The Welsh star opens up about his long-suffering character DCI Tom Mathias.
Hinterland has become a popular UK crime drama to adopt a similar style found in the critically acclaimed Nordic Noir series. Did you know that DR, the producers of The Killing, Borgen, 1864, The Legacy, and Follow the Money, bought the distribution rights for Hinterland before the show began filming? The creator of The Bridge, Hans Rosenfeldt, says Nordic Noir looked to UK shows such as Cracker and Prime Suspect to see how great crime shows were done. We can see Wallander‘s Sweden in the Welsh backdrop and Sarah Lund’s unfaltering determination in Mathias.
Following the return of the award-winning Hinterland on BBC Four, fans of the Welsh show welcomed back DCI Tom Mathias in five new feature-length episodes. While he is not known to smile or enjoy his life in the sprawling countryside, the latest season showed us more behind the stoic mask of melancholy.
There is a brusque charm to his character, but what originally drew Richard Harrington to the play the antihero DCI Tom Mathias? “Initially, it was a job! [LAUGHS] Therefore, you go “Oh, I’ll do that!” Harrington candidly admits. “I think I was mainly attracted to the character which I saw as something I could contribute my own agenda to; I was part of the embryonic creation of him. So that’s always fun to interact with because you can create a backstory which gives you the confidence to do anything with him really, providing it is the blueprint of who he is. I remained in control of him which was good.”
As well as getting into Mathias’ mindset, the balance of playing a detective is a key part of the researching the role. “I spent a little time with the police and got to know them, but I think a die-hard police fan would probably hate everything I did about playing DCI Mathias! I don’t really follow any protocol: I wasn’t interested in putting any handcuffs on anybody, I wasn’t interested in taking any fingerprints; I wasn’t really interested in any kind of procedure whatsoever! He’s a maverick and a DCI but in real-life a DCI doesn’t really do much work in the field,” explains Harrington. “I was more interested in police individuals as people rather than anything else. I found that they are like the rest of us; they are humans with sensitivity, feelings, and they see the world through a slightly different prism than we do. They are also mothers and fathers, brothers, and sisters, and sons and daughters of someone. That was the type of thing I was able to look into and explore. That’s what I do with Mathias as I never wanted him to really look like a policeman or to be the man looking for justice. He’s more like a voyeur in lots of ways; he watches how people live and can be considered to be more of an anthropologist in that sense. Mathias just happens to be someone who enforces the law but he has a sympathetic ear to everything he looks at, really – an openness.”
There are many scenes which show Mathias’ evolution in the second season: he uncharacteristically admits blame for his daughter’s death and then his wife turns up to humanise him and bring his past pains to the surface, which is significantly less opaque than season one. “We can’t make the same series twice. However, once you find out a little bit about the character in the first season – which is quite scarce – you can’t handle it,” Harrington states. “An audience will always have a different take on something once they know more about them. He gets a lot more tortured. The way Hinterland works is that there is a personal connection with the story of the week. I think that as the season progresses the story of the week becomes less important than what is going on in his life.”
Despite the series evolving with Mathias and news of a third season being filmed, originally Hinterland encountered financial obstacles. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case with more seasons being made. “We’re over halfway through making the third season now so I know exactly how Mathias is evolving but I can’t give anything away. If I get bored with the character than I would be the first to go into the writer’s room and tell them, “You need to do something better with this!” We’re always collaborating to make sure we are telling the story the way we want it,” says Harrington. “There isn’t a problem with funding, although initially there was. The success, or rather the sales of the project have done so well. The show is more or less made on a shoestring budget and competes on an international scale, so that has never been a problem. Hinterland has boosted the local economy and has done well for Wales! It’s a testament to really good work and gives back a lot more than it takes. It doesn’t cost all that much to make, believe it or not!”
Hinterland has played a key part in a pro-Welsh initiative to increase the Welsh television arts. The impact that Hinterland has had on the Welsh remit of TV drama can be measured by its awards. It has received BAFTA wins and accolades at the New York TV Festival to elevate the status. “It’s really tapping into the prolific crime genre. The genre is a winner, isn’t it? People love a good crime show but it’s about reinventing the wheel every time,” cites Harrington. “I think that the style of the show by the end of the third season will be fundamentally different to the first. We’ve made some brave decisions in the second season and, hopefully, they’ll be received well.”
Many actors playing TV detectives, such as Sofia Helin playing Saga Norén in The Bridge, admit they don’t wholly like them and playing the role is emotionally and physically challenging. “I think it’s important that every actor likes the character they play. I tend to try and find the humility within. That’s something that has been ingrained in me as a child. I think it’s nice to find the child and the nice guy within anyone, really,” describes Harrington. “I think Mathias is an inherently tortured creature just by the life that he has lived. I’d probably like to crack open a beer with him and see him smile once in a while. Mathias has a journey to go on and I’d like to chew the fat with him at some point! I do on a daily basis in lots of ways because I’m aware of what is happening to him, more so than anyone else. I think you also have to keep this mystery in order to keep the series going. He’s not a character that we make up as we go along; all the work on Mathias was done before we even shot the first frame. This helps me to really know him and for us to reveal things about his character as the seasons progress. He reacts really well to situations and people gravitate towards him. Hopefully, he’s got legs to run and run, really!”
This literally leads us to wonder whether the actor is as avid a runner like Mathias is. “Yeah, I am, actually. Not as much as I used to be but I do like to run,” confirms Harrington. “Not just to keep fit but to keep my mind level; it’s a good leveller. If you run long distances it’s a good way to get to know your strengths and weaknesses, both mental and physical. Mathias doesn’t run so much in this season! That’s gone off the boiler. We’ll have to bring that back!”
The Welsh language and culture seems to tie-in with the fascination of Nordic culture and Nordic and Euro Noir shows aired on BBC Four. In the second season, there is a substantial amount of subtitled dialogue which hasn’t been seen in the English version before. “People are fine with subtitles now, even in America they like it. I think it just adds a whole different texture to something,” suggests Harrington. “What I love about it is that Mathias doesn’t speak Welsh so he’s almost isolated within his own community as well. I like the way it just fits in really well as you wouldn’t expect any language other than Welsh to come out of other characters’ mouths! We’re really proud that it has been accepted. Welsh is a language that has been around for centuries and it has been embraced in the UK and around the world so that’s quite a milestone. There’s scope to make shows in their own languages, such as Arabic or Punjabi, as there are so many different cultures that make up the United Kingdom. There is such a great diversity so I think it’s great that we get to hear them all. It’s not there to jar, but to intrigue and invite people into a world that they know nothing about.”
Not only has the second season introduced more of a Welsh indigenous style with its dialogue, we wondered what it was like filming duplicate scenes in both Welsh and English and the process of switching back and forth. “You never get used to it ever. You’re making two different dramas. One isn’t a translation; they both have their own importance as there are different ways to say things in English and Welsh,” Harrington muses. “Welsh can be a lot more melodramatic and certain scenes will finish a lot quicker than in English. Welsh scenes are more emotional and the police procedural doesn’t really lend itself much to the Welsh language, but it’s a battle to try and make it appear as cool as we can! The characters are also represented differently in how they speak and think. What you do is you get to explore the script and the character thoroughly and one can influence the other – “Oh, we found this in English so let’s try and find it in Welsh”. Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t.”
Going even further afield than its affiliations with the UK, Harrington spoke of the international intrigue of Nordic Noir and his own favourite shows. “Initially, I loved The Killing before it became the thing to love and I still love it, as well as Borgen and The Bridge. I met most of the actors a few years ago at the Monte-Carlo Festival and I was enthralled and star-struck by all of them,” reminisces Harrington. “Nordic Noir series have very moving stories and I think that the way the stories are told gives the characters room to breathe and allow us to spend more time with them than you would in any conventional police drama. Too much dialogue isn’t a good thing and characters are allowed to stand still and you learn more about them in those moments. It’s gifted and has changed the whole dynamic on how to tell a story.”
What would you like to see happen to Mathias in the third season? Will he stay on the police periphery in his cabin? Or will he open up even more, to atone for the personal sins he burdens himself with? The mystery remains in the dusk because, after all, that’s what Y Gwyll (AKA Hinterland) means.
Words and interview by Antony Smith
Hinterland series two is released on DVD Monday 30th May by Nordic Noir & Beyond. Pre-order your copy from the Nordic Noir & Beyond Amazon store here!