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David Thewlis on Playing an ‘Eccentric’ 17th Century French Settler in Nat Geo’s ‘Barkskins’

Series premieres on Memorial Day

Nat Geo’s new period drama “Barkskins” premieres on Memorial Day, and it features David Thewlis as Monsieur Claude Trepagny, a French settler living on the outskirts of the village of Wobik in what is now the Canadian province of Quebec. Set in the 1690s, the eight-part limited series examines the mysterious massacre of settlers in the vast and unforgiving wilds of New France that threatens to throw the region into an all-out war.

Created by Elwood Reid and based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Annie Proulx, Thewlis says the name “Barkskins” refers to people like his character — leather-skinned settlers who work in the woods.

In a recent conversation with TheWrap, the former “Harry Potter” star described Trepagny as a “wonderfully flamboyant, eccentric character,” and “a real contradiction” — he is at once “charming, obnoxious, wise, foolish, vulnerable,” and a “bully.”

“Does he live in a log cabin or a manor house? Is he a man of God or does he worship a rotten old log? You can never pin him down,” Thewlis said of Trepagny, whose abrasive personality leads him to be widely disliked by the local villagers.

“He’s an outsider, literally, because he dwells beyond the walls of the settled community and is very boastful and proud of it, considers himself above those people,” he said. “He’s obviously in a world of his own.”

But Thewlis said the craziest thing about acting as an early French settler in North America wasn’t the barbaric nature of life in the 17th century or the hours of walking and hard labor. It was the mosquitos.

“What I found really difficult out there were the conditions, the heat when we were shooting in the summer,” he said. “The mosquitos were unbearable. I could never live in that environment, ever.”

If the show were to be picked up for a second season, however, he knows exactly what he would do.

 “This time I’d probably take a cabin [somewhere] much more isolated,” he said. “I could be reclusive and happy with my own company.”

“Barkskins” premieres May 25 at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel, with back-to-back episodes over four weeks and next day releases on Hulu.