Although he is the polar opposite of his character Cavendish in BBC Two’s new mini-series The North Water, Sam Spruell’s portrayal is still a masterclass in seeking out the humanity within even the most awful of characters.
To say speaking with Sam Spruell is a gift would be something of an understatement. The actor, known for his roles in “Snow White & the Huntsman” and “The Hurt Locker,” is equal parts enthusiastic and eloquent; it is as if he’s vibrating when he chats about his work due to the sheer excitement to dive into any & all conversations about his projects and characters. As an actor that loves to psychoanalyze the people he plays, it’s obvious when speaking with him there is a sheer amount of passion and dedication Spruell has for both his craft and the people he portrays. His latest character analysis (and project) is BBC Two’s new mini-series “The North Water,” a show about an Arctic whaling expedition that goes south and gets slightly bloody.
Directed by Andrew Haigh and starring opposite acting heavyweights Colin Farrell, Jack O’Connell, and Stephen Graham, Sam Spruell brings a distinct edge of chaos to the show through his dynamic and captivating portrayal of Cavendish, a sly & opportunistic man that isn’t exactly the brightest in the bunch but definitely isn’t one to back down from potential success. Like a true character actor, Sam Spruell dives deep into Cavendish’s psychosis, peeling him apart and constantly questioning everything from his behaviours to his mannerisms. It’s a role that is the polar opposite of who Spruell is as a human… which is exactly why he’s just so good at playing him.
1883 Magazine’s features editor Kelsey Barnes chats with Sam Spruell about “The North Water,” implementing imagination in his work, picking apart his characters, and more.
Your first film role was back in 2001 when you filmed “K-19: The Widowmaker,” which I know was your introduction to film after having a theatre career. When you look back at 20 years of acting in film & TV, how would you say you’ve grown and developed as an actor?
Before filming “K-19: The Widowmaker,” I was just in college and always thought I was going to do theatre. My agent sent me to a meeting with this amazing theoretical casting director, Mary Selway, who has since died but she was the creme de la creme of casting directors here. I met Kathryn Bigelow and that began my journey into film. It hasn’t always been working on Hollywood blockbusters, which is a shame [laughs] but it was really about enjoying and working in film, which wasn’t on my radar at all. I wasn’t a cinephile; I didn’t know much about film, but I ended up loving it. To think it has been 20 years is utterly frightening, but it’s nice to see what I’ve done since then. As an actor, because you’re often infantilized, 20 years makes me feel ancient! [Laughs]
One thing I love to look back on is that I did my first job with a female director and that felt unbelievably rare. I don’t believe Kathryn Bigelow was treated very well by the producers who were meant to be looking after her in that film, maybe because she was a woman. A shift has happened — you look at Chloé Zhao, who is making the next Marvel film, or Patty Jenkins, or Jane Campion. It really feels like there are more female creative voices at the top. From your perspective, it might seem less radical and less impactful because you’ve grown up in the change but now we’re seeing such a shift with diverse stories, even with Black and Brown creatives and writers and directors, too. I’m saying this because I’m going to talk about “The North Water” which is all about men and white men at that! But “The North Water” is about the examination of toxicity rather than the celebration of white men.
Yeah, I wouldn’t say “The North Water” paints white men in a good light at all.
It doesn’t — it shows men constantly lying to themselves and to each other. In today’s climate, there’s a lot of lying going on — the administration for the last few years in the States and we, in Britain, have a Prime Minister who is famous for it. A lot of men are unable to accept their flaws and accept that success can be achieved with them but also without them.
Let’s chat about your character Michael Cavendish in “The North Water.” He’s a bit of a sly, cunning character to put it lightly.
Isn’t that the truth! I really liked playing him because I’ve played some horrible characters, but this guy was just a bag of chaos. He was kind of useless; he didn’t have any subtext, because the subtext would require a degree of sophistication and intelligence and he doesn’t have a great deal of that. It’s almost as if he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve the whole time, but not in a broody silent type of way but just with his energy.
Andrew Haigh, the director, very early on in the process said “I think your character is in love with Drax [Colin Farrell’s character].” That really unlocked it for me. Whether it was a kind of sexual love or like an example where you like the most popular kid in class or whatever that is. That was the heart of Cavendish and his inner child; it was great to play the scenes between him and Colin because it was mirroring this strange love story. No spoilers, but I wouldn’t say the love story works out! [Laughs]
It doesn’t, it gets a bit bloody!
[Laughs] You’re right! It’s the perfect ending for a love story for Drax because it wasn’t going to end any other way. I found the script unbelievably incredible on the first read because it just kept on giving. Being away filming it in the Arctic ended up giving us these conditions to make the whole experience very immersive; there was no going to the pub after work, there was no going back to your family, there was no seeing anyone. It was just you and the cast and crew and the Arctic.
I watched your chat on “An Actor Despairs” and you talked briefly about how your sister is a psychotherapist which can help you create characters. When you approach someone like Cavendish, what are you doing to prepare?
I thought a lot about who these guys were and how they presented themselves. They aren’t really presenting themselves in a certain way, especially physically. They’re not really thinking about how they’re presenting themselves, they’re thinking about just doing the work. There’s a lack of vanity to Cavendish which I just found thrilling, but I also imagine him quite pleased with the way he looked, you know? We, as actors, go through life judged on how we look all of the time and I just loved that he could be as ugly as I wanted to make him and he’d still have this kind of confidence about him. He was, in a way, the opposite of a depressive because he really did think things were gonna work out for him. I think that it was really lovely to play someone flawed and not very bright and constantly failing, but also thinking just around the corner was success. I found that very liberating.
He really does always think success is around the corner!
He does, but he can’t really string together a plan because he can barely string together a sentence! You asked about the preparation of playing him and I think it was just deprogramming myself. This was set in 1850 and there was no place for modern morality there. I had to really forget how awful a lot of things are concerning men, male rape, and themes like that because I had to see it as Cavendish would, which is to say that he would see it as collateral damage. He’s more kind of interested in finding the culprit for his own satisfaction rather than being on a moral crusade and righting the wrongs of what’s going on. Haigh was constantly reminding us to leave our moral attitudes at the door. When someone gets hold of that and when you’re all on the same page, that’s thrilling.
What would you say you’ve learned about yourself whilst portraying Cavendish? I know he’s awful, but I like to think every single person has a redeeming quality that you could pull from.
Good question. In my work but also as a person, I am completely attracted to complexity. When someone says one thing, my immediate inclination is to unpick it and figuring out why people need to have that conviction and clarity to move on with their lives, you know? I really enjoy playing characters that actually have no morality because it is very freeing, oddly enough. It only enforces the need for complex moral debates so we can make the world a better place. Apologies for sounding really Disney right there! [Laughs]
You saying that reminded me of the naivety of toddlers and how they ask so many questions and always need to ask “why?”!
That’s exactly what acting is for me. It’s this constant pushback. Especially in good material like “The North Water,” you’re pushing to ask why these humans are behaving the way they are and why they are behaving like this. It’s partly to do with my own exploration of myself, but I’m interested in the way humanity ticks.
Something I really like about your career is that you take stock of the smaller parts you’ve done that have led you to bigger roles — in an interview, you speak about how the small film “London to Brighton” that you did for free actually led you to be asked to audition for Snow White. Is that frame of thinking — knowing that everything is a building block that all amounts to something — your way of pushing forward?
I just thought “London to Brighton” was such a brilliant film so I was thrilled to be a part of it. To turn up and film a great scene with great writing, great actors, and a great director was all completely thrilling. I wasn’t expecting it to do well because when you’re there, you’re just doing the job and as soon as you start thinking beyond that, things can get messed up. You want to exist in the moment. I wasn’t thinking about how it could get me a future role down the line but it’s amazing to think that it did.
In your chat on “An Actor’s Despair,” I wrote down something you said, which was that actors have a duty to be as imaginative as possible with the story you’re telling. I’d love to hear about how you approach imagination while on set — do you make suggestions or be collaborative?
I just think it’s the most interesting way to work. The buzz is really when there’s two of you and it’s a close shot and there’s no escape; you’re not acting to the camera but to each other and there’s this energy and magic that is going between you and it is absolutely fizzing and alive. When you have a brilliant director like Andrew Haigh, they will always listen to other people if they have ideas. In terms of imagination, I think we’ve all got a duty — actors, writers, directors — to really push the boundaries of what something can be. Otherwise, for me, what’s the point, you know? A director I worked with once worked with the actress Holly Hunter who said, what’s the point of doing this at level 5 when we can do it at level 10? There’s something so true in that. What’s the point of making something mediocre when we can make something great?
Exactly, which is exactly why I loved the essay that you wrote for Backstage about how each role you take is a reset button. You talk about everything from avoiding pre-judging people’s routes into acting to being less concerned about appearing adult and embracing feeling lucky to be at a premiere or a glamorous party. It’s a great mindset to have.
Thank you for reading it! Having travelled through my 20s and my 30s and just getting older, you realize how hard it is to navigate all of that while trying to be yourself. It’s not about worrying who you are, it’s about finding some comfort in who you are and embracing the openness that comes with that. It’s hard to do, but when you get there… It’s great.
As a 28-year-old stressing about everything all of the time, it was great to read.
As a 43-year-old, we’re looking back at you thinking you’re having the best time of your life but we forget how hard it is! But you’ll be just fine, don’t you worry.
The North Water airs weekly on BBC Two on Friday September 10th & available in full on BBC iPlayer.
Interview Kelsey Barnes
Photography David Reiss
Grooming Brady Lee