Primeval – Interview with Douglas Henshall (Professor Nick Cutter)

“There was our cameraman sitting on a quad-bike, which was doubling as the Gorgonopsid, chasing us through the woods at 30 miles an hour, and that was the day when I thought “here I am, in the woods, pretending to run away from a 30-foot dinosaur – this is absolutely what I signed up for.”

Following his incredibly successful stint on stage at the Donmar Theatre in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram, Douglas Henshall is about to hit our screens in an entirely different role. Audiences up and down the country will see the critically acclaimed actor doing battle with prehistoric creatures as world renowned palaeontologist Professor Nick Cutter. By his own admission, Primeval is quite a departure from the type of dramas he has been involved with to date:

“I’m normally on TV on a Thursday night at 10 o’clock and primetime family entertainment isn’t something I’ve done before. It’s through no conscious choice, but simply due to the fact that I’ve never been presented with anything quite like this before.”

Douglas Henshall

So what was it about Primeval that caught his attention?

“I really liked the ambition of the script and knew that people were going to have to be at the top of their game in order to make it work. That really appealed to me and I thought it would be extremely interesting to see what was involved in a show of this magnitude.

But chiefly it was just because I really liked the character. I thought it would be really interesting to play someone like Nick.”

Cutter is very much at the heart of the show and it is the scientist’s passion and expertise which brings the entire team together initially and then continues to drive them forward. How would Douglas describe his newest on-screen incarnation and how do we first meet the new hero of prime time TV?

“Well, we first meet him outside in the grounds of the university where he works and ‘reluctantly optimistic’ would probably be the best way to describe Nick. He is someone who has such passion for his work, but I think he’s built up a false gravity.

The fact that his wife has been missing for eight years has understandably had quite an effect on him. It’s always there and permanently means that a part of him is somewhere else.”

However, before long Nick becomes plagued by a growing feeling that his wife Helen Cutter (Juliet Aubrey) has returned. He becomes convinced that the creature sightings and Helen’s apparent reappearance are somehow linked. As the investigation intensifies, Cutter begins to discover things about his wife which have quite an effect on the Professor. Douglas goes on to explain:

“Helen, like Nick, is a scientist but her approach was rather different from his. She was far more interested in being visibly successful in a way that he just wasn’t.

It’s the same thing in every profession. There are some people who do what they do because of their love for the work. And then there are some people who do what they do because they want the fame and notoriety. And that’s where the difference between Nick and Helen lies. He’s happy to do it because he loves everything about what he does, even the every day, mundane stuff. But Helen was very much of the mind “unless I can discover something that nobody else has done and be seen to be doing that then I’m not really interested.”

When he finds out that his wife is still alive and running around, it understandably has quite an effect on him; he begins to discover a lot of things about Helen that are very difficult for him to accept.”

He goes on:

“Not only is she not dead but he very quickly realises that she had the chance to come back and tell him but never took the opportunity. She just left him to grieve for her. Even worse, she is totally unrepentant and unapologetic for what she has put him through. She’s utterly ruthless about her actions and it’s that hardness which throws him considerably.”

And if that wasn’t enough woman trouble for one man, Cutter is thrown by the arrival of the Home Office on the scene of his investigation. However, it’s less the government’s presence which catches his attention and more the attractive form in which it arrives. The officious and straight talking Claudia Brown (Lucy Brown) is more than a match for Cutter, and there is an instant chemistry between the two:

“I think it’s fair to say it’s all a little confusing for Nick. He’s wrestling with the unresolved and rather surprising situation with his wife which is then coupled with the feelings he develops for Claudia. It’s a tad overwhelming for him I think and he’s not quite sure how to react to either situation.

He has quite a lot to deal with, but in a way it’s about trying not to make it too heavy as it’s not really that kind of show. But I do think that what all the emotional stuff does is to set up a really good dynamic for my character.”

But, of course, it’s not all about romantic matters of the heart for Cutter. Douglas goes on to talk about Cutter’s relationships with the other members of the investigative team. And as he speaks, it’s clear he has fondness for Connor Temple (Andrew-Lee Potts), the geeky undergraduate who first brings the creature sightings to the professor’s attention. Temple is also the first to suggest a link between Helen’s initial disappearance and the unexplained monster stories.

“With women Nick is always slightly guarded. And he and his research assistant Stephen Hart (James Murray) know each other so well that they have a kind of short-hand together, so he can seem quite taciturn and closed. But I think a lot of his personality comes out when he is with Connor.”

And it’s the scenes between Henshall and up and coming actor Andrew-Lee Potts which provide some of the comedy and genuinely heartfelt moments, revealing a softer side of Cutter. Douglas goes on to explain why the young student has such an effect on the professor:

“I think it comes from his ability to recognise that things aren’t quite always what they first seem to be, despite initial appearances. Connor is actually extremely bright and, like Cutter himself, he has a very deep passion for palaeontology and all that encompasses. However, his enthusiasm can be quite overbearing and at times is rather irritating. Nick genuinely tries to be patient, but every now and again Connor just frays him a little bit. And that was fun to do.

It’s the first time that I’ve played a part like that – it’s almost fatherly, but to someone who is in his 20’s. It was quite bizarre. I’ve played a dad before but it has always been to young kids. This suddenly made me think “Oh, Christ almighty, I’m getting old!” But I got over that and it’s been very rewarding to play around and explore that part of my own personality.”

Like every action adventure there has to a bad guy, and in Primeval the yang to Cutter’s ying comes in the form of shadowy government official, James Lester, played with impressive zeal by Ben Miller. On the two men’s tense relations, Douglas says:

“They are diametrically opposed human beings. I think their DNA is about as far removed as is possible for two human beings. I am everything he finds distasteful and unfathomable and my morality is entirely different to his because he simply doesn’t have any. It was great fun to play, because both think they have to tolerate the other and both are thinking that they’re the one being wronged all the time.

It’s so funny because you see these two guys thinking they are being incredibly understanding and patient when really all they want to do is just throttle each other. Cutter and Lester find new and ever impressive ways to try and patronise and undermine the other. It becomes a competition to see who can insult the other the most.

And I really like the way that Ben plays Lester. I love his sarcasm and his irony and he has this wonderful ability to convey more with an arch of his eyebrow than any line of script could. He’s just terrific.”

But as Douglas points out, while it’s important for the show to have an emotional edge and good guys and bad guys, Primeval always comes back to the creatures at the heart of each episode and Cutter himself:

“I think for audiences, seeing extinct animals in this dramatic context is the most important aspect of Primeval and for Nick, it’s all about the animals too. I mean this is a guy who has spent his life studying creatures long since disappeared, and suddenly they’re here!

This is his ideal scenario. Basically he’s being told “we have a variety of species from every single era in history running around in the present day, and you can study them up close and personal. You get to find out what it is those fossils you’ve been looking at throughout your life are really, truly about.” And you can see Nick thinking “That would be quite cool. Actually, that would be great. Where do I sign?”

And for me as an actor, I had the same kind of reaction as Nick because I get to do a bit of action. I was really taken with the idea of running around London and shouting “it’s behind you”. It was fantastic.”

And it’s some of these action sequences which took Henshall, quite literally, to some new territories that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with:

“Well for someone who is playing an all-action hero, I have a number of phobias which aren’t particularly tough or indeed heroic. I’m a bit claustrophobic, I’ve never done any deep water diving before in my life and I have vertigo. Not a great start really, and in the space of one series I was asked to confront and deal with each of those fears in front of the entire cast and crew!

We filmed those underwater sequences in the tank at Pinewood Studios which is the biggest water-stage in Europe. At 20m long, 10m wide and 6m deep it’s an extraordinary thing. The people down there were really good to me and really patient as I had a little bit of trouble in the initial stages. I couldn’t get down to the bottom of the thing at all and I had these terrible images of coming to film on these days and our producer, Cameron McAllister, having to come into my dressing room saying “alright Dougie, we need you to have another bash at it, but we’re really up against it for time so if you could just pull it together that would be great”. I thought “oh God, I’m supposed to be this Indiana Jones kind of can-do figure and I’m a total wuss who can’t get down to the bottom of the tank!” But the guys at Pinewood were terrific.

Obviously they are used to working with actors and to be honest, we aren’t necessarily the easiest people at times to teach, or at least I’m not. But they got me down to the bottom of the tank and from there it was all about confidence. They were very considerate and smart. I’m really grateful to them.”

But that was just the beginning, and fresh from the water pressures at Pinewood, Douglas was flown out to La Palma, to film the dramatic sequences on the opposite side of the anomalies. It was here that Henshall was asked to face and conquer his terrible fear of heights:

“We were filming this sequence in La Palma which is the moment when Nick goes through the anomaly for the first time and is exploring his brave new world. One of the shots is this beautiful panoramic shot of me walking around the lip of a volcano. Now I was aware that it was going to look great, that there was a whole crew of people, all of whom had climbed all the way up there specifically and that I was absolutely terrified. And as an actor, you’re not really allowed to have vertigo. What was I supposed to say “sorry guys, I can’t do this, I’m off home?”

It was hideous because every single fibre of my being was going “I don’t want to do this because I’m totally sh***ing myself” Gareth Tandy, our First Assistant Director was walking in front of me which made it more bearable. But there came this awful moment when the rim of the volcano just seemed to be stretching away endlessly and the drop was getting steeper and steeper on each side of the crater. I just froze up and thought I can’t go on, But then I realised we were actually over half way and I’d passed the point of no-return. It was going to be as bad to go back as it was to go forwards. I was also battling a terrible guilt as I just didn’t want to have to let anyone down and I didn’t want the director Cilla Ware to have to compromise the shot that she wanted to get.

I managed to pull it together a bit by looking in certain directions and I thought for a moment, ‘ok I can do this if I look over here at the nice flat ground because then I can’t see the terrifying drop beneath my feet. But of course all I could hear from Cilla was “Dougie, can you just look more over that way please because that looks better much better on film” and of course ‘over that way’ was the terrifying drop beneath my feet!

But I’ve got to say, while I was basically in my own idea of hell, I was also aware that we were somewhere quite extraordinary.

We were 6,500 feet up in a place where you actually have to sweep your own footsteps away at the end of the day so as not to disturb this place. That’s got to be worth facing your fears for.”

All things considered, surely the use of a stunt double would have been the more favourable option?

“I’ve got to be honest, it wasn’t through any kind of bravery, nor butchness or machismo that I did all of that. I did it because of my own control-freakery. I don’t trust other people to do what I need to do.

I know how I want things to be and I want to be the one doing them. I might not like doing them but I can’t let go. I wish I could be better at it. I would love to think that it was a more noble trait in my character, but it’s not I’m afraid. The simple fact is I don’t trust anyone else to be me!”

Now with his feet firmly back on safe ground, what was Henshall’s best moment on set?

“La Palma was probably my favourite. Visually it was quite amazing and being on a location that is as close as you can get on the face of the earth to a prehistoric landscape was quite incredible. I loved being there. It was hard work, but it was always really enjoyable and satisfying.

I also remember in the very first week we were in Black Park near Pinewood, and we were all so excited about starting work. But when we got there it was cold, wet, windy and totally miserable. I just thought this isn’t how it was supposed to be, this wasn’t supposed to be about sitting here and trying to keep my face from shaking. And then, on the last night, the wind died, it stopped raining and it wasn’t cold anymore.

We had these four massive cherry-pickers with these huge lights on them and the rays made the rain drops glimmer on all the trees. It was just stunning. There was our cameraman sitting on a quad-bike, which was doubling as the Gorgonopsid chasing us through the woods at 30-miles an hour, and that was the day when I thought “ here I am, in the woods, pretending to run away from a 30-foot dinosaur – this is absolutely what I signed up for.”

The interview took place in 2007

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