In 2016, for the second season of the groundbreaking British mini-series The Hollow Crown (adaptations of Shakespeare’s royalty-based history plays), director Dominic Cooke cast Benedict Cumberbatch to play one of England’s most notorious villains, Richard III. The two had also worked together on stage productions at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where Cooke was Artistic Director and Chief Executive from 2006 to 2013, so it would be fair to say the two have a working relationship.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that Cooke would also want Cumberbatch to play one of the nation’s greatest unsung heroes, British businessman Greville Wynne, who was recruited by the intelligence community (UK’s MI-6 and America’s CIA) during the height of the Cold War to act as a go-between with one of the most valuable Soviet assets of all time, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze). As much as The Courier sounds like a traditional spy thriller, the film focuses on the human beings and the human cost of such an operation, dealing with more mundane things like the impact Wynne’s sneaking around has on his relationship with his wife (Jessie Buckley) to the terrifying threat and reality of getting caught.
Cooke’s only other film was 2017’s heartfelt On Chesil Beach, starring Saoirse Ronan, but he’s already prepping his next movie, a big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, which he directed at the National Theatre in 2017, starring Imelda Staunton (which hopefully the film version will, as well). I had a chance to discuss The Courier with Cooke recently, as well as his admiration of Cumberbatch as a collaborator. Please enjoy…
This is one of the most human and emotionally driven spy stories I’ve ever seen, and it’s a true story that feels like it couldn’t possibly be true. Was that one of the things that appealed to you about this story? And how do you take that story and make it feel genuine?
Well, it was there in the script really, and it was just those qualities that you said that drew me to it. I don’t think I would have been interested in making an action-based or intrigue-based spy movie. I’ve enjoyed many of them, and respect and understand why they work, but I wanted to be moved and feel some sort of emotional connection to a story, and I thought it was amazing how [screenwriter] Tom O’Connor got to the heart of this story, which is one of a friendship and a transformation and second chance for someone in middle-age to find meaning in life. Those things were almost as important as the extraordinary intrigue of the spy movie. I loved that. We did develop the script a bit, but the foundation was very much there when I first read it, and it was question of honoring all that heart that’s in it.
One of the ways you make it more emotional is making it clear that it seems more important to Greville that his wife not think he’s cheating on her than let her think he’s a spy. Talk about that aspect of his character, which is very human.
[laughs] Yeah, we don’t know exactly what went on between them in real life, but we do know that she didn’t know he was a spy, and I thought that side of espionage is one that isn’t talked about. The regular operatives have been much more trained and have more experience with the whole thing, partly because the people given the big missions are the ones who had the ability to detach. If you think about the famous ones, they were double dealing and playing one side against the other, and they never knew. Whereas Greville was a not trained like that—he was a regular guy, he’s a salesman, which did help him cover things up if he needed to. But I thought that looking at the personal cost, what is it actually like to get into bed with someone every night and they think you have been selling factory equipment and actually you’ve been trying to put an end to nuclear war, is an extraordinary deception that you have to practice for the greater good. I loved all the corners that are turned in the script.
You mentioned this male friendship that develops. I imagine you had to strike something of a balance in creating and illustrating that bond, because a lot of the film’s laughs come out of that friendship. Was there a sweet spot that captured low-level tension and lightweight friendship to sell something very human.
There they were from two incredibly different cultures, but the truth is that they really did connect, very profoundly. It was a sort of romance, and they both saw something in the other person that they really admired and loved. Greville had had a very frustrating life—no more than many people do. He was from a working-class background, he married a woman upper-middle class, someone living a posher life than he had been brought into. He was very frustrated because he was very bright but had extreme dyslexia, which was at the time not recognized, so he was held back and school and didn’t get any academic qualifications, and a long shadow was cast over his life as a result, and made him feel frustrated. So when he had the chance to meet this guy who’d won 13 medals and basically defended Kiev from the Nazis— Penkovsky was a true hero and was fearless. And it came back the other way, and they were like lads—they liked to laugh and drink, and they shared a lot, and it was intensified by the secrecy. When I read the script, I thought “This is Brief Encounter.” This is a sort of romance. It’s a platonic romance, but there are romances in friendship. There are these intense connections that people have. In Brief Encounter, the love affair is intensified by the fact that it’s so secret; there was some of that in here, I think.
As a good citizen, you can understand why Greville would at least try to help. Penkovsky has very different motivations that are more difficult to grasp. How important was it for you to convey why someone who was such a hero would betray his country and take risks like this?
There was a complex backstory for [that], and in fact, in the first draft, there was a bit more of that in there, but it felt very expositional. In fact, Penkovsky was a White Russian, so he was a communist. He came from a more czarist family. His father had been killed by the Soviets, which is one of the reasons why he hated them. But the other reason he hated them was that they thwarted his career once they discovered that about his past. He was on the trajectory to become a diplomat all over the world, and they shut him down, so he was furious. To me, part of the story is about these two individualists who don’t fit in their respective cultures, and they both wanted to break free. Penkovsky, when he came to London, he couldn’t believe how wonderful it was; he was not cut out for the Soviet lifestyle at all.
You and Benedict had worked together before, most recently on The Hollow Crown, which is a remarkable achievement, with him playing one of England’s most notorious villains [Richard III]. And now you have him playing one of the countries greatest unsung heroes. Had you two been looking for something to do together since then?
It was certainly on my mind [laughs]. He’s not exactly short of offers these days, but I know we both felt we did want to do something else together again. What’s been fascinating about working with Benedict is that I’ve worked with him at different states of his professional life and personal life. In fact, the last thing we did, he proposed [to now-wife Sophie Hunter] and was going through the massive transition in his personal life. It’s been really interesting to work with someone I think is such an exceptional talent. When I asked him to do the play we did in 2007 [an adaptation of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros], he was on the brink of being recognized as an exceptional talent. But to watch how he’s grown in terms of technique and confidence, it’s been amazing. Even doing The Hollow Crown a few years ago to now, there’s such a confidence in him to create in the moment, and that’s what is wonderful is about him. With every take, he does something new, and he’s not doing it to screw everyone else up; it’s being utterly true to the moment, and he’s actually very intuitive, and I love having something to respond to. So to answer your question, I’d been looking for something to work on with him, and when I read this script I thought, “Well this is perfect for him,” and I went to him quite quickly.
I want to talk about Rachel Brosnahan’s character, who I’ve read was a composite of different male CIA agents who took part in this operation. Tell me about the thought process of making that transition to a woman in that role, since women were most definitely a part of the organization and these operations at the time.
I thought it was a brilliant choice. It’s such a strange thing when you’re trying to compress a real story that took place over years, into two hours. You have to get to the essence of things. There were actually two CIA guys and a very important woman that we had to take out of the story because it’s a totally different chapter. She was British, called Janet Chisholm, who was the wife of a diplomat in Moscow and she ended up taking over from Greville. In fact, there was a crossover because Greville couldn’t go over all the time, otherwise they’d get suspicious, so he could only go at certain points. In the meantime, she was bringing stuff back and taking them to the British embassy, so she was another hero and it was a reason to make someone who is a key actor in this drama into a female. The way it was written, it’s so accurate about the way women had to operate in a male world, and probably still, do at that time, which was to let the guys think they had all the ideas. Theres’ a double strategy there, and Rachel is so smart and subtle, she totally got that.
One way to look at this story is one of patriotism on both sides of this fight, but it’s a concept that’s been eroded and twisted in recent years. It was nice to be reminded what it looks like in its purest form. Did that in anyway play into the way you wanted to tell this story?
It’s a really interesting idea, patriotism. If you’re from a powerful country, like you are, patriotism can have an ugly side to it. My partner is Greek and his country was occupied for a time, so actually patriotism in that country is a beautiful thing because it’s about self-determination and freeing yourself from the oppressor. So it’s such a complicated idea, and it has gotten bad press, because it can be about superiority. But they’re committing to is what is noble and good about their countries. Greville was quite conservative politically but I think Penkovsky absolutely loved Russia, and when we went to cast the movie in Russia, he got terrible press there because the Soviets completely defamed him and made an example out of him. They said he’s a traitor to Russia, but he actually just despised the Soviet system—but he absolutely loved Russia. His notion of what Russia was was everything the Soviet system wasn’t. I suppose we pick the bits of our countries that we love. My country seems to be in total free-fall at the moment, but I think there are great things about Britain somewhere in the mix that I love, and you want to claim those back and fight for those things, rather than the stuff other people are saying is your country.
At a certain point in the story, it shifts very harshly into this story of the psychological warfare that is waged against Greville. It feel like a very different film, very claustrophobic, hard to watch sometimes what he has to go through. Talk about the staging of that part of the movie and how you wanted it to look and feel different than the rest of the film.
We went with the content, and the truth of the story was that it made a radical and unexpected change into something utterly brutal and grotesque. Greville was at his most heroic by resisting the pressure he was under. So yeah, we did shoot it very differently, all hand-held, and we found this amazing location just outside Prague, where it was brutal to shoot. Benedict wanted it to be as real for him as possible, so the very first entrance into this institution, he wanted to do for the first time on camera. So we set the shots up without him there, and then we brought him in, and he was brilliant. He had to have his head shaved, and he wanted to do that live. So we tried as much as possible to make him have the experience, and he went there.
Are you still planning to make a film version of Follies? I saw your National Theatre Live stage version and loved it.
Yes, I am! I am doing it.
That’s awesome. Thanks for talking.
My pleasure. Thank you.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!