In 1620, a group of men and women known as the Pilgrims departed England on a boat called the Mayflower in search of religious freedom in the “new world,” America.
Bedecked in bonnets and buckles, the goodly Pilgrims – lead by Myles Standish – arrived at Plymouth Rock, where they were greeted by Squanto and his Native American friends, who taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn using fish and helped them endure their first winter in a strange land.
In celebration of their new friendship, the Pilgrims and Indians sat down to a large feast of turkey, bread stuffing, sweet corn, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes with marshmallow topping and cranberry sauce shaped like a can.
The Pilgrims called it “Thanksgiving,” and they all lived happily ever after.
Of course, most of us now know that the common grade-school fairy tale about the Pilgrim’s colonization at Plymouth is a stark contrast to what actually occurred, and in the upcoming National Geographic Channel two-night movie event “Saints & Strangers,” the network boldly aims to reveal “the epic untold story behind the first Thanksgiving.”
Airing Sunday and Monday, November 22 and 23 at 9 p.m. ET (and replaying Thanksgiving Day night), the four-hour special begins with the Mayflower's 66 brutal days at sea, during which the ship's passengers and crew not only battle hunger and illness, but each other as well. After landing at Plymouth, the Pilgrim's faith is tested as their numbers continue to dwindle and myths about the Native American's "savage" ways drive a wedge between settlers who prefer peace over war. And in the native's camp, Pokanoket leader Massasoit finds himself at odds with neighboring tribes after choosing diplomacy with the English settlers, who enslaved natives and brought illness to the region during previous attempts at colonization.
The film stars Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”) as William Bradford, Anna Camp (“Pitch Perfect”) as Dorothy Bradford, Ron Livingston (“Office Space”) as John Carver, Barry Sloane (“Revenge”) as Edward Winslow, Michael Jibson (“Hatfields & McCoys”) as Myles Standish and Ray Stevenson (“Black Sails”) as Stephen Hopkins. The Native American cast is lead by Raoul Trujillo (“Apocalypto”) as Massassoit, Tatanka Means (“Banshee”) as Hobbamock, Kalani Queypo (“The New World”) as Squanto, Michael Greyeyes (“Klondike”) as Canonicus and Del Zamora (“Longmire”) as Aspinet.
I recently sat down with "Saints & Strangers" 34-year-old British star Barry Sloane to talk about the two-night Nat Geo event. Check it out below:
David Onda: What were some of the things you read about Edward Winslow and the story of the Plymouth settlers that stuck with you as you were filming?
Barry Sloane: What drew me to Edward was the idea of seeing a man in his infancy and – obviously, I knew by reading some of his books and some of the scriptures about this time – that he grows to become the second leader of Plymouth. He’s a leader in waiting. I was very pleased in how you see the growth. He starts vocally, in performance and in the script as well, throwing in little bits of dialogue every now and again on the periphery. And as the story grows over the four hours, he grows in stature with certain people passing on. His position moves up and you see him grow and grow and grow and you can see where it might end up. I also enjoyed the fact that he was a very devout religious man whose faith in God was unreal. And when you have these tragedies happen every day when they landed, it really tests a man’s faith. The fact that he was drawn towards the native’s way of thinking in the spirituality was something that really stuck for me as well. He was looking for something else.
Onda: That's one of the things that really struck me as I watched the film. Growing up, I was taught that everyone on the Mayflower was a goodly pilgrim wearing their Sunday best, but that wasn't the case at all. And they weren't just fighting the Native Americans, they were fighting each other as well.
Sloane: Completely. And these guys weren’t innocent beings. They were used to seeing heads on spikes outside Parliament in London. These were primitive people in a lot of senses. They weren’t, as you say, [wearing] big hats and buckles and, “Oh, yes, let’s have a lovely time!” Their living had been hard. If you made it to 40 years old, you were an old man and you were doing incredibly well. You grew up quick, you worked hard and it was all about survival. When we filmed the second Thanksgiving later on in [the film], we were almost saying, “You’re celebrating the fact that you’ve lived a year!” That’s a long time, especially on Mars, which is effectively where these guys are. To have lasted two Thanksgivings, two whole years, is quite a celebration. And that’s why you pack yourself with your family and go, “Yeah, this is great. Let’s relax today and get drunk and have wonderful food, because it may be the last day.”
Onda: You're from England. What did you grow up knowing, if anything, about the first Thanksgiving?
Sloane: It’s not taught in schools. It’s not something that is part of our identity, when in fact it’s an incredible part of our identity. I find it odd that it’s not taught in schools. My daughter’s growing up and goes to school in Los Angeles, so she’s gonna know a lot more about Thanksgiving. And, if this goes well, she’s gonna see her dad every year in school when she shows [this movie], which’ll be weird. I think this is a very British story, and I’m hoping that it will open the doors to a British audience who will realize that it’s very much a tale of us as well.
Onda: Would you recommend that "Saints & Strangers" be shown to kids? I can be a bit graphic at times.
Sloane: I think there’s a cut-off. The first half – I think you could watch it. My daughter’s five, so I probably wouldn’t let her watch it yet, but up to 10 I think you could watch this and be fine. It’s the truth. You can only hide your kids from so much.
Onda: I couldn’t help but notice you were one of the only cast members who didn’t have to grow a beard and long hair for your role.
Sloane: Exactly! I know. I got away with that one. They did try me on with a blonde wig and momentarily dyed my eyebrows blonde for a screen test, which I sent to my wife at the time and, bless her, she was like, “Oh, yeah, it looks great! It’s fantastic! It’s wonderful!” And when I showed her my first day on set and I didn’t have it, she was like, “Thank god!”
Onda: Two of my favorite moments in the movie are those first meetings between the Pilgrims and Samoset and Squanto. I found it to be really riveting, as if I were actually watching history play out.
Sloane: I’m glad you brought that up. What I loved – Kalani’s performance aside – is the moment when he summons [the natives] and they’re all there, which is just saying: “You’ve been here in the palm of our hands for the entire time. We can kill you or take you out whenever we want to, and we’ve chose not to. You should respect that.” We’re out there with our guns thinking we’re superheroes. No, it could have been over way before this. They were all really exciting scenes. And we hadn’t interacted as groups, even as actors, because they came in slightly later, the native actors, because they were filming on different sets. So they really were first meetings as well. I think that was the first day on set that we met, when Kalani did the Squanto scene.
Onda: If you were watching “Saints & Strangers” and could point out some of the little things you love about it that they might not notice otherwise, what would you point out?
Sloane: They were doing an incredible job of changing the seasons. The crops would change scene to scene. An entire crop bed would be changed intermittently. And I would notice, as well, the guns that we fire are effectively for show. I didn’t realize how useless they are. Well, they’re not useless – obviously the sound would scare people off. You get one shot. It’s a small ball bearing, it doesn’t travel very far, and they have these sticks that you have to put them on to balance. You can’t really control the gun because they’ve got quite a big kick and you have to hold them on the stick. They weren’t gonna knock out snipers, you know what I mean? It was very much like we just stood there and shouted, “Bang!” Just like pots and pans. That would be the British way of doing it. “Throw the pots and pans at them!”
Onda: It’s very smart of Nat Geo to air this film Thanksgiving week.
Sloane: It’s perfect. It’s on the Sunday and the Monday and people are gonna enjoy watching that, and then watch it again on Thanksgiving, because I think when you sit down with the family, there might be a lot of people who know the story, but don’t know the story. I think this is gonna fill in some blanks and give some real three-dimensional life to these characters that some people already know. You’ve got Standish who’s known, you’ve got Squanto who’s known. You’ve got all these characters you’ve read about in books or seen pictures of depicted in cartoon books. I read my daughter a story. She’s doing the Scholastic school books, and there was one that was called “Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims.” I sent a message to Kalani saying, “Do you wanna tell her or should I?”
Onda: As I was watching, I had forgotten that I knew a lot of these characters from grade school lessons. It was like seeing celebrity cameos.
Sloane: “Oh my god, it’s him!”
Onda: "It's Squanto! I know that guy." And then you're like, "Oh… that's not what I remember."
Sloane: Exactly. “No, no, no! Put the gun down, Mr. Standish! Stop shouting at the natives!”
“Saints & Strangers” airs on the National Geographic Channel Sunday and Monday, November 22 and 23 at 9 p.m. ET (and replays on Thanksgiving Day night). Click here to add to your watchlist.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.