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A Spy Among Friends: Why Damian Lewis was Surprised by the True Story

Who Is Nick Elliott?

by Roxy Simons | Newsweek| March 12, 2023

Damian Lewis found making A Spy Among Friends with Guy Pearce a “surprising” experience, he told Newsweek, because of the intricacies of the real story the MGM+ drama is based on.

Lewis plays Nicholas Elliott, the best friend of Pearce’s Kim Philby, who is widely seen as one of the most notorious double agents in history. The British Intelligence agent was a member of the Cambridge Five, a spy ring that secretly fed information to the Soviet Union during World War II and the Cold War.

Philby was able to escape to Russia under Elliott’s watch, and it is this part of history as well as the friendship between the two men, that are the focus on the espionage thriller based on Ben Macintyre’s book of the same name.

Both Lewis and Pearce were unaware of Elliott’s part in Philby’s tale, though he and Philby were both Secret Intelligence Service (now MI6) agents. The former remained largely in the background when news of Philby’s deception as a Soviet spy was revealed to the world.

“None of us knew about Nicholas Elliott, including Ben,” Lewis told Newsweek. “In fact, he tells a lovely story about how he was walking with [spy novelist] John le Carré in a park in London and he says ‘I’ve dried up. What’s my next story? What should I write?'”

“John le Carré said you must write about the relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott, and everyone went ‘who is Nick Elliott?’

“I think the thing that most surprised me —and it dawned on me the more we shot, the more I read and just further into the story we went— is just how much it was clearly Nick Elliott that facilitated Philby’s freedom each time.

“Every time the intelligence agencies got a sniff of Philby and were close to catching him, it seemed to be Elliott that would set him up with a new job.

“He was always sort of helping him escape, and I think that’s why the debriefing was quite intense after Philby then affected his final escape to Moscow and then Elliott came back and everyone was wondering exactly what Elliott’s role had been in this friendship over the past few years.”

The Billions star went on: “I’m afraid to say I think he was so clever but he just wasn’t as clever as Philby, and I think Philby pulled the wool over his eyes like everyone else. Elliott adored him, adored him and admired him and just didn’t [realize]. It was unthinkable that he’d be betrayed.”

Pearce concurred, adding: “Do you think that adoration meant that Philby knew that he could get from Elliott what he wanted every time? He just knew that he, on some level, had a lap dog for want of a better word.”

Lewis went on: “I think that’s right, and I think that’s also what bred the contempt in Philby for those around him a little bit. He was sort of contemptuous of everyone.”

Pearce admitted that he “was aware” of Philby and the Cambridge Five but that he didn’t know anything about the friendship that he and Lewis bring to life on screen in the six-part MGM+ drama.

“I knew nothing about the the friendship with Nicholas Elliott, so I had a fair amount of homework to do, but I was aware of Kim Philby,” he explained.

“It was great to delve in and actually try and understand him a bit more, I certainly had never done that before so I had a lot of questions to ask,” he said.

“Funnily enough, when I met Ben Macintyre that first time, he came to me like a sort of eager kid and he said, ‘Well, what do you think? Who do you think Kim Philby was?’ It was like ‘why are you asking me? You wrote the book!’ Pearce joked.

He continued: “It was actually great to see him, like he’s been [waiting] for years for some sort of answer, and there clearly are scholars far smarter than me who have been trying to figure Philby out for many, many years. I said to him, ‘I’m not the person to ask!'”

A Spy Among Friends premieres on MGM+ on Sunday, March 12 at 10 p.m. ET.

Read the rest of the original article at Newsweek