London Spy, the new five-part miniseries premiering Jan. 21 on BBC America, wrapped its run on BBC2 last month just in time to make multiple Best of 2015 lists in the UK. But don’t Google those, or the fan art inspired by the love story turned spy thriller from bestselling author Tom Rob Smith (Child 44). This is one ending you don’t want spoiled. We can, however, set up the beginning.
The story starts when Danny (Ben Whishaw), a romantic who’s survived a promiscuous, drug-fueled youth, meets Alex (Edward Holcroft), a man as stiff and separate as the white button-down shirts in his closet. “He is living in a very closed world, a very lonely world,” Holcroft tells Yahoo TV, “and he is desperately fighting to find some form of connection with someone — a connection that he’s never had, a connection he has constantly stifled because he’s gay and he has put his work first.“
As you see in the exclusive clip above from early in their relationship, Danny also feels he’s found something that’s eluded him. But too soon, it’s taken away: Alex is discovered dead under suspicious circumstances. After Danny learns that the man he thought was an investment banker actually worked for MI6, he sets out to uncover the truth about Alex’s past and his murder (if he was murdered).
Watch the ‘London Spy’ trailer:
At the Television Critics Association’s recent press tour, Whishaw said his agent likened the tale to a kind of dark Alice in Wonderland. “Every episode, Danny is meeting a new set of people who very rarely are exactly what they appear to be,” Whishaw said. (The cast includes Oscar winner Jim Broadbent as Danny’s most trusted confidante, and Charlotte Rampling as the hardest nut to crack.)
As Smith said at TCA, Danny doesn’t just lose his lover, he loses their love story: “Their love story is attacked by various prejudices and stereotypes, and Danny has to fight those.”
It’s essential then that viewers invest in the relationship, and quickly, which meant casting was key. By the time Smith was penning episode 3, he realized he was writing Danny with Whishaw in mind and reached out to the actor (who he’d seen as Richard II in 2012′s Hollow Crown miniseries). Whishaw, seen most recently as In the Heart of the Sea’s Herman Melville and Spectre’s Q, helped further shape the emotionally-bare character and where the story was headed.
Ben Whishaw, with Edward Holcroft
Holcroft — who’s currently playing Le Chevalier Danceny in a sold-out West End production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that will be broadcast live into select theaters on Jan. 28 — recalls being sent a script on a Friday, and going in for the first of three or four auditions on Monday. “The first meeting, they were very spy-like themselves,” he says of producers. “They didn’t tell me anything, and I was definitely trying to guess where the story was going. I think what they were looking for was to find some truth to the relationship between Danny and Alex. On my second meeting, Ben was there, and we did some scenes together, and I think the main aim was to find that chemistry.”
It came easier than Holcroft, whose credits also include the 2014 film Kingsman: The Secret Service and the 2015 miniseries Wolf Hall, expected. “It was almost like our real-life friendship was developing as we were shooting the scenes, because we got on so well,” he says. What was challenging was making sure the audience had a window to connect with the inscrutable Alex. “To try and make people empathize with someone, but at the same time, show as little as possible,” he says. “That’s how Tom had written it and how they wanted it to be: They wanted him to be a mystery and to give off very little in his face and the way he expresses emotion. It was something that I had never done before.”
How did he do it? “I’m sure everyone’s different, but for me, when I first met Alex on the page, you find a sort of rhythm within yourself that fits the character and everything kind of pulls in around that,” he says. “You can’t force it. Some characters, it clicks very fast, and others, you have to be a bit more patient with. But they usually come.”
Holcroft in ‘London Spy’
Patience is something U.S. viewers will have to exercise now. Asked if he had friends and family begging for spoilers after the miniseries’ UK run, he just laughs. “Of course. God, I mean, after the first episode, I had a hundred people texting me going, ‘Are you dead?’ I had to keep strong,” he says.
His response hasn’t changed: "Keep watching.”
London Spy premieres Thursday, Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. on BBC America.