Barkskins star Marcia Gay Harden talks NatGeo’s epic mystery

Mathilde (Marcia Gay Harden) looks at a rose on the windowsill, drawn by her late daughter Veronique. (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)
Mathilde (Marcia Gay Harden) looks at a rose on the windowsill, drawn by her late daughter Veronique. (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks) /

Marcia Gay Harden discusses Barkskins before tonight’s finale.

Barkskins comes to an end Monday on National Geographic, hopefully answering all of TV crime drama fans’ questions about what happened in the wilderness of New France. What ultimately led to the massacre of these would-be settlers? And will anyone make it out alive?

Before the last two episodes air, Precinct TV spoke to Marcia Gay Harden, who has been leading the series as Mathilde Geffard. The award-winning actress is excellent in every role, but in this one she has given Barkskins some additional poise, grace and a maternal figure that the audience can rally around.

Hear what she had to say about taking on the series and her experiences working on it in our interview below, before you tune in to the Barkskins finale on National Geographic at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT tonight.

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Precinct TV: What about Barkskins resonated with you originally?

Marcia Gay Harden: I love Annie Proulx. I knew her writing from Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News. That was really the first thing. When I was in the middle of reading the book. I was enthralled with it, and then I heard that they were possibly doing a series of it.

Then with [executive producer] Scott Rudin and [Barkskins showrunner] Elwood [Reid], it just seemed like it was really going to be an interesting and oddly timely and completely unique series. I knew I just wanted to be a part of it.

PTV: Being familiar with the book, but with only so much of the novel making its way into the series, how much did having read it help you? How did you prepare to play Mathilde?

MGH: It’s actually nice when you have the research done for you in a book. You have the storyline, the character storyline, helping you figure out who the character is. And it often allows you to be more unique and make bolder choices. In this case, she wasn’t in the book. Certainly prototypes like her were, but she’s not in the book. This came clearly from [Elwood’s] imagination.

I still did research. There’s some beautiful paintings of peasant women holding bread and innkeeper type of people. I did research, just looking at the paintings and reading about what was going on France and why someone might’ve left France at that time to come to the new world. It was more about creating her together, I think, then finding something in the book. But it’s nice when you have the characters outlined in the book.

PTV: The sets in Barkskins are impressive, particularly Mathilde’s inn. What was it like for you to film in such a rich environment?

MGH: Because the sets were so exquisite and they were so perfectly done, it was like taking something right out of that time—right out of the late 1600’s and opening up the doors for us. What ended up happening is, you really didn’t have to do a lot of imagining. You were actually in those heavy woolen dresses. You were in the corsets. As the scene called for, you’re walking in a street full of mud, and as you’re walking through the street, you have to lift your skirt. You have to behave as they do.

And I loved my inn. In fact, I almost never left it. I just would set up camp there. All the actors had green rooms, and I tried to stay in the inn. It was warm, it was cozy, there was a big fireplace. I liked being in the kitchen and just getting a feel for the kitchen—where all the silverware is, all the bowls, all the food, the pantry. They put in running water; I knew I wanted to be washing dishes at some point. It was glorious to have this working kitchen. The ovens weren’t really hot, but it was really wonderful.

PTV: You’ve played some incredible women over your career. How does Mathilde Geffard in Barkskins compare to characters like the ones in Code Black, The Newsroom, or Law & Order: SVU?

MGH: Each role is completely different. If I seem to play strong women, I guess it’s probably because people perceive me to be that. And I’d like to think I am…but she’s a real ball buster. And I freaking loved her. She was a working woman. She liked working. She didn’t need a man [or] want a man. And she was trying to pave a way for the girls to understand that they could be workers too.

That there was freedom in working rather than being stuck out in the middle of the forest. Basically their job was to have babies, and that’s what they did. And so I loved that Mathilde represented something that we might think of almost as a modern ideology, but it would be silly to think that women at that time didn’t discover sometimes that being a working woman was actually a lot of freedom.

She’s in a little village where there’s a lot of danger, and the men are bigger and stronger and have more power. And I think she quickly learned when she first came there to protect herself. There’s a line I say, and I’m just reflecting on it again now in retrospect—there was one guy who was always coming to grope, and he would grope her right in front of her husband. And she says, “Did he do anything? No, he stood there quaking like a flower, no more use to me than a flower.” And I think that she learned that if she’s got to protect herself, she has to be strong and carry that big stick and have no fear.

PTV: You also wound up inhabiting the character, too, in the sense that you were doing some cooking out of Mathilde’s garden during the filming of Barkskins.

MGH: It’s always funny to me how you blend into your character a little bit without thinking about it. So I would be doing a scene in the garden and I would be noticing oh, there’s zucchini for fiber. Oh, look at those onions over there…It was a completely working garden. It was absolutely gorgeous. And so I would take all these vegetables home. There were some animal wranglers; there would be baskets of eggs in my trailer.

I would take them home and I’d whip up a quiche and bring it into the next day for people, or whip up zucchini bread. Elwood’s daughter and I got really close and we would do lemon poppy muffins and zucchini muffins and bring them in for the crew. And for me, it was a way of inhabiting Mathilde, because at heart I felt she was a nurturer. And I think feeding and warmth and all of that is the center of the home.

Next. How Barkskins combined crime drama and period drama. dark

The final two episodes of Barkskins air tonight starting at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic.