Discovery’s new six-hour miniseries Harley and the Davidsons, premiering Sept. 5, tells the story of how brothers Walter and Harley Davidson and their friend Bill Harley gave birth to the iconic Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the early 1900s. It’s a tale of high risk, financial and physical, and intense passion, for both engineering and personal freedom. Game of Thrones‘ Michiel Huisman was drawn to the role of Walter for one simple reason: “Because he represents, I think, the heart, the attitude, the soul of what Harley-Davidson became,” he says. “He’s a little bit of a rebel, a little bit of an outsider, a tiny bit anti-establishment. He projects that onto what he wants a bicycle with an engine to become. He’s a man’s man with both feet in Wisconsin clay. In my mind, he’s an icon. I was honored to be allowed to portray a character like that.”
Huisman spoke to Yahoo TV about filming the miniseries, which airs over three consecutive nights.
Without spoiling too much, Night 1 ends with a Motordrome race that shows just how dangerous this dream is. I didn’t know the history and found myself tempted to Google “Walter Davidson,” to make sure we wouldn’t lose Walter before the end of the miniseries. Were you nervous about his fate, knowing he is the one who rides the bikes?
Michiel Huisman: Well, no, because very early on I started doing some research and I knew he lasted longer than that. That much I knew. It’s also funny how working on the miniseries is very different from working on a longer series like Game of Thrones, for example, where we don’t really know what’s going to happen beyond the episode that we get to read. In general, with a miniseries, everything is read before we start shooting. So you know the arc; you know where it starts, you know where it will end. It’s a lot of fun, too, because it allows you to think more about the storyline and the arc of your character.
A lot of actors will lie about certain skills to get roles. Did you have to prove to producers that you could ride before they believed you?
No, no. Well, sort of. I made sure that in the casting process I told everybody who I thought should know that I was able to ride any kind of motorcycle. Once I got the part, they were very keen on getting me out on location as soon as possible to start riding on their replicas. We rebuilt [close to 90] early Harley-Davidsons, because either the originals don’t exist anymore or they’re behind glass in the Harley museum in Milwaukee. They ride very differently from modern bikes, obviously. Especially in the beginning, they’re more like bicycles with an engine. Once we get into Episodes 2 and 3 — because the three episodes span a period of 30 years — they slowly become more what we recognize as Harleys. But those bikes still are the opposite of what you’re used to on a modern bike. It was really useful to have some time before we started shooting, because I think my character was really a natural when it came to riding those motorcycles. I wanted to be able to make it look like I am, too.
I got my license as soon as I could, which is 18 in the Netherlands. I rode motorcycles all through my 20s. I even thought I was never, ever going to get into a car, until my wife and I had our daughter. It was time to get in a car. After not being on motorcycles for a while, it was just so much fun to get on the bike again for this project. In this case, it was work, so of course it was allowed.
You posted a photo of your stunt double, Eduardo, on Instagram. Where does your riding leave off, and where does Eduardo’s start?
I have to admit that I thought I was a very skilled motorcycle rider, until I saw him ride and realized that has nothing to do with what I’m doing. These guys are so on top of what they are doing. They even, midair, still control the bike and know what they’re doing. I gladly had moments giving the bike to Eduardo so that he could make Walter, and me, look as good as possible. There were a lot of races where I was able to do quite a bit of riding myself. The Motordrome that you referred to earlier: It was not only a very dangerous sport at the time — they, at some point, started calling them Murderdromes instead of Motordromes because people died — it proved also very challenging to shoot, because you need speed to get up on those banks. We’re doing it basically with bicycles with an engine, so it didn’t always go well. There were a couple of stunt guys that fell hard.
Did you suffer any injuries or have any close calls?
No, no. I did not. I promised myself very early on that I was not going to fall. Because I have to shoot every day, I can’t afford to go down. So whenever I thought, “Maybe that’s too hard for me,” or there was a slight chance that I’d lose my balance or control, I’d either try to figure something else out or say, “You know, let’s let the double do that.” Then, I’d get on as soon as we got off this gravel or whatever.
Do you have a favorite of the rides you got to do?
I think the best ride is probably the last ride of the show. The first episode is really about the founding of Harley-Davidson and trying to pull off getting an engine in a frame. The second episode is about finding their position in the industry, solidifying their place, and working out the rivalry between them and other companies that are doing the same thing. The third episode is really about their legacy. What did they leave behind for next generations? It plays in the 1930s, during the time of the Depression. Where other motorcycle manufacturers choose to cater to the people that have less money to spend because of the Depression, Harley-Davidson decides to release their biggest and fastest motorcycle to date. That’s the Knucklehead. That’s the motorcycle I ride in Episode 3. That’s the motorcycle I placed my card on, but somehow, I don’t know why, but it hasn’t arrived at my house yet.
I was going to ask if you got to keep anything from the set. That would be the logical choice.
Yeah, no. They gave me my pads, the padding that I would wear underneath my clothes. They’re awesome pads, by the way. But since there’s a lot of people reading Yahoo.com, I thought maybe I should mention it here. The Knucklehead is really my bike.
What was it like shooting this in Romania? And were people there recognizing you from Game of Thrones, even with the new look?
First of all, I thought it sounded really weird [to be shooting this in Romania] because it’s such an American story, and so much about Milwaukee and Wisconsin in 1900. I was really, really pleasantly surprised by the looks of our locations and our sets. We needed, obviously, backroads and forests and grassy fields, and those were in abundance in and around Bucharest. We tried to re-create streets of Milwaukee and re-create the way they looked back then, and they don’t really look like that anymore. I think it worked out really well.
As far as Game of Thrones, that’s what is so amazing about being part of that show — you realize it’s everywhere. At some point I did an interview, three years ago I think, for a Chinese entertainment magazine, and it was like, “We’re just now starting to see the first episodes of the first season on national TV here in China.” And I was like, “Oh, then it doesn’t really make sense to talk to me, because I don’t appear until the fourth season.” Then the journalist was like, “Yeah, but everybody has already seen everything, of course.” It is just now on TV, but they’ve all seen it.
Who in the Harley cast was pressuring you most for Game of Thrones spoilers?
It was mostly the crew. Of course you know that Rob Aramayo [who plays Bill Harley] was actually on Game of Thrones as well.
Right. Young Ned Stark.
Exactly. However, even though we were shooting next to each other at the same time, we figured out, we never met. It wasn’t until Harley and the Davidsons that we actually met.
Last question: In Night 1 of Harley and the Davidsons, we see Walter riding down a street and hear women offscreen yelling hello to him. We also see him surrounded by women at a bar after a race. Are we going to see him as a ladies’ man as the episodes continue?
Yes. That’s one of the things that was so much fun about this project is that we get to see the story span 30 years. In the beginning, I am supposed to be in my early 20s, and the end of the story, I’m in my 50s. Like I mentioned earlier, by then, it’s about, “What did we leave behind?” By then, Walter is a married man that has a son who is showing remarkable resemblance to the young Walter — much to Walter’s annoyance. [Laughs] We really get an insight into the personal lives of the founders, which is great because there’s a lot written about the history of the brand, but we don’t know that much about who these guys were. It’s been a journey and an amazing opportunity to bring that to life.
The three-part Harley and the Davidsons premieres Sept. 5 at 9 p.m. on Discovery. It continues Sept. 6 and concludes Sept. 7 at the same time.