TORONTO — Comparisons to other historical productions are inevitable for the ambitious four-part TV series Titanic, notes star Linus Roache.
And between the epic James Cameron blockbuster, due for re-release next month in 3-D, and the Edwardian TV smash Downton Abbey, which draws various plots from the liner’s sinking, there are plenty of analogies to be made — and dispelled.
Roache is particularly dismissive of media references to his disaster tale as Downton at sea — a reference to the fact Titanic was written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and similarly charts a multitude of storylines that cross various social strata.
“Well, everybody is going to do that because it’s Julian Fellowes and you know, obviously he writes extremely well for big ensemble casts and he writes very well for this sort of upstairs-downstairs class divide,” Roache says from his home in Lenox, Mass.
“But this I would say is very different from Downton Abbey because Downton Abbey is not headed toward an iceberg where everybody’s lives are at risk. At the same time as being a period drama, it’s also a kind of an epic disaster movie.”
It’s tempting, too, to compare the sprawling Canadian-Hungarian-British co-production to Cameron’s box office juggernaut Titanic but Roache says his TV version differs by navigating “the story of the whole ship and not just one main love story.”
Roache also points to a unique narrative structure in which each episode revisits the tragic sinking several times, from different points of view.
“The idea is quite simple but clever in that we all know what happens on the Titanic — we know it hits that iceberg, so you couldn’t draw that out over four nights,” explains Roache, best known for TV’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order.
“Each night you revisit the stories and you pick up on different characters and you also sort of see some of the same scenes from different perspectives. So by the end of the four nights you’ve really gone on quite a journey of all of these characters.”
Roache plays the charming fictional aristocrat Hugh, Earl of Manton, who is travelling with his class-conscious wife Louisa, Countess of Manton, portrayed by Geraldine Somerville.
They are joined by their rebellious daughter Georgiana, played by Perdita Weeks, who falls for Harry Widener, the son of a wealthy Philadelphia family.
Widener is one of several real-life historical figures woven into the story, giving Toronto-born actor Noah Reid (Score: A Hockey Musical ) a fair bit of inspiration for the role — although he says factual details were hard to come by.
“While there’s not a whole lot known about him I tried to find out a little bit about him,” Reid says from Los Angeles, adding that broader research involved re-watching the Cameron film.
“Harry was a bit of a rare book collector and (he joined his family) to try to find some volumes that he might not have access to in America. He found some books over there and they made the trip back across the Atlantic and I think we all know how that goes.”
The charming Widener is portrayed as a bit of a hero in the first episode, but Reid admits that may have been inspired more by dramatic imperatives than actual history.
“It’s unclear how much of a hero anyone was but I think we all like to think we would have behaved a certain way on that boat,” Reid says of the 100-year-old disaster, which killed more than 1,500 of its 2,224 passengers and crew.
“Obviously it was a huge test of character. I’m just glad that Julian chose to portray my guy as a nice guy.”
Roache says he feels fortunate to have played a fictional character because of the greater freedom it allowed his performance.
It also means his character is part of the suspense of who survives the ill-fated voyage from Southampton to New York, he adds, noting that there was “a lot of deliberation back and forth about whether I was going to live or die.”
“We do know what’s going to happen but we don’t know how people are going to respond and that’s what I think we’re fascinated by in drama and why we want to watch that story. You’re always putting yourself in that position — What would I do? Who would I be? Would one be a coward or would one be a hero and how would you meet your own fate if you only had 3 1/2 hours to live?”
Roache says he was a huge fan of the Clive Cussler novel Raise the Titanic when he was younger, and years later found himself absorbed by fascinating details of the disaster during filming.
“Because so many things happened or went wrong, so many little things happened for this disaster to occur — it’s not like there was any one thing that you could blame it on,” he says.
“It’s shrouded in mystery and almost a spooky sense of being ill-fated, of why this disaster could happen. I think that’s part of why we’re still fascinated by it.”
Titanic begins Wednesday on Global.