Transported to 17th-century Virginia: an interview with the women of ‘Jamestown’

On 9 February, historical drama Jamestown returns to Sky One and Now TV for an explosive second series. We visited the set of the drama in Hungary and spoke to leading actors Sophie Rundle, Naomi Battrick and Niamh Walsh – who play Alice, Jocelyn and Verity – about life as colonial settlers, women in historical dramas, and what we can look forward to in series two

Actresses in historical drama Jamestown

A historical drama set in 17th-century Virginia, Jamestown follows early European settlers’ struggle to survive and thrive in the New World. Series one saw the three main characters – Jocelyn, Alice and Verity – fighting to forge new lives for themselves in the growing colony after being shipped across the globe as ‘brides for sale’. After eight episodes packed with political backstabbing, tangled romances and the looming threat of attack or rebellion, Jamestown is now returning for a second series. The three lead actresses tell us what we can look forward to…

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Q: What’s in store for your characters in series two, and for the rest of the Jamestown residents?

SR: The three women are still key to the story, and face many of the same challenges as before. It’s not actually that long since they arrived, and this is still the same hard, violent world. So it’s about their struggle to establish their place in this bold new world and fight to survive.

At the end of last series, my character Alice became pregnant, so motherhood is her next big thing. We explore how that experience fundamentally changes a woman, and see how Alice juggles this new role with the awful things that she went through in the first series and all the difficulties of life in Jamestown.

Motherhood is her next big thing for Jamestown character Alice Sharrow, explains actress Sophie Rundle. (Kata Vermes / Carnival Film & Television Limited 2018 © Sky UK Limited)
Motherhood is the next big challenge for Jamestown character Alice (centre), explains actress Sophie Rundle. (Kata Vermes / Carnival Film & Television Limited 2018 © Sky UK Limited)

NB: I think people are really going to enjoy this new season – it goes places you really don’t expect. We kick off with something very bad happening to my character Jocelyn; something that completely flips her life upside down and makes things very dangerous for her.

Another thing this series explores is how relations between the Jamestown settlers and Native Americans definitely got a lot more strained. There were a lot of men hungry for battle, and we see how that plays out.

NW: For my character Verity, season two becomes a lot more about making a life and putting down roots. For the first time, she feels like she might be able to make a home and settle down. But this new series becomes much more expansive – it’s not just about relationships, but also politics, trade and landowning.

 

Q: Why is early colonial America such a fascinating time period in which to set a historical drama?

SR: Essentially the show is about people setting up an entirely new world. That’s an idea that has huge dramatic scope. It’s the birth of America as we understand it today. It was such a turbulent time politically. What were the ideals the nation was borne out of? There’s huge dramatic potential to see what happens to these people – whether they prosper, or whether they fail.

Naomi Battrick as Jocelyn Woodbryg in Jamestown
Naomi Battrick as Jocelyn Woodbryg. (Carnival Film & Television Limited 2018 ©Sky UK Ltd)

NB: There’s so much to explore with the beginning of a nation – themes of love, hate, belonging, exploration, land. I think that’s one of the main reasons why people have been so intrigued by the series – because it’s such a crucial point in history.

NW: Yes, people really did get sucked into the world, which is great. It was bizarre to see social media going crazy about something that was set 400 years ago.

Q: As you mentioned, season two grapples with some difficult topics – tensions between the Jamestown settlers and Native Americans reach breaking point and slavery is introduced to the colony. How have these themes been dealt with and why do you think it’s important to tackle them?

NW: I think there’s this myth that the founding of America was this squeaky clean, godly adventure. But in reality, it was immensely bloody and very cruel, and it’s time we talked about these things. The production team has made a huge effort to be both culturally sensitive and historically accurate when dealing with these difficult topics. Every chance there is to get the history right – whether it’s in hiring cultural advisors, or resurrecting a dead language – the production team has been really careful to get it right. There was a real sense of responsibility and care.

Q: The first series triggered a debate in the media about the ways women are portrayed in historical dramas, with some critics suggesting that the women were too “feisty, cheeky and rebellious” to be realistic portrayals of 17th-century women. What did you make of that?

NW: Yes, we had a lot of people saying that real women in the 17th century wouldn’t be as bolshy as the characters in the show. I think that is such nonsense – throughout history, women have always found ways to sneak under the radar and exert influence in any way they can.

Still from the first series of Jamestown
The first series of Jamestown attracted criticism from some who suggested that the 17th-century women portrayed in the programme were “too feisty”. (© Sky UK Limited)

SR: I think we were all prepared for the criticism. There’s always someone saying “women couldn’t really do that”, as if every single woman throughout history was happy to be submissive and oppressed. I understand where the argument is borne from, but I also agree that it’s also a pile of nonsense.

NB: This was a time period that was biased towards men, in which women were seen as the lesser vessel. It was also a time period where men were recording everything. So the fact that there weren’t many records of feisty women is very interesting to me. I think that just because these women weren’t written about as much, that doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist.

Q: What do you think about the way women are portrayed in historical dramas more generally?

SR: I think we’ve reached a point where we are all craving more female-led dramas. It’s a feeling in the air. It’s vital we start telling these stories, so it’s really exciting when you get a script like this that has gutsy, gritty female roles.

NB: I do think things are improving. There are more women making historical dramas – as writers, directors or producers – so going forward, we are inevitably going to be seeing more well-rounded women characters appearing in them.

NW: I think there’s an impulse with period dramas to neaten things up around the edges and show women either as lovely, docile corseted ladies, or one-note feisty bad girls, both of which are equally tiresome. But the female characters in Jamestown are complex – nobody fits neatly into a mould. One of the reasons why this series is so interesting is that it lifts the lid on some of the things that women went through at the time, and it doesn’t flinch away from these issues.

NB: Exactly. For a woman without protection, life in and around Jamestown could mean death, rape, or being beaten up, and the series isn’t afraid to address that.

 

Q: The production team has done an incredible job of recreating colonial Jamestown – they’ve built an entire settlement in the Hungarian countryside, with real tobacco plantations and live pigs in a pen. What has that experience been like?

SR: The set and the environment is a huge part of the show, it’s almost like another character. What the production team has managed to create is really amazing. The set is like a theme park – you can go into every house. It never fails to astound me what they’ve achieved. Plus, the countryside around here is breathtakingly beautiful. We’re surrounded by sweeping landscapes, and the light is incredible.

NB: Yes, Hungary is a dead ringer for 17th-century Virginia! All of it is so helpful for getting into character, and I’ve become strangely house-proud of my Jamestown home. It’s definitely the nicest in the settlement.

Niamh Walsh as Verity Bridges in Jamestown
Niamh Walsh as Verity Bridges. (Doron Ritter / Carnival Film & Television Limited 2018 ©Sky UK Limited)

NW: It makes life so much easier as an actor, because you can physically feel what it would have been like – the mud sucking at your shoes, the cold, the vast countryside surrounding.

The costumes are also incredible. In season one, I had these beautiful handmade shoes made especially for me by the costume department, and I fell in a swamp and lost them – they just got swallowed up by the mud. At some point in the future, when someone excavates that swamp and finds a pair of 17th-century shoes from colonial Virginia, they are going to be very confused!

Q: As an actor, how difficult is it getting into the mindset of someone who lived 400 years ago?

SR: As a modern person, there is a struggle to understand certain things. For example, choosing to come to this new world was essentially choosing to jump off the edge of the world – you couldn’t go back, and you didn’t even know if you’d make it across the ocean. It sounds totally crazy, but I’ve ready plenty of accounts of what was being offered to people in England at the time – they had these carnival-type shows going around, proclaiming a new world where you could be anybody you wanted to be. Why live in a grotty corner of London when you could be in the bountiful fields of Virginia? So bearing that in mind, it’s easier to understand why people were seduced by the advertising. It took a huge amount of faith and a willingness to gamble, but I can see why people might have been willing to get on a boat to the other side of the world.

Other things are difficult to get your head around too, such as the idea of duty, or your place as a woman. My character Alice is perhaps the most faithful to 17th-century values – she’s respectful, dutiful and god-fearing. So for her actions to make sense, you constantly have to remind yourself of the environment in which the drama is set.

(© Sky UK Limited)
“The set and the environment is a huge part of the show, it’s almost like another character,” says Sophie Rundle. (© Sky UK Limited)

NW: It’s tempting is to just modernise everything, and assume that our characters would be exactly the same women now as they would have been then. But you have to realise that the historical setting is really important. For example, the fact that Verity is the only Irish person in Jamestown is hugely historically significant in a way it wouldn’t be today. That gives me a lot of stuff to play off – 400 years of subtext to push against. Personally, I found reading up on the wider historical background really useful for getting into character – learning about what the boat journey over was like, the houses, the food, what it could have felt like to be that hungry.

NB: You have to constantly keep reminding yourself what it would have been like – especially as a woman – to survive out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by people you don’t necessarily trust. In the end this is a journey of survival.

Q: If you were transported back to colonial Jamestown, what would you miss the most?

SR: Communication would be really hard: not being able to share information immediately, and having to wait weeks for any kind of letter from home must have been really isolating. Plus modern dress – these corsets and big skirts are so restrictive! You can’t breathe properly and it’s so hot, doing anything physical is just so much more difficult – so I’d find that really hard. But what am I saying? I’d miss every single creature comfort I have now!

NB: I think I’d miss music and food the most. I learnt something crazy from the set dressers recently: that they didn’t have apples in Jamestown! Can you believe that?

NW: For me, it’s all the really boring stuff like medicine. I’d also miss being able to speak my mind as a woman! And deodorant…

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Jamestown – Season 2 returns to Sky One and NOW TV on Friday 9th February at 9pm