It’s lonely at the top. Poor Captain John Slotter, trying to sort through his daddy issues and pave his own way in the wild west, with the help of his medium/madame wife Isabelle and with the backdrop of the massacre of a caravan-full of men that he may or may not have engineered. It’s exhausting work, juggling the start-up of a mine, the extension of the transcontinental railway, and putting the now-stranded women to work as whores.
“Not only is there sex and violence and some cool eye candy, but the events are based on the fabric of our country,” says Strange Empire’s Aaron Poole, who plays Slotter with a mixture of cruelty, pain and bravado. “Some of the violence is so brutal because there’s this sense we’re telling family secrets. There’s times when ‘cut’ will be called and we all start moving, because that’s what we’re trained to do, but there’s this hush of having witnessed something. I think the CBC should be lauded for that. ”
“It’s THE story. Our nationality came out of different incorporated areas to protect the use of the land and the resources in the earth. The story is about moving people off that land to dig that shit up out of the earth. That’s what the violence comes out of, that’s what the magic comes out of, that’s what the drama comes out of, that’s what all of Strange Empire comes out of.”
He sees parallels with today’s stories too, including how mining companies are protected and how different modes of life clash as populations get more dense. “Those are the fights that occur in the microcosm of Strange Empire and Janestown.”
Gathered at Janestown are those who are desperate to keep their way of life “and make some vision of the future that can salvage the thousands of years on the land they’ve established” and those — like John Slotter — who have come from afar to “turn what they see as a blank canvas into their version of paradise. That’s the struggle.”
Though he’s had recurring roles and guest spots in television before — “I was in purgatory on a cop show for a year” — Poole thought of himself as a film guy before Strange Empire came along, including producing and acting in the award-winning This Beautiful City.
“Strange Empire has the historical authenticity but [creator Laurie Finstad Knizhnik] mythologizes it and elevates it.”
“This is one of the best creative experiences I’ve ever had. It’s like a novel, and there’s all these little embellishments that get to be explored off the main line.”
There’s some doubt his character was responsible for the massacre — thought not in Kat Loving’s mind — but Slotter rules Janestown through fear and with a complete disregard for others’ autonomy, and violence surrounds him. It’s difficult for Poole to leave that darkness behind him at the end of the day, but it’s not clear he wants to.
He talks of living in Vancouver as an immersive experience, away from his daughter and his life back home in Toronto, and he chose to live in Gastown because it’s of the same period as Strange Empire. “I choose to paint myself in a corner in those ways,” he says. “I can go relax as Aaron, obviously. I mean, I’m an asshole, but I’m my own kind of asshole.”
“You do anything for 13 hours in a row and you see it when you close your eyes. That’s part of what I’m loving about the creative process.”
He points out that the set of Strange Empire assists with that immersion. There is a soundstage for the interior of the Slotters’ mansion, but the rest of Janestown lives intact on the grounds of the sprawling set that used to be home to Arctic Air. The geography of the exterior of the mansion, the cribs, bunkhouse, and graveyard — none of it is cheated.
“We were shooting a brutal scene for my character and there was a murder of crows that had decided to camp there for the morning,” Poole recounts. “They were cawing in the shot for the whole time. It was like the pathetic fallacy – it felt like the environment was contributing to the scene.”
“Leaving it behind is hard. I don’t want to entirely. My days off are boring. I mean Vancouver’s a lovely city but this is the juice, man. If you’ve decided to act and write about cool stories, this is such a cool story.”
Strange Empire airs Mondays at 9pm on CBC. Catch up on previous episodes at cbc.ca/strangeempire.