The two-night event Saints & Strangers premieres Sunday, Nov. 22, and Monday, Nov. 23, at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel.
Vincent Kartheiser is doing his best to be patient.
Sporting coarse Pilgrim garb, a full beard and shoulder-length tresses (no Mad Men, this!) as Plymouth Colony leader William Bradford on NGC’s Saints & Strangers, Kartheiser finds the speech he is about to deliver — one arguably launching American free market commerce — interrupted by a loud buzzing sound emanating from somewhere on the Stellenbosch, South Africa, wine farm on which the project’s main sets are nestled.
The buzzing stops. Kartheiser speaks. The buzzing begins again. Over and over and over. Finally, the actor — who has earned the reputation of Saints’ affable jester — grins slyly and looks upward to the set’s rooftop armament. “Load the can-NONS!” he bellows as cast and crew dissolve into laughter.
Settling a nation ain’t easy — even when you’re just doing it for TV.
Coproduced by Sony Pictures Television and Little Engine Productions (whose energetic Gina Matthews happily prowls the set), the two-night event tells what most Americans call “the Thanksgiving story” in a way that is nothing like the version you learned in grade school. In other words, this is what really happened after 102 searching souls boarded the Mayflower on Sept. 6, 1620.
Forty-one were religious separatists who called themselves “Saints,” including Bradford and his wife, Dorothy (Anna Camp), Edward Winslow (Barry Sloane) and John Carver (Ron Livingston), along with their hired military adviser Myles Standish (Michael Jibson). The remainder — labeled “Strangers” by the Saints — were adventurers seeking better fortunes in the new world. For 66 days they sailed — two dying and one “Stranger,” Elizabeth Hopkins (Natascha McElhone), giving birth to a boy she called Oceanus — until they reached what is now Provincetown, Mass., far north of their intended destination.
Drafting the Mayflower Compact to unite Saint and Stranger into a single people, the new arrivals stepped into an unforgiving world occupied by struggling factions of the Wampanoag Nation — setting into motion a breathtaking, multicultural dance of courage, cooperation and betrayal that landed all in the history books, for better or worse.
Matthews says she and her husband/Little Engine partner Grant Scharbo knew straightaway that if they were going to tell the “Pilgrims and Indians” story, they were going all in.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to ensure as much authenticity as possible, bringing on consultants from the Smithsonian, professors and linguistic experts all to represent the world of the first Pilgrim settlement more accurately than has ever been done on film to date,” she says, surveying actors milling about the Pilgrim village set in the shadow of Simonsberg mountain.
It turned out to be a learning experience for all involved. Tomahawks were replaced by wooden war clubs. Dome-shaped wetus took the place of teepees. Language master Jesse Bowman Bruchac arrived to teach the Native American actors an Algonquin tongue that fewer than two dozen people in the world retain.
Few welcomed the effort more than Saints’ core cast of Native American actors, including Raoul Trujillo as noble Pokanoket chief Massasoit (say Mass-uh-SWEET, not Massa-soy-it), Tatanka Means as Massasoit’s right-hand man, the warrior Hobbamock, and Kalani Queypo as bilingual Squanto, a former slave of English explorers and the sole survivor of his disease-ravaged village who is conflicted in his loyalties.
“What I love about this show is that the Native characters are not one-dimensional,” says Means, son of late activist/actor Russell Means and an avid motivational speaker himself. “There’s a lot of garbage shows out there made about Native American people, and people that have an idea of us but have never visited a reservation or read a book about our history. They over-romanticize us or make us look like cave men. This is not one of those shows.”
“It’s finally the first de-sanitized version of Thanksgiving and what this whole thing is about — for all of us, not just the Pilgrims,” says Trujillo over dinner with cast and reporters at the bustling Cape Town waterfront. Trujillo knows of which he speaks. Though he’s played myriad incarnations of Native characters in TV and film for a quarter-century, his very first role — a grade school Thanksgiving production in his native New Mexico — remains a pointed memory. “I played a Pilgrim, for God’s sake,” Trujillo (who boasts Apache, Comanche and Pueblo bloodlines) laughs ruefully. “There we were, my sister and I. It was the second and third grade together and I have my little black hat on with the buckle. I am not kidding you. I played a bloody Pilgrim. I was thoroughly confused by that.”
To embody their deeply connected characters, whose individual and collective relationships with the settlers sealed everyone’s fate, the trio leaned on their shared cultural pride and longtime friendship.
“They’re amazing because they are bringing a real emotional history from their own lives, from their own stories,” Kartheiser marvels. “Hearing about the history of their people from Raoul and hearing about their understanding of this holiday and their understanding of the Pilgrims and the way it’s perceived is quite brilliant — and bringing that emotional history to the characters. And they’re doing it in a whole new language. They’re showing up on set more prepared than I am.”
But that preparation wasn’t always about words — written or spoken.
“Because I have a whole background in dance before becoming an actor [as do Means and Queypo], I relied on what I call ‘blood memory’ to help flesh out my character,” says Trujillo, who would soon ready the cast for an upcoming “friendship dance” scene. “You can only know your historical context to a certain degree and it’s usually written by Europeans. That’s going to be from a different worldview. So I have to rely on this blood memory as I call it to bring a Native sensibility to the character. You don’t want to romanticize a character like Massasoit. You just have to piece it together as an actor — what would I do as a strategist, as a war general, as a peacemaker, as somebody who is culturally interested and invested in preserving my people?”
But what if you are caught hopelessly in the middle? Queypo says he relished the chance to flesh out Squanto’s dilemma. “Squanto was the most well-versed person in both cultures — I am that bridge — and yet he’s a man who’s alone,” he explains. “I really relate to that, to the idea of straddling two worlds. As a Native person, I straddle the modern world and then where I come from. It’s really the idea of mattering. The idea of making a difference.”
Sloane, playing a deeply religious diplomat who struggles with the harsh lessons the new world affords him, supports Queypo’s assessment.
“What intrigues me about Winslow is he is incredibly drawn to the Native American side — their culture, their God,” says Sloane, who engaged in comical curse-offs with Kartheiser on ruined takes and skipped companionably to celebrate good ones (“We feel the Pilgrims would have skipped. It’s not documented, though,” he jokes). “Everything that goes on drives him to seek out another form of spirituality, another form of understanding God, a reason for being here and all the trouble that would go on. So he forms a very strong bond with Massasoit.”
“Who’s to say that the American Indians aren’t the Saints and the settlers aren’t the Strangers?” says Matthews, smiling across a restaurant table at cast members who represent each. “Who’s to say the adventurers are not the Saints and the Pilgrims aren’t the Strangers? You can interpret our title in many different ways depending on how you look at it and culturally who you are. It is one of the main points that we are trying to make: The founding of this country was not based on a simple choice of aligning with the British. It was about what is the right decision to make to survive.”
“I think it’s just the beginning of the conversation,” adds Kartheiser of Saints & Strangers’ message. “It’s not as simple as the Native Americans and the English. It’s about individuals, just like it is in all communities. Individuals like Bradford, who lose their way. Individuals like [scheming Stranger] John Billington (Brian F. O’Byrne), who are self-motivated. Individuals like Squanto, who have a master plan and a conniving manipulation. Individuals like Hobbamock, who are loyal to their tribe. That’s what this story is built around. There’s so much detail amongst the human beings that make up these groups, the ego of some people and the piousness of others. That — hopefully — is what we shed light on.”
The two-night event Saints & Strangers premieres Sunday, Nov. 22 and Monday, Nov. 23 at 9/8CT on National Geographic Channel. Check back here and in the November issue of Channel Guide Magazine for more on Saints & Strangers.