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Ralph Fiennes enjoyed hard labor of 'The Dig'

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Ralph Fiennes enjoyed hard labor of 'The Dig'
Ralph Fiennes portrays Basil Brown's excavation of the Sutton Hoo estate in "The Dig." Photo courtesy of Netflix

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Ralph Fiennes plays real-life archaeologist Basil Brown in the Netflix original movie, The Dig. While Brown's adventure wasn't quite as sprawling as those of movie archaeologists like Indiana Jones, Fiennes said he appreciated recreating Brown's physical labor.

"The value of manual work came home to me a bit," Fiennes said in a Zoom roundtable. "Archaeology is hours and hours and hours of lifting dirt and earth before you find [anything]."

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Fiennes said no movie magic was involved in simulating an archaeological dig. The actors really went on location and dug up the earth, which enhanced his performance.

"The body is physically engaged and stressed and challenged," Fiennes said. "The reality of that was probably the thing that came through to me most strongly."

In 1939 Suffolk, England, Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) hired Brown to excavate burial mounds on her estate, Sutton Hoo. Brown discovered a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon ship.

England was preparing for World War II by mid-1939. Britain declared war on Germany on Sept. 3, 1939. Mulligan said she read newspapers from 1939 that confirmed the film's depiction of people in England reading about the German army approaching their borders.

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"It was the sort of quiet courage and stoicism of everybody trying to complete this task and the knowledge that the war was coming," Mulligan said.

Pretty gave the artifacts to the British Museum rather than sell them. She authorized them to be held underground at the Aldwych tube station during the war until it was safe to display them. Brown had to complete the dig first, and Fiennes said he was also racing against the seasons.

"The summer season is the season of archaeology," Fiennes said. "Once the rain starts, it's tough."

Another ticking clock faced Pretty herself. The film depicts her prolonged illness as she supervised the Sutton Hoo dig. She died in 1942 after suffering a stroke.

"She's definitely aware of what's happening to her," Mulligan said. "It was trying to complete this task for her before she passes away, and for everybody else, before this huge thing happens. There's so much uncertainty of what will happen once war begins."

Both actors said they enjoyed researching their characters. Fiennes read Brown's book, Astronomical Atlases, Maps and Charts, which was published in 1932, and admired how Brown learned archaeology without formal education and training.

"He was largely self-taught, very clever [and] was obsessed with archaeology within the Suffolk area in which he grew up," Fiennes said. "I believe he taught himself French, German, I think some Latin, in order to know what he was writing about and communicate with people who were experts in these charts throughout Europe."

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Mulligan remembered a small passage about Pretty and Sutton Hoo in her school textbooks. For the film, she learned more about Pretty's early travels with her amateur archaeologist father, Robert Dempster, which bolstered her interest in excavating her estate.

"I always felt that Edith just wanted to get down in the dirt and dig up the treasure herself," Mulligan said. "She doesn't want to be sitting in the chair."

Pretty fit Mulligan's criteria for roles she takes. The actor said she only plays women who feel like real human beings, whether they be historical characters like in The Dig or Suffragette, or a fictional one like in her recent Promising Young Woman.

"The pressures that she feels and as a mother and as a woman are still resonant today," Mulligan said. "I don't think just because we've moved on, time have changed. I think they still feel very real."

The Dig premieres Friday on Netflix.

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