Tom Felton film unearths ‘epic story’ of female archaeologist

<span>Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA</span>
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

He is one of the most recognisable actors in the world, known for his role as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise. But now Tom Felton wants to use his platform to spotlight someone whose historical achievements have been obscured for decades.

Felton has produced his first feature film, Canyon Del Muerto, recounting the story of Ann Axtell Morris, one of the US’s first female archaeologists, who worked with the Navajo in the 1920s to uncover North America’s earliest civilisation, the Anasazi.

“It’s an epic story that hasn’t been told before,” Felton said. “Ann Morris was only recently acknowledged as a credible archaeologist, even though she set the tone for the next 100 years of young women having the opportunity to enter the field.”

The film, expected to be released this spring, also stars Felton as Morris’s husband, Earl, who is often cited as the model for George Lucas’s Indiana Jones character. It explores how Morris’s accomplishments were overshadowed by her husband’s fame and prejudices against women.

The film was the first to be granted access to shoot in the sacred and culturally significant landscape of Canyon de Chelly on Navajo tribal lands in Arizona. It has been praised by Jonathan Nez, the president of the Navajo Nation, who called it “an extraordinary showcase of our land, our people and our culture”.

Fenton said: “When I first read the script I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard Ann’s story before. I love archaeology. I’ve always been into digging up the past; Jurassic Park always had a little piece of my enthusiasm as a kid. I was in love with the Model T cars, the tools, the equipment.”

Though Morris found her way to archaeology in the 1920s, when most of the field was male, she was undeterred and would often work her way on to excavation sites by taking jobs as a nanny or chaperone for children.

The film depicts the dangers of her and her husband’s treks across the US south-west, and how their Navajo guides discouraged them from their descent into Canyon Del Muerto – known as the Canyon of the Dead Man – because they believed it to be cursed.

“Earl was quite a straight shooter, whereas Ann is the fire of the story. She was a very plucky young lady,” Felton said. “The stories of Ann’s health issues and Earl’s ineptness to bring in his wife into an equal, level playing field led to a very heavily written, ambitious script with loads of beautiful detail.”

The film, written and directed by Coerte Voorhees, stars the Bafta winner Abigail Lawrie as Morris, and a supporting cast including the Oscar winner Wes Studi and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd.

Felton said he and Lawrie had to attend an archaeology “boot camp” before filming to ensure onscreen details were correct. “We had to get our hands dirty, learn the actual methodical nature of the discipline. It’s painstakingly difficult and slow.” They were also equipped with material including Morris’s original work, any existing photographs of her and Earl together, and historical geographical pieces. “We were immersed. Most of the dialogue is based on Ann’s letters,” he said.

Felton said he hoped to bring his “experience of growing up on film sets” to bear in this and future producing roles. “It was nice to be part of the decision-making team, but it was definitely more challenging than I thought. Usually as an actor, you turn up, do your thing, and then you leave. This time I was more involved in the construction of the film – how we’re going to spend our time, which scenes were the most important to do and get right before moving on in such a limited time.

“There’s so many moving pieces that no one’s really right. The cinematographer wants to get another shot because the sun’s going down at the right time, the producer wants to move things on because they’re running out of time with an actor. It’s quite terrifying to be honest, but it’s delightful when you see it all come together.”

Related: Tom Felton looks back: ‘I had a nice car, a house in LA. You’re told they make you happy – they don’t’

The actor, whose memoir, Beyond the Wand: The Magic and Mayhem of Growing Up a Wizard, became a bestseller when it was released last year, said that while it was nice to break out of the Harry Potter mould, he was still “genuinely revelling in the Potter mayhem”.

He added: “It’s really cool that people are still enjoying pieces of work that we finished over a decade ago. I can’t believe how much has been passed down to the next generation, and how it’s still a staple of Britishness. It’s probably one step under the royal family. There’s a shop at the airport selling bags and stuff, it’s amazing. The Potter fandom has clearly not gone anywhere.”

Felton even went with a friend to see the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child recently, “and there was a family of Australians to the left of me, all head to toe in Slytherin gear”, he said. “I had a cap and mask on so I managed to go under the radar, but they were too fascinated with what was happening on stage to notice old Tom.”