The Game of Thrones star anchors Discovery's ambitious new miniseries about the founding of America's most iconic motorcycle company.
Harley and the Davidsons star Michiel Huisman has a confession to make: When he was first approached to star as Walter Davidson in the new Discovery miniseries, Huisman—a longtime motorcycle enthusiast himself—was riding a BMW. "I'm almost embarrassed to admit it now, but I thought it was one guy named Harley Davidson," he says, laughing.
After shooting a series that spans the first few decades of Harley-Davidson's history—and personally riding dozens and dozens of reproductions from the earliest days of the company—it's safe to say Huisman knows a little more. But despite his enthusiasm for motorcycles, Huisman wasn't necessarily looking for another small-screen project; after long stints on Treme, Orphan Black, Nashville, and Game of Thrones—where he was finally dumped by the Mother of Dragons herself in this year's season finale—he was thinking about pivoting away from television. "I have been doing a lot of TV in the past couple years, and my aim was to do more film this spring," he told me. "But when [Harley and the Davidsons] came up, it seemed like the best of both worlds. It's basically three movies. It gives me the chance to portray a character that we first meet in his early twenties—and by the end of our story, he's in his early fifties."
How did this ambitious project come together? I talked to Huisman about Harley-Davidson, motorcycle races, and the series' unlikely connection to Game of Thrones.
You've said you knew practically nothing about the founding of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company. How did you begin your research?
I used this project as a great excuse to buy whatever book—history book, coffee-table book—on Harley-Davidson I could possibly find. Now I have an insane collection of those. But even though there's a lot written about the early days of Harley-Davidson and their motorcycles, there's not an awful lot on who the founders were and their private lives. What I could find, I treasured. I found quotes of Walter Davidson describing his feelings while doing a race. As he described it, it was not so much fear that he felt when he was doing a race, but a feeling of dread about his machine potentially failing. Which I thought said so much about this guy—because racing these early bikes was so insanely dangerous. "Please let this bike not break!" [laughs]
With so much experience on modern motorcycles, what was it like hopping onto those reproductions of the original Harley-Davidson bikes? I have to imagine they’ve changed a bit.
I think it certainly helped that I know how to ride motorcycles. It's a little bit like playing an instrument. But riding those old bikes is also completely the opposite of what you're used to do. Your "clutch" is actually your front brake. Your actual clutch is by your foot—if there's a clutch at all. It felt sometimes like I had to forget all I knew. I think I rode every bike that was built for the show, and there were probably 80. Our show, over three episodes, spans about 30 years, and I really got a feel for the evolution of the motorcycle. And then last week, I was doing a motorcycle ride for a nonprofit with a big group of guys, and I was riding a modern Harley-Davidson. And I really had to kind of…readjust and get used to it. It's like, "Oh, my God! The power! It's insane!"
It’s really fun to think about what it would be like to see Walter Davidson step onto a modern-day motorcycle. He'd probably go insane! But motorcycles were such a part of him. I'm sure he’d take off right away, but I don't know if he'd feel dread for the machine breaking anymore. They've come a long way.
Harley and the Davidsons' big action set pieces re-create the era of racing on a motordrome—or "murderdrome," as they were popularly called, since so many people died while racing on wooden tracks. What was it like to shoot those scenes?
The motordromes were the most dangerous sport. But they were also, for that reason, the most popular sport in the 1910s and the 1920s. It turned out that shooting those scenes and re-creating that feeling was very challenging. You need to have speed. If you want to go up those banks and make it look good—have the right angle, like they had—you can't do that at 30 miles per hour. You need to go fast. And we're talking a bicycle frame with a V-Twin in it. There was a lot of stuff that I was able to do myself—but when it came to the motordrome, that was so incredibly dangerous that it was 90 percent my stunt double doing the actual race.
“It’s really fun to think about what it would be like to see Walter Davidson step onto a modern-day motorcycle.”
The miniseries hinges on the chemistry between three Harley-Davidson co-founders: your character, Walter Davidson; his brother, Arthur Davidson, played by Bug Hall; and their neighbor and engineer, Bill Harley, played by Robert Aramayo. How did the three of you manage to create a believable sense of history between the protagonists?
It was very important to the producers and the directors to get us into the room with each other and hopefully have that "something" happen. Luckily, after the first one or two days of being together, we just hit it off.
Your co-star, Robert Aramayo, debuted on Game of Thrones earlier this year as the young Ned Stark. Did you ever run into each other, or even talk about your experiences?
It's funny, [Robert] shot those scenes with another unit on the same location, while I was shooting something else, on a mountain or something. But we never met! Game of Thrones is especially remarkable in that sense, because there are often people that are on the same show, but never even meet until the premiere. It really shows the scope of the show.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.