'The North Water's' Jack O'Connell on Filming in Real 'Very Harsh' Arctic Locations

The Arctic Ocean may not be the most hospitable location to film, but for the cast and crew of The North Water it was their home for several weeks.

The AMC+ miniseries saw Jack O'Connell and his co-stars film in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, and go as far as the 81st parallel north, the furthest north any TV drama crew has ever been filmed.

Based on Ian McGuire's book of the same name, The North Water follows disgraced surgeon Patrick Sumner (O'Connell) and his journey aboard a whaling ship alongside a brutish killer named Henry Drax (Colin Farrell).

When the crew are stranded in the Arctic after their ship sinks, they are forced to face the harsh climate and survive not only the elements but also the murderous psychopath in their company.

Speaking to Newsweek, O'Connell revealed what it was like to film in the "very harsh" real Arctic locations, saying it was informative for his and his co-stars' performances onscreen.

"[It was a] very harsh environment indeed, it had to be," O'Connell claimed. "I don't think any of the characters we're playing have an easy time of it.

"So, for me it was an absolute pleasure to have that factor of the character already taken care of. Just being able to react to what we're dealing with.

"The funny thing was, in order to fake it there might be a tendency to overcompensate when, really, when you're out there it's not always freezing because you're busy and you're layered up, you're dressed for it.

"You're staying active so you're not always freezing to death because it doesn't work like that—it does if you've got nothing to do and your ship is stowed, and your rations are running out, and in our case in the story the ship had sunk.

"But it helped focus those moments to only when it was completely necessary and not just have a bunch of actors really try to demonstrate how cold the Arctic is for five hours."

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Jack O'Connell and Stephen Graham in "The North Water" AMC Studios/See-Saw Films

The cast filmed a number of scenes on pack ice while they were 81 degrees north of the Earth's equatorial plane, shooting sequences where their characters walked on the ice looking for seals and whales to kill and take back to their ship.

O'Connell said it was an honor to learn they were the first TV drama crew to film so far north, though he wasn't made aware of it until they'd actually made the record.

"It was like a badge," he reflected. "I didn't personally hear about that until we were up there so it had no influence in wanting to be a part of it but to hear about it was a massive bonus.

"I don't think we did mark it in a particular way, there was an acknowledgment by the time we got there but the end result of that was an enthusiastic determination to get this right, and to not only get it, but get it good, and then try and get it great. It was an added incentive for sure."

As well as filming in Svalbard and at the 81st parallel north, the crew had planned to also shoot in Iqaluit in northern Canada, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic they had to abandon those plans and film in a studio instead.

While they were on location, Jack and his co-stars stayed for four weeks on board a ship named The Activ, which stood in for their characters' fictional ship The Volunteer during the shoot.

O'Connell revealed that the ship, which is normally used for green projects and research expeditions, has its own crew who manned the vessel throughout filming, and even appeared onscreen alongside the actors.

"They graced us with their presence onscreen, and expertise," he explained, adding: "You see them, you can't miss them. Anyone that was climbing anything scarily high was a legitimate sailor."

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Jack O'Connell as Patrick Sumner in "The North Water" AMC Studios/See-Saw Films

O'Connell's Sumner is a character marred by guilt, a man who struggles with PTSD following horrific events he witnessed while working as a surgeon in the British Army in India.

The actor reflected on what it was that interested him about the character, saying he wanted to be on the project not only because Andrew Haigh was directing it but also because it was the kind of role he hadn't had before.

"I definitely felt like it wasn't anything close to what I've been entrusted with before in terms of roles," O'Connell said. "And I thought he was so layered, more so than your average [character], that it was a fascinating character study.

"And once you put that into the extremities of the environment he puts himself into, it's kind of exciting to imagine what that would provoke in me as an actor."

Of what interested him about Sumner, he went on: "I think the mendacity of him and the illusion that he was providing for others and in a lot of sense for himself, who he was, what he was running away from in terms of his PTSD and how horrific an experience that was for him.

"And I think he meets an absolute beast in Drax, so he's forced to look very deeply at himself and his pursuit of doing something that he believes is right, good and lawful, and the upkeep of that in such an impossible situation. I think any actor would get excited about that prospect."

During his journey on The Volunteer, Sumner has more than just his personal demons to contend with, as he also has to deal with hostility from harpooner Drax.

Farrell is a menacing presence as the brutish villain, one that even O'Connell was shocked by while filming opposite him.

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Colin Farrell as Henry Drax in "The North Water" AMC Studios/See-Saw Films

"Once that wig went on, and all the scars and the costume were put on it transform[ed] him into this hulking figure," O'Connell admits.

"You kind of felt automatically that you wanted to watch your step around him, and I will say I was intimidated by him on set, which did wonders for my performance."

Despite Farrell's frightening onscreen persona, O'Connell only had high praise for his co-star, saying: "You have to have a certain amount of life experience and worldliness to understand a character like Drax, in order to take him on and play him with the level of earnest that Colin was able to do."

He added: "The things that related to Sumner and Drax was kept to the times we were working, my cabin was directly opposite Colin's so he'd have to put up with my music and s**t, I don't think there was a thing where it was lived in the entire time, the portrayals we were trying to take on.

"What I will say is I found Colin to be a truly amazing person to be around, and one that you learn a great deal from, especially being a young male actor and him being at the stage of the career he's at, there were so many lessons to take on board, both professionally and personally."

Farrell is not the only big name to appear in the production, as Stephen Graham portrays The Volunteer's captain Arthur Brownlee, and Peter Mullan takes on the nameless role of The Priest.

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Colin Farrell and Roland Møller in "The North Water" AMC Studios/See-Saw Films

When asked about working with the pair, O'Connell gushed: "[They're] two actors I really adore, and very fortunate to be reflecting on a multitude of work, or pieces of work, with both of them.

"These are my sources of education, I didn't train and when I'm on set with an actor of Peter's caliber, of Stephen's caliber, right the way through it doesn't have to be someone known for their work, an actor can fully astound you and it might be the first time you're made aware of them.

"But in Stephen, Peter, Colin, Sir Tom [Courtenay], in their cases you're all eyes, all ears, very, very attentive student, and that's the way it ought to be."

O'Connell also heaped praise on director Haigh, saying: "He's not scared of the darkness of it at all, he wants to tell the full picture, he won't shy away from the areas that people might feel uncomfortable.

"He wants to delve into all of that and that's a thrill to contrast the remarkably good and the inexplicably evil. It's something I'd never tire from watching."

Saying Haigh enjoys "what the actors might give him," O'Connell went on: "It is apparent as soon as you watch his work that his focus is on character portrayal in order to tell his stories. So, I'd jump at the opportunity to work with him again."

The North Water is available to stream on AMC+, and the finale will be released on August 12.

Correction: August 17, 2021 at 11.09 ET: This article was updated to correct the names of the ships The Activ and The Volunteer.