BACKSTAGE – Fortune favors the brave, a cliché brought to life by Walter Davidson, who, alongside his brother Arthur and their friend Bill Harley, dreamed up one of the most enduring, quintessential American institutions when they founded the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company in the early 20th century. As depicted in the Discovery Channel miniseries “Harley and the Davidsons” (premiering Sept. 5), these Wisconsin trailblazers weren’t the richest or the first to realize that motorized bikes would revolutionize transportation, but they were the toughest and most resilient.
Michiel Huisman, who portrays Walter with a winning, cocky ruggedness, is himself a product of all the variables that comprise the self-made man: determination, talent, some luck, even a few bizarre coincidences. As he sits in the restaurant at the Chateau Marmont, the Dutch actor thinks about the forces that shaped Walter.
“Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the late 19th century was the last of the new frontier,” he says. “It was still a little bit of the Old West, you know? All these guys, but definitely Walter Davidson, were men’s men. He had a wish to carve out his own American Dream—he wants to break out with this thing that his little brother and his brother’s friend are tinkering with.”
For an actor who’s played everyone from Daario Naharis in “Game of Thrones” to the street musician Sonny in “Treme” to Blake Lively’s love interest in “The Age of Adaline,” Huisman in person is several shades funnier and looser than his brooding, hunky characters. “I think Walter is a much more physical guy [than I am],” he admits. “You would have to go really crazy on me before I throw a punch. I’ve never done that in my life. I think a part of me wishes that I was more like that.”
“In anything he does, he has a poet’s soul,” “Harley” director Stephen Kay says of his star. “But he’s also unmistakably a man. Walter is the guy we all kinda wish we were. I wouldn’t say it’s a romantic notion, but there’s an element to Walter that is more than a Marlboro Man—and Michiel is that.”
Indicative of Huisman’s laid-back spirit, when someone in the restaurant throws Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” on the turntable, he immediately grins in recognition, bopping his head slightly to the opening cut. For a long time, acting and music tussled for his attention, but as with other crucial professional decisions, that battle resolved itself unexpectedly.
Born in the Netherlands, Huisman started acting early, appearing in his first film when he was 10. He was just doing it for fun, but by the time he went off to college, “I hoped that I could learn how to combine an education with acting. But I was unhappy with the direction I chose, so I decided to take on a six-month tour for a musical theater performance, thinking that I’d go back to university in a year. That became two years, then three years, until I really realized, I am already doing what I love doing.”
From there, Huisman worked on Dutch productions while also writing and recording music. “There’s a great industry,” he says about the Netherlands’ film and television community. “However, the market is relatively small. There’s only a handful of projects that stand out enough to cross the border.” By the time he’d landed a part in Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 World War II drama “Black Book,” alongside his eventual “Game of Thrones” co-star Carice van Houten, Huisman was pondering expanding his horizons. “I came to a point where I felt like I had done everything twice,” he recalls. “The opportunities that I would be getting were just a repetition of what I’d been doing.”
Married to fellow actor Tara Elders, with whom he has a daughter, Huisman was encouraged to uproot his family to pursue an international career. “My wife really pushed me to burn our bridges,” he says, “which scared the hell out of me. It was a gamble, but I was somehow confident enough. And I was really lucky, because I right away landed a series regular role on ‘Treme.’ That’s what basically gave me enough time to slowly build.”
The “Treme” gig is but one strange coincidence in Huisman’s life. When he started out in bands, he’d always been drawn to New Orleans music, which was hardly huge in his homeland. So where did the love originate? “I had my first stereo when I turned 12,” he says, “and every two weeks, I would save up money and buy one CD. I was really serious and meticulous—I would go through the [store] racks and, just based on the cover, listen to something.” One day, he stumbled upon the colorful album cover for the Meters’ greatest hits. “They looked so cool,” he recalls of the New Orleans funk quartet. “And they weren’t even trying to look cool—they were just cool. I used that best-of CD in my CD player as my alarm clock for high school.”
He bluffed his way onto “Treme,” saying that he knew how to play piano. But it paid off, and he fell in love with the city, which has been home for his family ever since, the music of his childhood now the soundtrack to his adulthood. “New Orleans could not be further removed from where I am from,” he marvels. “I come from Holland, where everything is perfectly arranged—it’s neat, there’s no real crime, there’s a very strong middle class. Then you get dumped in New Orleans—just the funkiest city, crazy problems, but also street culture unlike anywhere in the States.”
The decision to abandon music as a profession worked out just as fortuitously. He liked performing and recording, but there was a cultural suspicion in the Netherlands of artists who did one thing but also dabbled in another medium. Struggling with what to do, he and his wife were walking around New York’s Lower East Side in the mid-2000s when they passed a storefront for a fortuneteller. Knowing how this anecdote might sound, Huisman quickly adds, “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a psychic reader before, and I have not been to one after—I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. But we were in the mood, so we go in, and this woman reads my hand. And she says, ‘You’re juggling two careers—one is something in music, and the other is something like acting.’ And it just hit me really hard. It was exactly what I needed to hear—and probably already knew. Very soon after that, I decided that I needed to make a choice.”
Leaving music behind is a decision he doesn’t regret. (He still plays in his downtime.) And the risk he took to move stateside has continued to pay off. Beyond “Game of Thrones,” he’s also been a featured player in movies like “World War Z” and “Wild,” and he’s terrific as the mysterious new husband of the main character’s ex-wife in this year’s prickly psychological thriller “The Invitation.” That poet’s soul has taken him far, but he’s also aware of how lucky he is—and how others sacrificed for his success.
Huisman mentions his wife, who stopped acting to raise their daughter. “Back home in Amsterdam, we were both acting, and it was very doable,” he says. “Moving to the States and working all over the world ruined that. So, it’s either we were basically going to be apart most of the time or we were going to be together, but then one of us had to give up a career. I’m very thankful that my wife made that sacrifice, although I don’t think she sees it that way. I know how hard it is, especially in this day and age, to be a stay-at-home mother, ’cause we’re so much what we do. If you’ve had that and take it all away and say, ‘OK, I’m going to stay at home and educate my daughter,’ that’s really challenging. I very much admire that.”
Huisman is happy to be so busy, but he also can’t wait to have some time to just be a husband and father. His daughter is 9, and she’ll sometimes help him run lines. “She’s really good,” he remarks. “She’s not afraid of taking whatever’s on the page and making it her own. She just runs with it, which kind of blows my mind, as well as my wife’s.”
It’s pointed out to him that she’s about the age now that he was when he started acting. “But that was in Holland—it was just so different,” Huisman says. What would he do if she wanted to get into the family business? “It’d be really cool to do something with her,” he replies, giving the matter some thought. “But I would be horrible for a production. After two or three hours, I’d say, ‘We’re done. Shut down. We’re going to go home—we’re going to play.’ ”