Polar bears cast as extras on Fortitude

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It’s not exactly the kind of environment most actors wish for. But a tiny town half way between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole was where actors like Luke Threadaway, Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci and Richard Dormer found their teeth chattering.

That marked the location of Pivot’s first scripted series, Fortitude.

The show, which involves a dark mystery and environmental research, took more than fortitude, says producer Simon Donald. “We needed to find a place where hidden things could emerge from the past and come into the present in a convincing, scientific way,” he says.

“So we looked at all the communities north and south that gave us as many of these ingredients as we could find. And we could really only find one place where the story was going to work, and that’s the archipelago of Svalbard … There’s a town there called Longyearbyen, which is the model for Fortitude. And it had extra ingredients when we went and explored it, and started doing research there that became really important in the show.”

Fortunately the town also boasted a university with four departments in arctic science, a perfect place to access real scientists when they needed them, and not too far from Iceland.

And even casting certain “extras” proved no problem. “Polar bears is the other thing we really wanted,” says Donald. “Svalbard’s got more polar bears per acre than anywhere else on the planet – 3,000 polar bears to 2,000 people.”

The weather was so hostile and the site so remote that the cast found itself melding into a sort of alienated family. “We weren’t… excited about going,” says Spanish actress Veronica Echegui, who plays a receptionist in the local hotel. “Actually, we didn’t want to go back (home). I mean, every time we were in Iceland, we had such a great time together… we share an understanding… So it was very interesting for us to spend that much time together and many experiences and situations together.”

Threadaway portrays a researcher who arrives in town to study at the Arctic Research Centre, but soon finds himself gripped by the long arm of the law. “I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the cast have never been to a remote place like this that had a similar feel to Fortitude,” he says.

“And so by going there and living in that small village, we could sort of get a feeling for how it might be to live in a place like Fortitude, so that was really useful.”

In spite of the gnawing cold, actor Richard Dormer, who plays the town’s sheriff, was burning up. “I’ve actually never felt as warm on a shoot,” he says, “because the suit that I had was designed for minus-30, and it was probably only about zero degrees, so I was actually boiling.

“And I had to work with the costume (department) to design ice packs. So under that uniform, I’m covered in ice packs to stop me from sweating, because it was just incredibly, incredibly hot under those. And the Canada goose (down) jackets are really, really warm, so it was actually a very warm shoot for me.”

Not so for Echegui. “The preparation was so hard. I remember myself running around and it was freezing, but I was angry because, well, we had to do a scene together… And I didn’t feel my feet, but I didn’t care because I was so angry about what was happening between us in the scene, I didn’t even care. We were, like, very into it.”

Gambon, who’s best known as Albus Dumbledore from seven Harry Potter films, finds himself at 74 battling the frozen wastes. But his career began by playing a humble spear-carrier with Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic.

“They don’t have them now, they can’t afford them. Then slowly but surely the next year they give you a few lines in the next few plays,” he says. “’Madame, your carriage is at the door.’ I had to say that to Maggie Smith in one play. She’s playing a big, leading role, and I had to walk in and say, ‘Madame, your carriage is waiting.’”

For Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games) a series like Fortitude aids his life-long passion for learning. “I like acting, I probably don’t like reality too much. Acting allows you to use so much of yourself. I think that’s what I like. It’s always a challenge. You’re always learning something.” – Luaine Lee/Tribune News Service

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