Sometimes the best way to truly understand the motivations of the the unlikeliest of allies and the most surprising of enemies is to watch them unabashedly react to the consequences of a harrowing situation. That’s certainly the case with both civilians and military personnel alike following such a devastating and world-defining catastrophe as World War II. Witnessing people turn against their long-held morals, in an effort to obtain their newly developed goal, is a powerful conflict in actor Jim Sturgess’ period drama mini-series, ‘Close to the Enemy.’
The World War II-set British television show made its U.S. premiere on November 14 on the Emmy-nominated American subscription streaming service, Acorn TV. The drama will also be released on DVD and Blu-ray this Tuesday, December 27.
All seven of ‘Close to the Enemy’s episodes were penned and helmed by award-winning British playwright, director and screenwriter, Stephen Poliakoff. In addition to Sturgess, the drama stars features an ensemble cast that includes Freddie Highmore, Alfred Molina, Angela Bassett, August Diehl, Alfie Allen, Sebastian Armesto, Lindsay Duncan, Robert Robert Glenister, Phoebe Fox and Charlotte Riley.
‘Close to the Enemy’ follows intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson (Sturgess), who’s tasked by the army to ensure that a captured German scientist, Dieter (Diehl), starts working for the British RAF on urgently developing the jet engine. With the background of the emerging Cold War, it’s crucial for British national security that cutting-edge technology is made available to the armed forces as quickly as possible. Callum uses unorthodox methods in his attempt to convince Dieter to work with the British, and eventually a friendship develops between the two men. But when tensions soon arise, as all is not as it seems.
Callum also encounters a number of other people whose stories all intertwine. These characters include his younger brother, Victor (Highmore), who’s struggling to deal with psychological trauma caused by his combat experience; Harold (Molina), a Foreign Office official who reveals some startling truths about the outbreak of the war; Rachel (Riley), an enchanting Anglophile American engaged to his best friend; and Kathy (Fox), a tough young woman who’s working for the War Crimes Unit, and is fighting to bring war criminals who escaped prosecution to justice. Each character is trying to rebuild and move forward in the aftermath of a war that scarred them all so deeply.
During a recent exclusive phone interview from London, Sturgess generously took the time to talk about playing Callum in the seven-episode period drama mini-series. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was instantly drawn to portray the British intelligence officer as soon as Poliakoff sent him the scripts for the first two episodes, as the character and story were presented in an intricate way. Sturgess also revealed that after he then signed on to play Callum, he felt prepared to step into his first television series role with ‘Close to the Enemy.’ Not only did the series’ writer-director provide him with detailed research, but they also had a month-long rehearsal period before filming began.
Sturgess began the conversation by explaining how he became interested in portraying Callum in ‘Close to the Enemy.’ He shared that he “was sent the first two scripts from Stephen, the director. He also included a letter that said he was interested in me playing the part of this character in his new show.”
The actor added that he “was aware of Stephen’s work. He’s someone who’s well-known and renowned over here in the U.K.” So Sturgess, who had never worked on an episodic television series before he signed on to star in ‘Close to the Enemy,’ was very curious and intrigued to read Poliakoff’s new work.
“After I read the first two scripts, I knew the show was something I was interested in. Stephen’s writing is very rich, dense and intricate. It felt like I was almost reading a novel while I was reading the script. The only way I could immediately find out what happens at the end was to join the production,” Sturgess added with a laugh. “So I was so fascinated by the story and the character.”
The actor admitted that the post-World War II era in which the series’ story is set “is a part of history that I didn’t know much about. Here in England, we learn all about the Second World War in school, but this was a new side of history that I didn’t know very much about.”
After reading the two scripts that Poliakoff sent him, and uncovering some information about England’s post-World War II era, Sturgess agreed to meet with the show’s director in London. We had a long lunch, and talked about the character and the show, and went from there.”
Once production on ‘Close to the Enemy’ began, the performer worked closely with Poliakoff, as both the writer and director, in his pursuit to personify Callum on screen. “Stephen’s amazing, as he’s the master of his own universe. It’s really refreshing that he really knows what he wants, and exactly how to get it. He has created so many brilliant worlds. He has crafted television dramas before, so we developed absolute trust in him,” Sturgess shared while expressing his admiration for the filmmaker.
Everyone felt safe in the environment Poliakoff created on the set, the actor further revealed. “He lived with these characters for a long amount of time, since he first began developing the story. He’s an encyclopedia of information-he knows everything about history, as well as the research he did to tell this particular story,” Sturgess divulged.
Since the actor had never starred on a mini-series like ‘Close to the Enemy’ before, it was a major change for him to bring seven hours of material to life on the screen. “That’s a lot to be taking on, especially for my character, who’s in almost every scene,” the actor noted.
To help Sturgess and the rest of the cast translate the script to the screen, “Stephen insisted on having a month-long rehearsal, which is almost unheard of in films and on television. So that was a real luxury and gift to be given,” the lead actor explained when he began discussing his experience of working with the writer-director and the rest of the cast to bring Callum to life. “So it was nice to be able to spend that time with the other actors, as well as Stephen, and develop our relationships.”
Once the cast and crew were able to then start shooting ‘Close to the Enemy’ after their rehearsal period, “we were all very prepared with what we were doing. So it was a very unique experience for me. It felt like we were putting on a play, because there’s a feeling of theatricality in Stephen’s work and writing,” which Sturgess also described as thrilling.
The actor also admitted with a laugh that he would have panicked if “we didn’t have those four weeks of rehearsal. We actually shot the show very much in the same way as you shoot a feature film; we shot all seven episodes at the same time. So we might have shot a scene from episode 7, and then we’d shoot a scene from episode 2, and then we’d eat lunch. We’d then shoot a scene from episode 5, and then go back to episode 7. So it was a lot to digest,” Sturgess revealed.
Since the episodes weren’t shot in chronological order, the cast had to understand their storylines, and where their characters are in their overall journeys throughout the entire shoot. “So in that sense, I was so grateful that I was able to spend time with all of the other actors and Stephen, and develop a connection with everybody,” the main performer emphasized. Since it’s so rare for the cast and crew to have so much time to rehearse together, “by the time the cameras began rolling, there was a strong bond between all of the actors and everyone else involved on the production. So that was a real blessing.
“It was also amazing to be able to go into a room everyday, and spend proper time with the writer-director, and map out the entire story. We even did almost like a stage play of the show-we would act out scenes, and everyone would sit around and watch,” Sturgess also shared about the bonding process between the cast and crew. He called it “an interesting way of working, and it’s a hugely beneficial process when you’re dealing such an Intricate story.”
Since the entire story was already created once the actors signed on to star in the mini-series, Sturgess described the process of mapping out Callum’s journey as an interesting one. “Normally, you discover new things along the way, and while you’re filming each new take, new things happen,” the actor pointed out. “But that’s not how Stephen works.
“It’s always interesting to work with different directors, and see their different approaches. Some directors don’t want any rehearsal, and they want to feel the moment as it is when you’re filming. That can be an exciting way of working,” Sturgess explained.
“But Stephen’s the complete opposite, and likes to have everything pretty much mapped out before you get in front of the camera. That’s just a different way of working, and is completely as exciting,” the performer divulged. “So the discipline came in as we were trying to get Stephen what he wanted, because he was so sure of what he requires from these characters. So we really wanted to service that vision.”
‘Close to the Enemy’ is also unique in the fact that unlike many other television series, which have a group of writers and directors who rotate throughout the season and each only work on a few episodes, Poliakoff penned and helmed every episode. “I couldn’t imagine anyone one else doing that on this show,” Sturgess admitted.
“Since I finished filming ‘Close to the Enemy,’ I shot an American show in New York called ‘Feed the Beast.’ We had different directors for each episode. But with Stephen’s world, that wouldn’t have been possible,” the actor also divulged.
The period drama “is so his thing that it was absolutely essential that he direct every episode, and was there the whole time” the show was being shot. ‘Close to the Enemy’ “is such a Stephen Poliakoff piece-it’s his vision and writing. So it would have been disjointing if new directors came in.
“Like I said about the rehearsal period, we all built up such a huge relationship before we even started filming that” having Poliakoff direct every episode “was paramount to the experience, especially for me. I really needed Stephen to watch over everything I was doing, since I was in pretty much every scene throughout all seven episodes.” The actor pointed out that since the filmmaker “wrote the character, he knew him better than anybody. So it was a very comforting feeling to know that he was watching me. So if anything felt a bit disconnected, he was there to make sure that I was on point.”
Besides reading all of Poliakoff’s scripts as he prepared to embody Callum, Sturgess also read all of the writer-director’s research. “He asked me if I wanted it, and I said yes. So then a courier quickly arrived at my door with all of this unbelievable information,” the actor shared with a laugh.
The filmmaker “included so much information in his research that there were even details on how Callum would have obtained a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge. There was so much information that I shifted through, including details on MI6 and MI19,” Sturgess shared.
“So I went through all of that, and it was so interesting to see how he created a fictional story from all of this fact. All of the show’s details are rooted in fact. So it was fascinating to see, and get an understanding, of Stephen’s process as a writer,” the performer also noted.
“As far as my own research, I read through information about what men like my character would have been through during the war. I read a lot of books about storming the beaches at Normandy, including soldiers’ accounts of those experiences. That way, I could better understand what Callum had been through,” Sturgess further shared.
‘Close to the Enemy’ also powerfully explores the idea that once the victory of war initially wore off, people in Britain felt they had actually lost the war, and they to deal with poverty and a shift in world power. The actor divulged that he feels it was important to show how during the first few years after the war ended, Britain remained in dire straits, and how the aftermath of the fighting affected all citizens.
“At school here in England, we learned a lot about what happened during the war. But I didn’t really think about what it would feel like, or what happened, after the war ended, and how that affected everyone differently,” Sturgess explained. So he felt it was a vital part of the show to focus on how everyone was affected and changed, depending on what type of experience they had during the war.
“Were people stuck in an office during the war, or were they on the front lines? Were they working in foreign affairs, or did they kill anyone? So there were different types of war experiences that everyone had,” the performer emphasized.
Sturgess also admitted that he didn’t know that “the British were mollycoddling a lot of Nazi Germans for their military and scientific information. A lot of these Germans were pardoned for the atrocities they were involved in during the war, in exchange for their knowledge. They were given free passports and new identities. So it was fascinating for me to learn that information.”
The series also explores the moral question of whether countries should ally themselves with people who until recently were their foes, in order to combat a greater new evil. “That idea that the Germans could so quickly become friends with the English, and they could work shoulder-to-shoulder, is so huge. It’s surprising, and a fascinating concept, that they could so quickly become allies with people they were literally just at war with. The (British) treated (the Germans) to dinner, took them out and bought them new clothes,” the actor explained. “They were really just preparing them for the next war that was looming ahead. Then suddenly, there were new enemies and allies, which was a unique dynamic.”
Written by: Karen Benardello