NBC’s ‘Crusoe’ interview with Sam Neill and Philip Winchester

A family friendly yarn awaits Friday night for fans of classic literature and pirate lore, as NBC debuts “Crusoe,” their 13-week series that is described by the network as “an ambitious adaptation” of  Daniel Defoe’s “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner.”

Filmed in the lush coast of South Africa, the setting and island trappings for “Crusoe,” which premieres Friday night with back-to-back episodes will entertain younger kids who are fans of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“Crusoe” might disappoint diehard fans of the classic and some older viewers, who may question some of the improbable scurvy dog and fetching odd-man out female pirate scenes that play counter to what anyone would expect from these seafarers.

Produced for NBC in a collaboration of British, Canadian and South African production companies, this is as close to the production values of a big Hollywood movie as they come and feels like a visually lush adventure rarely made for television anymore.

Tongai Arnold Chirisa as Friday- Courtesy NBC

Tongai Arnold Chirisa as Friday- Courtesy NBC

As Crusoe, actor Philip Winchester plays his character with sincerity, and veterans Sam Neill and Sean Bean dress up the rest of the cast as the nefarious family friend and the castaway’s father respectively. South African actor Jonathan Pienaar is pirate chief Lynch, Tongai Arnold Chirisa is Friday, Georgina Rylance is a comely female pirate flirts with Crusoe and Joaquim De Almeida is the captain of the coast guard.

Monsters and Critics got a chance to talk to “Crusoe” stars Philip Winchester, Sam Neill and Executive Producer, Jeffrey Hayes.

Crusoe airs Friday, October 17 in a two hour premiere from 8:00 to 10:00, and then it will move to its regular timeslot from 9:00 to 10:00 pm on Fridays.

Sam, I was thrilled to see you and I was a big fan of you on The Tudors and miss you. Your character is Jeremiah Blackthorn, and we see a lot of you in flashbacks. Can you tell us more about how you’re going to be worked into the story through the season?

Sam Neill: Oh good, good. Well I’ve filmed – I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to give away but Robinson has been stuck on this island for 11 hours dealing with all kinds of bad people and any number of challenges.

And Philip can tell you more on that. I live in England and I’ve filmed all of my material in England in advance, I think in May or June. Something like that, wasn’t it Jeff? Something like that.

Jeff Hayes: Yes it was

Sam Neill: So now I’ve decided that he’s had – that all good things must come to an end and I am coming to the island and I will deal with Robinson one way or another.

And if tides and so on have been bad, he ain’t seen nothing yet. So I think that’s pretty much – is that a fair comment Jeff)?

Jeff Hayes: I’d say that’s a fair comment.

Where are you based? Are you based in London or are you in Australia or New Zealand?

Sam Neill: That’s an interesting question that I ask myself a lot, too. But I just – in between times I’ve been home in New Zealand where I live and I manage to fit in a movie there.

So I just finished that last Saturday and I’m ready to take to Robinson and he’s not going to forget this in a hurry.

Philip, you do a tremendous amount of your own stunt work in this series. And I was wondering if there were any injuries you might have sustained? Can you talk about the physical challenges of the series?

Philip Winchester: Yeah, I don’t think we really knew what we were in for when we started in York because York was quite – this nice meandering drama that we were doing and we were riding horses and meeting people in pubs, and having conversations.

When we got to South Africa I think it really came out of the blue just how many stunts and how much stuff we would be doing. So I have a really strict health regime and I just really take care of myself.

But also we have just an incredible stunt team who has really looked out for us and they (offer to respond) from kind of giving us the option to say yes or no.

But most of the time I do end up doing my own stunts and I think, I just think it helps the character along as well. If what the character has done physically, you can go there emotionally as well.

 I think it’s probably more not watching what I eat but just eating healthy things,  eating good foods. And I do get up very early in the morning and workout.

We have 5:30 calls in the morning so I’ll be at sometimes 4:45 to get some work in. But I’m not doing anything crazy.

I wanted to do things that Robinson could’ve done on the island so I’ve been running on the beach and I’ve been doing pushups and pull-ups on the beach, and things like that.

I haven’t been doing anything too crazy – things that he could do on the island.
But yeah, we’ve been pretty lucky so far. You actually – the (surgeons) are kind of treating my back a little bit but that’s the first time something’s happened. So in three months we’ve been pretty fortunate.

Jeff, did you hire all your keys in South Africa or if you brought some of them from the United States or from England?  If you could talk about your art department. They do an exemplary job.

Jeff Hayes: Well yes, we brought our production designer from the UK.  this being basically a three way co-production between Canada, the UK and South Africa, you have a certain balance that you need to achieve.

So we brought a production designer down from the UK and he had worked in South Africa before, so that was a bonus. He knew all the key people we wanted to hire down here and we’ve been very fortunate.

Courtesy NBC

Courtesy NBC

The South African crew, across the board, has just been so gung-ho and enthusiastic about what we were doing and delivered way beyond anything I could’ve hoped.

It’s a testament to them that we’ve been able to achieve all the things that we’ve achieved. So it was a good thing.

Philip, how did it work out that you’re playing this character in this series to begin with?

Philip Winchester: Yeah, of course. When these things happen it’s a little surreal and I – actually I can’t speak from experience. This is the largest role that I’ve undertaken so it was a real surprise.

But I worked for the (U.S.) Royal Shakespeare Company last year and we did King Lear and we were traveling all around the world. And I got back to England and I was back between London and filming in Prague.

My agent had sent me Robinson Crusoe during my time filming in Prague and it kind of disappeared for a month or so. And I was getting ready to head back to Los Angeles to just pick up pilot season again.

I remember asking whatever happened to Robinson Crusoe? And she said well I think they’re still casting for it if you’d like to go in and have a session.

I said yeah, I definitely would. Before I fly back to Los Angeles I’d like to have a go at it. And so I went in and I met with the Casting Director, Jeremy Zimmerman who is a great casting director in London.

And it was a funny casting because I trained in London and so there were a lot of people – a lot of people who I trained with were sitting outside in the waiting room and everyone was really antsy I noticed because it’s one of those parts and it’s one of those roles that everybody wants to get, especially all the guys, .

To play Robinson Crusoe, to be able to sword fight and tell this great tale, and travel all over the place as we have would be such an amazing opportunity. So everyone was very nervous and very excited all at the same time.

I did a casting and came out and had a chat with a buddy who I had worked with years before; who I went to drama school with.

And then as I try to do with auditions, it’s kind of like golf – I try and hit the shot and forget about it. I try and do an audition and forget about it. Otherwise you worry about it so much.

I got a phone call a couple weeks later saying, , it looks like they’d like to have another meeting and they’d like to test you. So, not trying to put too many eggs in one basket I just assumed it was just another normal test.

And it turned out it was a screen test. Then I got very excited about it. And it did go on a little bit.

They have to be sure and it’s, to be honest I’m glad they drag it out like that because you have to be really sure you want to do it as well because it’s a huge commitment.

So I think it went on for a couple weeks. We did a couple tests and then we retested. And then I was out having dinner with a friend because I couldn’t do anything.

It was consuming everything. I just could not stop thinking about this show. A buddy of mine had called and said look I’m going to take you out to dinner because you’re driving everyone crazy.

And while we were at dinner we – I got the phone call. And it’s one of those phone calls where both your agents are on the phone so  it’s important.

How much of the show goes back to the original literary source material?

Jeff Hayes: It goes back to the original source material, , at its core.
We do take a bit of a dramatic license if you will in terms of how we approach this character and the way that he exists on the island with his partner, Friday.
And it’s definitely grounded in the book but after that we kind of, bring it into a more contemporary kind of tone as far as a period drama is concerned.

(Actually) it definitely has its foundation in the book. There’s no doubt.

Did you have any trepidation in taking the liberties with the original material?

Philip Winchester: I’ve been mulling over that for awhile thinking about how – I mean, because we have taken artistic licenses with some of the stories.

And like Jeff said it has to happen because otherwise it just – it can get dull watching a guy on an island build a shelter and get a fire going, and going hunting every episode. It wouldn’t be entertaining.

So what I’ve really tried to do and what I think we’ve stuck to is that Robinson Crusoe is the same character but he’s telling different tales or different things are happening to him.

Different things are coming into this life. But we have definitely (done at the core) novel to kind of (visit) the island several times and Robinson Crusoe has to go through the emotional, the emotional journey of what he’s going to do about seeing cannibals and if he’s going to interfere with the cannibals.

So we’ve taken those elements of the story and we’ve intertwined them into the 13 episodes. We’ve also taken scenes from the original book and we put them throughout the different episodes.

There’s probably actually only two or three shows that are completely original stories where there’s something completely different happening.