A tall blond man sits on a bench by the River Ouse, which threads through this city in Northern England. Philip Winchester’s good looks would turn heads under most circumstances, but his late-Jacobean style clothes draw additional attention — a full-sleeved white muslin shirt, blue jerkin, tan leather breeches and long boots.
Winchester is portraying Robinson Crusoe in NBC’s “Crusoe,” a new series inspired by the exploits of the castaway hero of Daniel Defoe’s classic novel, premiering 8-10 p.m. EDT Friday. (Subsequent hourlong episodes will air 9 p.m. EDT Fridays.)
“Everyone has read the book and just every boy has gone, ‘I want to be Robinson Crusoe!”’ Winchester said, offering enthusiastic reasons for the “fun” of playing the role. “There’s a lot of running through the jungle, jumping off waterfalls, sword fighting, shooting flintlock muskets ... basically, if you took anything a kid said he wanted to do ... that’s in the script.”
On this sunny day there’s no jungle in sight, of course. Winchester was filming in York, famous for its Roman ruins, Gothic cathedral and medieval streets. The city was standing in for London circa 1700, Crusoe’s pre-shipwreck home and the place he longs to return to reunite with his wife and children. (Anna Walton plays Crusoe’s wife, Susannah, one of several characters not in the original novel. The cast also includes Sean Bean and Sam Neill.)
The English-based scenes were designed to be woven in flashbacks and dreams throughout Crusoe’s action-packed adventures on a remote island, where, lost to civilization, he fights nature and all manner of savage foe and meets up with faithful companion Friday (played by Tongayi Chirisa).
Winchester’s costume would, he knew, gradually get more tatty — and revealing — as Crusoe’s time on the wild and dangerous island lengthens. He laughed, a little embarrassed, when asked whether those breeches would finally be reduced to a loincloth, but he did concede: “I think we are going a little more kind of scruffy.”
Fairfax House, one of York’s prestigious mid-18th century townhouses, provided the location for the Crusoe home in England. The building wouldn’t have existed at the time Crusoe sailed away, but the production team isn’t too concerned about exact dates. After all, this is fiction — although Defoe’s Crusoe is thought to have been inspired by the real adventures of British seaman Andrew Selkirk, marooned off the coast of Chile in 1704.
Furthermore, Stephen Gallagher’s script for the NBC adventure does not pretend to be a close adaptation of the Defoe novel. While it tries to pay heed to the cultural, religious and political values of the era in which the story is set, it seeks to have “Pirates of the Caribbean”-type fun with the genre.
Born is Montana, the 27-year-old Winchester inherited a love of theater from his parents. His screen debut was a supporting role in the 1998 Steven Seagal movie “The Patriot,” filmed in his home state. (He also co-starred in the 2006 film “Flyboys.”)
More recently he has lived, studied and worked in England — the reason his accent and colloquialisms slip easily back and forth. He’s just as likely to say “chaps” as he is to say “guys.”