Damian Lewis found the making A spy among friends a “surprising” experience with Guy Pearce, he said news week, because of the intricacies of the true story on which the MGM+ drama is based.
Lewis plays Nicholas Elliott, the best friend of Pearce’s Kim Philby, who is widely regarded as one of history’s most notorious double agents. The British intelligence agent was a member of the Cambridge Five, a spy ring that secretly leaked information to the Soviet Union during World War II and the Cold War.
Philby was able to escape to Russia under Elliott’s care, and it is this part of the story and the friendship between the two men that is the focus of the spy thriller based on Ben Macintyre’s book of the same name.
Both Lewis and Pearce were unaware of Elliott’s role in Philby’s story, although he and Philby were both Secret Intelligence Service (now MI6) agents. The former remained largely in the background as news of Philby’s deception as a Soviet spy broke to the world.
“None of us knew about Nicholas Elliott, including Ben,” Lewis said news week. “In fact, he tells a beautiful story about how he went with him [spy novelist] John le Carré in a park in London and he says: “I’m parched. What’s my next story? What should I write?'”
“John le Carré said you have to write about the relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott, and everyone said, ‘Who is Nick Elliott?’
“I think what surprised me the most – and it dawned on me the more we shot, the more I read and the deeper we delved into the story – was how clearly it was Nick Elliott who gave Philby’s freedom to each.” times enabled.
“Every time the intelligence agencies snooped on Philby and came close to catching him, it seemed like Elliott got him a new job.
“He always kind of helped him escape and I think that’s why the debriefing was pretty intense after Philby then made his final escape to Moscow and then Elliott came back and everyone was wondering what role Elliott had in that friendship in the past had played accurately for a few years.”
The billion Star continued, “I’m sorry to say that I think he was that smart, but he just wasn’t as smart as Philby, and I think Philby pulled sand in his eyes like everyone else. Elliott adored him, adored and admired him and just didn’t [realize]. It was unthinkable that he would be betrayed.”
Pearce agreed, adding: “Do you think worship meant Philby knew he could get whatever he wanted from Elliott anytime?
Lewis continued, “I think that’s right, and I think that also breeded a little bit of contempt in Philby for the people around him. He was kind of contemptuous of everyone.”
Pearce admitted he “knew” about Philby and the Cambridge Five but knew nothing about the friendship he and Lewis bring to life on screen in the six-part MGM+ drama.
“I didn’t know about Nicholas Elliott’s friendship, so I had a fair amount of homework to do, but I knew about Kim Philby,” he explained.
“It was great to engage with him and actually try to understand him a little bit better. I certainly hadn’t done that before, so I had a lot of questions to ask,” he said.
“Funnily enough, when I first met Ben Macintyre, he came up to me like an eager kid and said, ‘Well, what do you think? Who do you think Kim Philby was?’ It was like ‘Why are you asking me? You wrote the book!’ Pearce joked.
He continued: “It was really great to see him the way he was [waiting] been looking for an answer of some sort for years, and there are clearly far wiser scholars than me who have been trying to figure Philby out for many, many years. I said to him, ‘I’m not the person to ask that!’”
A spy among friends Premieres on MGM+ on Sunday, March 12 at 10pm ET.