‘A Spy Among Friends’ is a spy tale wrapped in perplexing characters

A Spy Among Friends Cary Pearce

Based on the New York Times best-selling book of the same name written by Ben Macintyre, this story is one that stuck to writer/creator Alexander Cary. ‘A Spy Among Friends’ stars Guy Pearce as Kim Philby—a charismatic yet enigma of a man, and his rise and fall of a friendship with Nicholas Elliott, played by Damian Lewis. The fallout that happens when one realizes someone is not who he seems spans a thriller-esque spy tale.

To dive deeper into this limited series, the creative process behind adapting it and the Rubik’s Cube of a character that is Kim Philby, Alexander Cary and Guy Pearce sat down to chat with Metro.

A Spy Among Friends

Alexander, what drew you to this story?

Cary: It was the book. When we were doing ‘Homeland’, the book was something that we talked about a lot in the writers’ room and what it must have been like in that room in Beirut. I was enamored—and then somebody did approach me to do it, and I had already read it…So, of course I said I would love to do it, not knowing how to adapt it.

So then I went away and figured out how to do it—but it was hard, it’s not an easy adaptation to do because I didn’t want to regurgitate the book. I wanted to add and expand on the book a bit. And I also wanted Ben’s approval—

Pearce: —Did you get that approval?

Cary: Yeah, I did. He was thrilled, and he’s been a brilliant advocate of this adaptation all the way through.

Guy, same question for you—what attracted you to this project?

Pearce: This was one of those ones where just everything attracted me, no question. An obvious one for me in the very beginning was that Nick (Murphy) was directing it. I’d worked with Nick before and I was most impressed with him when we did ‘A Christmas Carol’, I think in 2019. I really just found him utterly inspiring. And so when he came to me with this, I immediately wanted to work with him again, so that was the kickoff

Then of course I read it, and just found Alex’s work on the page to be so compelling and beautiful and tender and fascinating and tragic and just—epic. It’s sort of boiling down to the connection between these two men and this sort of fracture between them. There was a lot about it that I just went: This is a big. And of course to play Philby, such an interesting character, was a dream come true. Occasionally stuff comes along that sits up here that is just mind blowing and really inspiring, exciting and brilliantly realized. I just knew it was a good one.

Let’s talk more about the adaptive process since you mentioned it, Alexander. How were you able to “figure it out?”

Cary: I think I had to find an opinion about Philby and about Elliott and the world that they inhabited. What I knew immediately was that I wanted to have another perspective through which we could examine the story, this relationship, and this friendship. It was really the rival, Lily Thomas, played so beautifully by Anna Maxwell Martin… As soon as I found that lens through which to tell that half of the story, it allowed me to set up the context and the structure through which we could really examine Philby—a man circling the drain of his own creation, and a very complicated one of that. Psychologically, emotionally, just devastating.

I wanted to have an opinion about Philby, and I wanted to be honest and I wanted to sort of understand his ideology. I also wanted to understand the personal cost for him when he had to go to Russia and the end of his career as a spy. Those are all complicated things to do. I understand that he’s a villain… But I just wanted to understand him a bit so I could get closer.

A Spy Among Friends

Guy, how would you describe Philby? And how were you able to portray a character that has so much to hide?

Pearce: On the surface, he’s a very charming, warm, affable and a witty guy who clearly was good looking—and he sort of took advantage of that charm. I suppose, on a very simple level, that’s probably a tool that he realized he had in his toolbox, and he ended up utilizing it on many fronts. [He’s] clearly, very bright as well. His ability to lie…the obvious example is that press conference, where he comes out and says, yeah, no, of course I’m not the third man. He is so sort of just… easy with it.

There’s also a sort of a slightly weird awkwardness to him as well. So all those little combinations of personality, those little traits and sort of bits of psychology that we’ll observe that make him—almost—like you want to care for him a little bit…you want to be charmed by him. And at the same time, we know that underneath he can be ruthless and cold and calculated and manipulative, et cetera. So really wonderful things at the opposite ends of the spectrum to find and to play.

But I did rely very heavily on Nick, our director, and of course Alex as well as Damian [Lewis]. With Nick, it was to make sure that the balance of that stuff was right—do we want to see the more vulnerable Philby here or do we need to see the more sharp switched on version here? It’s such a dense program and it jumps all over the place time-wise so it’s really important to get that stuff right.

A Spy Among Friends‘ will premiere on MGM+ on Sunday, March 12 at 10 p.m. ET.