The Miniaturist's Alex Hassell on Johannes: "He’s polite and charming but not really present"

The Miniaturist BBC One's two-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s internationally best selling novel

What attracted you to the role of Johannes?
What’s wonderful about The Miniaturist is that it will look and feel like a typical costume drama, but as the story progresses it veers away from the norm in terms of the gender politics and sexual politics and relationships. It’s really quite progressive in the way women are portrayed and the power and importance they are given in the story. Plus the way the male protagonist Johannes is defined in the story is really quite unusual and tragic and inspiring.

I read the scripts and I thought it would be hugely important to me, as a person and as an actor, to play this part. He is such an interesting character and a deeply brave person, so I wanted to tell his story. Personally I’m very attracted to characters that have a combination of strength and vulnerability; often if I feel I’m not a good enough actor to play a part, I want to do it because it’s a challenge.

Had you read the book before you took on the role of Johannes?
I hadn’t read the book until I auditioned and then I did, and I listened to Jessie Burton’s audio book, which was a wonderful experience, to hear her telling her own story, The story itself is so thought-provoking, unusual and profound and the characters all have inner tension, interesting story arcs and layers to peel back. John Brownlow’s scripts are exquisitely done and are absolutely in the tone of Jessie’s writing.

Whats so brilliant about the book and the drama is that it sits so familiarly in the period world that we’re used to but with language, characters and relationships that we can relate to. It’s a household of minorities who are all protecting each other, and it’s them against the world, which is very contemporary.

Tell us about Johannes as a character. 
Nella finds herself in Amsterdam, which is an extremely puritanical environment at the time. It’s also a vibrant business centre built upon international trading. Essentially the Burgemeesters monopolise trade by owning the routes, but Johannes operates outside of them by travelling further and setting up his own trade routes - he’s a bit of a maverick. Johannes is an exceptionally rich merchant trader. The cabinet he gives to Nella which is worth 3,000 guilders, which is thought to be the equivalent of ten years wages for a labourer, so it’s a huge amount of money on a trifle.

What can you tell us about his relationship with Nella?
Nella and Johannes relationship is so interesting because ostensibly they seem like a perfect period drama couple: she’s young and naïve and he’s older and more worldly and brooding, and there are lots of stories we’ve seen before like that. It’s an arranged marriage but the expectation is that they will become romantically involved and enjoy their lives together.

But he’s just not around and he doesn’t pay her much attention. He’s polite and charming but not really present or seemingly attracted to her, which will hopefully intrigue audiences.

It’s very unusual that Johannes and Marin, his sister, are both not married in their mid-30s and that they are living together, so it makes them immediately a controversial household and there are rumours about them. They need to protect their business and wellbeing so Marin persuades Johannes that he should have a wife, which would solve the problem.

Johannes doesn’t know what to do with Nella. He feels he’s conned this lovely young woman into marriage and so he gives her the cabinet to play with, almost as if it’s a toy, and to divert her attention from him. But it becomes a metaphor for how everyone in the house is a toy being manoeuvred and the miniatures seem to predict their future.

His relationship with Nella becomes the most important relationship in his life, and it’s a very transformative relationship because she accepts him for everything he is, even the parts that he feels most ashamed of, which allows him to be an open person and fully realise himself.

What was it like working with Anya and Romola?
It was a massive joy. The whole company is phenomenal, I feel like I must be the weak link because it’s such a wonderful cast. Having these two extremely brilliant lead female actors was fantastic because they are so talented and I learnt a lot from working with them.

The Minaturist will be shown on BBC One in late December 2017. Watch the trailer for the book below (not the BBC series):

December 2, 2017 8:04am ET by BBC One  

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