A Spy Among Friends is based on Ben Macintyre’s best-selling book of the same name, which examines the true story of the most infamous double agent in the Cold War. The limited series, adapted for television by Alexander Cary, examines the friendship between Nicholas Elliot and Kim Philby both before and after Philby’s status as a KGB double agent was revealed. Following this revelation, Elliot met with Philby to gather information, but the double agent escaped to the Soviet Union.
Elliot was closely scrutinized after this by American and British intelligence agencies. While under investigation, Elliot attempts to discover any other KGB moles that are hiding in the British government. A Spy Among Friends features an impressive cast led by Guy Pearce, Damian Lewis, Anna Maxwell Martin, Adrian Edmondson, Stephen Kunken, Nicholas Rowe, and Anastasia Hille.
Screen Rant spoke with creator Alexander Cary and star Guy Pearce about their new limited series A Spy Among Friends. Cary reveals what about the spy genre draws him in and why he cast Lewis. Pearce discusses how Kim Philby thinks and what surprised him about the real Philby.
Guy Pearce & Alexander Cary On A Spy Among Friends
Screen Rant: The show is phenomenal. I was hooked from the start. And all the twists and turns it was so good. Alexander, my first question is for you. What about Kim Philby’s story and this double agent spy genre speaks to you? Because you’ve done two really cool shows tapping into this particular genre.
Alexander Cary: I’m interested in spies, I’m interested in the work, and I’m interested in what it takes to do the work. What it takes to maintain your cover and what it takes to be duplicitous to that level. How much of it is ideology? How much of it is elitism? How much of it is just feeling that you have one over on the idiot you’re talking to? It’s all of those things that I think are fascinating. And then there’s the ramifications of it, the world that you’re living in. If you think about the intelligence officials right now who are working, you would have to assume, in Russia, Ukraine, and all the rest of it.
What’s not interesting about that and those sorts of people? They do it for all kinds of reasons. In this particular story, I’m interested because Philby got caught. And what was that like? What was it like to have a friendship for 23 years where everything you say, could possibly have life or death consequences for you? And then what is it like for Nicolas Elliot to realize, “Oh my God, he’s basically been screwing me over all this time, and my life now means nothing.” It’s just a fascinating world for drama.
I completely agree. And then Guy, one of the things I found so interesting about Kim was, he’s a double agent, but the second he’s accused of treason by a couple of people, he has this really visceral reaction. So why do you think that’s such a hot button word for him?
Guy Pearce: He’s a very intelligent man. And I think that just feels too reductionist, too reductive. It simplifies something in a way that I think he doesn’t have any respect for. So I think given the opportunity to have a much longer conversation about what his beliefs are [and] why he’s doing what he’s doing, he would take that opportunity, but to simply be accused of or explained as a traitor is insulting to him.
Alexandra, you’ve worked with Damian Lewis now twice. And he’s kind of played both sides of this coin as the double agent and now the intelligence officer that was betrayed. Can you talk about collaborating with him again, and why you knew he was perfect for the role of Nicholas?
Alexander Cary: He’s a brilliant actor. The first day I worked with him, I did a scene in Homeland where all he had to do was look out the window and act like there were journalists on his lawn. If you go back and look at that, he did something where he sort of flinches. It’s barely visible, and I realized that I was dealing with someone who was really special. Then it turned out that he’s a really, really good laugh and just fun to hang around with. And every day working with him is really good fun.
So I wanted to work with him. I wanted to work with people I liked. I wanted to make a show about friendship with friends. We had become friends over the Homeland experience. And he had the same opinion. So yeah, it was brilliant. And I would work with him and Guy, if I’m lucky enough, anytime. These guys are fantastic and just really fun to hang out with.
That’s awesome. And then Guy what surprised you the most when you were embodying Kim because he is based on a real person, but I love these complex emotions you brought to him.
Guy Pearce: Just the fact that it was real. That’s really what I found myself being surprised by, constantly, was that this actually happened. That he really did this. That he held this secret and this game that he was orchestrating for as long as he did. It still just immediately makes me go, “Who does that? Why did he need to do that? How much of it was ego? How much of it was the thrill of the game? How much of it was purely a belief system? How was he able to justify the deaths that were caused?”
Looking at his background, looking at his father, what his father believed in, and what his father talked about as far as the way the British treated the Arabic nations. You start to get a sense of how and why he believed the way he believed. Interesting, too, because there he is in the middle of the British ruling class, enjoying the spoils of that but also having disdain for it. So he really was sort of caught in the middle of something, wasn’t he, Alex? He was sort of plunked in a very particular place, kind of psychically in the world, which I think played a big part in why he did what he did.
Alexander Cary: Yeah, the journey—it’s never simple. The idea that he went to Vienna as quite a young man after university. He went to Vienna, and he helped Jews and communists escape the fascists during the uprising. I’ve always thought if I had done something like that, at 21 or whatever it was, if I had done something like that, I would have thought for a long time that that had defined me and [that] the other people’s experiences probably paled in comparison, and [their] knowledge of the world probably paled in comparison to mine.
So if you’ve isolate that moment, there’s an honor in there. And there’s an integrity to that. But then you move on to another chapter, and how long can you live off that? How long can any of us live off anything we’ve just done? Without sort of developing and without being honest with ourselves? That’s interesting to me.
Guy Pearce: Yeah, that’s why it was so important to have that in the story, wasn’t it? It was great.
About A Spy Among Friends
In 1963 Nicholas Elliot, an MI6 intelligence officer, is left in personal and professional turmoil when it is revealed one of his oldest friends, Kim Philby, is a KGB double agent who has defected to the Soviet Union. Elliot is questioned about his knowledge of Philby’s actions and his last interaction with his once friend while trying to sniff out any other KGB moles.
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The first episode of
A Spy Among Friends
is available on MGM+ now with new episodes on Sundays.