Move over, Lannister clan. A wealthy 17th-century English family will be playing its own deadly game in the nail-biting premiere of HBO’s historical thriller Gunpowder. Catholic Robert Catesby (Kit Harington) and cousin Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler) watch helplessly as sadistic “Catholic catcher” Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley) and his gang tear up her home searching for hidden priests. What follows is horrific—and Catesby vows violent revenge.
The three-part miniseries tells of Catesby’s “Gunpowder Plot” to plant explosives beneath the House of Lords and kill Protestant King James I (Derek Riddell). But Catesby’s brawny and mysterious coconspirator, Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen), was caught before anything could go kaboom. Despite the failure, November 5, 1605, is still celebrated as a holiday, with fireworks and burning Fawkes effigies—though the scheme was masterminded by Catesby, who happens to be Harington’s ancestor.
“I always felt some sort of, I don’t know, pride about this man and the fact that he’d gone and done something. But in researching him, I realized Catesby wasn’t a particularly good person,” says Harington, explaining that he and drama school roommate Daniel West had long dreamed of developing the project. Three years ago, the pair began writing the script with novelist Ronan Bennett.
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Harington’s role is a far cry from the one that made him famous: Game of Thrones’ honorable Jon Snow. “Like Jon, Catesby’s a good swordsman and noble, committed to his cause,” Harington explains. “But Catesby wants to kill. He’s driven by hate. That’s not Jon at all.”
Catesby’s drive, not to mention brooding charm, attracts collaborators even as the rebellion becomes in danger of being discovered and destroyed by King James’s ambitious spymaster, Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss), busily hunting down Catholic priests with right-hand man Wade.
“We wanted to understand who Catesby is and why he turned in the direction that he did,” says West, who also plays plotter Thomas Percy. “Catholics and Protestants were squashing each other. Families were torn apart and people were being executed and tortured. If you were caught practicing your faith, your life was over.”
The camera doesn’t shy away from squirm-inducing violence, including a gut-wrenching execution early on and Fawkes’s torture in the Tower of London once he’s captured. “There’s also a great scene where all of the plotters were on set together, which was rare, and we had a big bloody bar brawl,” Cullen recalls. “We used real metal swords, so the risk level was high. Our fight coordinator got us to improvise to give it an authentic feel. We are actually often fighting for real.”
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Amid the bloodshed are the voices of moderation: Anne and the priest she loves, Father Henry Garnet (Peter Mullan), who leads covert Masses but opposes open revolution and violence. Together they attempt to convince gentleman turned rebel Catesby that his planned mass murder is un-Christian.
“Anne is completely devoted to Garnet and to her faith. She didn’t have children and chose not to be married,” says Tyler (The Leftovers), noting that she researched the period to learn what daily life would have been like for women at the time. “They had a very compassionate friendship.”
Alas, their pleas are ignored—as are the fears that widower Catesby will orphan his young son—while the self-appointed martyr doubles down, repeatedly foiling Cecil and Wade as the tale twists from English estates to Spanish castles and European alleyways, using a mix of historic locales (like an 800 AD English chapel) and sets.
Even though Gunpowder illuminates a notorious historical event, Harington believes that, at the core, it’s about how people and their personal needs and desires can drive history. “I thought the key into Catesby was that he had a death wish,” Harington says. “He’s a widower. His wife is up in heaven, and he wants to get to her. Nothing will stop him.”
Gunpowder, Miniseries premiere Monday, Dec. 18, 10/9c, HBO