When you think about the homes of TV's top-tier dramas, Discovery Channel is usually not the first name that comes to mind. But that might change after you've seen just a few minutes of Klondike, the network's first-ever scripted outing.

The three-part miniseries is set at the height of Alaska's gold rush in 1897, as adventurers looking to get rich braved the dangers of the elements — and each other — in a desperate attempt to get rich.

Klondike boasts a strong ensemble cast that includes Abbie Cornish, Tim Roth, Ian Hart, and Sam Shepard. But the series is anchored by protagonist Bill Haskell, a historical figure who has been brought to life on the screen by Richard Madden. On HBO's Game of Thrones, Madden delivered a reliably robust performance as Robb Stark, but he was only one piece in a much grander story. By moving him to the center of its narrative, Klondike definitively proves that Madden is a star. Over the course of Klondike's six hours, Bill Haskell's journey takes him from New York to the treacherous Chilkoot Pass to the near-lawless Dawson City, and Madden convincingly and magnetically portrays every beat of the riveting story.

I recently spoke with Madden about his work on Klondike, Game of Thrones, and the non-period roles he'd like to play. Here's a (slightly edited) transcript.

You recently said you had "never been so excited to play a character" as you were to play Klondike's Bill Haskell. What originally drew you to the project?

I started reading Klondike and I could relate to him in a lot of ways — a young man, setting off in life. What really got to me was that he made the most difficult choice possible. He's got a degree, he's educated, he's got money, but he chooses to start his life over and go off seeking an adventure and fortune in a way that's based on luck, rather than logic. That's what interests me — a man that doesn't take the easy path. And then, as [Klondike] goes on, he gets pushed to the absolute limits. Everything's stacked against him, he's got all these hardships. And at the point when I expected him to become an animal — to take the road in life that won't make him a good man, and to make bad decisions — he always seemed to put himself back and find the part of his humanity that stopped him from becoming an animal. That was the thing that fascinated me. In a place where people are struggling, you see these humans turn on each other like animals, making decisions that are very selfishly about themselves, that are vicious and violent. And [Bill is] a man struggling to hold his humanity.

The real Bill Haskell wrote a book about his experiences in the Klondike. How much did the book inform your performance?

It was quite a shame, because as an actor, I was hoping it was some kind of biography about his life. It's not. It's a manual: How to mine, how to get there, what you need to carry with you, all the supplies you'll need. But through the struggles on his journey, those trials that he faced — it was through that situation that I learned the most about [Haskell].

There's so much in [Klondike] that's based on real events, and there was one section in Bill's book that was particularly useful. He was going over the river rapids, the boat flipped over, and they lost everything they had except a bag of sugar — and that bag of sugar got stolen. Bill went hunting for the man who stole it, and found him that night. All the miners got together and strung up a noose to hang him. But Bill couldn't quite bring himself to do it; for all it meant to him, he couldn't find it in him to kill a man over a bag of sugar. He didn't want him to be executed, so he gave him 50 lashes. Bill was this honest and honorable man — but he still had a side to him that was dark and just.

What is it like to take on the responsibility of embodying an actual person?

I read Klondike and I got a very strong image of who this man was. I started researching, and while I had such a strong image of who this man was, I didn't know if I was a good enough actor to portray him. That's what makes me choose the roles: If I have a strong idea of who [a character] is and how I wish to see him expressed. If I don't know if I'm talented enough — to pull it off, to play that part, to express him — then that's the part I'm most interested in taking. Those are the parts that push me as an actor and push my strengths as an actor and my weaknesses. And that's going to make me better at my job.

Klondike also gives you a very physically demanding role. There's climbing, digging, swimming in river rapids...

The thing about [Klondike] is that we didn't use video effects and we didn't use CGI — so when we shot at the top of the mountain, we'd start at base camp, get into our period costumes, and then get on the back of a snowmobile, as far as that could go. Then you'd get off and you'd hike for four or five miles an hour [to the shooting site]. And then you'd hear "Action!" and start shooting. When we shot the river rapids, I had to throw myself into the water. There wasn't any of this that we faked, and it wasn't easy, but it pushed me to my physical limits. In the river rapids I nearly got hypothermia a couple of times. There's a scene where I get buried alive, and that was kind of terrifying — you actually have a ton of dirt falling on you. The speed, the weight… All of it was physically demanding. But it helped me as an actor to see what the character was going through.

You spent three years on Game of Thrones, but Klondike will be over in just three nights. Up next, you have Disney's Cinderella — a high-profile film role. As an actor, is there anything different in the way you approach three different mediums?

I think it depends on the role. For Game of Thrones, I had this amazing source material and the script. For Klondike, I had the book that Bill wrote, all the history from the time period, the book that Charlotte Gray wrote, and the script that [Paul Scheuring] wrote. There are all these different interpretations, and I have to interpret each one of them and somehow end up using the most honest bits while giving my own interpretation. And then there's something like Cinderella, with a character like [Prince Charming], where you don't have a lot of source material. I've got animation, I've got lots of interpretations — most people have an idea of who that prince is, and every interpretation is different. So that becomes a different beast, making a character that feels real and authentic while finding the thing that makes him tick, and why he's a character in a story that everyone knows so well... I can't really say too much about Cinderella at the moment. But it is quite intimidating, because so many people have an opinion on [a character like that]. I try to push that out of my mind and try to be as honest to the script as possible, and that makes the character real and honest.

Why have you starred in so many period pieces?

It's just sort of happened to me. It's one of those things that you don't even realize is happening until you've done it, because for me, a story is a story. It doesn't matter what era the story is in if it's the right character. For a lot of things — like Klondike — the stories are universal, so the period doesn't really come into it. But I'd love to do something sci-fi. I'd love to have costumes that aren't period, for a change. There are lots of things I want to explore, but these stories are the ones that have caught my eye lately... I'll be honest: I would like to be on a spaceship with a laser gun at some point. [laughs] But I'm not actively pursuing that.

After a very tumultuous season on Game of Thrones — which included a scene fans of the book had anticipated since the very first episode — is it nice to be doing something like Klondike, where most viewers don't know how the story ends?

[laughs] Absolutely. Absolutely. It's meant to be something that's one story, and that's it. When I did Game of Thrones, we had 10 hours to tell a story [per season], but it was something we'd come back to [every year]. This story takes place over just three nights, with no weeks in between — no time off, no six months off between seasons. I researched it, started filming, got immersed, and then it ended. I really love that format, and I hope it's something an audience can really enjoy too, because you're not waiting to catch up.


Part Two of Klondike premieres tonight on Discovery Channel at 9 PM EST, and Part Three will air tomorrow at the same time. Part One, which premiered on Monday, will air again tonight at 7 PM EST.