Jungle Fever: Interview with The River's Paul Blackthorne

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Paul Blackthorne as The River's Clark Quietly

Throughout the centuries there has been more than one brave explorer who set out with the hope of making the next Earth-shattering discovery, only to never be heard from again. History seems to be repeating itself, albeit fictionally, in the new eight-part ABC TV series The River. In it, world famous wildlife expert, explorer, and TV personality Dr. Emmet Cole went looking for magic deep in the uncharted Amazon and never returned.

Family, friends, and admirers were more or less resigned to the fact that he was lost forever, but one day that all changed. Now the search is on for Emmet, and his ex-producer Clark Quietly is tagging along to film it all for a new reality TV show. Is he doing this, though, out of genuine concern for his longtime friend, or for a chance to make TV ratings history? Actor Paul Blackthorne, who plays Clark, ponders that very question.

“Some people have asked whether my character is a good guy or bad guy, and I think the interesting thing about him is that he’s ambiguous in a sense,” says Blackthorne. “Obviously some might perceive his actions as being self-serving, but at the same time Clark is helping people close to him find their loved one. He’s doing that through the means at his disposal, which, I suppose, is making a TV show. Does Clark get something out of it? Yes. Do other people get something out of it? Yes.

“Clark’s relationship with Emmet Cole [Bruce Greenwood] is a very deep-rooted one. They’ve known each other for a long time and there’s a slightly brotherly bond between them. They fought a lot, they laughed a lot, and they created a lot. At the end of the day, Emmet and Clark had a great respect for each other. So my character is trying to find someone he cares very much about as well.

“An important aspect of the Clark character is that he knows and understands people very well. If you put eight or nine people on a boat in a small environment, like any good reality TV producer he’s going to know how to stir up a little bit of drama. It’s in his interest to make the show appealing in order to sell it. That’s all wonderful in Clark’s world, until peculiar things start happening on the boat and things begin to go bump in the night in the middle of the jungle.

“Suddenly, Clark is treading this fine line of making a compelling TV show and stirring up his ‘characters,’ but at the same time realizing he is in the middle of nowhere with strange paranormal things happening. That makes him just as worried about the next hour as the next person. So Clark has to walk that fine line, and how far does he push things in terms of creating conflict when he and everyone around him are doing their best to survive throughout all these weird escapades.”

No stranger to series television work, Blackthorne had a somewhat unconventional audition process for The River. “I went in to meet with two of the show’s executive producers, Michael Green and Zack Estrin, and it was interesting because they weren’t doing the straightforward sort of, okay, read a bit of the script, then go home and we’ll have you back to talk about it later,” recalls the actor. “They wanted to explore the improvisational aspect of it all. I think it was paramount to them that this show and its characters were portrayed in a quite sort of realistic fashion as opposed to more of a stylized television presentation. They were just after the realism that you would experience in a reality or documentary-type program.

“So they wanted to hear the ‘ums” and the ‘ahs’ and listen to us improvise and how it all sounded through that process. I have to say that it was nice to sort of ‘mess around’ a bit as the character. They asked us a lot of questions and we replied in-character. It gave you the chance to really explore your character and get a handle on him or her before the actual audition. That’s one of most enjoyable parts of acting, when there’s that level of depth going on in the producers’ mind and you see the potential is there for something truly fulfilling to transpire.”

In the two-hour series premiere of The River, Emmet’s grieving wife Tess (Leslie Hope) reluctantly looks ahead to the future and tries to come to grips with her husband’s death, while their son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), cannot wait to move on. Six months later, however, Emmet’s location beacon suddenly begins transmitting from deep inside the Amazon. Tess persuades Lincoln to join her and Emmet’s film crew on a rescue mission to find him. Unlike a conventional TV drama, this series is shot using hand-held cameras and other filmmaking techniques in order to give it more of a documentary-type look.

“There were a number of people, both cast and crew, traveling on board a small boat on a river, where we spent a considerable amount of time shooting exteriors,” explains Blackthorne. “Traditionally, you would set up a scene with a wide shot, then come in with, say, a medium shot on the actors, and finally, perhaps, a close-up. In this case, however, and especially on the boat, there were these ‘big-brother-type’ wide-angled fixed camera shots. We also had two hand-held cameras swinging around in documentary fashion.

"At various points, people are operating the cameras, and then as Clark, I also had to cover the shots as my character and someone with a camera operating history, do you know what I mean? So they had to get coverage for the actual TV show, The River, along with coverage from my character’s perspective for the documentary he’s supposedly doing. Fortunately, the two kind of dovetailed, really, because they were both in the interest of the TV show. So all that was a little different and you had to slightly readjust accordingly, but, again, it was great fun and interesting as well. This show is very different from anything that I’ve been involved with before, and that made it challenging but in quite a refreshing way.”

Everyone including Clark knows to expect the unexpected as they embark on their journey to find Emmet, but they never imagined just how unsettling and bizarre things around them would get.

“My character is the kind of person who feels he’s always in control of what’s going on. Out of the blue, Clark is thrown into a situation where he’s not in control because of these paranormal and odd events taking place in the middle of nowhere. So he’s not feeling too great about things,” says Blackthorne. “Peoples’ vulnerable sides emerge in these types of situations, and that probably happens with him on a couple of occasions, where his true feelings about those around him come out.

“I think the more stressed and strained people get, the more likely they’re going to reveal their true emotions and feelings, especially with all the good writing on this show. The stories they come up with from episode to episode aren’t just riveting. They also bring out so much about the characters in terms of vulnerabilities and desires.

“There’s an episode, I believe it’s the third one, that’s particularly enjoyable. I can’t talk about what happens to our characters that made it so enjoyable to me because I don’t want to give things way, but certain people lurking out there in the shadows of the jungle do something to all of us. So our characters are struggling a bit as a result of that and all types of strange shenanigans occur.

“I felt like I was watching a movie at that point. The tension that builds in that episode is amazing, and A.J. [camera operator Andreas Jude “A.J.” Poulain] has an especially good scene where he’s feeling particularly reluctant to do certain things, but has to in order to help other people survive. The way in which Shaun Parkes [who plays A.J.] deals with that is very amusing. At the same time, Clark and Lincoln have a bit of conflict going on in their own little world as well.”

Besides those already mentioned, Blackthorne’s fellow The River castmates also include Eloise Mumford (Lena), Daniel Zacapa (Emilo), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Kurt Brynildson) and Paulina Gaitan (Jahel Valenzuela). The actor has nothing but good things to say about the show’s cast as well as crew.

“The Hawaiian crew was fantastic,” he praises. “They’re all extremely experienced from working on other shows like Lost and Off the Map along with all the movies that shoot in Hawaii. So they were terrific to work with, and so was the cast. Everyone had their backs against the wall with the [shooting] schedule and there was a fair bit of pressure along with challenge, but we all just got on with it. Everyone realized that we were very fortunate to be working with scripts of such high caliber and a producing team that was so talented. And at the end of it all, the big bonus was that we were working in Hawaii, so you can’t really complain, can you?”

Born and raised in England, Blackthorne got his start in the business while still at school. “I was at the National Youth Music Theatre and was a little precocious brat running around the stage in the West End of London and singing Victorian musical numbers,” notes the actor with a chuckle. “That was good fun, and I did it with people like Tom Hollander and Toby Jones.

“In my early 20s I was living in New York and did a little bit of acting work there. It wasn’t until I returned to London in my mid-20s that the whole acting thing came back up, so I spent a couple of years studying and training, and from there gradually started getting work. In 2000 I did a film called Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2002. That brought me to Los Angeles and I’ve been working in American television and films ever since. So the acting just sort of happened and, again, I’ve been very lucky.

Presidio Med, ER, Lipstick Jungle, Leverage, CSI: Miami, The Gates and Warehouse 13 are among the actor’s numerous TV credits on this side of the pond. He also played the recurring role of Stephen Saunders in 24 and starred as Harry Dresden in the Syfy channel series The Dresden Files.

24 was a fun experience, and obviously working with Mr. [Kiefer] Sutherland [Jack Bauer] and the show’s producers was fantastic,” says Blackthorne. “They know how to write a good ‘hook,’ so those scripts were fantastic to read every week. I got to play a classic baddie, which is nice from time to time. I’ll never forget shooting the scene where I’m standing by the river with my character’s escape helicopter getting blown up and all kinds of other mayhem unfolding around me. All I could think was, ‘Wow, I’m doing this for a living. How neat is that?’

“As for The Dresden Files, that was a very intensive experience. I think I was injured in just about every scene, so it was a pretty full-on job, but it was great and another fun one. I like those types of stories because really anything can happen, can’t it, in the paranormal/supernatural world and you can constantly be surprised by those scripts.”

Along with being a talented actor, Blackthorne is also a gifted photographer and his work has been exhibited around the world (for more information check out his website). In between acting gigs, he has been doing post-production work on This American Journey, a documentary he shot with his friend, famed Australian photographer Mister Basquali.

“We drove across America and interviewed people, from gas station attendants, to cowboys, plumbers, etc. as to how they felt about the state of the country and its future in the wake of economic downturn,” he says. “That’s my little pet project and I’ve been editing it on and off for the last wee while. Hopefully we’ll finish that up in the next few months and get it out there.”

No matter what the role, there is one constant that Blackthorne has enjoyed and continues to enjoy about every acting job. “It’s the quality of the people I’ve been fortunate to work with, whether it’s writers, directors, producers or actors,” enthuses the actor. “It’s been terribly rewarding, and I constantly pinch myself as to how lucky I’ve been.”

The River airs Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m. EST/PST on ABC in the States and on CTV in Canada. Please note, all The River photos above copyright of ABC.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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