Bug Hall as Arthur Davidson in the upcoming Harley and the Davidsons. Photos courtesy Discovery Channel.
Earlier this week, we had the chance to conduct an extensive phone interview with actor Bug Hall, who stars as Arthur Davidson in the upcoming Discovery Channel miniseries Harley and the Davidsons, a three-night event that starts on Monday, September 5. Without further ado, here’s our conversation.
HMN: We are speaking today to Bug Hall, one of the leading actors in the new three-part mini-series Harley and the Davidsons, which premieres on the Discovery Channel beginning on Labor Day. Thank you for taking the time to speak to us. You have an extensive television background but have also played roles in feature-length movies. How did you find out about the project and what was the progression that led from initial interest to a starring role in this three-part miniseries about the early years of William Harley and the Davidson brothers?
BH: From my teens into my early twenties, I spent a lot of time riding motorcycles, to the point where I would rather ride than work. Bikes took up a big part of my time, so several of my buddies and I decided to take time off to start a company, and we all agreed to not accept any acting roles in order to spend more of our time writing and developing our own story ideas. My agent kept taunting me with new film and television roles to try and get me to work. They would send me possible scripts every couple of months, asking me to take a look at this one or that one, and then they sent me the script for Harley and the Davidsons about the birth and early development of Harley-Davidson, and it just hooked me. I realized it was just too good to pass up, so I went in and pitched myself for the job. I read for Discovery, and they let me do it. So here I am.
Michiel Huisman (L) plays William Davidson, with Bug Hall (Arthur Davidson).
HMN: That sounds like karma. We noticed on your Instagram page that you have been in quite a few motorcycle crashes in your life and we assume they were on dirt bikes.
BH: No, funny enough, I never rode dirt bikes growing up. I rode extensively on the street. I had a couple of cruisers, a couple of racers. I had a BMW R1200C, an R1200R, a couple Honda Shadows, a Suzuki GSX-R. At one point, I had this Suzuki VX800 that I loved. That bike was so funky and weird, but yes, all kinds of bikes over the years, but I did wreck a lot. I don’t have a lot of temperance when it comes to going fast. I’m pretty much throttle out all the time, I am probably one of those “bikers” that give bikers a bad name. I just can’t help myself.
HMN: Had you ridden Harleys before the movie set?
BH: Yeah, I had. I’ve never owned any but I have ridden a lot of them over the years. The guys I rode with had Harleys and every once in a while, we would trade-off when they wanted to try out my BMWs, so I definitely rode a variety of Harleys over the years. And I knew a little bit about the history of the company, and obviously, sort of running around in the biker world, you learn about Harleys, which are first and foremost in these groups.
HMN: Do you think your previous experience as a rider had any influence on your being chosen to play Arthur Davidson in the production?
BH: Yeah, I think so, it was certainly a big part of what drew me to want to participate in the project. And it was a selling point that I wanted to put forth as part of my resume. Having guys who understood bikes and how they work was important to the production. That was a big deal to Discovery, to the point where they brought us out to Milwaukee and gave us the chance to hang out with the people at Harley-Davidson, like the museum curator and Willie G. Davidson. The bike aspect of it was such a big deal to Discovery that I imagine my previous experience had a lot to do in their offering me the role to begin with.
HMN: Did you get a lot of “seat time” on the prepared bikes? Were the bikes original in the sense that many of the board track bikes had no clutch or brakes? Or were they more prepared for safety of the riders during the filming?
BH: You’re the first person I can talk to that will understand my story here. When we first got out there, they said “We are going to put you on the bike” and I was excited, I knew that a lot of them didn’t have brakes, that they function very differently. Most of them were single-gear, the shift lever was basically a belt tensioner to tighten the leather belt on the rear pulley, and the bikes had all sorts of other funky stuff. And I really wasn’t worried about it, because I’ve got about a million miles logged and I know motorcycles. The problem is, like I said before, I don’t have much temperance, and before that I was pretty boastful and kind of puffing out my chest and talking about all my motorcycle experience, so I needed to be humbled. I jumped on and took off; I had just started riding on the dirt, and I went into the first corner, kind of feathering the idle and throttling up to shift, and when I went to reach for the clutch, I quickly realized it was not the clutch lever, it was the front brake. I didn’t expect the front brake to be the left lever, so I went down hard and broke my collarbone.
I did get a lot of time on the bikes and it was a lot of fun. As far as authenticity goes, they prepared almost 90 of these motorcycles from 1903 up to the mid-thirties, which is the complete time span the Harley and the Davidsons series is about. And they had every kind of early funky-cool racing Harleys and production bikes, and they were kind enough to let me putter around on quite a few of them. Michiel Huisman, who plays Walter Davidson in the series, he is really the heart of the Harley-Davidson racing team in our story, so he did a majority of the riding on set, and we had a running joke that Michiel, by the end of the filming, was more of a stunt guy than he was an actor. And it was cool just to hang out with these guys, our stunt crew was out there breaking bones on these machines every day. It was all real; these guys were out in the dirt, on the sand, on the motordrome tracks, none of that was CGI, it was actual guys out there racing and crashing on authentic bikes. The stunt crew also had to adapt a lot, because each bike they rode functioned differently, and some of the eight-valve race bikes were incredibly powerful and vibrated like crazy, to the point where the stunt riders and myself could literally not see where they were going in some of the shots because of the excessive shake.
HMN: Yes, the previews the Discovery Channel has been showing to promote the series feature some pretty big crashes, with flaming bikes, racers lying on the dirt in the middle of the track and riders running into wooden fences.
BH: Yeah Discovery just really wanted authenticity to be such a large part of the production, but they also just sort of handed it over to the stunt guys. They would tell them that in this part of the story there is going to be a crash, and the stunt guys would go out there and make up this awesome crash from their own ideas. They would figure out that with one particular bike or racing venue, this is how a crash would probably look and they went out and just did it while the cameras rolled. And those were all real crashes too, even the planned crashes. In a car movie, you plan the crash out and the stunt man is in there with a helmet and the crash car is specially designed to not get the stunt man hurt. You just can’t do that with motorcycles, there is no such thing as a fender bender on a bike. There is no special way to do it other than to do it, and then on top of that, the crew is wearing period gear instead of modern gear. They tried to mitigate the risk factor wherever they could, but dressed in leather helmets and non-padded riding gear, and in my opinion, these guys were like superheroes. One stunt man literally broke his wrist in a crash and got back on the bike and rode on. The crew didn’t find out that he had been riding around with a broken wrist all morning and most of the afternoon until he had another crash later in the day. Those guys were nuts!
HMN: We understand the film was shot in several locations, including the Romanian countryside and the Dinamo Velodrome in Budapest. How long was the filming in Europe?
BH: We were out there for over three months, but it was a ton of fun.
HMN: I imagine the production received a lot of attention from the locals, especially with the vintage bikes that were used on set.
BH: All of our big race filming days were at various locations, but most of the extras who appear in the series were just locals who loved the bikes and watching them race. So these people were out there for the fun of it and I was thinking, man, if I wasn’t working today I would have been out there just to watch it myself. The extras got to partake of all these awesome racing scenes and watch the stunt guys go down, it was very cool.
Discovery wanted to achieve authenticity for the series, so Romania was a perfect fit for those scenes. America has thrived over the last hundred years and there are very few set locations you could travel to where the countryside still looks as it did in the early twentieth century, but Romania, in many places, still looks as it did 80-100 years ago. We spent a lot of time in Milwaukee and a bit of time in New York City, but we can’t forget that Milwaukee at the turn of the century was the wild west for many Americans. A viewer watching a western is basically seeing a film that took place right around the same time that Harley-Davidson’s founders were beginning their manufacturing.
HMN: We know that the production crew had almost unlimited access to the historical archives at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee to ensure the filming of the racing sequences and the appearance of the bikes were as accurate as possible. Did you or the writers use the archives to do any research into the biographical or personal background of Arthur Davidson?
BH: Alex Wheeler, the guy who built the bikes, had a lot of back and forth with the guys at Harley-Davidson. Some of the bikes were so obscure that even Harley doesn’t have any information on them. In those cases, a lot of what they do know is based on photographs. On one of the original models there was literally nothing written down about its design, so the research was limited to looking at photographs, while other bikes have been documented down to every last nut and bolt. So, it was a big project for Alex as far as the building of the bikes for the series. As for as the personal information about the founders, yes, we got to find out a lot about who these people actually were with the help of biographies that others have written. The curator of the museum was willing to give us unlimited access to documents and engineering drawings, and we were referencing some of these materials day in and day out. Myself and Rob Aramayo (who plays designer William Harley) were sitting on set studying what we could. One of the processes for us was speculating and extrapolating details from the notes we were provided to lend more authenticity to our roles. Rob and I tried to figure out who these men were and why they made the decisions they made; it was similar to doing detective work.
Bug Hall (L) with Annie Read (Anna Davidson) and Robert Aramayo (William Harley).
HMN: Is there anything you can tell us about Arthur Davidson that the average Harley enthusiast doesn’t know that may or may not have made it into the production? For example, does the series make reference to the Honey Uncle story about how Arthur had his life savings stolen and had to secure financing for the company from his uncle’s honey bee farm?
BH: (laughing) Yes, we mention the Honey Uncle story in the series quite a bit. In our telling of this story, that actually got cut from the final film because of time restrictions. The who’s and what’s and where’s of the investors in the company were edited out; obviously you can’t touch on every detail. And then certain details, like the fact that these guys were huge outdoorsmen; how much that part of the story makes it into the final cut, how much of the story of the machine almost suffocates all else – it is a balancing act and some things, over the course of six hours, just don’t fit.
HMN: Essa O’Shea plays your wife Clara Beisel in parts II and III. Does the series get into Arthur and Clara’s relationship, both away from and as it relates to the H-D Motor Company?
BH: One of the things that did draw me to this project is that yes, it is a fast-paced story with the challenges between Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycles and the motordrome racing, but they do take these moments where we take a breath and see these personal stories with their families, and their relationships. So, a lot of that does get into the final cut. In my opinion, it is more of the story that people will be interested in. There is only so much you can tell about a motorcycle, and as much as we love machinery, there is a difference between a story and a documentary, so we focused a lot on the men and their relationships, who they loved, how they had to overcome the Great Depression, the story of the first black H-D dealership, Harley-Davidson’s patriotism during World War I, lending their time and production efforts to the military, and other windows into the company over the course of thirty years. At the end of the day, the series is about the men and why they made the choices they made.
HMN: It seems, from what previews we have seen, that men will be interested, because it is a story about cool bikes and how they were made and evolved, but the women will also be drawn into watching it, because of the personalities and family relationships as well. We are looking forward to seeing it.
BH: Exactly, because the show has motorcycle and racing, but it also has a human side. One of the film’s editors actually had tears in her eyes when we were screening some of the scenes during the ADR (automated dialogue replacement, or dubbing) portion of the production and I give Discovery a lot of credit for really making it happen.
Bug Hall with Robert Aramayo. A Davidson and a Harley contemplate the brand’s first factory.
HMN: Hemmings Motor News has been a big sponsor of the Race of Gentlemen, we are not sure if you are familiar with TROG, but it is becoming a huge event on the beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey, where vintage rods and tank-shift motorcycles race on the sand.
BH: No way! I love Wildwood. I’ve got a buddy who keeps bugging me to come out to Wildwood to see the cool rods and bikes.
HMN: Maybe closer to you, a second event will be in Pismo Beach, California, in early October using the same format.
BH: Suicide shifter on sand, that sounds perilous and thrilling. That kind of reminds me, that kind of innovative spirit that occurs every generation or so, there is this period of time where innovation lulls. And then suddenly it just blows up. The economy may be the reason or whatever.
HMN: Well, we think the Discovery Channel has a little bit to do with that too, with some of their innovation programming.
BH: That’s right, they are putting forth all this creative programming that can be a big part of a new wave of innovative spirit. The third episode focuses almost entirely on this new generation of inventors and designers being brought in. They really started the first big boon of rat racers and custom bikes. Those “laymen” who would buy what they could and make whatever else they needed to get it out on the streets or to the track.
HMN: And you know how much Harley-Davidson benefited from the custom creations. Many of these outside-the-box ideas would eventually become incorporated into some of Harley’s later designs. The whole process was a win-win for the Motor Company.
BH: That idea is such a big aspect of where our story goes, you are going to love it. And Harley-Davidson was one of the first companies encouraging that kind of adaptation, modification and betterment of their products. Arthur Davidson, my character, was the salesman of the group and in my opinion had the most foresight of the founders. The three core founders all had their area of expertise and Arthur was always pushing the innovation aspect. He realized that people were going to make their own versions of his product and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how the Company could help these people and what the benefits of their efforts would reap to keep the Company prosperous.
HMN: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us and we look forward to seeing Episode 1 on September 5th at 9 PM on the Discovery Channel as well as Part II and Part III on September 6th and 7th. So, what is next on your plate are there any other upcoming projects in your near future you want to tell us about?
BH: I did a really good Indie film with some school kids that I think has a September release. And I still own my company with a few other guys and we are still writing and developing projects as well. I anticipate doing further television, I think that if you have a passion for something, you should just do that something. If you’re good at something and the opportunity is there, you should do that thing while you have the chance.
Next week, we’ll be talking to Alex Wheeler, who was responsible to wrangling the vintage motorcycles on the set. Stay tuned!