London Spy is less Spectre than it is unexpected. In the new drama—imported from the U.K. by BBC America and premiering January 21—it’s more so the private life of the titular secret agent Alex (played by Wolf Hall’s Edward Holcroft) and not his on-the-clock adventures that drives the drama. Indeed, it’s a chance meeting with Danny (Ben Whishaw’s somewhat reformed party boy) that seems, more than injury or intrigue, to throw him for a loop. Of course, with a career like Alex’s there’s really no such thing as a dull day at the office.
Here, Holcroft—on a break from rehearsals of Les Liaisons Dangereuse at London’s Donmar Warehouse—explains how the series drew him in and why he’d make an excellent spy… if he isn’t one already.
The first episode of London Spy calls to mind some real-life events, like when the body of a British spy was found in 2010 in a bag at his apartment. What kind of real-life research did you do to play this complicated, guarded character?
I didn’t talk to anyone who had been a spy. I didn’t try only because I assumed that anyone who would have been worth talking to wouldn’t talk to me! Otherwise they wouldn’t be very good at their job. For me, Alex’s story isn’t really about being a spy, but is about finding a relationship with some truth in it. As far as what was going on in his life as a spy and what that consists of, I did a little bit of research—as much as anyone can do, I guess—and used my imagination.
Well, part of him being a spy is that he’s a tough character to get to know. What about that appealed to you as an actor?
He is very strange! There was a certain air of mystery to him that I found absolutely intriguing. I think the less you know about someone, the more intriguing they are. Also, I found his loneliness and his real desire to have friends to be something that I was very drawn to. I’m not sure why, probably because it’s not like me at all. He’s very different than me, so there were a lot of things that I wanted to know about.
Right, he doesn’t have an exciting, James Bond-style life.
Exactly. I think the glitch of spy stories that we know, like the James Bonds and the Jason Bournes can be that they’re all so glamorous when actually I don’t think that sort of exists in contemporary espionage. The majority of spies, real spies, are people who don’t share much information with anyone really in their life, they’re on their own. I think the realness of that that I saw in the script, the sort of rawness of what actually goes on, was refreshing. It was original. It was something that I hadn’t seen in stories before.
Knowing that Alex’s personal life is more difficult at times than his professional life, what does the first season hold for him?
The real driver of the story is the relationship between him and Ben Whishaw’s character, Danny. It begins with the chance meeting of these two men, who are both looking for a way out of their own worlds and they fall in love. It’s through this relationship that Alex is motivated to make a discovery that puts him and Danny both in terrible danger. I think that probably is the most I can say.
Are you yourself at all spy-like? Would it be a viable option for a second career?
I’d like to think I could keep a secret. I think actors would make great spies, because there’s a certain element of loneliness in being an actor; it kind of can be a lonely occupation. You can be very isolated. Would I be a very good spy? I don’t know. Maybe I am one. Maybe I’m just not telling you.