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A Spy Among Friends: Damian Lewis and Guy Pearce on Playing Secret Agents

Duplicitous Characters

by Maggie Boccella | Collider | March 15, 2023

Imagine finding out your best friend of nearly thirty years had completely betrayed you and everyone else they loved, for the entirety of your friendship. That’s the concept behind MGM+’s newest thriller series, A Spy Among Friends, except the tensions are racketed to an all-time high: not only are Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis) and Kim Philby (Guy Pearce) friends, but also intelligence officers for the UK’s MI6, and Philby is one of the most notorious double agents in history, supplying information to the KGB.

A Spy Among Friends follows the two men in the aftermath of Philby being found out, and subsequently pursued, by British intelligence in the 1960s, flipping back and forth between the beginnings of Philby and Elliott’s friendship and the present, where Elliott is being questioned about his attempts to bring Philby into custody in Beirut, where he escaped and eventually defected to the Soviet Union. The truth is twisted and obscured as the series follows the two men throughout their lives, questioning just how much we can really trust those we hold dear.

Collider was excited to sit down with Lewis and Pearce to discuss the series and their involvement in it. During this interview, they discussed playing real characters and what it’s like diving into the lives of such duplicitous people, as well as telling a story about betrayal and profound loss, and the risks we take when we love people.

Obviously the story of this series, or at least Kim Philby, he’s one of the most notorious double agents in all of history, and as an American, this was not a story that I was entirely familiar with. So at all, before you joined this project, were you familiar with any of the details of it?

GUY PEARCE: Well, I was only familiar with the Cambridge Five. I knew about Kim Philby and I knew some of the other names of those five, and I’d seen a number of shows and films that have been made about those five, but I didn’t really know in any depth any details about them as characters and people other than what was presented on screen.

So it was quite a journey for me to sort of dig in and try to understand Philby more. And I certainly didn’t know anything about Nicholas Elliot, and so that was a very interesting part of the story, to really get a sense of their friendship. Because often in the things that we’ve seen before, the drama and the intrigue is about the spy world and it’s life and death stuff, and lives are at stake and countries are at war and that it’s all quite big stuff, whereas this had a lovely sense of intimacy and friendship and the betrayal of friendship about it. So it was great to try and dig into some of those details and understand these people as people as well as being spies.

And this show is obviously based on a book and you’re playing real people, but in what sense…how much are you able to research and rely on that, and at what point do you just have to stop and say, “This is all on me now. The research can only take me so far,” especially playing real people who are in MI5 or SAS, where obviously some of the details aren’t going to be publicly available?

PEARCE: Yeah, there comes a point, doesn’t there, where you have to put all the homework down and actually then get on your feet and do it. So it’s at a different point on each job, I find.

DAMIAN LEWIS: Yeah, I think that’s right. Once you’ve done all your research and all your reading and you hope that somehow you’ve absorbed parts of that, but then it’s very animalistic. It’s very instinctive and responsive once you’re then up on set. Things change all the time. You’ve got to be ready just to keep moving and changing with everything whilst having a sort of firm understanding of who your character is. And yeah, that’s the sort of switchover point.

You two play characters that are so closely intertwined over such a long period of time. So in terms of working together, Philby and Elliot are on such a razor edge, both when they first meet all the way up through everything in Beirut and beyond. How did you go about finding that balance together as actors?

PEARCE: Well, it’s just a natural process. To me it doesn’t feel like we had to go out of our way to come up with something in order to find it. So much is there in the script. So much is there in just all the discussions that begin, not just between Damien and I, but obviously with Nick, our director, and with Alex, our writer, and questions come up. And I think for me, I find I’m then going home each night and kind of imagining this and imagining that and how I might play this and how I might play that. And we had a little bit of time before we started to get to know each other and just to get to know this piece that we were working on. And I think Damian and I clicked fairly easily when we met, so it wasn’t like we were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

So that was the experience for me. It evolved quite naturally. There was so much dialogue in this for me and for Damien as well and I have to spend a lot of time learning dialogue. So that’s really where my focus was, and as Damian says, “When you’re on set together, you’re ready for things to change.” And I’m also always ready just for the spontaneity of the energy within a scene, for that, to just live and breathe it right there and then. And you find lovely delicate moments that might actually be quite meaningful that you didn’t necessarily even imagine when you read the scene twelve times before you’d done it, but it’s just suddenly come alive in that moment. So that’s what your director’s for and that’s what Alex is for, and that’s what the pair of us was sort of keeping tabs on as well, just knowing and feeling like that stuff that we were inhabiting was what we thought it was when we read the script.

For either of you, do you think it’s more difficult to play a real person as opposed to somebody that’s made up entirely on the page? Or just because you’re working with something that’s already fictionalized, does it not really make a difference?

LEWIS: I enjoy playing real people. There’s a responsibility…I think there’s an added responsibility to get it right to honor them in a truthful way. But I’ve played real people a bunch of times and it’s a history. So it’s actually a fun history lesson. You go read around them, find out what they’re doing, what they did, why they killed people if they’re killers. And then of course you have to just…in the end, what actors always have to do is just play the script. If you’re fighting against the script, try and play things that just aren’t there, I think you just end up with a clash. You end up with a clash of all kinds of different things. So in the end, you’ve got to just come back to the script.

PEARCE: Yeah, you’re sort of trying to do…I find that I’m always going, “What is it that you want from me?” And I’m saying this to the script, I’m saying this to the writer, I’m saying this to the director. “How can I honor what it is that you want? Let me try and understand what it is that you want and see if I can facilitate that.” And obviously there are a couple of times where I go, “Oh, I wouldn’t have thought that,” and you might have some discussions about stuff. But yeah, generally I find our task is to honor that script, as Damian says. So if you sort of go off on a tangent and you’re trying to do something else, then there’s a clash of ideas.

This show is, at least to me, very deliberately confusing. It’s pushing you in a bunch of different directions and you end up at a point where you kind of almost don’t know where the truth really lies. It’s sort of in a gray area in the middle. So when it comes to working on a project like that, how do you go about keeping things straight? Because I know from a technical perspective you’re shooting things in a certain order and that might make it a little easier, but in terms of these characters’ emotional lives, how do you go about keeping things straight when the story’s not really giving you everything, so to speak?

PEARCE: Well, it’s tricky, too, on a job like this because you’re playing characters who are duplicitous and who are lying and who are sort of saying one thing and meaning something else. So had this been a different director, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to take it on, to be honest. But I’d worked with Nick before and really trusted his view of things and I really relied heavily on that, as well as relying on Damien and relying on Alex. The three of them together were a wonderful team of heads that had a great perspective on this whole thing. So I’m quite reliant on other people.

LEWIS: Yeah. It’s the best way to be. Great. Tell me how to do it. I’ll do it.

Why do you think the story’s relevant now? What appealed to you about doing it now? Whether it’s something that…relates to current politics now or the way the world is now, what drew you to this story?

LEWIS: I think it does relate to politics now, but I think far more interestingly, right at the center of this is a conversation about faith and love and the risks we take when we love people. You never know another human being. Even in marriage, you’ll never fully know another human being, and I think if there’s a big betrayal at the end, maybe just in a romantic relationship that you’ve had, [or] in this case a thirty-year relationship of best friends, I think the damage that it does to people who are the betrayed is profound. And you ask yourself all kinds of questions about your part in it, your role in it. Did I contribute somehow? How did this happen? And so I think that’s what this show is about, and I think it’s set in the spy world with a thriller framework, whereas Guy just said, everybody’s lying to everybody. Is anything ever as it seems?

And so reality is heightened immediately and that’s a very exciting place to be as a viewer. It’s like, “Oh God, who’s telling the truth? Who’s lying?” And lives are at stake, and sort of great intimate personal betrayals, but betrayals on a political, geopolitical, global scale are happening at the same time. So everything is already very heightened, and right at the center of that is just this very intimate betrayal. And I think that’s where the show sits in its sweet spot. Just imagine being betrayed or managing to betray everybody for thirty whole years. Incredible. When you’re seeing them, working with them every day. That’s our story.

Damian, at one point you described Elliot as being kind of like a peacock or a hawk, and I do see a lot of that in him in this show. So Guy, if you had to describe Kim Philby with an animal, which one do you think you’d pick?

PEARCE: Oh, well he’s got some sort of cat-like quality. Maybe it’s a sort of slinky black humor or something like that. I don’t know. Yeah, maybe a cat, but a really charming one.

LEWIS: Trixie.

PEARCE: Yeah, not a crazy one.

What do you hope people take away from this story, whether it’s the idea that fact is stranger than fiction or something else?

PEARCE: Well, I think as Damian says, it sort of looks at love and the idea of the lengths we’ll go to protect each other as friends. And then the fragility of that and how devastating that can be when the friendship is betrayed. So whether it’s what people take away from it…but hopefully it’s what people connect to when they watch it, because everybody has friends and everybody has questions about their friends and everybody probably has been betrayed at some point by their friends to whatever degree, even on a sort of small scale. So I’m sure people will be able to relate to that just because, as Damian says, this is set in sort of spy world and doesn’t mean that it…and I’m sure that will be intriguing for a lot of people because that’s not the world that a lot of people live in, but that’s great exciting stuff to watch. But the idea of friends working together in that world is something that probably people could relate to.

A Spy Among Friends premiered on Sunday, March 12 and is available for streaming on MGM+.

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