A SPY AMONG FRIENDS, the six-part British miniseries premiering Sunday, March 12, on MGM+ (formerly Epix), is based Ben Macintyre’s nonfiction book A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL.
Harold Adrian Russell “Kim” Philby, as real-life espionage buffs know, was a high-ranking officer in British Intelligence’s MI-6 division (their equivalent of the CIA) during and after World War II. In 1963, it was revealed that Philby was spying for the Russians, causing him to flee to Moscow.
Philby’s friend and fellow MI-6 agent Nicholas Elliott was sent to get a full confession while they were both in Beirut. Exactly what happened on that mission, with a timeline that flashes backwards and forwards, is examined in A SPY AMONG FRIENDS, as Elliott is debriefed by an MI-5 officer in London, where most of the miniseries was shot.
While Elliott (Damian Lewis) and Philby (Guy Pearce) are both historical figures, Elliott’s MI-5 interrogator, Lily Thomas, is a composite character, played by Anna Maxwell Martin.
Maxwell Martin, originally from Yorkshire, England, has had a wide-ranging career on stage, TV and film. She was nominated for an Olivier Award for her performance as Lyra in the theatrical adaptation of HIS DARK MATERIALS.
Maxwell Martin has won two BAFTA Awards for television for her performances in the miniseries BLEAK HOUSE and the telefilm POPPY SHAKESPEARE. Her many other TV credits include DOCTOR WHO, DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY, THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, THE FRANKENSTEIN CHRONICLES, GOOD OMENS, LINE OF DUTY, and MOTHERLAND. Maxwell Martin has also had roles in feature films including ENDURING LOVE, BECOMING JANE, PHILOMENA, and THE DUKE.
During MGM+s portion of the 2023 Television Critics Association (TCA) winter press tour, Maxwell Martin sits down to discuss playing her formidable if fictional UK government operative.
ASSIGNMENT X: While you’ve played all sorts of people, you portrayed an English World War II code-breaker in THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE. It seems almost like that character, if she divorced her husband and remarried, could have become Lily Thomas in A SPY AMONG FRIENDS.
ANNA MAXWELL MARTIN: [laughs] Yeah. It was actually the decade before, wasn’t it, so she could’ve done.
AX: Do you feel drawn to characters from that period, or do you feel drawn to espionage, or is that just how you’ve been cast?
MAXWELL MARTIN: No. BLETCHLEY was a long, long time ago, so there’s lots in the middle of that this is nothing to do with espionage or period. For me, the starting point is always the people and the creators and, [the appeal of A SPY AMONG FRIENDS] even before I’d read the script, the fact that it was Alex [Alexander Cary], who’s the show runner and creator, who is really clever and very bright, and then Nick [Murphy] was directing, and I already knew Nick’s work, and I knew that he was a really capable and brilliant director, and then Damian obviously was there, and Damian’s fantastic. So, for me, it’s the people. I take a look at the people, and then I read the script.
And I just loved the story. I loved that it’s about human interaction and relationships. That’s really all it’s about, over and above spying. You can’t hang an interesting story that anyone is going to stick with, if it’s just about Kim Philby escaping, or the glamour of spying. It wasn’t very glamorous, but it has to be about proper human interaction, and jeopardy, and relationships, and care, and feelings, and that’s what this has in abundance.
AX: So, you don’t have an affinity for the period?
MAXWELL MARTIN: No. I think it’s irrelevant. It’s for the designer to observe the period, or the director to observe the period, not really for you as an actress. You’re only ever there to serve the writer, and to deliver the relationships that are on the page, and to bring those to life, and to a point where people care, and give a sh*t. So, the period stuff is sort of irrelevant. I’m just there in a scene, in the moment, playing a very real relationship.
AX: How much did you know about this historical incident before you became involved with the miniseries?
MAXWELL MARTIN: I did know about Kim Philby, and I knew about him defecting to Moscow, but I didn’t know about the Beirut interlude, I didn’t know that he was there at that time, and that that’s where they sent Nicholas Elliott, his best friend, just trying to eke out a confession from him, and bring him home. I knew that after that event, [Philby] then absconded to defect to Moscow. [A SPY AMONG FRIENDS] is based on a Ben Macintyre book, and we had Ben’s books on our bookshelf. My late husband really loved a spy story, and so he – loved all Ben’s books kind of dig into the nature, the historical nature of intelligence [work], essentially. I knew about Anthony Blunt and some of his antics. I didn’t know anything about Nicholas Elliott.
AX: Did you do any research into that? Or did you feel like since Lily is looking into that in the course of the story, you shouldn’t know more than she did going in?
MAXWELL MARTIN: I would never research something that is going to come to light for the character in the moment. It’s only about doing research about who you are, where you come from, what job you do, the nature of your job. And then you just leave all that stuff behind, and then you just play the scene.
AX: What is Lily’s actual job title?
MAXWELL MARTIN: Well, she’s at MI-5. Essentially, they were all paper-pushing. She was just the chosen person to go and interview [Elliott] – in Alex’s story, obviously, not in real life. She was the chosen one because they thought he would underestimate her eventually. She’s some type of watcher, she’s somebody who watches people, and keeps an eye on what’s going on, and they’re observers. That’s what she’d be termed as.
AX: Most of the characters in A SPY AMONG FRIENDS are real people, but Lily Thomas isn’t …
MAXWELL MARTIN: No, she’s a creation. She’s a hybrid of lots of different people who would have existed at that time, and so she’s come from Alex’s imagination. Initially, she was a device to make the story work. This was a book that Alex adapted. But it wasn’t going to work unless we had a character that he could make up that would join all the worlds together, which is what Lily essentially does.
She is investigating Damian’s character, Nicholas Elliott, and his involvement in a very bizarre episode of four days in Beirut, where his best friend seemingly escaped from his clutches and absconded to Moscow. So, she’s digging into what he’s all about. I can’t give much away, but you see there’s a sense, whether you trust it or not, that Lily and Nicholas Elliott are becoming very unlikely allies. And that was a really interesting relationship for me to play. I think that the meeting of minds, when you have a prejudice about one another, he underestimates her, and she underestimates him.
AX: So, does Lily go into this with an open mind, or does she go into this feeling like she’s going to catch Nicholas in a lie?
MAXWELL MARTIN: Lily is so good at her job, and being present in the moment, and she’s so dexterous, and she’s so able to think in the moment and react in the moment, which is probably what makes a really good spy hunter, and I think that’s her approach.
AX: Did you have to learn anything in order to play her, like how to manipulate the extremely old tape recorder she uses, or other props, or costumes?
MAXWELL MARTIN: I did have to manipulate a very old tape recorder. It had big reels. I didn’t really – I had a lovely little guy who came in and helped me in the middle of each take [laughs]. I did have to wrangle very woolly tights, that was the only thing I had to do, which were really itchy.
AX: There’s a lot of discussion in the miniseries about Lily’s regional accent. Was that something you had to work on?
MAXWELL MARTIN: Yeah, I did. No, no. Durham’s quite difficult. So, I did do some work on it. I’d done a movie just before it where I had to do Newcastle. They are different, but they are in the same ballpark, so I knew some of the key ways in, but I had to do a bit of polishing up.
AX: Do you enjoy doing different accents?
MAXWELL MARTIN: Yeah, I love that. I’d much rather do an accent than do my own voice, because it’s something really tangible to key into.
AX: Lily is in what seems to be a pretty happy marriage to an idealistic doctor, portrayed by Gershwyn Eustache Jr. While not unheard-of, it’s not customary for characters in a drama to be happily married. So, how was playing that?
MAXWELL MARTIN: I think there’s a strain in the marriage, in that the nature of her job is total secrecy, which I think is a problem in their marriage, as it would be in any marriage. If you cannot talk about what you do at work, it’s going to be a bit strained over dinnertime, isn’t it? [laughs] So, there is that. I think they have a very cohesive relationship, and they’re both naturally very patient and loving people. Yeah, it’s not often we see it. We usually just see conflict in marriage, don’t we? Maybe MORK AND MINDY was the last time we saw a happy marriage on the screen.
AX: Is it more difficult to play someone who’s in a fairly understanding relationship than someone in a marriage where there’s obvious tension?
MAXWELL MARTIN: Perhaps. I suppose you want to be doing something with a bit of edge. I like playing baddies, really, so, that I guess is more to get your teeth into.
AX: Since Lily is meant to be the audience’s point of view person, it would seem like she’s not going to turn out to be a baddie …
MAXWELL MARTIN: She’s a good person. But she’s got an edge. There’s stuff that goes on where you see she’s rankled and she doesn’t take any sh*t, does she?
AX: How would you describe Lily as a person?
MAXWELL MARTIN: Really diligent, hardworking. She’s a good listener, she’s a good responder, she’s super-good at her job, and she’s worked hard, and she’s rewarded. This is a bit of a coup for her, getting to do this kind of interrogation, and she delivers it really well. She’s very cool under fire.
AX: Most of your scenes are with Damian Lewis as Elliott. Is there something distinctive about him as a scene partner?
MAXWELL MARTIN: Oh, gosh. He’s lovely. All you want is for everybody to enjoy being at their job. The actors are driven around and given constant cups of tea, and it’s all very lovely, but for the crew, often it’s really long hours, and they drive themselves in and drive themselves home, and you want everybody to have a nice time at work. And what’s conducive to that is everybody being a company player, and being part of an ensemble, and being a good person, and getting on with everyone, and knowing everyone, and being easy to work with. And that’s Damian, and we did all have a really, really lovely time. And he was also an executive producer on this, so he was also really a super leader.
AX: Is it a spoiler to ask if you ever got to work with Guy Pearce?
MAXWELL MARTIN: I can tell you that I did not, much to my own chagrin.
AX: Did Alexander Cary give you any leeway to have input into your character?
MAXWELL MARTIN: Oh, yeah. Alex was an amazing collaborator. Alex was wonderful, and never blocked anything. He was always really open to talking about what her motivations were, and what she was doing in any given moment, or thinking. On set, if you’re all collaborators, it’s just really lovely and easy. Nick, our director, was, and Alex was, and all the actors were, so we just had a really cohesive time.
AX: Was there anything like, “Okay, we should change this to make it clearer to the audience”?
MAXWELL MARTIN: Lots of [changes]. I can’t remember specifically what they were. I don’t think the motivation was to make it clearer to the audience. I don’t think that’s highest in your mind. I think art’s job is to story-tell really well, and then the audience member, they either go on that ride or they don’t. They either want to listen to that, or they don’t. I think our job is to story-tell brilliantly and deftly.
AX: What else do you have coming up?
MAXWELL MARTIN: So, I have just had MOTHERLAND, which is a comedy show I do, which had a Christmas special out in the UK, and then I’m going to go on and film a new drama.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about A SPY AMONG FRIENDS?
MAXWELL MARTIN: That it’s just really, really, really, really, really good.
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Article: Exclusive Interview: Actress Anna Maxwell Martin on new fact-based espionage series A SPY AMONG FRIENDS