Shawn Doyle channels Donald Trump in Discovery’s Frontier

Though Donald Trump has very much become a punchline for many, Shawn Doyle is dead serious when he says the presidential hopeful influenced his latest TV character.

“There is something about the guy’s sense of entitlement and narcissism and overwhelming ambition and greed that was fun to play,” Doyle says. “There is an impetuousness and even childishness to him that sort of comes up as the season goes on.” The Newfoundland native is referencing Trump, but also describing Samuel Grant, a rich entrepreneur in Frontier, Discovery’s stunning dramatization of Canada’s history via the fur trade.

Debuting Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on Bell Media’s specialty channel, Doyle’s Samuel comes up against Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), a violent, wild fur trader who is gaining control of the land as the Hudson’s Bay Company begins to crumble. The high-profile actors are just two of nearly two-dozen, including Landon Liboiron as Michael Smyth, an Irish lad who stows away in a ship and ends up in the New World; Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong), a high-ranking officer at the HBC; Sokanon (Jessica Matten), a critical member of Declan’s group; Douglas Brown (Allan Hawco) an independent trader; and Cobbs Pond (Greg Bryk), Samuel’s right-hand man. (Check out the key cast via our photo gallery.)

Co-created by Rob and Peter Blackie, Frontier has already been renewed for Season 2 by Discovery ahead of Sunday’s six-episode first season debut; we spoke to Doyle about the role and what viewers can expect from the series.

Congratulations on Season 2 of Frontier being ordered before Season 1 has even aired. I wasn’t surprised, really. There is such a big cast and so many stories to tell, six episodes just aren’t enough.
Shawn Doyle: I’ve also got The Expanse and Bellevue, so I’ve got a pretty full slate at the moment.

(l-r) Shawn Doyle and Greg Bryk

Let’s talk about your Frontier character, Samuel Grant. He’s a powerful man in the fur trade and seems destined for a collision course with Declan Harp. What can you tell me about Samuel?
Samuel Grant is actually loosely based on two figures: John Jacob Astor who was, at the time, the richest American and the richest man in North America and who became connected with the fur trade out of Montreal and ultimately made his first fortune with the fur trade when the trade situation was such that he could capitalize on Canadian-American trade. And then he went ahead and bought up all the real estate in Manhattan.

Samuel is also based on another guy by the name of Simon McTavish who was one of the central figures of the North West Company, which was the Hudson’s Bay Company’s only real rival at the time. Both of these guys are well-documented. For me, John Jacob Astor was the template that I jumped off with an as I started to play it, he kind of morphed into Donald Trump. There is something about the guy’s sense of entitlement and narcissism and overwhelming ambition and greed that was fun to play. There is an impetuousness and even childishness to him that sort of comes up as the season goes on.

Something I noticed about your portrayal of Samuel is his smooth movements, no wasted energy with this guy. Was that a conscious decision as well?
Thanks for saying that, because that was a big part of finding that character through the movement. It certainly had a lot to do with the clothes because they fit you in a certain way and restrict movement and there are heels in the shoes, etc., etc. I really wanted to get a sense of danger and for me, that was about stillness and conservation of movement and I hope that, throughout the season, there will be moments that are surprising and that you see another side to him that is in direct contrast to that.

It’s all about those contrasts. It’s what makes these characters worth playing.
For me, I always try to look at—and I’m not always successful at it—to try and find the danger in a character. Danger doesn’t necessarily mean physical danger. It can mean an unpredictability in emotion or movement or tone … it can be anything. I know I’m successful when I surprise myself. Then I know other people will be surprised. That’s what the goal is, and with Samuel Grant, it’s about finding this very rooted place to go from that can send me in all sorts of different directions.

How did you get involved in Frontier? Did Allan Hawco and the Take the Shot guys get in touch because you were on Republic of Doyle and because you’re from Newfoundland?
They contacted me and asked me to do it. I’ve known them from Republic of Doyle and I’m originally from Newfoundland and I’ve done a number of projects there both producing and acting. They were wanting to get me on the show in one way or another, which I was very appreciative of. At the time, I couldn’t really commit to a role that was going to take a lot of time because I was optioned to The Expanse and Samuel Grant was one of a couple of roles they approached me about originally. I don’t even know that I can tell you why, in particular, this one was the one I gravitated towards.

I’m really interested in any project that tries to show a much more balanced and nuanced version of the relations between the various First Nations and Europeans.

As a Canadian, I’m excited to see these stories told and many in Frontier are based on fact. 
For me, a guy who recently got his First Nations status as Mi’kmaq, that all happened after I played John A. Macdonald—one of the most horrendous people against First Nations people in the history of Canada—I’m really interested in any project that tries to show a much more balanced and nuanced version of the relations between the various First Nations and Europeans. It’s one of the things that really excites me about this.

This cast has something like 20 players in it and yet the writing doesn’t feel cluttered or rushed at all. What can you say about the writing that Rob and Peter Blackie have done?
I think they accomplish something that not a lot of people are able to accomplish, and that’s being able to take such a comprehensive view of the world and put it all together in a seamless way. That’s an amazing feat, I think, particularly when you’re trying to honour the truth and the subtleties of so many different factions and how they interplay with each other. I know they did a lot of consulting with various First Nations groups and that has made a big difference in the writing. I wouldn’t be able to make it as compelling as possible. I think the danger with a show like this is that it can often come off as dry. Their genius and the reason why this show will, hopefully, be a tremendous success is because they have dramatized it and made it really, really exciting.

Frontier airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Discovery.

Images courtesy of Bell Media.

Greg David
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Greg David

Prior to becoming a television critic and owner of TV, Eh?, Greg David was a critic for TV Guide Canada, the country's most trusted source for TV news. He has interviewed television actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes folks from hundreds of television series from Canada, the U.S. and internationally. He is a podcaster, public speaker, weekly radio guest and educator, and past member of the Television Critics Association.
Greg David
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