saints & Strangers’], was just being on such a big production — produced by Sony, for NatGeo, shot in Cape Town. I’m from South Africa, and they did a lot of the casting in South Africa with South African actors and actresses, and that was just great to be given that opportunity.”
The Easiest Way to Time Travel? Hang Out on the Set of a National Geographic Movie
I had the chance to interview many of the actors on the red carpet — ahem, yellow, I mean — about their experience making a film that is not your typical period piece. “Saints & Strangers” is likely one of the most authentic recreations of that historical period ever put to film. NatGeo required the filmmakers to annotate every detail of the script with historical facts — probably doing enough research to write a doctoral thesis along the way.
And the results were stunning. It was something that made a deep impression on the actors.
For example, when I asked South African actor Meganne Young, who plays Priscilla Mullins, what she loved about making the movie, she immediately zeroed in on the realism of Kate Carin’s costume design [Note: these in-person comments were supplemented by a subsequent Facebook interview]:
“The costumes are amazing. The amount of detail and care taken in the making of our costumes in such a short space of time totally echoed the detail and care given to the entire production. I can hear Gina’s voice in my head [producer Gina Matthews] saying, “historically accurate, historically accurate!” I loved my costume and really, a lot of Priscilla Mullins and my portrayal of her came out of the costume because I would put it on and feel a little sassy and cheeky and strong. Also, you mentioned your photographer loved the dress?” [She’s referring to the dress she wore to the premiere. In a prior conversation, I had mentioned how our photographer Gerald Pierre, who has an eye for fashion, was really impressed by her dress.] “I think Priscilla would have loved it too! [laughs] [But the costume] was extremely authentic — the amount of detail that they went into, and the amount of time that they did it in was incredible. They made these beautiful things in two weeks; they’d stay up all night and it was, just, bam, bam, bam.”
Meganne wasn’t kidding about the realism in the costumes. As shown in this video, the attention to historical detail in the costumes was so nuanced that actor Brian F. O’Byrne said that being on set felt like time travel.
Actor Barry Sloane, who plays Edward Winslow, confirmed the surreal time travel feeling when he described to me his favorite part of making the film:
“We were out in the mud, in a wonderful, beautiful country, telling an incredible story. We were rowing boats, chopping wood, it was just — you know, it’s the element of time travel with things like this, which is incredible. Everybody’s in costume, and there were some days where I’d just sit inside Plymouth, and it was quiet between takes, and you’d just watch the fire. We feel honored as actors, you get to do things like this because, for that moment in time, nothing else is happening, and you got to experience that.”
“So you just get to relish that atmosphere for a moment,” I replied.
“Yeah, exactly,” said Barry, “and then someone comes on with a cell phone and ruins it.” [laughs] “But for a moment it’s nice.”
Near the end of my interviews with the actors, Roxane Hayword described the experience to me with a sense of awe: “I’ve done quite a few period pieces before but because this is for NatGeo this is so historically correct: every little detail, from hair and makeup to what they said, how they said it, the sets, to everything, was just historically spot on. And being around that was just incredible. It felt like you would step back in time every time you’re on set.”
The Miraculous Renaissance of a Language
The actors who played the Native Americans in the film spoke the actual language of the tribes who lived when the Mayflower arrived — at least a coalesced version of it — and the movie provided subtitles, in true “Apocalypto” style of authentic linguistic work.
Speaking of “Apocalypto,” one of the highlights from the yellow carpet interviews can be summed up with one name: Zero Wolf. I happen to be a very big fan of the film “Apocalypto.” That automatically means being a big fan of Raoul Trujillo because Trujillo’s performance in that film as Zero Wolf — the main villain — is superbly terrifying. So When Mr. Trujillo, who plays Massasoit in “Saints & Strangers,” walked towards me for our interview, I had to fight the sudden impulse to flee into the jungles to safety like Jaguar Paw. Of course, in real life Mr. Trujillo was very friendly.
What’s more, Trujillo pinpointed one of the most unique things about “Saints & Strangers” when I asked him what had drawn him to take the role of Massasoit:
“A lot of times it’s really in the script. You know at first, you hear NatGeo, historical — eh [spoken with an unexcited tone to capture his initial reaction] — but when you read the scripts you realize how powerful they are as stories, and the way that they fleshed out Massasoit and the Wampanoag and all of the Native Americans was a huge reason to want to tell this story because they didn’t hold back on the importance of that. For me, that was one good reason to do it; and, the language that only 12 people in the world speak — to be a part of a Renaissance of that language.”
The way NatGeo fleshed out the Native Americans was also important to actor Kalani Queypo, as he explained to me:
“I play the role of Squanto, and the idea that I’m an interpreter and I speak both the Western Abenaki and English, that made it really, really special. I think what made it unique for me was that I was a multidimensional character. I wasn’t just a device in the story to push the story forward. It wasn’t someone who didn’t have the humanity that every role should have in a project. For me, speaking the language and then incorporating that into movement and allowing that to come into the performance was amazing.”
Tatanka Means, who played the warrior Hobbamock, noted how their crash course in learning the language created something unique in their friendships: “For me definitely the language — learning the language, preserving the language; it was challenging but it was fun. It brought us all together, the Abenaki people, constantly on it, early mornings, late nights, in the middle night we’d wake up having nightmares saying our language, in the Abenaki language. It really united us.”
Considering that they only had two weeks to learn a language that only 12 people in the world knew; well, you can see why the work would create such a bond.
Although it was a tremendous labor to learn the language, their dialect coach Jesse Bowman Bruchac described the challenge in a positive way: “[The biggest challenge was to] recognize that every actor was going to have their own process of learning the language, and then modifying it for them. It wasn’t as much a challenge as it was an adventure, trying to get to know these guys and get to know their personalities and what works for them.”
The Gravity of Truth: Characters Who Come From Real Places
It wasn’t just the Native American characters who were written with depth. Jessica Sutton, who plays Lizzie Tilley, said this to me about her experience:
“What was moving about playing Lizzie was that she was a real person. I’ve just been privileged because it’s my first film in the industry, I’m 22, but I’ve had the most amazing luck (though I don’t know if I believe in luck) playing meaningful roles, you know — content that’s really meant something to the writers and characters who come from real places.”
“Characters that have real gravity to them,” I said.
“Yeah, real weight. And I knew nothing about the pilgrims [she is South African], so I was just, ‘Wait, so it’s just a bunch of people who landed on American soil?’ But it ended up being a lot bigger than that, of course, [laughs] so I had to do my research. So part of playing Lizzie was doing a lot of research and looking up characters, and there’s a real picture of her. And just being so young — she was so young and so scared, but she survived.”
I will save any comments about the movie for my official review, but after you see this film’s realistic depiction of what these people went through to cross the Atlantic, it gives you plenty of reasons to be grateful this Thanksgiving. People led brutal lives in that era of history — in ways that most of us can’t really imagine. This film brings it all to life.
When I asked executive producer Teri Weinberg (one of the top brass over NBC and co-producer of such legendary hits as “The Office”) how “Saints & Strangers” speaks to our society today, she said this:
“I think it’s really a struggle to survive. It’s a struggle for bravery, how to coexist. There are politics. It’s learning how to turn hate into love — understanding. It’s about bravery. And all of those things are everything that we’re all having to live with and deal with now, and I think 10 years from now it’s going to be the same conversation.”
“So very timeless themes then,” I replied.
“Absolutely timeless. I mean, when you think about it, for us, it was a learning experience for me, and obviously we have to do a tremendous amount of research, but it is not the story that I thought I knew when I was in grade school learning about the turkey, about the Mayflower, about the let’s-all-have-a-feast. There was so much inside of that. Very proud of the story [we’ve told].”
Smooth Sailing for the Crew of ‘Saints & Strangers’
In the midst of all the serious reflection about the film that occurred on the yellow carpet, there were moments of levity too. Along comes Ron Livingston, who seems to float on a breeze of laid-back coolness wherever he goes. He’s definitely one of my favorite actors.
So when I ask him what his favorite part of making “Saints & Strangers” was, he says: “I think the hair extensions. I think that’s my favorite. I never got to have long hair in a job before.”
How is awesome is that?
The accomplished actor Anna Camp (Jolene from “The Help”), who plays Dorothy Bradford, described the joy of making the film despite some — ah, shall we say — stomach-turning moments:
“My favorite part was being in South Africa for the
first time and getting to work with Vincent Kartheiser who I was a huge fan of while he was on ‘Mad Men.’ He was one of my favorite actors from the show. So to be able to play his wife was something really really incredible, and just all the amazing talent, I feel like our director Paul Edwards was awesome to work with. He really helped me in some long hours and some wind and some rain and the boat that was actually rocking back and forth, you didn’t have to act so much because you were actually seasick while you were filming this.”
And when I asked Meganne Young about what the hardest part of making the movie was, she confirmed Anna’s statement that, even during the most demanding moments of the shoot, it was a great experience and not really hard at all: “It was such a great crew, such great people, and such an amazing cast, so it was smooth sailing. It was fun, we played around, we had practical jokes — it was really good.”
Tune in to Part 1 of “Saints & Strangers” on Sun Nov. 22, 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel. To see more pictures taken by Gerald Pierre at the premier, check out Kevin’s blog post.
Here’s a shot I took of Gerald (whom we call “G” as a nickname) just before the event. His hat (Stetson) was provided by First Street Leather — a boutique clothing store in Solvang, CA: