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THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE: Michael Praed
The actor on exploring the world of Jules Verne as Phileas Fogg.
By Steve Fritz
January 01, 2001
Michael Praed is quite proud of himself, for reasons only a parent would understand. He had just returned to his home in England to see his son and daughter in their local school's Nativity play. 'They were fantastic!' the proud father beams, just begging the question, are the kids chips of the old block? 'It's seems to be, yes,' says Praed. 'They most definitely have the old affinity for the stage. They definitely have the show-off gene.'
The up-and-coming actor has another reason to be proud. His new television series, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne
, will make its U.S. debut on the Sci-Fi Channel on Friday, Jan. 5 at 9:00 p.m. EST. Praed plays no less than Phileas Fogg, who in this secret history is not only the man who will eventually travel around the world in 80 days, but a real-life character who's quite a bit more.
'I was very glad I was chosen for the role because it's turned out to be the most challenging and fun I've had in my career,' says Praed. 'One of the things that I enjoy is the producers actively ask the actors for their input in terms of storyline. For instance, normally when you have script read through, you do it and then bugger off until you get the rewrites. In this production we were encouraged to stick around for the rewrite session. We could also give criticism.
'Now that's a potentially precarious and treacherous path the producers have taken. You can get a situation where actors give their creative input based on the number of minutes they are going to appear, which usually matches the size of their egos. What's great about this cast is there's a complete and utter absence of ego. So this has benefited us in many ways because we actors then can resolve a lot of problems that may have gotten unnoticed and really help with the script. It's a unique position to find oneself in.'
Praed doesn't just enjoying acting in the show, but also finds it quite remarkable to look at as well. 'This is a totally unique production to begin with,' he says. 'To start with, it was totally financed independently without the guarantee of any sale. That takes a lot of balls in these days of television. Also, we're the first television series to be totally shot in H-D.
'I can tell you that there are loads of special effects, and typically they are always done on a computer. You shoot them in 35 millimeter and then digitize the 35 millimeter, put the special effect on to it and then make a print. In H-D, you don't have to make a copy of anything. It's all done in the digital domain. So you don't lose any clarity of the shot from the copying.'
The end result is a crystal clear-like clarity that's virtually stunning to the eye. It should come as no surprise that certain big names in Hollywood are now paying close attention to this series.
'From what I understand, George Lucas is talking to our producers [Talisman Crest and Filmline International] about using their process,' tattles Praed. 'He supposedly is going to shoot the next Star Wars
in it. Right now his people are having a lot of conversations with our people because we essentially wrote the book on H-D.'
But incredible production values are never enough to carry a TV production for long. The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne
trumps this with an intriguing background story and four heroic characters who are hard to forget. The story revolves, as one might expect, around the 'real' Jules Verne (Chris Demetral), noted 19th Century author and father of modern science fiction. In this series, we are introduced to him as a law student at Paris' best-known university, La Sorbonne. He is kept under the watchful eye of Arago (David Warner), who appears to know more about Verne than the young man himself truly knows. Whatever Arago knows, Verne would like more details. As it is, the young author is suffering from incredible visions that are so strong they are driving him mad.
Meanwhile, in London, there's the incredible Fogg family. The family's patriarch, Boniface, has just died under mysterious circumstances. He has two sons that we know of, plus a niece who he took on as a ward. Boniface Fogg is head of the British secret service and his sons Phileas and Erasmus are two of his agents. The niece, Rebecca (Francesca Hunt), is in training under Phileas' watchful eye.
Before he dies, Boniface makes a horrendous mistake when he sends his sons on a mission to Prussia. A total set-up, Phileas must witness his brother sacrifice himself in order to save at least one of them. When he returns to London, Phileas denounces his father, the government and everything else in a fit of disgust and leaves the family business.
At Boniface's funeral, no less than Queen Victoria and Prime Minister Gladstone implore the young Fogg to return, but are rejected. The new head of British security gives Rebecca her first mission, to track a defecting British inventor who ran off to Paris with a deciphering device. Rebecca is given a new identity; that of a legal aide at, of all places, La Sorbonne.
Meanwhile, Fogg is deep into a depression, now feeling extreme guilt over the death of his father. He winds up in a poker game with a mysterious British nobleman who basically throws the game away to the young lord. Fogg's prizes turn out to be a mysterious, almost clairvoyant, manservant named Passepartout and an incredible flying machine called the Aurora
All the while, a secret society called The Legion of Darkness has its eyes on Verne. Only Arago seems to know what the Legion's leader, Lord Gregory, has in mind for Verne. You can bet both Foggs and Passepartout will be dragged into it before this series is over.
'Essentially, my character is a Victorian era James Bond,' says Praed. 'Then the producers departed in a significant way from the archetype. Normally, a hero of this nature is usually seen doing 'heroic' things and not allowed to deviate from that. One of the beauties of Phileas Fogg is he's tremendously flawed, some times he's actually monstrous. He drinks too much. He often goes barking up the wrong tree. He's a man so tremendously filled with what is right he can be incredibly stubborn and very stupid about it. His way is often to say 'Bullocks! I want to do it this way!' So he often gets in a lot of trouble.
'The important thing is this business of honor. Phileas subscribes to the British code up to a point. He is a bit of a rebel, but in his heart he's every bit an English gentleman. When he gives you his word as a gentleman, he absolutely believes it. [But] what was so totally refreshing is his being so flawed. You have so many more colors on your palette. I love that. It's not something you normally have.'
If anything, Fogg's main saving grace will be Passepartout. 'The actor who plays him, Michael Courtemanche, is starting to earn comparisons to Jim Carrey and Robin Williams,' reveals Praed. 'He would hate me to say this, but he really is that good. In my opinion he's a comic genius. He is already a huge star in Montreal and Paris. He's also a total delight to work with.
'Passepartout is Fogg's guardian angel. It should be understood that one of Fogg's good points is he absolutely adores his manservant, and the feeling is mutual. Of course, the Victorian ethic doesn't allow either to express it. As such, there's no real way Fogg can ever tell Passepartout how much he needs him. This can be a problem as Passepartout more times than not often makes excuses, guides and protects Fogg. Phileas Fogg really can not do without Passepartout. Passepartout basically runs his life as menservants were once to do. He takes care of everything. They have a wonderful working relationship. There's levels upon levels to this character. Passepartout has the ability to manufacture anything Verne can dream up. He can make anything you want.'
As for Rebecca Fogg, she's no fainting scream queen. If anything, Hunt plays her like a 19th Century Emma Peel, right down to the Victorian equivalent of a catsuit. 'There's all kinds of comparisons you can make,' says Praed. 'I suppose that one about Francesca would be fair. That's one of the best things about this series; it is looking at all forms of dramas and taking the best bits from them, mixing them around and coming up with something unique.
'Rebecca's also an Oxford graduate, which in those days was absolutely rare. People forget just how absolutely restricted they were in those days. The opinion of women in society in those days was they really didn't have any. Rebecca is quite the firebrand.'
Which just leaves Verne. As the title of the show implies, the series all revolves around him and his visions. 'Lord Gregory may not necessarily want to dominate the world, although I'm sure it would be high on his list,' says Praed. 'He does want to know what the future holds, and Verne's genius is to see what's coming before anyone else does. As Verne's visions are often radical and visionary, Gregory wants to harness those visions to service him in war. So the Legion often crops up in order to try to either seduce or control him into working for them.
'If you call him a young Luke Skywalker, I would have to say that you're absolutely correct. He's a young man trying to find out about himself. He's attending the Sorbonne in order to be a writer. He is also discovering he has this extraordinary ability. He and Fogg develop a sort of fraternal relationship. Phileas is extraordinarily inspired by his brain. Verne's brain is on a tangent normally reserved for Einstein.'
Suffice it that soon enough all four of these main characters will wind up on the Aurora
and will begin taking us on adventures throughout the world of the 1860s. In fact, one important adventure will take them to the United States. Not only will they become embroiled in the Civil War, but also meet up with a young Thomas Edison, who according to Praed will become a major recurring character in the series. Another will have them meet up with another contemporary, Alexandre Dumas. As played by John (Sliders
) Rhys-Davies, this Dumont not only created the Three Musketeers, but is also the owner of a time machine. This will lead to a major two-parter that is one of Praed's favorites.
'I got to play Cardinal Richelieu as well as Phileas,' says Praed, 'which is wonderful fun. I got to play a completely duplicitous, murdering, thug! He is evil personified.
'When we did the Three Musketeers episodes, when we meet them, they are all clapped out. They are old and it's up to us to get them back onto the saddle, you might say. What's also fun is Rhys-Davies plays two characters, Alexandre Dumas and another. Rene (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
) Auberjonois is also in the series, and plays an assassin sent by the Legion of Darkness to kill Phileas and Rebecca.'
For the record, the guest cast to the series is as intriguing as the main cast. Among those showing up for one or two episodes are Tracy (Babylon 5
) Scoggins, Patrick (Dallas
) Duffy, Michael (Becoming Dick
) Moriarty and Margot (Superman
'One of the things that people should take into consideration when watching this Jules Verne is the original's imagination was just staggering,' says Praed. 'It's just staggering how visionary they were. We take for granted such things as submarines, the subway, flying machines and flying to the moon. Well, somebody had to think about that and a lot of times the first person was Verne. Many of these things are simple in retrospect, but they still needed someone to think of it.
'What's important about this series is it's peppered with these nuggets from Verne and Edison, and other people as well, such as Dumas. One of our shows revolves around the evolution of the movie camera. If you didn't know it's history you are going to be in for a number of surprises about it.'
As for the future of the series, it is already airing in Canada and appears to be doing well north of the border. Praed is taking on a number of roles for various independent movies at the moment, but is hoping he gets the call for a second season.
'I hope so,' admits Praed. 'It depends. Remember, the producers created all 22 episodes without a single network sale. That puts them in both a very strong and very weak position. It's strong in they have a show that's marketable with very few strings attached. It's weak in that they had to put up an incredible amount of cash up front to get it done. I would say that no network out there is going to commission a second season without seeing how the first one does. I know that I would certainly like to do more.'