Death in a cold climate

Actors risked frostbite and hypothermia on the set of Neil Marshall's Roman epic

Noel Clarke recovered from frostbite. J J Feild quit smoking because of hypothermia. Michael Fassbender survived shirtless sprinting in sub-zero temperatures to become the next Daniel Craig. It's true: whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It just doesn't always feel like that.

On set in the highlands of Scotland, in March 2009, when it's not snowing it's hailing and when it's not hailing it's raining. And in those rare moments when fluid isn't flowing, the wind slaps the skin like an angry dad.

Neil Marshall, the writer/director responsible for carting cast and crew out into the wilds in winter is well-prepared, with a thick coat and ski goggles and a sense of humour shared by his associates. "Let's hope they survive to do the battle scene," says one wag, after watching the actors undertake the latest in a series of stunts. This one involved Fassbender, David Morrissey, Dimitri Leonidas and Liam Cunningham drifting free in an icy river, before hauling themselves ashore. Amidst the voluminous health and safety notes handed out to the crew, one sentence sums it up succinctly: "Actors are subject to risk of coldwater shock, hypothermia, water inhalation and drowning". The glamour of the movies.

For the sake of continuity with a previously shot scene, snow is being washed off surrounding stones when Cunningham and Fassbender wade in. It's horribly cold even in a thermal overcoat. In thin Roman-style tunics, it is literally freezing. Cunningham dips his head underwater and an expletive-laden shout echoes round the gorge. It's going to be a long day. And these actors have already been through extremes. "The first day was one of the most horrendous I've ever had," says Morrissey, sheltering from the elements inside one of the crew cars. "We were right at the top of a mountain, it was snowing, it was cold, we were running down 4ft of virgin snow. It was really full-on. But," he laughs, as it is now only a memory, "it was great to do."

Morrissey and Co form a pack of Roman soldiers fleeing a posse of vengeful Pict warriors, lead by the mute – but violently expressive – Etain, played by the Quantum Of Solace beauty Olga Kurylenko. Centurion is an action ensemble, bankrolled by the appeal of the former Bond girl, Inglourious Basterds star Fassbender and The Wire's Dominic West, who plays the hard-drinking, rabble-rousing commander of the Ninth Legion, the legendary outfit which mysteriously disappeared in Britain circa AD117. The film offers an explanation for their vanishing act (an event that's also pivotal to Oscar-winner Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle of the Ninth, out later in the year), but at heart it's a chase movie, with its roots in John Ford's iconic Western Stagecoach and John Boorman's survival classic Deliverance. That film was notorious for its gruelling shoot. Burt Reynolds' commitment stretched to being thrown down a vicious white-water drop – injuring himself in the process – only to be told by his director he looked, "like a dummy going over a waterfall". Marshall isn't so cruel, but he's definitely not kind: he wants what he wants.

"I think people get used to the way I work," he says. "I work fast. You don't get many takes – people have to kind of keep up with me, rather than me keep pace with them. I'm not very good at keeping them [actors] in cotton wool. I'm more: 'This is what we need to do, let's get on with it!' Everybody is there to do a job, you know? Especially on a film like this, there's no time for any of that. We've got to move. Everybody is freezing, everybody is wet, everybody is suffering. You've got to go!" The technique might not please everyone – there are a couple of off-the-record grumbles – but the lead has no problem with it. "Neil is one of those directors who really enjoys what he's doing," says Fassbender, over a cigarette in a damp tent erected for the actors to huddle in. "There's no fuss: it's bang, bang, bang. He moves at a pace and he's happy to be on set every day. He loves shooting entertaining films." The German-born, Irish-raised actor has recent experience with one of the world's most celebrated film-makers, having worked with Quentin Tarantino on Inglourious Basterds – apt for a man who started his own acting experiences by starring in an unlicensed stage adaptation of the writer/director's debut thriller, Reservoir Dogs. "It was quite a trip to be standing on set being directed by Quentin," he says. "As with Neil, you have somebody who has written the script, has been there from the birth of the project, and he just lives, breathes and eats his work. So you just sort of go on set and try and learn as much as you can." Next, he's learning from Steven Soderbergh in the action-thriller Knockout, then David Cronenberg in A Dangerous Method, where he'll play the seminal psychologist Carl Jung.

Marshall couldn't be more effusive about the star (who – should you ever corner him in a bar – appears to know every single word of the screenplay of the 1985 Chevy Chase comedy Fletch and does an unbelievably good Christopher Walken impression): "He is absolutely dedicated." The 33-year-old actor even had to be talked down from undertaking one of the boldest stunts in the movie: jumping from the high-sided gorge into the inky, deep, rushing water. "He's up for anything, you know?" says Marshall. "Whether it's jumping into an icy, cold river or getting on a horse and riding at high speed. I'm sure if I'd said yes he would have jumped off the cliff into the river, but somebody had to hold him back and say, 'No, no, no, let's not get carried away here!'" (The stunt was eventually carried out by professional stuntmen, with suited-up safety divers lurking in the depths nearby.)

Perhaps the only person Marshall enjoyed working with more was his wife, Axelle Carolyn, who plays one of Kurylenko's warriors – though she doesn't have an easier time of it on set. Trussed up in battle gear, wearing war-paint and wielding a bow and arrow, she's made to wait to rampage as much as any other actor. A former journalist and author of the book It Lives Again! Horror Movies In The New Millennium, the 31-year-old is relatively new to acting and is justifiably wary of people's perceptions of a film-maker casting his partner. "Being known as 'the wife'!" she says, on the production's charter plane from Inverness to London. "Yes, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand I know I have great opportunities because of who he is, but I don't want to just be the director's wife... And he did make me audition!"

Throwing herself into the gruesome action, she is certainly convincing on screen. "Oh, she justifies her place in the movie by delivering a great performance!" says Marshall, when asked in the editing suite about any cynicism surrounding her casting. "And, you know, I'm not the first director to put his wife in a movie!"

'Centurion' is released on 23 April

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own