Monumental Miniseries, July 2010
By Bill Brioux
Thanks, GreenEyesTwo

Interviewing an actor halfway around the world would have been seen as witchcraft or sorcery back in the 12th century. But despite all our advances in technology, have we, as a people, really changed all that much?

“I doubt it,” says Rufus Sewell. The busy Brit – tracked down by cell phone on the set of his next project in Italy – was happy to talk about 'The Pillars of the Earth', an eight-hour, sword-and-sandals epic premiering July 23 at 9 p.m. on The Movie Network and Movie Central.

The Canadian-German co-production was shot in Budapest and Austria last year and stars an international cast, including Donald Sutherland, Ian McShane and Gordon Pinsent. Sewell’s Tom Builder is the ordinary hero at the heart of the story. As he originates in Ken Follett’s bestselling novel (which took off as an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2007), Builder is a simple stonemason with an ambitious vision — to build a grand cathedral in the middle of an English forest. Wars, religious strife and various romantic entanglements all get in the way.

Building a character like Builder was a straightforward task for the versatile actor. He’s best known to North American audiences through TV roles in HBO’s 'John Adams' (where he played Alexander Hamilton) and the U.S. network series 'Eleventh Hour', but he’s also strapped on the sandals before in such films as 'A Knight’s Tale' and 'Helen of Troy'. When Sewell takes a historical role, he doesn’t try to imagine how somebody would have thought or behaved in another time or place. People are people and have the same loves, fears and concerns now as then, figures Sewell, mainly interested as an actor in universal truths.

“What are cell phones but just another way to talk to one another?” he asks all the way from Italy. And what do we do with all this technology? “Send friends photos of each other’s bottoms,” he says with a laugh. “When you come right down to it, it’s the baseness of humanity that levels it all out.”

There’s plenty of the baseness of humanity on display in 'The Pillars of the Earth'. Builder’s family is attacked and threatened at several turns and his own life is constantly at risk. Sewell does not see Builder as a hero, however, but simply as a “decent man struggling to do the right thing. He has bravery and cowardice, blind spots and faults. That’s what makes it so interesting.”

The 42-year-old says much of 'The Pillars of the Earth' was shot on outdoor locations, in fields or forests in the Hungarian countryside. Conditions were not always ideal, he says. “Whenever you were supposed to be acting cold you could guarantee it would be sweltering hot. When we were supposed to be enjoying a balmy summer’s afternoon, you could pretty much guarantee that your nipples would be frozen off.”

Some of the castle locations were real, with computer-generated images filling in some of the details. The stones used in scenes of the cathedral construction were real stones, Sewell relates. Sewell, who is from Twickenham, England, says he was interested in Builder as a workingman, having dabbled in carpentry back in his student days.

“When I grew up, a friend of mine was a carpenter and I would work as his carpenter’s mate,” he says. However, “my complete lack of skill was a major liability.”

Whether you’re building a cathedral or a hut in Africa, he suggests, one building site is pretty much like another, even over the centuries. It’s still about “people on their lunch breaks having a bit of a gossip about who has better sandwiches than the next guy,” he says.

Sewell embraces the new realities of international co-production, the kind of post-recession filmmaking that makes a $40-million epic like 'The Pillars of the Earth' a reality today. With Ridley Scott (Robin Hood) among the executive producers, and Canadian pay-TV services The Movie Network and Movie Central on board, the series boldly moved forward without the usual upfront involvement of an American network (U.S. pay-TV channel Starz eventually snapped up the series after shooting wrapped). That was a factor that actually helped the integrity of the production, Sewell says. “As far as I’m concerned, the idea of working for one of the major networks worries me,” he says. “What I like about 'Pillars of the Earth' is that it wasn’t controlled by any one major source. I knew if a scene was very interesting on paper, it wasn’t going to become less interesting the morning before we did it.” The major American networks, he says, have caved in creative areas in the past, too concerned about pandering to advertisers and “losing the dollars of stupid people or even bigoted people.”

This miniseries, therefore, has retained all the strength and integrity of the novel, which pleases Sewell the actor and the individual. After all, as Tom Builder surely would have agreed, these things have to be built on a solid foundation.

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