DARTMOUTH, N.S. — What if Walter White was a Mennonite?
"Pure," which premieres Monday on CBC-TV, is based on actual accounts of Mennonites acting as drug mules. Various reports suggest some members were smuggling cocaine and marijuana into Canada all the way from Mexico by hiding drugs in hollowed-out car batteries and wheels of cheese.
Series writer and creator Michael Amo ("The Listener") optioned one such magazine article nearly a decade ago but had a hard time selling networks on a Christian sect version of "Breaking Bad."
"I couldn't get any traction on it," says Amo, whose Russian-immigrant grandparents were Mennonites. "I found there was a lot of resistance to the notion that this was even real."
Well-publicized busts involving drug mules in Calgary and southwestern Ontario helped open a few eyes, says Amo. Around the same time, so did the success of "True Detective" and "Fargo," two dark dramas that proved there was an appetite for short-run series.
Shaw Media developed "Pure" for a while "then decided it wasn't for them," says Amo. That's when CBC stepped in, with the series going into production in Nova Scotia this past fall.
Key to the project was finding the right actor to play Noah Funk, the God-fearing head of the Mennonite community.
"Walter White's journey was all about a good man becoming bad," says Amo. "Our story is about a very good man becoming bad in deed but always remaining good in heart and being tormented by all these transgressions."
Amo found his straight arrow leader in Ryan Robbins, a native of Victoria, B.C. with credits on everything from "Arrow" to "Continuum" and "Battlestar Galactica." Clean-shaven and sporting nerdy glasses, a straw hat and suspenders, Robbins looks the part. On the day of a press visit to a hillside location, director Ken Girotti — who helms all six episodes — has Funk take his frustrations out on a cellphone.
Funk's un-Godly dilemma: he must betray a fellow Mennonite in order to rid his community of drug traffickers.
The plan backfires when drug kingpin Eli Voss (Peter Outerbridge) threatens Funk's family if he doesn't look the other way on the smuggling operation.
"He's trying to be true to his God and his family," says Robbins. "He thinks he can do all this and get back to the way things were before. He very quickly finds himself in (trouble)."
Encouraged by Girotti, Outerbridge ("Orphan Black," "ReGenesis") strives to portray Voss as pure evil.
"We decided I didn't want to have any facial expression," he says. "He should come across as that thing that Mennonite moms told their kids before they go to bed at night: make sure they do well in school or Eli Voss will come and get you."
Funk finds two unlikely allies in trying to bring Voss to justice: a former high school tormentor-turned misfit cop (played by Irish-born Canadian actor A.J. Buckley) and American drug enforcement agency officer Phoebe O'Reilly (Oscar nominee Rosie Perez).
"He's a degenerate but he's honest about it," says Buckley of his character.
For "Pure," Perez tamed her loud and proud Puerto Rican/Brooklyn accent and spoke barely above a whisper.
"I worked really hard for two straight weeks," she says, taking her vocal coach's suggestion — even in interviews — to "stop talking like Rosie and just talk like O'Reilly. It was the greatest advice."
Perez and her "Pure" castmates had a bigger challenge, however: making scenes shot in farm fields in Dartmouth in November look like rural Mexico.
"Especially when we're trying to hide the fact we can see our breath," says Robbins, "and the crew's all bundled up like Kenny from 'South Park.'"
— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont. While in Nova Scotia, Brioux was a guest of CBC.
Bill Brioux, The Canadian Press