Peter Wingfield is just itching for a fight today, but, in fact, he is not the only one. It is a warm and sunny Friday in Vancouver, British Columbia, and one of the last days of filming on the Syfy Channel miniseries Riverworld (Sunday, April 18th from 7-11:oo p.m. EST). Inside the warehouse studio, a two-level platform with stairs has been erected in front of a huge green screen. This is where Wingfield, who pays Sir Richard Burton, and the show’s leading man, Tahmoh Penikett (Matt Ellman), have spent the better part of the day shooting a fight that took quite a bit of time to prepare for.
“Last Sunday was the first time that Tahmoh and I actually looked at this fight,” says Wingfield during a break in filming. “There are several fights in our story and the stunt guys as well as Tahmoh have been really busy all the way through. The stunt choreographer had gone off and created this fight with his guys, and then last Sunday, Tahmoh and I spent two hours at the gym working through what the fight would look like. This week we’ve tried to find time during lunch breaks and such to, not practice it physically, but just sort of talk through the shape of the fight.
“Now here we are on set-today and because of the constraints of the location, we have to change bits of the fight. So things that we learnt, we’ve now got to wipe those from our minds and stick something else in there instead. We’re also dealing with time constraints, so we’re shortening the fight, which is comprised of 60 or 70 moves, in one of the parts.
“This is a big throwdown, knockdown, smackdown conflict, and that makes sense given that it’s the end of our characers’ journey and their final conflict. We have a quick exchange at the start of the story, then we have the journey, and now we get to this point and this fight is absolutely personal. My character surprises Matt, and he could have simply knocked him out and killed him, but doesn’t. Burton chooses to get into a fistfight, the reason being that he wants to cause Matt pain, and he wants to see it, too. Burton wants to relish the physical contact and the suffering. It’s all rather dark and ugly,” says the actor with a smile, “but it’s also a really good, really cool, intense story.”
In Riverworld, Sir Richard Burton is among the countless human beings who, following their deaths, have been reborn on the riverbank of a mysterious new world. Intent on reaching this great river’s headwaters and destroying this place, Burton hijacks a riverboat being captained by Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens (Mark Deklin). Clemens and his passengers, including an American war correspondent, Matt Ellman, and a 12th century Samurai warrior named Tomoe (Jeananne Goossen), have been searching for Matt’s missing fiancée Jessie (Laura Vandervoort). Carrying on with their search, they must now also deal with this unwanted adversary and any other dangers that await them along the way. Like a few of his fellow Riverworld actors, Wingfield’s character is, in fact, based on a real-life individual.
“In-between putting a couple of audition scenes on tape for Riverworld and receiving a call to meet with the director, Stuart Gillard, I was sent the script,” he recalls. “I read it and did some research on Victorian explorer Richard Francis Burton, who was quite an extraordinary guy. He spoke 25 languages and, with dialects, was probably fluent in 40. Burton was also an explorer and visited several countries. He went on a pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a Muslim from Afghanistan. This was at a time when if they had known that an infidel was in the holiest of holies, they would have cut him up into little pieces and eaten him.
“Burton translated The Kama Sutra as well as One Thousand and One Nights, what we know now as The Arabian Knights. He seemed to be interested in so many different things. Burton was an explorer in the most general of senses, but not just of the physical lands but the emotion and cultural landscapes as well. He was a poet, too. However, the thing that struck me was the sense of danger about this guy. He was a James Bond-type character, not only going undercover, but dangerously undercover.
“Riverworld is based on the books by Philip Jose Farmer, which use the idea that Burton, along with the rest of humanity, has been reborn again on this other planet. When I read the script it had this interesting Sci-Fi flavor and an alien-created world, but the concept allowed you to bring in these various characters from human history, which seemed like a neat idea. So for instance, we have Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens, and the Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro [Bruce Ramsey]. I really liked that because it means you can bring in anybody, and you can also kill them off and then decide to bring them back again. How perfect is that for TV?’
Having done all this research, there was only so much of it that the actor could apply to his portrayal of Burton. “The thing is, there are several different [research] sources that are not identical,” explains Wingfield. “You’ve got the real person, then the character in the novels, and finally Burton in this miniseries. While they’re related to each other, they are not the same. The novels aren’t about the real Richard Burton. They are taking the idea from the historical facts of his life and how he might have lived in this fantasy world. Meanwhile, the miniseries is not a literal translation of the novels, but rather a reinvention of them. So there are some things that you can take with you, and others that are not the same.
“Ultimately, the story that I have signed up for and that I’m telling is of Richard Burton on the miniseries,” continues the actor. “All the information that is significant is in the script of this four-hour TV movie. So there’s a lot of juggling going on. I’ve taken inspiration from a number of different places, but the facts that I have to work with are just those in the script. And to me what is, I think, the most powerful and demanding of these facts is the darkness of my character. Burton is a scary guy. He’s a really dark and violent man, and yet he is also tremendously witty as well as charming and sexy. I mean, he has love scenes with the two major female characters in the story, and they’re both very different and tell you a great deal about the character.
“I’ve always felt that love scenes, just like fight scenes or a dance, reveal aspects of a character. Very verbal or very intellectual characters have some sense of control over what they’re saying and what they reveal to you when they’re speaking. However, when you watch them doing something physical, particularly something where they have to some extent lost control, such as a love scene or a fight, they reveal different things about themselves.
“One of the great joys about playing Burton is that there are two dissimilar stories involving the two women with whom he has liaisons, and I was quite interested in just the visual imagery of that. One of them is a very verbal scene, and the other is completely without words. I spoke at length with our director about this, because we wanted to be telling very different sides of Burton’s story. And that’s been both the challenge and the thrill of playing him, those extremes that are within him. He has a high level of culture and education, but then there’s a brutality and connection with an almost animal-like quality and rage inside him. It’s been quite a trip for me [acting-wise]. I’ve tried to make him the most complex character that I’ve ever played because, again, I feel the Richard Burton who genuinely lived was an extremely complicated individual.”
Although this is Burton’s first encounter with Matt Ellman and vice versa, Wingfield’s character seems determined to get rid of him. Why? “I didn’t realize when I began this project how simple the heart of this story is,” he muses. “It’s a love triangle. When it all comes down to the final showdown, it’s a woman who has very different sides of herself fueled or expressed by Burton and Matt. However, both men recognize something in each other. Yes, they have a conflict because of this woman, but they also see the world almost the same and yet slightly differently.
“It’s that slight difference that has taken Burton and Matt in opposite emotional and spiritual directions. From the outset, Burton has been described as a bad guy, but having read the script I thought, ‘In what world is he the bad guy?’ There is a part of Burton who wants to see the world the way Matt sees it, and there’s also clearly a part of Matt that wants to see the world the way Burton does.
“So once they’re in absolute conflict with each other, there is a sense of recognition insofar as the equality of both these warriors. Here are these two adversaries who are worthy of the fight, and that has very much developed throughout the filming of Riverworld. I didn’t see that initially. However, as we’ve gotten towards the end of shooting I could see that that was where it was going. I looked back at the story we told during the filming and realized it was there all the time.”
Wingfield recently guest-starred on the TV series Human Target and Caprica, and can be seen in the upcoming Syfy Channel Saturday Night Movie Stonehenge Apocalypse. Prior to shooting Riverworld, he played a multi-episode arc on 24 as well as reprised his role of Dan Clifford back in his native UK in the TV medical drama Holby City. The actor also appeared as Dr. John Watson in the first season finale of the hit Syfy Channel series Sanctuary.
“That was a great character,” says Wingfield. “In Sanctuary, John Watson was supposedly a real person who had inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write Sherlock Holmes on the stipulation that he would also write the detective a sidekick and call him John Watson.
“So he was a brilliant man from Victorian times and Watson and Dr. Helen Magnus [Amanda Tapping] had a history together in that they were part of a group called “The Five.” In this episode, the four surviving members reconvene and we learn that through his brilliance and ingenuity, Watson has kept himself alive by creating a machine that could fight off aging.
“It was such a fun part to do. I’d known Amanda Tapping from Stargate SG-1 years ago, but I hadn’t worked with Chris Heyerdahl [John Druitt] before and it turned out to be a real pleasure. There are some actors who you just connect with and it works, and Chris and I had a relationship where we immediately trusted one another and could play with the scenes – not just get through the lines, but mess with them and change the intention. So they would always remain alive, interesting and fun.
“There was this one really powerful scene that we were shooting. It must have been two in the morning and the end of what had been a very long day. And I remember it with great affection because once we finished, the crew, who had probably done a 17- or 18-hour day, were all totally focused and concentrating on this scene. Over the next few days, one after the other said how great it was to have been a part of shooting it. That doesn’t happen very often.”
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While working on Riverworld, Wingfield had the chance to spend some time with his young son. Of all the roles he has had, the actor considers this one to be his most important. “Fatherhood is the only thing of significance I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “It’s the real thing, and all the rest is just mucking about.
“I love being a father and it’s tough in this business to be a solid fixture in your child’s life. I have a fabulous wife, though, and whenever he’s able to, my son comes to visit me if I’m away filming. He’s had his Spring break while I’ve been doing Riverworld, so he was up here in Vancouver for a week, which he absolutely adored. We still have family here – his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – and he spent a couple of days here on-set hanging out with me along with the rest of the cast and crew on a paddlewheel steamboat. His favorite department is props because he gets to see all the guns and swords. He especially enjoys hanging out when we do the special effects, like blowing stuff up and setting fire to things. It’s tough to impress nine-year-old boys, but if you can blow stuff up they’re usually interested,” notes the actor with a smile.