Having been created amid the backdrop of the European refugee crisis, the phrase ‘scarily relevant’ becomes particularly plausible when applied to Cleverman, an upcoming New Zealand/Australian/European production that has already garnered acclaim via its screening at the Berlin Film Festival.
Alongside the 80% indigenous cast is Game Of Thrones star Iain Glen, who plays media mogul Jared Slade. We spoke to the man himself about Cleverman, why there’s nothing else like it on TV, and what it can teach us about the world…
SciFiNow: For those of us who might be unfamiliar, can you tell us a bit about Cleverman?
Iain Glen: I think the spark that kind of ignited the series was the notion of taking these characters from Aboriginal mythology and beings from some of their stories, and trying to find an updated setting in which to place them. So primarily there are these characters called ‘hairies’, which are Aboriginal people in their stories; kind of larger than life, stronger than your average human, have a kind of spiritual depth to them, and are figures to be feared.
The idea is to take them and put them in a modern Australian urban setting, that these characters from the outside have started to drift in from the Outback and elsewhere, and started to integrate and live within the society, and that society doesn’t want them there; they’re fearful of them, so they’ve been ghettoed and separated. That’s really what the nature of the story is: how do we live with the other in society, which is unfortunately horribly relevant just now?
Does something with such powerful subject matter appeal to you when you’re choosing a film or TV show?
Definitely. There’s all aspects to good writing, but definitely relevance to world issues, and political pertinency is one of them. It’s a funny thing: you never want world events to make your little drama a bit more relevant, but what you do like, especially when they’re fairly tragic in their field, what is always reassuring is as you make a drama, things are happening in the world where you feel you’ve actually got.
It reflects and has something to say, you aren’t completely alien to life as you know it, I suppose particularly within the realm of sci-fi or things that drift away from total verisimilitude, and trying to depict reality as most of us know it. You particularly want those dramas to have a relevancy.
Was Australian Aboriginal mythology something that interested you, or something you got to know more while you were making and researching the series?
My interest had grew in it. I had done something in Australia about 18 years ago: Frankie’s House with Kevin Dillon. We played the main characters, we were Vietnamese photographers. That took me to Australia, and I remember at the time, as you do when you travel, it’s one of the gifts of film: you familiarise yourself with where you are.
Because the story was very much around that, I read up a bit. I won’t claim to be an expert, but you do a little bit of research so you’re informed as to what’s happening and where the story may be emanating from, but it’s fascinating. They are extraordinary people. I don’t think anyone doubts now that they’re the oldest original people who are still living in the land that they came from, and that’s worldwide.
They have extraordinary stories to tell, and are very artistic people: great stories with music and art, and they’re very in touch, and a lot of what they believe in is very in touch with the land that they live on. That’s what was tragic about so many colonisations around the world – the Brits were one of the worst for it – was moving people from their original habitat and forcing them into ways of living that they were not used to.
Can you tell us a bit about the character you’re playing in Cleverman?
I play this guy called Jared Slade, and I suppose he’s a sort of media mogul. When looking for someone to base this on, this is sort of tenuous, but I chose Richard Branson, a man who’s very familiar with media. His main association is media and broadcasting, but then he has a toe in every pie: transport, and my guy’s into pharmaceuticals, there’s farming, there’s definitely property, so he’s an inordinately wealthy businessman who is taking a very avid interest in what’s happening at the beginning of the drama.
As I say, the ruling party are taking very hard-nosed steps against the hairy people, against the outside people. They’ve ghettoed them, and they are not being allowed to mix with urban Australian society, so my character when we first meet him is trying to use his knowledge of sciences and enormous wealth to find a solution, to take the heat out of the situation, and also his wife is running a medical centre for free inside the ghettoed area to try and help the people there. So initially there’s a slightly more sinister aspect that emerges throughout the course of the series, but basically I am a very wealthy media mad who’s looking to alleviate the racial divide.
The only difference between Branson is that he doesn’t have the side that emerges to the character I play, but he’s a very visible… he’s a man of the people, and that’s what he presents. He’s a very popular figure, he’s not a government voice; he goes against the grain and speaks his own mind. The only difference is if Richard Branson had to jump in the balloon and fall from the sky, my guy would be behind the scenes: you don’t know how much he owns or what he controls, so he’s a slightly more hidden figure.
[Show creator] Ryan Griffen seems to have a very clear idea of what he wants to achieve with Cleverman. Does it make it easier for you to work with someone possessing such clarity of vision?
Definitely, I thought it was an amazing team throughout: the origination of the story, and Ryan’s ideas and his knowledge of it was very liberating I think for all of us, but there was also Wayne Blair, who was a brilliant director, one of the best I’ve worked with. IT had a very group of people behind it.
Early signs so far, they’ve committed to a second season very early, I think it was bought in America early, and it got into the Berlin Film festival, so signs are very strong. I’m not surprised; when I was doing it I felt like there was nothing like it really that I felt I had been a part of or seen, I think it’s a very unusual and powerful drama. It’s character-led without a doubt, it’s all about families and trying to survive. It’s horribly relevant in places, but it’s where it needs to be. I don’t think it’ll depress you; it’ll inform you and entertain you and surprise you, hopefully.
Cleverman has been described as having cinematic ambitions. Do you think the gap between TV and films is becoming less when it comes to shows like this?
I would say so. I would say that that’s been happening over the last decade. Someone somewhere along the line realised that there were stories that you could tell in ten hours or indeed 70 hours that you can’t possibly tell in an hour and a half or three hours, but that didn’t necessarily mean that it couldn’t be visually stunning as well.
I suppose that Game Of Thrones has in some ways set a new bar. It’s utterly cinematic in its feel, and Cleverman has that feel, although it’s depicting a very different world, so yeah, I think that’s right, but I think it’s a writing-led thing. There are certain stories that you need time to tell, and I think audiences love living with characters and watching them when they choose in the new world of boxsets, so yeah, there’s been a strong sea change, and a much less stronger divide between the two.
What’s it like stepping into a show that’s a bit more low key after starring in something like Game Of Thrones?
It’s lovely! All dramas have a different feel to them in the doing of them. I just finished this series in Ireland, and Cleverman sort of lies in the middle: there’s a great shared language wherever you film worldwide, but I’m very lucky. I enjoy the big-budget productions and the smaller productions, because somehow more is required of you as an actor. There are so many more questions per day.
What is it about Cleverman that you’d say makes it stand out from other shows?
I would say I think it has a very unique feel to it in that it’s a very unusual and compelling concoction to have something I think as you watch will resonate very strongly with what’s happening in the world today, particularly ways and movements of people who have been displaced, the whole refugee crisis is absolutely what this drama is about, and yet has this kind of otherworldliness; a supernatural element within it that wouldn’t belong to something that had this very visceral connection with reality in the world we live in. So it’s a combination: it’s an action piece, it’s character-led, it’s really recognisable, and the characters should be familiar, but it’s hopefully very powerfully patterned.
Cleverman will premiere on Sundance TV on 1 June, with a UK air date and channel to be announced. For more news about the latest TV series, pick up the new issue of SciFiNow.