Marcia Gay Harden had some interpretive freedom regarding Mathilde, the strong-willed innkeeper she plays in “Barkskins,” Nat Geo’s new historical drama set in 1690s New France.
The Monday-night series, co-starring David Thewlis (“Big Mouth,” “Fargo”), is based on Annie Proulx’s 2016 novel and is set in Wobik, a small settlement in what’s now the Canadian province of Quebec. It tracks the battles between the French and English to establish dominance over the rugged, sparsely inhabited territory — with Jesuit priests trying to convert the indigenous population and King Louis of France sending indentured young women to populate the region.
But Proulx’s novel did not include a character named Mathilde.
“The first part of [the book’s] 1690s period focuses on the men and their journey. The women came in later,” Harden, 60, tells The Post. “You really didn’t meet an innkeeper. When I started talking to [series creator] Elwood Reid about it, he said, ‘When you said you wanted to get down and dirty with Mathilde that was enough for me.’ When you first meet her she’s kind of this tough lady but you don’t yet realize she’s vying for power in the same way as the men.”
Harden, 59, says Mathilde was originally envisioned as a much younger character. “I knew they were writing it for someone who would have child-bearing abilities, and when you cast me that’s not going to happen,” she says. “So that changed a lot and opened up a whole world of excitement, of what [Mathilde’s] power source is if she’s not pumping out babies — which is what all the other women were there to do.
“If her man dies and she doesn’t want to give the inn back … if she wants to keep it and expand her power and be a voice in the village … she ends up being a ‘Mother Courage’ figure to the young girls,” she says, “because if you’re not a working woman you’re a woman domestic owned by a man.
“That’s the underbelly I really loved.”
The eight-episode series was shot on location about 40 miles outside of Quebec City. “[Set designer] Isabelle Guay constructed this amazing set with fantastic costumes,” Harden says. “It wasn’t hard to imagine what it was like because you were there, with the forest encroaching on you and these gorgeous streams. It just brought to light what the conditions were [in 1690] — man against nature and, for the natives living there, man with nature.”
In that vein, “Barkskins” also shines a light on how the indigenous Iroquois and Wyandotte nations were treated by the French and English.
“There’s a lot to catch up on and a lot of history in this series,” Harden says. “This idea of, what do you give up morally to get ahead in life? What is the Hudson’s Bay company asking of its men? What are the Iroquois doing and who are they answering to? What are the Wyandotte Indians giving up in their constant journey for good and generosity toward the English and French?
“There’s a wavering moral compass for the ‘haves’ than those who end up being the ‘have-nots,’” she says. “They end up with nothing because they were thrown under the bus by others looking to get ahead.”
“Barkskins,” which premiered Monday night, will air back-to-back episodes over the next three weeks. Each episode will be available on Hulu the following day.
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