The Discovery Channel has taken two Game of Thrones actors, and one former Little Rascal, to bring us the guys behind the rugged iconic all-American brand—the founders of Harley Davidson. Their new three part miniseries, Harley and the Davidsons is one to watch, not only because actors Michiel Huisman, Bug Hall and Robert Aramayo are engaging performers with significant range, but also because the founders of Harley Davidson are not who most people think they are. And discovering the truth about them makes for a fascinating ride.
The cast members themselves didn’t know much about the men behind the brand before joining the scripted show. “Big bikes and merchandise. Jackets, t-shirts.” That’s what Aramayo, who plays engineer and artist Bill Harley, says he knew about Harley Davidson when he was approached for this role. “All I knew about was the brand, I had no idea the origins of that company and I certainly had no idea that it was the early 1900s. Bill was born in 1880,” the actor who played young Ned Stark tells Paste.
The bike manufacturer was founded in a small shed (for the millennial age, this translates to a parent’s garage) in 1903 by William S. Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This series tells the story of its founding and development over 35 years.
Huisman was on the same page as his Game of Thrones co-star, even though he’s a big biker. “I wasn’t familiar with its history really, just the bikes, even though I am a bike rider myself,” he tells us. “I think that most people, even people that love Harley Davidson or have a love for riding motorcycles, don’t really know about the early days of this industry—what it looked like and how all these different brands were sort of pioneering, while at the same time stealing from each other.” Much of this drama is depicted in a series of highly technical and terrifying motordrome (or murderdrome) races.
Needless to say, they’re all experts in the company’s history after playing the founders. However, it’s important to note that Harley and the Davidsons is not a documentary; it’s a drama loosely based on a true story, and one of Discovery’s biggest scripted projects to date (they only just embarked on scripted content in 2013, and previous scripted projects include Klondike).
“This is sort of based on the story; it’s not a documentary, it’s a dramatization,” says Ciaran Donnelly, who directed episodes one and three. “It’s also sort of a love letter to the era, to the time, to the motorcycles and to the three founders of the company. So is it slavishly accurate? No, but neither is any other historical drama.”
Part of this dramatization was based on choice, but it was also due to the fact that only so much is known about each character, and so they had to get creative. “We know certain things about Bill but there’s this hole historically; so going into those holes and creating an emotional arch for this character was exciting to me,” Aramayo says with a smile. “What attracted me to the script initially was the fact that I didn’t expect the man behind all of this to look the way they created him, so it was exciting.” His character, Bill Harley, often wears a newsboy cap and tie. “It’s something that was very striking to me. He’s an artist, a creative. And I found him so interesting in this world.” Bill’s a sensitive guy, as Aramayo puts it, who also dreams of trying to keep up with his aggressive and thrill-seeking friends.
Huisman’s character is, in many ways, the complete opposite, which is also a bit of an exaggeration of fact. Huisman says he used his new job as an excuse to stock up on coffee table books on the history of Harley. “I found a lot of Walter Davidson quotes, stuff that we didn’t use in our show, but was very helpful to me because I was able to take that and combine it in my imagination with what was in the script,” he says, explaining his process. “For example, I found a quote of him describing what it’s like to race the bikes and he says something along the lines of, ‘It’s not so much fear that I feel, it’s more a feeling of dread for the bike possibly breaking down.’ Motorcycle racing was an incredibly dangerous sport; guys were falling off and breaking bones and dying all the time, and the fact that this guy was saying, ‘I’m not afraid, I just hope my bike doesn’t break’…it speaks so much to the character.
“There are a lot of blanks, and we are filling in those blanks by dramatizing our story, and every now and then I fill it in by creating a backstory,” he went on to explain.
Such a formula results in three distinct characters. “The way we tell the story, we really differentiate between the founding fathers; Bill Harley is the brain, Arthur is more the salesman, which is largely based on the way it was, but I think we take a little bit of liberty there. Walter’s place in that picture is that he embodies the spirit of what we now all think of when we think of Harley Davidson; be yourself, do your own thing, maybe even a little bit anti-establishment,” Huisman said. “And I loved the way that is built into the character and through that, built into the core of what the company becomes.”
One of the reasons Huisman loved Walt’s drive to make a badass bike is because it ultimately meant he got to ride it. “Being a biker myself, it was very easy for me to relate to the excitement of riding a bike,” Huisman tells us. “Being with and on the bikes makes me crazy happy.” He likes to think of his character as a “one man biker gang,” since Bill and Art were a little hesitant about taking risks.
“In the first episode when they say no one is going to want the bike to go faster, and Walter’s reply is, ‘People will want it, trust me’—for the audience it’s kind of funny to hear that now, because obviously history has proven that people want it. Walter was just catering to his own needs, I think; he wanted it to go faster, and eventually that’s what the market would want. That’s sort of what he brought to the group and the brand.”
Huisman isn’t the only bike enthusiast of the group. The kid who played Alfalfa in 1994’s Little Rascals grew up to be a bike fanatic. “I’ve been a big motorcycle guy my whole life,” Hall, who plays Arthur Davidson, tells Paste. “I’ve owned 10 bikes and I’ve been in 10 motorcycles accidents. People who know me know that’s a big part of my persona. So that was a huge draw.”
One of those 10 accidents occurred on the set of this show. “Day two I broke my collar bone and wrecked a bike,” he said unabashedly. “Older machines function in a very different way. I was pushing it to its limits already, and then I made the mistake of thinking it was a modern motorcycle, and I was on the ground and in pain before I even realized what happened,” he recalls. “My first thought was, ‘Oh no, I wrecked their bike,’ but they built a hundred of them.”
To be precise, they—Alex Wheeler and his team—built 80 bikes in total. Wheeler was the lead bike fabricator for the show, and has worked on Black Sails and a remake of Mad Max that ultimately wasn’t released. It’s safe to say the man is a genius. He built these bikes from scratch to look and ride exactly like authentic old school Harleys, and he knew nothing about bikes beforehand. When Paste was on the set, even a Harley expert couldn’t tell the difference between his creations and the originals. What he discovered throughout the process was that the older models are incredibly difficult to start. “We couldn’t do it, the stunt guys couldn’t do it,” Wheeler recalls, laughing. “Funnily enough the only guy who got it off the bat was Michiel. He got on it and rode. My crew and the stunters were standing here going, ‘Well this is embarrassing.’ It’s not like a normal bike, but Michiel got on it and went off. We can’t get him off the thing. He had a lot of fun on them.”
No matter what their level of expertise, however, everyone took a three week crash (no pun intended) course in the technical side of the bikes before they started filming.
Put those few weeks, months on set in Bucharest, Romania (a stand-in for early 1900s Milwaukee) and a formed friendship between three actors that made their on-screen friendship that much more realistic, and you get a somewhat factual telling of three very different men searching for the same thing over 35 years: success. They compete with up-and-coming brands (in this case, Indian Motorcycles) and struggle through lots of failures, but ultimately create one of the most iconic brands in U.S. history.
As Donnelly aptly puts it, Harley and the Davidsons is a show concerned with all that it takes to create your own slice of the American dream.
The 3-night special of Harley and the Davidsons airs on Discovery, September 5 at 9/8c.