As more film actors pivoted to TV, Gary Oldman watched in envy, waiting for his opportunity to leap to the small screen. That chance came with “Slow Horses,” an adaptation of Mick Herron’s 2010 spy novel, which has been in development with Apple TV+ for a while. Oldman signed on to play grizzled MI5 agent Jackson Lamb several years ago, before director James Hawes or any of the other cast members came on board.
“I love long-form and TV,” Oldman says, citing recent viewing binges of everything from “The Dropout” to “Outlander” to “Severance.” “I’m a huge fan. And I always thought, ‘Wouldn't it be nice to find something to have the opportunity to play a character, to repeat a character and develop a character over a long period of time?’ Because you get to live with people for a relatively short period of time [in film]. But to have a theater-like company where you keep returning and you come back almost like a family — I was very envious of that when I would watch long-form TV. So it was a fantasy. And I thought, ‘And if I do it, I'd like something that's a little unusual and a little unique.’”
Herron’s novel, adapted for the screen by writer Will Smith, offered that sensibility. The story follows a group of agents working out of Slough House, a purgatory of sorts for agents who have fallen out of favor and come together to track down a potential terrorist plot. These agents, working under Lamb’s watchful and disgruntled eye, include River Cartwright, played by Jack Lowden, who joined the series in part to work with Oldman.
“The first thing was that Gary was doing it, which makes everybody just fly towards it, naturally,” Lowden says. “But the scripts and the premise are just too good to be true — I was waiting for something like this. Everybody has an obsession with espionage, but [this has] a more in-the-thick-of-it take on it and a bit more dark humor.”
To prepare for the series, which will continue its first season with six additional episodes later this year, the actors met with a former MI6 agent, who acted as a technical advisor on the series. Oldman also drew from his experience in 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a Cold War-era spy thriller based on John Le Carré’s 1974 novel. During that production, Oldman had “unlimited” access to Le Carré, whom he called up regularly to ask questions.
“I always remember I said, ‘So it's not James Bond, what's it like?’” Oldman says. “And he said that there are long periods of boredom with nothing happening… But he said the most terrifying [and] worst thing about being a spy was the paranoia, that one day you would hear the footsteps on the stairs that your cover was blown. You don't sleep very well. I would imagine that is true, but I could see how attractive and how addicting that would be.”
“And it's not for queen and country,” Lowden adds of why many, like his character, join the intelligence service. “It's not for saving the world. It's narcissism.”
The gruff dynamic between Jackson and River is one of the most compelling aspects of “Slow Horses,” a series that toes the line between high-octane drama and cheeky comedy. Lamb, whom Lowden describes as “operating at peak a—hole,” is constantly egging River, whose arrogance often gets him into trouble. Both actors loved the shifting tone and constant surprise of the writing, which is drawn largely from the original novel.
“The great joy of being in a scene with Jackson Lamb is that those moments only work if you run at it like you run at the wall,” Lowden says laughing. “You're gonna run into a f— wall and get your head caved in, but you've got to run as hard as you can. Because then it's funny. It’s very difficult to play, because you know all these punchlines are coming and you’ve just got to not laugh. It’s such a cathartic experience. It's like people getting battered in the massage room by those little branches. You feel better for having been thrown about a bit emotionally.”
For Oldman, revisiting the spy genre was also a way to come to terms with a “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” sequel not coming to fruition, as originally planned. Ultimately, though, the actor, who says working on “Slow Horses” exceeded any expectations he had for TV, journeyed over to television simply to find out what it’s like.
“The older I've become, the less concerned I am with the final product,” the actor says. “And the more value I put into the actual experience of doing. I think the final result is terrific. And the experience of doing it? It's been really, really something very special.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.