The Three Pines actor, 69, talks about his new role as a police detective who’s a ‘little bit different’, his empathy ‘superpower’, and learning about the tragedy of missing indigenous Canadian women and children.
Your detective show Three Pines has you acting with a duck. How did it go?
It went well! My co-star, Clare Coulter, who played Ruth, got on very well with the duck – she had a real empathy for them. I think she quite enjoyed working with them. She worked closely with the duck trainer, as far as one can train a duck.
We’d see her during the day and she’d be with her ducks. I said to her, ‘You spend a lot of time with the ducks?’ And she said, ‘I’m getting to know them. They’re acting in the show as well.’
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a refreshing change from the depressing detectives we’ve been served recently…
That’s what makes him a little bit different, a little bit special. We’ve had plenty of troubled and tortured detectives. Now we’ve got a man who is much more interested in why, rather than how, people do these things. He’s a deep thinker, he’s a gentle, caring person but that doesn’t make him any less effective as a detective.
I’ve been quoting my granddaughter, who’s 16, and she said, ‘What’s your superpower?’ And I said, ‘Empathy.’ That’s what I came up with. That’s really the truth of it.
The show is set in Quebec, where it can get extremely cold. Warmed up yet?
I’ve warmed up. We were well looked after in terms of keeping warm because, wow, it’s cold. Every time I complained, for example, I’d be walking on set and I might just say, ‘Oh blimey, it’s cold today.’ There’d always be a Canadian crew member saying, ‘Wait until next month.’ They almost took pride in going, ‘This is nothing, just you wait.’
Canada’s Indigenous people are a big part of the story. What did you know about them?
I was a little aware of it without doing any kind of deep study of it. But what we became increasingly aware of was this terrible, tragic history of missing Indigenous women and children.
It has been going on for years and years and is only now beginning to come to the surface in the most awful ways with discoveries of mass graves and so on.
How did you get the tone right?
It has become a big part of the conversation in Canadian culture and we knew that doing a show based in Canada, we couldn’t ignore it. But what we didn’t want to do was become the white saviour who comes in and explains everything to everybody.
It was important that those stories were told by the people to whom those stories occurred. They had to have a voice so they could tell their history themselves, so all the Indigenous characters were cast with Indigenous actors.
You speak Spanish and Italian. How did you get on with the French language?
I picked up the old phrase or two. I was still quite confident trying to speak Spanish or Italian but certainly in French I felt very self-conscious. And, of course, I learned very quickly from the Québécois Francophones on the production that Québécois French is very different from European French.
The accent is very different and there are certain words, phrases and colloquialisms that don’t exist anywhere else but here and in French Canada. It’s a lot of fun. I kept telling people that working in Canada was like working in Europe with better manners.
Do you prefer your detective shows to be a little less dark?
I like them all. I’ll watch Wallander any day of the week. But the detective genre on television is a ‘broad church’ – pardon the pun.
There’s room for all sorts from Midsomer Murders and the more light-hearted detective shows such as that wonderful one Richard Griffiths did when he was a chef and part-time investigator… Pie In The Sky!
Then you’ve got all the darker stuff. It’s testament to the enthusiasm there is in the audience for stories. What they all have in common is they have a detective with a quirk that makes him more unique. Armand has that.
Three Pines is based on a series of books by Louise Penny. Did she have much input in it?
The whole process of adapting the books to television was about compromise, and there were certain things that Louise fought against and certain things we fought for, but in the end we reached a happy compromise.
Everybody understands you can never do an absolutely perfect rendition from the page to the stage, because they’re two different beasts. But we’re hoping that rather than the series trying to supplant the books, they will exist in parallel.
When you’re watching detective shows, can you crack the case?
Sometimes I can guess, but not always. Every writer would love to have that reaction at some point when somebody in the audience goes, ‘They did it’ and later you go, ‘Oh s***, I was sure it was him’ after it turns out to be someone else.
When you’re so convinced you know who the villain is and it gets torn away. It’s like a little contest between you and the writer.
Three Pines is streaming on Prime Video from today
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