Actress-singer Nive Nielsen talks AMC’s ‘The Terror’ and representing Inuit heritage on TV
More than a decade passed between Nive Nielsen’s first acting role and her second. In 2005, she made her onscreen debut as an unnamed Inuit woman in Terrence Malick’s colonial drama The New World. Her second part is on AMC’s historical-horror seriesThe Terror as Lady Silence, one of the most pivotal roles on the acclaimed miniseries, currently in the midst of its 10-episode run.
Based on the 2007 novel by Dan Simmons, the show spins a terrifying story out of the doomed Franklin expedition, in which two ships left England in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage, and then seemingly disappeared. Lady Silence first encounters the men after they accidentally shoot her father. As calamities begin to befall the crew, some start to believe that she has some hand in it. In reality, she’s the only one with an inkling of what’s happening, and how to survive it. But the crew don’t pay her much heed, in part because she’s a woman, and in part because of her Inuit descent.
Nielsen’s performance is striking given that, as suggested by her character’s name, she is (eventually) rendered silent. What makes it all the more incredible is that her foray into acting occurred on a whim. She was studying political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, back when she heard about The New World, and went out for the part of Pocahontas in an attempt to distract herself from her studies.
“I want[ed] to understand the world that I live in,” she says over the phone, as to why she picked that particular major, explaining that she ultimately found the field too dry for her taste. (She’d go on to get a graduate degree in visual anthropology, which she found more fulfilling, and took as an opportunity to dive into Arctic history.) At the same time, she considered acting an impractical pursuit. “I thought I probably wouldn’t get anywhere,” she notes. Nielsen’s not entirely wrong about that — when I ask how she got involved with The New World and The Terror, she tells me that those projects were just what happened to come along. They were parts specifically written as Inuit, and with casting calls specifically looking for Inuit actors. It was partly that specificity that drew her to The Terror — as well as a bit of the acting bug that hadn’t completely faded in the years since appearing in The New World.
In between the two roles, Nielsen, who originally hails from Greenland, has built a formidable career. Her band, a Greenlandic folk-pop group called Nive and the Deer Children, has put out two albums (with a third due later in 2018), and she’s worked for Greenland National TV, doing research as well as interviews and working on different culture programs. Becoming a leading lady is just the latest step in her journey — a journey she was kind enough to discuss with Mic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: I read in an interview with the showrunners [David Kajganich and Soo Hugh] that they talked through the character of Lady Silence with you, and kind of molded it a little differently, according to your discussions.
Nive Nielsen: Yeah, I think we were talking about how she would’ve experienced being on the ship for the first time. They were asking me how I imagined it. I think at that point I was saying that I imagined that she hadn’t encountered southerners before, and at that point in history, when you look at black-and-white pictures, the very first pictures of Inuit people, they just look very normal, you know? Very confident and happy.
And then, as colonization progresses, you see them looking more beaten down. That’s what I was thinking about when [Lady Silence] gets onto the ship. She hasn’t heard of anybody before, she doesn’t know what the Europeans can do yet. I imagined she’s a little bit innocent in the sense that she’s trusting, and she’s not as scared as she should’ve been.
And I imagined her to be a very strong woman, because you had to be, back then, living in that kind of environment, in such a harsh nature. The worldview that they had back then, they weren’t really scared of death, because it was very common. The spiritual life was very, very strong, and very real to them. I imagined that death wasn’t as scary to them as it is maybe to us, nowadays.
I imagined she was curious about things that she’d never seen before, like the ship, how it’s constructed, because everything is very pragmatic and practical. All their tools, all their houses, everything is constructed very carefully, and skillfully, to be able to survive such a harsh environment. It’s pretty ingenious, what they came up with. I think that’s how we were discussing it.
It sounds like it was very collaborative in terms of assessing how the character would react to these scenarios. Was there anything that underwent a significant change?
NN: It was collaborative, for sure. The writers have done so much research, and they’re so respectful of the culture, and they’re very open to hear the actors’ opinions and perspectives. They know the story really well, so I’d ask them about a backstory — how they imagined her relationship was with her father, for example. That kind of stuff, they would fill in, and then they would ask me questions, like, “What do you think she would do, or feel?” It was definitely very collaborative and open. It was a really amazing experience in that sense.
“You learn so much about European culture from reading about how they perceived the Inuit culture.” — Nive Nielsen
Was there any particular sequence that you found difficult to shoot?
NN: I think I was very nervous shooting my very first scene. It was a very, very intense scene, when we get into the ship and my father dies. That was my very first scene. I was really nervous, and I really didn’t have an idea about how the day was going to be. I hadn’t really done an epic, long scene like that before, and I was nervous if I could muster up tears. But I managed to cry, and I was very relieved when, apparently, I could. A lot. [laughs]
Were there any performances, or even musical performances that you used to get into character?
NN: Yeah. I was kind of focusing on the same things as I usually do for music. I feel like for people or audiences, regardless of whether it’s for music or acting, what really comes through to people is sincerity or honesty, or something that feels very real. I’m always very focused on making sure that I mean what I say, or I really mean my songs. I write them, and always try to keep them fresh in the sense that I’ll never just recite it. I’ll always try to focus on making sure that I deliver it like when I wrote it.
It’s the same thing with the acting. I was very focused on sincerity, so I was actually watching a lot of old videos of, for some reason, blues musicians. They have a seriousness about them, and they have a very straightforward, honest expression. I loved watching Lightnin’ Hopkins. I was really into that while we were shooting. It’s all old black-and-white videos of very beautiful performances. I was just looking at their expressions, and their delivery.
The creature that’s terrorizing the show’s main characters, the Tuunbaq, was created by Dan Simmons, but it’s based off of the shamanism present in Inuit religion. Are you at all familiar with that aspect of the culture?
NN: The pronunciation in the book is “Tuunbaq,” for the spirit, but I’m pretty sure what was meant is “tuurngaq,” and I say it like that in the TV show. We would say “tuurngaq” here in Greenland, but it’s like a shaman’s helping spirit. It’s a creation of the shaman. It can literally be formed and shaped according to the shaman’s imagination. That’s how I treated the monster of the TV show, as a helping spirit of the shaman.
How much did you know of Inuit culture before you began studying it for your graduate degree, in visual anthropology?
NN: We’re Inuit here in Greenland, so we have some Inuit history in school, and I did one year at the university here in social, cultural history here in Greenland, so I’d already been studying Inuit culture [even] before I started my bachelor’s. It’s always interesting because it’s like having an inside perspective on a culture that has been studied so much from the outside.
I think we’re the most-studied culture if you consider the population; we’re, in total, a little over 200,000 people, and there’s libraries of studies of Inuit culture from the last few centuries. It’s really interesting, for me, to look at history from both perspectives, because you learn so much about European culture from reading about how they perceived the Inuit culture.
Are you fluent in Inuktitut?
NN: Yeah, in Kalaallisut. So that’s the Inuktitut dialect, but in Greenland. It’s all different dialects, all throughout the Arctic. Greenland, Canada, Alaska, parts of Siberia — we all sort of speak a variant of each other’s language. It’s called an Inuit language, but it’s a lot of dialects. I speak the Greenlandic dialect. [Understanding other dialects] is quite hard. The grammar is quite different. The whole system is the same, but the grammar, the words that they say are different, so it feels like a parallel universe.
We’re so close and so far at the same time. It’s hard to get to other Inuit regions — it’s so expensive to fly to those places. I’ve been fortunate enough with the music that I do, I’ve been traveling all over the arctic, and meeting other Inuit, and it’s really fascinating to see. It feels like a parallel universe: It would be us if we were colonized by Canadians, or Americans.
You’ve worked for Greenland National TV as well. How did you get into TV work?
NN: I started as a teenager. My friend did an internship at the TV station. We were still in high school, and they asked her to make a news program. She wanted more people, so she asked me to help her, so that’s how we started. And then I’ve just always stayed in contact with the people who run the TV station, so when I’m home, once in a while, every few years, I’ll come back and work for the TV station sometimes.
You’ve done some culture programs for them. Was there any particular story you worked on that stands out to you?
NN: I followed some whale hunters, and I really, really enjoyed diving into that history. I guess in the rest of the world, that seems really controversial, but I’ll say what they can catch here is very limited. It’s all very strict quotas, and only very specific, certain kinds of whales are being hunted. Some of the most fascinating ones, they still hunt in the traditional way, like the most northern point of Greenland, where they still go on kayaks with harpoons. That, to me, is really interesting, and beautiful.
It’s a part of the history.
NN: Yes, and part of the reason that we’re even alive today. There’s a lot of respect for the animals that they’ve caught in the past, and there are a lot of rituals that go with it. Catching a whale would ensure the survival of a whole village for a whole winter, so it was a really, really big deal, and they would only wear new clothes to go hunting for whales, out of respect for the animal, and to thank it for giving itself. That kind of stuff.
There’s a lot of rituals involved with catching whales, and it was also — there’s been several times where the population in Greenland would have gone extinct if there weren’t whales. In more recent history, like a century ago, when smallpox came here, it nearly eliminated everyone. Danish whalers saved a lot of people by catching whales and making sure that people had food when everybody was sick. There’s a long, long history of survival and struggle that goes along with whale hunting.
I was really struck by the point that you made earlier about thinking that it wouldn’t be a practical choice to get into acting. Has your mindset changed now that you’ve tackled something as huge as The Terror?
NN: I think that I’d really, really love to pursue some more acting. I love playing music and I’m never going to stop with my band, and we’re going to tour and play music still, but I’m definitely going to be trying out more for acting, because I really, really enjoyed this project. It was such a great experience, and I really like creative work. This is creative, and I can use a lot of the same skills for music and for acting. And then again, they’re also different, so there are different challenges.
Again, in the same way as in music, I feel like you can constantly learn something new. You can always improve and get better, and it never gets boring that way.
The Terror airs Mondays on AMC at 9 p.m.