The state of cleanliness referred to in the title of Spotless, the new series on the Esquire Network, has nothing to do with the characters on the show themselves. The program follows Jean, who makes his living cleaning up scenes where people have recently lost their lives—murders, suicides, accidents, you name it. When his troubled brother comes to town with a macabre business proposition, Jean finds himself on the wrong side of the law, the mob and just about everything he holds dear.
Downton Abbey vet Brendan Coyle rounds out the cast as an erudite, most definitely psychotic mafia boss who finds Jean, and his unique set of professional abilities, to be absolutely irresistible. Here, Coyle reveals the appeal of playing a villain and explains why it’s always more fun to be on a morbid set than a comedy.
You might be best known for your role on Downton Abbey—and Spotless is about as far away from that as you can get. Did you go looking for something so different?
It came to me! I’m blessed for that. One of the great advantages of Downton Abbey is that in between each season, I can always do something different. I get to go straight into another job. I don’t like fuss, and there’s a lot of fuss around Downton Abbey especially as it is transmitted. So, I am usually involved in another project.
The project the year before I did Spotless was a play in the West End called Mojo. It was a revival of a Jez Buterworth play about gangs and set in the 1950s in Soho. I played this mob boss, and I know that the Spotless casting director saw that and so did maybe one or two of the producers. So, Spotless came to me as an offer, which is a fantastic thing because it’s such a great part.
You also play a mob boss on the show. Do you like playing that kind of guy?
Spotless has some of the best writing—Ed McCardie is now my favorite television writer—it is so, so good. They gave me a comprehensive breakdown of my character and a synopsis of the whole series as well as some sample scenes. I said, ‘I have to do this. It’s just too good.’
The mob boss that I played in Mojo was a very angry man. He was very threatening and people were afraid of him because he was violent. Nelson Clay is extraordinary. He is a very interesting mob boss in that he’s an autodidact. He’s self-educated and extremely civilized; he has great guile and great intelligence. He’s a philosopher. He reads Darwin. He has multi-million pound properties all over. He really is a king pin, but he doesn’t get his hands dirty. And he has this really strange warped moral code, which a lot of criminals do not. He believes in etiquette and manners and all of the finer things in life. He’s an extremely calm man, but he’s a stone cold psychopath.
What’s your favorite part of playing that?
Being extremely terrifying! And extremely intimidating in a very cold and calculating way. As actors, when we leave drama school, we always leave as really angry men. And we spend the first 10 years of our careers shouting and pointing at people. This guy doesn’t do that, he’s a cut above. He is a man of very interesting contradictions.
It’s a dark show. In the pilot alone, there’s murder and dismemberment and infidelity, and that’s not even the worst of it. What’s life on the set like?
Because it was so dark, there was a lot of laugher around the set. It’s when you’re doing a comedy that people sit around being miserable. My favorite part, I think, was in the final week—on my birthday, actually—it was in December and we were on a rooftop in London overlooking the whole city, and Nelson gets his gun out and he is unraveling. And we don’t know who he is going to kill. One of the boys or himself, we don’t know. It was an epic scene.