BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — The new MGM+ offering “A Spy Among Friends” – based on the New York Times best-selling novel written by Ben Macintyre – looks at British spies and lifelong friends, Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby. The latter became in the early 60s the most notorious British defector and Soviet double agent in history.
Lily Thomas (Anna Maxwell Martin) creates tension as a member of MI5 who ends up interrogating Philby. His betrayal, uncovered at the height of the Cold War, resulted in the gutting of British and American intelligence.
Martin says, “I knew about Kim Philby but I think because in the UK, generally, we do. I didn’t know anything about Nicholas Elliott. My late husband was obsessed with Ben’s books.
“This is taken from one Ben Macintyre’s books, so I hadn’t looked to any of those but I like to think that there was taking sort of something in. So I knew that much but not anymore.”
What transpires in the book is that Martin plays a character who must show strength because as a member of MI5, Thomas comes from a very different gender, class, generation and agency from the men she must investigate.
Martin was drawn to the role because of the character’s strength. But, the attraction had nothing to do with this being another strong role for the British actor. The winner of two British Academy Television Awards has taken on strong characters in the past with “Line of Duty,” “Good Omens” and “Code 404.”
“I didn’t think of her in terms of being a woman,” Martin says of her “A Spy Among Friends” character. “That didn’t define me in that way. I just thought of her in terms of job description. What she is doing in the room. What she has to get out of him. She sits there with a job to do and that is to get under his skin.”
Martin never allows herself to get bogged down by the fact she is a female playing a strong character. She’s really not certain what that means in this era.
In the case of playing Thomas, Martin could not look at historical material to help the character. Thomas ended up being an amalgamation of a group of characters. She points out that while there were women in MI5 and MI6, there is no way of knowing if a female would have done the job Thomas would perform.
“I think it is really interesting – in that relationship – that they both underestimate each other,” Martin says. “I don’t think he underestimates her because she is a woman. I just think he has a natural superiority because people at that time did.
“And she underestimates him because she believes he is a fool, a buffoon, a snob.”
Whether a woman would have had the job or not, Martin is certain the role went to the kind of person who would be able to fluster the veteran spy. In the case of this production, that was a female.
Series creator Alexander Cary made Martin’s character a female as a way of letting people know there were females involved with MI5 and MI6 in the 1960s.
Cary adds, “The main reason I put her in is in order to adapt this terrific book by Ben, I wanted to expand on the book. I didn’t want to just regurgitate the story. And so I needed to find a lens, or a character who could sort of take us into that world and could give us a particular response to these people as an audience emotionally.”
No matter the role, it always just comes down to finding and establishing relationships very quickly for Martin. That is something she can create very quickly to be able to play the role.
“I’ll know what I need to know before I start, and then that sort of gets left behind. And it’s just being very present in the scene, and listening and responding to what I’m being given in the scene rather than thinking about anything,” Martin says. She jokingly adds, “Maybe I don’t have the brain capacity but anything sort of lofty or intelligent, it’s this show.
“We can get bogged down in talking about a lot of spy stuff, but it really is just about really intimate relationships. And I really enjoyed playing this character, partly because it was written so well, and we were directed so well. But also because it’s just about being with Damian in a room and the relationship that you then have and the scenes that you’re creating together.”
The six-episode limited series features Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) and Guy Pearce (“Mare of Easttown”) portray the spy buddies. Additional cast members include Stephen Kunken (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Adrian Edmondson (“Back to Life”).