Indiewire spoke with the legendary actor this past summer, and he shares his thoughts here on the different schools of writing in the U.S. and the U.K., acting in TV vs. film, and why the Cold War is still so damn riveting.
They just rang up and said, "There’s this project called ‘The Game.’ There’s this character that sounds interesting. Would you be interested?" I think there was only about two scripts that they’d done, and I read the scripts and I just thought, "Well, this is really good writing. This is in a class of it’s own." So I agreed to do it, and I’m very happy to do it. It’s very rewarding. It was very good. I think [head writer] Toby [Whithouse] is one of the best writers of his generation and there’s a kind of zeitgeist about English writing at the moment, particularly in television, which is really good. It’s like what America went through two or three years ago. I think it has a lot to do with the American influence, especially the cable stuff like "Mad Men," "Breaking [Bad]." I think that caught on back home […] and now it’s stuff like "Broadchurch" and "The Game." There’s a real quality to it, which is very much worth being a part of.
Do you think British writers noticed what was going on in America and upped their game, or did they just respond accordingly?
It’s a historical thing. Britain is a feudal culture and always has been. America’s an egalitarian culture. So therefore there’s a much more even playing field. There’s curiously less emphasis on the individual — ironically — than the team in America. If you look at the history of film in America, you’ll see that screenwriters were not treated very well. You think of all the great writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and all those theatre writers like Hecht, McCarthur and William Faulkner, who was a novelist that ended up in cinema, in the ’40s and ’50s, and they were very much disregarded. They weren’t [dis]regarded, but they were kind of like, "Oh, this is the latest fashion. I’ll buy it." So they wrote bits of films. They never covered a whole script and when they did the script, someone else doctored it.
So there’s always been this principal of throwing writers projects. I‘ve been in films like the Bourne films, where writers were thrown at the project, and really for the writer to hold his own in the kind of egalitarian world, they moved more into television and television became really the province of writers, particularly the writer-producer. That’s why I think from about the late ’80s onwards, once shows like "Hill Street Blues" — Steven Bochco came along — "LA Law," "NYPD Blue" came along, they showed a new movement in writing and then when these cable companies, like HBO, kicked off, they started really extending that and you have people like Ryan Murphy, David Chase, David Caruso, David Milch. [They’ve] really set an incredible standard for writing, and I think that the British writers suddenly picked up on this because Jimmy Melville and Paul Abbott have very much seen how that worked.
Our writing, which was great writing when people like Dennis Potter were around, was very patrician. It was run on a very patrician basis. There were these very nice, very great producers like Dennis Lloyd and Kenneth Trodd, who took care of their writers and the writer were taken care of in a very patrician like way. But then in the ’90s, which was the point when I left England to come and live in America, it was all run by guys in suits. People who weren’t really writers ran it all. So the writer’s position was sidetracked and then subsequently, in the last 10 or 15 years, even Moffit or Pete Davis, the writers have all of a sudden expanded to a point that there’s a kind of zeitgeist about the work at the moment, between all the British stuff. I become acutely aware of that and suddenly thought, "This is something I wouldn’t mind being apart of that." If I was going to do crap, I’d rather get paid for doing crap here than doing crap there.
That makes sense.
So in a sense that is what’s happened. And so Toby, with his show "Being Human" […] it’s a great idea and is backed with the old values. It’s backed with character development and people who are real; people who aren’t zombies or walking dead or vampires or anything; people who are dealing with the reality of being a human being. So it’s much more interesting and a much more interesting proposition for me. And then Daddy […] is this guy. It’s the beginning of the ’70s. He’s probably in his 60s. He’s served as a commanding officer. He was probably too old for the Second World War […] so he probably joined Jim Sterling’s special SAS services, which was basically all disenchanted older people who couldn’t join up. And now we’ve got to the ’70s where the unions have gotten rid of one government, and the union has now become a threat. Whereas the threat up until 1945 was fascism, now the threat was communism. The perceived threat was communism, which, as it turned out, wasn’t a threat at all, really, because they couldn’t wait to get as materialistic as all get out. But they didn’t know that.
So that’s what "The Game" is. You’re involved in this game of bluff, double bluff, bluff, double bluff and the whole political thing takes off from there. And Daddy is in his element, but it’s also a pretty bad time because they’ve had — the espionage, counter-espionage movements have been under a lot of threat. There’s been a lot of stuff going on and there’s the home threat. We’ve got Northern Island going on at the same time, so those offices and MI5 was domestic as opposed to militant, which is what MI6 was. So they’re under a lot of threat. So Daddy, in a way, is like a tired old horse being brought back into the paddock again to get all of the other horses into training.
That element is very interesting, what you said about how it was a perceived threat, how communism back then was something that was very daunting.
But it was also, in this country, it was hysterical.
Exactly. We went nuts over it, and it’s still predominantly dwelled on in TV and movies, and it’s still riveting television when it’s done right. What’s interesting to me about it is, like you said, that to us, today, we know it’s an empty threat. We know there’s not a problem. So what about "The Game" makes it relevant for modern audiences?
I think it’s to do with the infringement of individual liberty that we still, no matter where it’s coming from — the fact that people are manipulating your lives. I think in light of the [Edward] Snowden thing recently, we’re still very much aware that the black ops movement within governments is pretty formidable. There are still a lot of hidden agendas, which are not being played out. So that’s what we recognize. We recognize that we’re still in a position of being manipulated by these forces and 1970 just reminds us of when we really were being manipulated, but we didn’t know what the enemy was because we didn’t have the technology. As Toby describes it, low-fi as opposed to hi-fi. It’s very low fidelity in the way that they’re working it out. You know, we still [respond to] "Three Days of the Condor," which is one of the great movies.
We still respond to it because of what happens. People are not what they seem to be. It’s this thing of pretending. It’s this thing of being duplicitous, either for duplicitous reasons or for reasons of state, to protect the state. And when the Snowden thing came out, you realized that we are all so — It’s like they said, the fall of Communism was the fact that the KGB couldn’t get tags on its population anymore. Interestingly enough, it didn’t have the technology. Now, it could. If the technology had been around, maybe Communism would still very much be in place.
What fascinates me about the Communist threat, the Cold War stories, is that they’re not all the same. They’re different stories, but a lot of them follow similar tracks.
That’s right. As I was watching this, it very much reminded me of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," which was a great movie, a good miniseries and a great book — and yet each entry is its own thing. It’s still it’s own entity.
Le Carre is certainly — he’s the guy that you look to because he really examined the nuts and bolts of it — who these guys are — and you can’t do that without looking at the history. For me, […] my late ex-father-in-law was a member of the SAS, so I knew about special operations that were carried on, but also boys playing games. That’s the other thing. They’re all playing games. It’s like fantastic monopoly board, which is like spy-opoly.
You can’t even see the whole thing.
No, they’re playing to gain. That’s what they’re doing, and they love those games. It’s like soldiers who dress up and do all of that. It’s a game.
Is this designed to keep going past the first six episodes?
Well, we’re hoping. Toby has in mind a second series. There are certain things that we didn’t do in the first series that we would like to do, which we didn’t because we had to — you know, having worked with Milch, you realize with a great writer and great visionary, and Toby is quite a visionary, there are areas that you want to cover. Like Milch, when I came into the show, he said, "I couldn’t bring your character into the first episode. I wasn’t allowed because I wasn’t allowed to deal with those kinds of things that your character threw up, but I could do it in the last series." It wasn’t going to be the last series. It became the last series. But, yeah, I think we probably will, if they like it.
Is it close-ended?
The series comes to […] They’re under threat and it comes to a point — I don’t want to give it away — where we move on. But we move on with a lot of collateral damage, and therefore we have to probably rethink ourselves.
How do you feel about doing shows like that? Do you have a preference if it’s something that’s six episodes and then might be six episodes a year later? Would you be interested in doing something that’s 13 or more and then continues on year after year?
I don’t mind. As I get older, there’s a part of me wants more stability, less paper treading. Being in Toronto one week, London the next, California the week after that, I mean, there’s a part of that that appeals, but there’s also a part that is bloody exhausting, so it would be nice — I’d quit like — Well, one of the reasons I did the show was because they came to and said the show starts then and I said, "Oh. That’s good." That means I can have a holiday and think that at least I have a job to come back to. So there’s that element, as well. [laughs]
I think that’s just something people don’t think about.
That’s it. It’s hard because the movie business — I love the movies, but the movies have become so conservative and so archaic in so many areas. There are still the independent movies and those are the movies you look towards, but the rest are just to earn your living.
Was there a time when that idea clicked for you — that studio movies have become conservative?
Well, you have to be very careful judging. […] It goes back to Daryl Zanuck and David O. Selznick, and it goes back to Louis B. Mayer and what they did with movies when the studio system was a family. You were always looked after by the studio and the studio took care of you. Those guys, the Gables, the Fondas and the Jimmy Stewarts and the Gary Coopers — their life was fairly guaranteed. They knew what they were doing. They knew what they could do. Occasionally they’d want to buck out. "We’ll lend you Clark Gable to make ‘Gone With the Wind,’ there was that element, but there was a security with what they did. It’s same as when you do a long-running series, when you’ve got the security of that long-running series. I prefer the film security because it’s different subjects you’re dealing with all the time.
So you’d prefer to just keep getting new characters and challenges?
Yeah, but occasionally you go, like this one, "I could have another go with this." There are certain things that I started to open up, and I’d like push further in that direction.
Did you get any kind of explanation for your characters name? "Daddy?" They comment on it in the pilot. It seems kind of immature.
I think it’s an anonymity thing. Who is he? He’s not like M or Q or anything like that. He’s Daddy and he has a private life that hasn’t been revealed, and he has these obsessions, which we see in the show. But he’s Daddy.
How much have you been told about the character and how much is kept back?
There are certain things you’ve been told but there are also a lot you invent. That’s the nice thing with a good script. You can create it for yourself.