Fans of the latest iteration of James Bond who tune into BBC America’s newest miniseries will find themselves watching something very different. Sure, both projects feature the magnetic Ben Whishaw, but “London Spy” puts Bond’s current Quartermaster right in the action… Well, so to speak.
Also featuring Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling, “London Spy” revolves around Danny (Whishaw), a young man whose chance encounter with a handsome stranger on the street leads to a poetic love affair — with a tragic end. To find out what happened to his lover, Danny tries to delve into the world of British intelligence, but it’s not a world that’s high on handing out answers.
Sex, death and spies all get brought together in the beautiful yet melancholy miniseries created by novelist and writer Tom Rob Smith, who was at the TCA Winter Press Tour this month to sit down with Indiewire and dig into why stories about the intelligence community need a human edge (if you can’t afford to go full “Spectre”). An edited transcript is below.
How did “London Spy” come together for you? What is the origin story?
I always think origin stories are very complicated, in the sense that they’re always drawing from multiple things. As a writer, you kind of pass through the world and encounter so many stories. [You have to figure out] which stories push something in you. I remember there was a real case in London of a spy who was found dead in a bag in his bathtub. I remember that news report came out, and I thought, “Okay, it’s someone working for GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), and he’s found dead in a bag, so clearly it’s a murder,” and I was waiting for more news.
Suddenly news started coming out that he was into women’s clothing, his cupboards were full of wigs and female clothing, so there was a hint that he was into cross-dressing. And then suddenly it came out that he was into escapology, which is a fetish with escaping things like handcuffs, ropes. So then they were saying that he actually got into the bag himself, and he was trying to escape but it went wrong. It had gone wrong before. He lived in Cambridge and his landlords had [previously] found him handcuffed. But I could feel, what was happening was, suddenly they were going into someone’s personal life. And it was almost like saying, “If your personal life is unusual or has elements that are not conventional, then of course we expect death to be the result, we’re not surprised that something could happen like this. You could feel the public and the press suddenly saying, “Let’s follow this story.” rather than what seemed to evidently be a murder.
I thought that story was interesting. I don’t know anything about the real-life spy — his personal life. We don’t know whether he was gay or straight. We don’t know anything about his background at all. He was very enigmatic. So I thought, if you’re going to tell a fictional story but using some of those ideas, it would be interesting to have these two men fall in love, for someone to really feel like they knew this person and who they are, things they’ve been through. And then for them to suddenly be killed, or to appear as though they were killed, and there’s an entirely different narrative to be told with this kind of person. Could you fight that alternating narrative? That was the story, that’s how it came about really.
Interesting. The original story you were talking about speaks to some element of tabloid culture. where we do want to dig into the strangeness of people. Everyone has stuff like that, I imagine, that just doesn’t get exposed.
Yeah, and I think there is actually, whether we articulate it or not, a very strong association in our brain with sex and death, which is: If you do certain sexual activities, it will lead to death. And particularly, if you’re — in my version — gay, many people have grown up thinking, “If I’m exposed, disaster will befall me. If I’m exposed, I might be kicked out of my family, [or] my career might be affected.” In your head, there’s this anxiety. And then when HIV/AIDS came along, sex and death became very strongly coupled. And so, actually what you have in this story is a love story which is as far removed from that as it could possibly be. And then suddenly death crashes around it, and you have this sense of, “We always knew, on some level, that this sexual relationship would lead to death.” That’s the idea it’s playing with, and that’s what the character has to battle.
Certainly, I think you’re right that we gravitate towards human stories, which is a way of saying “gossip.” I’m not making it a moral thing, we’re just interested in it. And it can pull us away from analyzing the slightly harder facts; such as, in this real case, if he was into escapology, why are there no fingerprints on the bathtub? If I’m getting into this bag for kicks, why would I wipe the bathtub of my prints? And why am I doing it in the bathtub, anyway? Why wouldn’t I just do it on the floor? If it was a murder, I understand it, because then, if I’m decomposing, which he was, then all the evidence was going down the drain rather than through the floorboards. So, I understand if it was a murder, but those are slightly harder things to get around.
Actually, that evidence hadn’t come out until eight months later after they investigated. I was just interested in what is basically a murder about storytelling and which story you believe. Do you believe this story or that one?
One other element I really like about it is that there are so many different ways to tell a story about spies and the intelligence community. America and Britain have both had really stellar examples, but they’re usually focused around the job, and the lives come secondary. Your story feels like an opposite approach to that.
That’s exactly right. You’re dealing with a character who isn’t in the spy world at all, actually. He’s got no spy skills, so you can’t suddenly lurch into a spy thriller. He can’t hack into GCHQ, he can’t access mainframes, he doesn’t have any of that. So you’re telling a story about how the spy world is relevant to all of us.
And I think it is, because ultimately, we’re all leading complicated lives, we’re all hiding things from different people, we’re all doing things that involve a degree of presentation. So I was really interested in taking the things we love from a spy thriller and throwing them into the ordinary world.
It makes me think about a high school friend of mine who I lost track of in college, and then we reconnected a couple of years ago, and now she works in a branch of intelligence, doing technical support. This is an ordinary person whose very normal personal life I see online, but she’s also the person that an agent in the field will call because their technology is fucking up. Putting a human face on this genre that we have so many expectations about feels like a really important thing.
Yeah, I love watching big spy thrillers, but I think when you’re doing TV and you’ve got a constrained budget and constrained sense of location, you have to do something different. I can’t compete with James Bond. The new Bond had a budget of $300 million. The opening sequence of that film cost more than our entire series. So you just think, “I can’t do that, so I have to do something different.”
Also, the audience has already got that, so you have to give people something different. I just thought about what we could do, and there was a sense of, “When we’re telling this story, let’s not break into car chases or run around,” because a) it doesn’t make sense for the character, and b) we’re telling a story about uncertainty within people that we know. That’s in everyone’s lives, and we feel it. That’s why we’re into Facebook and connecting with people from high school reunions, because you go there and you think, “Okay, what’s happened to people? What have they done, what have they not told me?” That’s in all of our lives, and I think there’s a huge energy there that we’re trying to tap into.
We want to know their stories.
Yeah, we want to know stories. And people don’t always want to give their stories, so you have this push and pull. One of the books I gave to Ben Whishaw actually, before we started filming, is called “Intimacy” by Hanif Kureichi. A man decides to divorce his wife, and he goes home knowing he’s going to divorce her but she doesn’t, and they’ve got two kids, and it’s his last night at home before he’s going to leave her. It’s so tense because she’s behaving normally, and he just thinks, “This is the last time we’re going to have a night together like this” before he goes to sleep on the sofa. And he actually makes to references in that book to feeling like he’s a spy, because he’s got this idea in his head that he can’t share and he’s going through the motions of being a husband when he knows it’s going to end. That’s the kind of world that I think a spy inhabits, that sense of the spy world versus the ordinary.
That’s wonderful. Talking about Ben — he’s extraordinary. Was there anyone else you thought of for the part of Danny, or was it always him? How did he enter the conversation?
He entered very early. I don’t even know if there was anyone else. I had seen Ben in “Richard II” — which he won a BAFTA award for — he’s sensational. I never quite got it as a play because I always thought, “He’s completely wrong as a king.” So on one level you say, “He should be. He’s not a very good king, so they should get rid of him.” On the other hand, being born into a role that you’re not really very good at is sad. So you’re completely connected to him. And I thought, “I’d love to have Ben do [‘London Spy’].”
I knew we needed someone amazing because he’s in every scene. I remember getting to Episode 3 and thinking there’s a scene that we can’t do because we don’t have anyone as good as Ben. So I said, “Let’s just send it to Ben and see what he says,” and so he came aboard very early. We just had three scripts and he was involved in the rewriting and his DNA sort of became infused with the whole project. He was very involved.
What did he bring to it?
Everything. I don’t think the show would have worked without a performance as good as his. I think everyone in England is talking about it as an award-winning performance. There’s Mark Rylance [in consideration for “Wolf Hall”], and it’s going to be between Mark and Ben.
And we actually do think they’re similar, in terms of that they have a strange magic that you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s just an incredible thing to watch. So he’s the reason you’re pulled through quite a dark and difficult journey — you’re in love with him. He’s sort of bound up in the show.
With a different actor, do you think it would have gone down a different path?
I think it would have. With another great actor, what you would have done is work with what they are great at. I think that’s really key. I love that, working with all the actors. They bring their own thing to it, so it becomes something different. There’s things I wouldn’t have done necessarily. I mean Ben is great on stage. He’s an amazing theater actor, so you can give him a long speech and he’ll bring it to life in a way that most people who are not comfortable with theater would not be able to do. So you would tailor certainly, but since we have Ben, I sort of tailor it for him.
This may be something I missed, but I don’t recall a lot of long speeches in the episodes I’ve seen. When I think about the show, I think about it being relatively quiet.
I think the reason that is true is because he disguises it. So for example in Episode 1, if you look at the speech [Ben] gives about anonymous sex, it’s pretty long on the page. You’re picking through and suddenly you’re like “Wow, this is a big chunk.” You’re right in the sense that Jim is a real storyteller as a character. But Ben, when he has a speech– They’re tricky propositions. I think when I use the theater reference, it isn’t just necessarily in the speeches but in holding his presence. He can just suck you in.
For some reason, I’m equating quiet and human in my head.
You’re right, it’s not clattery as a show. Partly because we didn’t have those running-around scenes and guns and stuff. Because it isn’t who he is, it’s just not who he is. He just wouldn’t have fallen into those roles. So you have to create energy through those performances and that intensity of performance. But that isn’t a shout-y thing. In many ways, once people start shouting, you shut down a bit to that.
The Bond comparison is inevitable. For Ben, was that a funny thing? Did people crack jokes?
No one would bring it up on set. But certainly when you’re launching a show, it’s a big thing. People know it’s enormous. It’s a real piece of art, the national identity of Bond and he’s got this great role in it and people are falling in love with [Whishaw] in it. And suddenly he’s doing something that is in the spy world, but very different. That was useful for us. People were saying either, “ah” but at the same time, see it and go, “Wait a minute, there’s no gadgets!” That’s one of the reasons I think it’s wonderful for an actor like Ben to do huge movies, that enable you to bring in audiences into a slightly trickier proposition. And we did really well. Almost 4 million people have watched it.
How do you think the show will play for an American audience?
Honestly, I never know how to play for any audience. I mean, you spend hours and hours and hours, and years trying to work out how an audience react to anything and then you’re completely surprised by things. People construct things in such particular ways that are about their own emotional responses to things. That’s part of what I love about writing and creating stuff. is that you think you’re in control as you’re putting all the words down and then suddenly you put it out there and you’re not in control at all. It’s sparking in people’s minds different things and people are feeling different things.
My sense is, I hope they fall in love with it. I think Ben is extraordinary. He’s got a great love story. It’s an amazing performance. I really think it’s one of the most interesting acting performances out there. I think he’ll get lots of nominations. People ultimately are drawn to things are good. And hopefully, they’ll be pulled in by that.
“London Spy” airs Thursday nights on BBC America.