Guy Pearce and Damian Lewis on the Intimate Betrayal History Forgot in A Spy Among Friends

Based on the biggest intelligence breach in Britain's history, the stars of the new espionage drama unpack the complicated spy friendship at the core of the story.

by | March 12, 2023 | Comments

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A Spy Among Friends, the new series adaptation based on the book by Ben Macintyre, revisits the international scandal that exposed a high-ranking U.K. intelligence official as a deeply-embedded double agent working for the Soviet Union. Guy Pearce stars as Harold “Kim” Philby, the traitor in question, with Damian Lewis stepping into the role of best friend and fellow spy, Nicholas Elliott.

Books, TV shows, and movies have all explored the earth-shattering case. Philby was a member of The Cambridge Five, a ring of Englishmen spies who doubled as informants for the KGB from the 1930s to the 1950s. It all took place in a dreary time for Britain, where a creeping fear of Nazism, Fascism, and Communism was commonplace.

The series covers the same ground, but A Spy Among Friends pivots the story everyone knows to focus on Philby’s pal Nicholas. And thus, a global betrayal is transformed into a deeply personal one.

Nick Murphy, who directed the series and executive produced alongside show creator Alexander Cary, explained the story at the 2023 Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour: “Once they discovered the greatest, most effective Soviet mole in British intelligence history, who had been, for 30 years, in plain sight, they sent his best friend Nicholas Elliott to Beirut to interrogate him. And after four days in a safe house, he escaped. It’s an extraordinary reaction to a massive scandal, and our drama centers on what the hell happened.”

A true story about spy besties-turned-enemies amid a post-WWII backdrop of international espionage and growing Cold War tensions? That’s a lot to unpack. Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Pearce and Lewis to dig into the complex character dynamic in A Spy Among Friends.

(Photo by MGM+)

Aaron Pruner for Rotten Tomatoes: Guy, considering the damaging impact Kim Philby’s actions had on England, and the rippling effect it caused globally, did you face any challenges in bringing him to life here?

Guy Pearce: I found Philby quite a challenge because he’s far more relaxed and charming than I am; I’m quite anxious. It was a real task for me to sort of slip into those shoes, but they’re delightful shoes to be in because he’s someone who is famously known for having all the ladies gush around him as well as men sort of looking up to him. With that comes a kind of a great sense of power, I suppose. And to play a character that is written that way was a challenge, but quite delightful at the same time.

You’re essentially playing a man who lived life as a double agent for three decades. Is it safe to say that, as an actor, you’re sort of playing the part of an actor here, where no one was the wiser?

Pearce: When you look at someone like Philby, or you look at a spy, they’re essentially acting the whole time. The interesting thing with playing somebody like this is, when a character has to tell a lie — and maybe it’s because I’m not as experienced as I should be as an actor — the impulse is to show the audience that you’re telling the lie.

(Photo by MGM+)

Pearce: The thing that Nick [Murphy] kept saying to me all the time was, No, no, no, no. He’s better at his job than that. It was great, because I felt I didn’t have to play the duplicity of Philby’s nature. I would just play straight out what he was saying to whatever person at whatever time and let the story itself show that on one hand, he’s doing this, and on another hand, he’s doing that.

Damian, you’re playing Philby’s long-time best friend and fellow spy Nicholas Elliott, a man whose story history has all but been forgotten. Was this an angle that got you interested in the project?

Damian Lewis: Yeah. I just was really interested in playing the guy nobody knew, or had heard of: the best friend who is cuckolded. We use this metaphor a lot: a betrayal of a lover.

That reference makes sense, as this feels like an epic break-up story of two outwardly successful men who struggle with a certain sort of emptiness in their personal lives.

Lewis: I think this is also a show about fathers, about men trying to impress their dads. Philby certainly had that with his dad who was a famous Arabist. Elliott’s father used to just overtly bully Elliott. He called him plug ugly and said that he was essentially going nowhere, so Elliott resorted to humor. He loved a dirty Limerick. He had a sort of Bertie Wooster from the P.G. Wodehouse books way of just making light of everything.

(Photo by MGM+)

It makes you wonder if spies can successfully cultivate fulfilling friendships outside of their work.

Lewis: He was an endlessly moving, restless, nervous, eager puppy who just adored this man as an older brother. He was as admiring and adoring of Philby as everyone else was. Elliott’s tragic arc, which is why I was drawn to him as well, is he enables Philby by being his best friend. He enables him to betray his country for 30 years.

For it to happen for so long, and right under his nose, that’s got to be earth-shattering. How does somebody recover from such a deeply-rooted and damaging deception?

Lewis: At that moment of betrayal and the realization of just the enormity of what it is that Philby has done, Elliott has to ask himself the question, How complicit was I in this? The shame and the guilt involved in that must have been overwhelming.

(Photo by MGM+)

Through the series, Philby refused to accept that he was a traitor to his country. We see him flinch at the label multiple times. Why?

Pearce: Kim Philby would not consider himself a traitor. He would talk about his beliefs, I suppose. His initial true belief was that of Communism, so I guess that’s, on a simple level, why he would justify what he had done, but I certainly couldn’t defend him, personally.

To reflect on all the lives that were damaged due to his actions and then, in the end, not be able to accept the label? That takes a certain type of hubris.

Pearce: I think also the thing that’s probably offensive about that is it’s too reductive. I think he probably saw himself as far more complex than that. His view of the world and his reasoning behind what he did and why he did what he did are far more complex than that. So it’s probably just too simplistic and offensive to call him a traitor.

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