This weekend, ABC premieres its four-part miniseries Titanic from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, who frames the tragedy in his upstairs-downstairs approach to storytelling to include every class of passenger and crew. The first three hours air Saturday (starting at 8 p.m. ET) and the final hour on Sunday (9 p.m. ET), marking the 100th anniversary of the sinking on April 15, 1912. We won’t spoil it and tell you whether first class passenger Hugh, Earl of Manton, played by Linus Roache (Law & Order: SVU, Batman Begins), lives or dies. But we can tell you that Roache wasn’t concerned about his fate when he signed to star in the project. And that was a good thing, it turns out. “I think I only had two episodes to go on when they sent it to me, and then I had a conversation with the director and he actually said at that point, it was still up for debate whether I was gonna live or die,” Roache tells EW. “Because I’m a fictitious character, they had license to go whichever way they wanted. So there was a lot of back and forth, apparently, about what was the right tone to strike.”
As you’d imagine, the lifeboat sequences are his main memory from the shoot, especially because they get revisited in every episode as the story shifts perspectives. One sequence, for instance, in which the Earl demands a woman and her children be put into a lifeboat, was a three-and-a-half-day shoot, he recalls. ”They became like mini-movies in their own right,” he says. “It’s interesting. You do a character-driven piece, but my memory as I leave the set was all of running around a lot in a big winter coat in the middle of summer in Budapest trying to act like it’s cold while dripping with sweat with a wonderful bunch of people. The camaraderie and the sense of humor on the set was incredible. I hadn’t laughed that much in years.”
So what kept the cast in stitches?
“Well, there were lots of things, being with a bunch of Brits,” he says, laughing. “Two things come to mind. Sometimes, we were all needed for everything, so you’d spend the whole day on the set. Maybe you haven’t even said a line, you were just running around in the background. You’d go a little bit potty, really. We came up with this expression called ‘Tit Fev,’ which was Titanic Fever. You’d see someone going over the edge, because they started getting a little off-balance. ‘Oh no, he’s got Tit Fev.’ The other one was when we were in the water tank, and in one of the takes, Toby Jones [who plays lawyer John Batley, who handles the Earl’s affairs], floated past me going, ‘Is this the way to the bathroom?’ So there was lots of jolly good humor on it. It was an amazing cast, because we could have so much fun, and then when it was needed, bang, everybody delivered. You could trust anyone at anytime to deliver. As Toby Jones said, ‘You don’t play disaster. You play a human being just trying to get to the next moment of survival. So in a sense, you have to keep it very immediate to what’s next. That’s what drives you.”
Roache did particularly enjoy his time in the water tank. “I had flashbacks, not to anything like what it would have been like to be in the Atlantic in that actual disaster. But I had flashbacks to the movie A Night To Remember, the 1950s Titanic movie with Kenneth More, which is a brilliant film. I saw it as a kid,” he says. “There I was, in a period costume, in a dark set, in water, and I could hear the echo of people’s voices and things clanking against the walls, and it was almost like the soundtrack of A Night to Remember, because at that time, it wasn’t advanced enough, it actually sounded like a studio at certain points. I suddenly had a flashback to maybe being an actor in the 1950s. If you looked around, the only thing that was different was the cameras.”
With James Cameron’s Titanic back in theaters, and all kinds of Titanic-themed programming on TV this weekend, Roache’s theory is as good as any as to why the tragedy still captivates audiences. “In modern times, if you’re on an airplane and it’s going down, that’s it. You’ve got a couple of minutes, if that, to work out where you stand in relationship to the whole of your life. Two and a half hours is quite a different length of time. It’s a fascinating situation, which is one of the reasons we still think about it a lot,” he says. “Some people, it seemed, were in a state of disbelief. This isn’t really happening. We will be rescued. There’s a whole mixture of human emotions going on in the midst of it, which is kind of interesting to talk about and experiment with.”
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