Kyle MacLachlan, Jeff Daniels get real for PBS programs

Rick's Reviews

Sofia Helin and Kyle Maclachlan star in “Masterpiece: Atlantic Crossing.” (Photo courtesy of PBS)

(KGET) — History is examined in very different ways with two new PBS programs – “Masterpiece: Atlantic Crossing” and “Hemingway.”

The “Masterpiece” offering looks at the relationship between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan) and Norway’s Crown Princess Martha (Sofia Helin) before the start of World War II. “Hemingway,” the latest in-depth documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, looks at the life and works of the writer.

The eight-part “Atlantic Crossing” – scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. April 4 on ValleyPBS – looks at events that happen after Crown Princess Martha and her three children escape to America after Germany invades Norway to iron ore mines for steel production.

Roosevelt is against America entering the war but Martha urges him to find a way to help Norway in the fight against Germany. Their political relationship begins to grow even deeper.

This is not the first time Roosevelt has been portrayed in a television series or on film. Normally, MacLachlan (“Twin Peaks”) would examine previous works by others as part of the kind of deep research he does for a role. This time MacLachlan relied heavily on the script and watching the Ken Burns documentary about the Roosevelts.

The challenge he found with playing Roosevelt was to figure out why he made the decision he made.

“Even as simple as just having footage of Roosevelt moving through space, you know, not walking, of course, but just how he carried himself in front of a crowd and in the situations that he was filmed told me a lot about who he was as a person,” MacLachlan says. “Along with the research. And then again, Alexander (Eik) had done such an extraordinary job researching this, along with Linda (May Kallestein). There was so much that was already there.

“I embraced that and really focused on making the person a whole person. I was helped by the fact that the script gives him some latitude.  He was very playful and loved a good joke and loved to be, obviously, the – I won’t say “class clown” – but he certainly wanted all the attention on him. And they let me run with that a little bit, which was a lot of fun.  Something you don’t usually get to do.”

Series creator and writer Alexander Eik was impressed when he initially met with Maclachlan with how prepared he was to take on the role. He suggests the actor is being far too modest in regards to how much research he had done before filming started.

Because “Hemingway” is a three-part, six-hour documentary, Daniels (“The Newsroom”) didn’t have to physically play the noted author Ernest Hemingway. He did want to find the right voice to speak for him.

It was a very different way of working for Daniels.

“It changes it because you don’t have to worry about anything other than – not only the sound, but the getting inside of him, the telling the truth of him without worrying about whether externally you’re doing anything to help that along or not,” Daniels says. “It is very freeing, in a way.  It helps you bear down, do a deep dive into what is he telling us, what is he saying, as if he’s just saying it to one other person.  That was the fun of just doing the voice.”

Burns has always looked for anyone providing a voice in one of his documentaries who can do what he calls “inhabit the words.” That means to keep the voice sounding right even down to the spaces between the words.

“It always has been important in our work and we look for people who are able to do that.  Sometimes they are amateurs,” Burns says. “Sometimes they are people from my little, small town here in New Hampshire.  Sometimes they are less well‑known actors.  But we look for people to do this.

He found a veteran actor who was raised in Michigan with Daniels to be the right voice for the production that debuts 8 p.m. April 5 on ValleyPBS. The documentary examines the visionary work and the turbulent life of Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest and most influential writers America has ever produced. It mixes his eventful biography with excerpts from his iconic short stories, novels, and non-fiction.

The recording sessions gave Daniels a deep look at Hemingway. He was struck by how the brevity and simplicity of his writing could tell just stark truths.

“There’s no adornment.  Since doing the reading for Ken and Lynn, I have ceased using adjectives and adverbs because I felt so guilty.  But that’s what it felt like,” Daniels says. “He inhabits the skin of his opposite, and that’s what actors do.  That’s what great artists do.  And nice to know that those of us who are acting and do that didn’t invent it.  People like Hemingway did.”

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