One of this generation’s most esteemed English theatre directors has recently dipped a toe or two into cinematic waters, with his latest project a Benedict Cumberbatch spy flick, The Courier. Read Keiron Self’s review of it right here, and Carl Marsh’s conversation with Dominic Cooke below.
One element of The Courier that both shocked and impressed me was the transformation of Benedict Cumberbatch and Merab Ninidze’s characters, Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky, when you see them in prison. How long did you stop filming for them both to lose all that weight?
Three months. We finished shooting just before Christmas in 2018, then went into post-production, cut the film up to the last few scenes and got a shape on that. Benedict and Merab both went on these sort of crash diets, under very supervised circumstances. We then picked up at the end of March 2019, I think, and shot the last few scenes very quickly.
I was amazed – and I’ve said it before that I felt unbelievably guilty – when Benedict turned up on set looking skeletal. I just thought, “what have I done?” I mean, he looked like he’d done some harm to himself. But we talked about it very early on, as quite obviously there are lots of issues, but I knew he’d do it and was able to, because he’s that kind of actor – and I knew he really liked the film going into this.
Often, there’s a practical issue, of what you’re playing immediately after that – you can’t go and play Doctor Strange looking like a skeleton! But as things went along, Benedict got really behind it, and he was amazing. I was totally impressed by what he did, and it was necessary – it was important because the real guy went through all of that. You looked at Greville when he returned and he was like a shadow of who he was before.
I don’t think you could have wanted anybody but Benedict to play that role, as we get to see the real Greville Wynne at the end of the movie – and the shared characteristics of actor and subject are uncanny.
No, I agree – and I’m glad you say that, because when I was reading the script, I thought, “oh, we’ve got to ask Benedict”. Casting people to play period, especially that period of the uptight and very reserved kind, while making them feel like a real, vulnerable person with feelings, is not easy. It’s easier for those people who lived in that world – but he didn’t. And Jessie Buckley [Sheila, Greville’s wife], is even more different to the character she plays than Benedict. So it’s an act of fantastic imagination to be able to put yourself into that, convincingly, but he’s unique like that.
And we’ve got to talk about Merab playing the Russian whistleblower – he nailed it. Was he your first choice for the role?
I’d never heard of him before seeing McMafia, which he was in, on TV. There were some wonderful Russian-speaking actors: Merab is actually from Georgia, but he grew up in the Soviet Union, speaks Russian and many other languages. He’s an incredibly bright person. I thought he was incredible in that show. I didn’t have him down as Penkovsky at all, initially, because he doesn’t really look like Penkovsky. But I convinced our producer to let me and the casting director go off to Moscow to meet some actors, because I just thought we couldn’t cast non-Russian-speaking people in these roles in this day and age. People need to have some degree of authenticity.
The producers were reticent about [the] Penkovsky [character]: they wanted a known person, ideally a westerner. But we saw all the actors, who were incredible – we were seeing the creme-de-la-creme of Russian acting. Merab came in and read for the head of the KGB, and when he left, I said, “why don’t you come back tomorrow and read for the other part,” which he did.
When we looked at all of the people on tape together – and there were brilliant people – fortunately, my financiers went, “we can’t let him not do this part!” because he was so good.
I liked how you used real Russians to play Russians – even in a brilliant TV series like Chernobyl, most were British actors talking in English. Did you have any battles keeping it as you did with the casting?
Other than the conversation about the main part, no – the producers were really up for it. In fact, I discovered there were a whole load of Russian actors in the UK, which I didn’t know! What’s interesting is that it’s not just about the way people speak: I’ve been to Russia quite a lot, and it’s a totally different way of looking at the world. It’s a very different culture. We know a little from films and history and fiction, but it’s not a culture we interact with that much personally. It’s not like Ireland; there aren’t that many Russians in London or Britain.
So what I thought was important was not just the way people speak and their accents – it was this completely different relationship to the state, who they are, and life. And Russian people bring that into everything they do. And I think it does add something, yeah.
The Courier is released in cinemas on Fri 13 Aug. Info: here
words CARL MARSH
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