When he’s not advising the Khaleesi or kissing an ageless Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman likes to ride motorcycles — for fun and for work. The Dutch actor (best known for his roles in Game of Thrones and The Age of Adaline) stars in Discovery’s new scripted miniseries Harley and the Davidsons, which kicks off the first of three installments Monday. (The others will air Tuesday and Wednesday.)
The series tells the story of the Harley-Davidson company, from its founding in Wisconsin to its rise to America’s most iconic motorcycle brand. Huisman plays Walter Davidson, and he might be the perfect guy for it — the guy loves motorcycles. We spoke to him about the series, his character, and his affinity for vintage Harleys.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to this role?
MICHIEL HUISMAN: First of all, I was so surprised by the story. I was one of those people who even thought there was a guy named Harley-Davidson that started a company at some point. But it was such a unique story, and such a slice of American history that I almost couldn’t believe it hadn’t been told before. And on top of that, I am a motorcycle enthusiast, so this was just like a dream project for me in that sense.
And Walter Davidson turned out to be an amazing character to play. Large man, both feet in Wisconsin clay, stands for what he believes in, and wants to create his own little legacy. I guess a lot of motorcycle riders, or especially Harley-Davidson riders, know that it was a company that started in a shed, but most [other] people don’t.
What was Walter’s role in the company’s founding?
So, there’s like three founders, Walter Davidson, his younger brother Arthur Davidson, and Arthur’s neighborhood friend — childhood friend, really — Bill Harley. They were all very different, but complemented each other in a perfect way. Harley is the brains behind the machine. Arthur is the genius when it comes to selling them. But they need Walter to give them that last little push. And Walter is the one who becomes the first president of the company.
But also, he’s the guy who started racing their motorcycles — you see this in the show. It’s all based on actual history. It’s quite unbelievable, if you think about that now. The president of Harley-Davidson was the one racing them!
Tell us about the time period depicted in the series — it begins in the early 1900s. How far does it go?
As an actor, you’re always wondering: Is there enough of an arc for me to play and sink my teeth in? This story covers a 30-year period. And that’s such an amazing arc in itself to be able to portray. My character begins in his mid-20s, and at the end, I’m in my mid-50s. Walter Davidson, especially in the beginning, is a little bit of a rebel and a little bit anti-establishment, so to speak. Over time, just forced by the nature of the business, he becomes the president of the company, and before you know it, there’s hundreds of people working there. He becomes the establishment. He can’t just follow his guts anymore. So that was great, great fun to play.
On top of that, it’s also very much a slice of Americana, I’d say. You get all these historical events that are intertwined with Harley-Davidson’s history. America joining the First World War, that’s kind of crucial to some of the choices that they had to make as a company. So I think it’s not just a story for people who like motorcycles.
Obviously, there are a lot of really old vintage bikes in the show that you end up riding. As an enthusiast yourself, what was that experience like? And did it change the way you look at motorcycles now?
Yes, very much. I don’t think it will ever be the same again, my appreciation for the technology is so much bigger. I really, really enjoyed riding all those old bikes, but when you step on a new bike it’s just like, oh my God… it would be so much fun to think about what [seeing a new bike] would do to Walter Davidson! Especially after portraying that character for four months and riding only vintage bikes, and replicas — because a lot of those bikes don’t exist anymore, or they’re behind glass, in the Harley-Davidson museum. We had, like, 80 bikes built for our show. After riding those, it would be so much fun to imagine Walter Davidson stepping on a 2016 Harley.
Harley and the Davidsons premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on Discovery.
A version of this story appears in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now.