Treason is streaming on Netflix now and although it comes at the very end of 2022, it’s still one of the most taunt, tense series we’ve seen. We speak to showrunner Matt Charman how his time with Steven Spielberg shaped Treason and whether Charlie Cox really is just that nice.
Treason stars Charlie Cox as Adam Lawrence, who in the first episode is made the head of MI6 after Martin Angelis (Ciarán Hinds) is poisoned. Adam is hiding several secrets, all of which are about to be revealed after an old girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko) shows up, asking for favours that jeopardise not only Adam’s job, but his family’s safety.
Streaming now on Netflix, Treason feels like a complete rewriting of the spy genre so we just had to hop on a Zoom call with showrunner Matt Charman to talk all about it.
How did the idea for Treason begin?
I wrote a movie for Steven Spielberg called Bridge of Spies, which opened up a whole world of espionage to me and offered me the opportunity to meet a lot of really interesting people. Out of those meetings, it became really clear to me that there was a fascinating story to be told with a spy who was in charge of his country’s secrets, but also was a father, a husband and a family man, and how those two roles would compete.
What happens if you get someone in a situation where he doesn’t know whether to choose his country or his family? All of these really, truthfully, fairly ordinary spies, people who you might have passed in the street and not think twice about. Not all these guys look like Daniel Craig, maybe there’s a more interesting story to be told with those tensions that someone might have in that role.
Bridge of Spies, what was that experience like? Did you learn anything from working with Spielberg that you brought onto Treason?
You can’t spend time around that guy without picking up incredible things. I was lucky enough to be on set in New York and Berlin, so I’d sit next to him at the monitor and I watched him work with the script and actors and set design. The things that you learn from Steven and from other really great artists, is that the story is everything. If anything gets in the way of the story and your ability to tell the story, you’ve got to get it out of the way.
To me, with Treason, it was like a fidelity to this family to what they’re going through. With spy stuff, you can fill a show like this with equipment and gadgets and the rest of it, believe me that stuff exists like those little bits of kit, they are used in the field by agents, but setting a show up with wizzy bits technology doesn’t really help me tell the story.
Everything I’ve learned from people like Steven is, what’s the story you’re trying to tell? What’s the most important thing to you in any one scene? It was again and again for me in Treason, this family and this impossible situation they found themselves in.
The gadgets in something like James Bond are great, but this is a much more realistic approach. So how did you combine the realism and then also having a little bit of that spectacle?
I approach these things as a member of the audience. I want it to feel grounded and real, but I also want them to feel like they’ve got stuff that I haven’t got. MI6 has the technology that you and I might have in our computers in 10 years time.
It’s about making an imaginative leap, but staying grounded, so you live in a world where you, as an audience, watch it in the light of I can believe they’ve got that and I believe that that is something that helps them to do their job, but they still need an agent in the field. Not everything can be done with smart bombs and keystrokes, you need people who can actually get into a place, get some information. That’s why it has to be grounded.
When the leadership election was unfolding, we had Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, running for prime minister and I had a Foreign Secretary character running for prime minister. It’s weird, but it’s kind of gratifying, because maybe we are in conversation with the world we’re living in.
It’s so timely with the leadership election, but also the Russia and Ukraine conflict. Olga Kurylenko is Ukrainian and then you had an actor from Russia as well, that must have been quite a unique situation to be in.
It was because I’m just always really mindful on a human level what Olga and Danila Kovlovsky were going through and making sure they were okay. But also on a story level, not wanting to exploit or seem to capitalise on their situation. It makes you look much more closely and sensitively on what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, where it comes from.
I hope that what we managed to present the audience with is the complexity of international relations, of secret information, of things being leaked. Russia is obviously a player in that but not an easy target.
Charlie Cox is also brilliant as Adam. How much did you take from real people that you met when you were doing Bridge of Spies and prepping for this?
I suppose a lot from real people, but then you have to synthesise it and make it feel like it can live in one person. So what you do is you absorb it and then you almost forget it and then write from a place of hopeful research and experience but you try and create a whole holistic character.
The great thing about Charlie is he comes to stuff by asking questions, he wants to know. You create whole backstories because he wants to know, where did he go to uni? What did he do afterwards? When did he tell his mum he’s going into MI6? When did he tell Maddy?
This helps him to hold in his head all of the various lines that Adam will cross to get to a place where they’re that number two in MI6 and then obviously stepping up at the start of the show to lead MI6. Charlie’s questions force you to make the character feel as three dimensional as he needs him to be.
Treason is only five episodes, so you don’t have a 22 episode arc to create this believable marriage between Adam and Maddy. So how did you work with Charlie and Oona on that?
Some of that is casting, watching the stuff they’ve done before, knowing that they bring in emotional intensity for what they do. Partly as well, it’s personal, it’s meeting them, talking about the relationship, getting them comfortable with each other and with their relationship story.
Very quickly, with these particular actors, it became clear that they were just a really good fit, the chemistry, the physicality, the way they just behaved around each other felt really right.
There’s a lovely moment where you do all this work where you hope you can facilitate a really great relationship on the screen, but then truthfully, you step back and they run with it and they build something far better than you can cook up because they just are those people.
Charlie’s so inherently decent, you want to root for him, but then you play with our expectations of that by making Adam very shady. Was that intentional?
Definitely. I always embarrass Charlie, because I talk about Tom Hanks, who I’ve worked with, I also talk about Harrison Ford. I think that Charlie has a decency about him that those guys have. When they arrive on screen, you have expectations and then slowly he subverts them.
Charlie’s a fantastic actor, he can do that. He can allow himself to just turn slightly or give a line a certain reading and you’re suddenly like, I thought he was the good guy, what’s going on here? That’s the fun of casting, taking the way the world sees someone and just shifting it and making them doubt what they’re seeing.
Treason is streaming on Netflix now.