Spooks - Max Brown interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
MAX Brown talks to us exclusively about his role of Dimitri Levendis in BBC hit series Spooks and how changing his identity several times during the audition process accidentally seemed to help.
He also talks about getting into shape for the role, playing Edward Seymour in The Tudors and why he is happy with the way his career seems to be shaping up at the moment.
Q. How did you become involved with Spooks? Were you approached or did you audition?
Max Brown: I auditioned last year for a different role. I was actually coming back from Ireland from another role and ended up having to sprint across Soho because I was late. So, I got into the casting director’s office out of breath and sporting a beard, trying to look the part of a spy unconvincingly [Laughs]! But I must have done something right because they got me back a week later, when I was clean shaven and had time to compose my thoughts.
So, I read again and thought I’d done pretty good but didn’t hear anything for a while. I was then up in Newcastle making a film called Flutter, when I got a call to ask would I still be interested and, if so, could I go to London in a car that day and meet them for a new character. On that occasion, I’d shaved my head for the role in Newcastle [laughs], so they had seen me play about five different people within the space of three months, so saw I could easily fit into the role of a spy.
Q. What did you like about the character of Dimitri?
Max Brown: Dimitri Levendis marked the first time I’d played an alpha male character. I mean, this is a man who has had SBS training. I’d never even heard of the SBS [Special Boat Section of the British Royal Marines]… I’d heard of the SAS and the Navy, but had no idea what they were. So, I had to go and look them up by Google-ing them and reading books. They’re kind of a black ops unit and if you ask anyone for a description of what they do, any guy will tell you they’re the hardest, toughest guys in the world. So, to try and play a character like that for Spooks, especially jumping from playing a gentry politician [Edward Seymour] in The Tudors, was a real challenge for me. I found it really interesting to get into the mind of a character like that and to try and decide on what his morals might be.
Q. Were you able to speak to any real-life SBS men? Or ex-SBS officers?
Max Brown: I spoke to a guy who is part of the SAS at a wedding because my girlfriend’s knows a couple of SAS guys. But that was last year before I knew I was doing Spooks, because I was just interested in what they do. But then I spoke to her cousins a lot more before I was doing Spooks about their regime and what they were used to. They told me it was about getting used to timings, but everything was reactive because of the nature of the training. So, I tried to get that for the character [of Dimitri]. I wanted to make sure that he always knew what to do once the command had been set.
Q. Were you nervous about going into Spooks on your first day? I would imagine it’s such a well oiled machine and a bit like walking into a family?
Max Brown: You do go on set on your first day a bit nervous and thinking: “How did I land this gig?” So, yeah, you do all of that. I remember I walked onto the bridge on the first day and met Michael Caton Jones, who directed the second and third episodes. There had been some complications about getting me on the ship, which meant we did episodes 2 and 3 first. So, I met him, then Peter [Firth] and the rest of the cast, who are all very well established. It was intimidating, but they really were the most welcoming bunch as a crew. It is a small cast, and it kind of becomes like a second family for six months. I fell into that great camaraderie they want very quickly, so it quickly felt a great team to be a part of.
Q. And how was working with Richard Armitage? Did you ask advice on tackling roles such as this, because he’s a Spooks veteran and just come off Strike Back…
Max Brown: Oh yeah, he’s all action and he definitely taught me a lot about using the moments and keeping my intensity up. He offered me a lot of advice on the things he has learned from doing shows like this and his previous roles, but he’s so professional. His head is always in the game and he always knows what’s going on. When you have someone like that with you it instils confidence, so we had a great time working together… but saying that, the whole crew of Spooks were fantastic in that respect. Everyone works so hard on the show and the quality of each episode is very high.
Q. What about the rumours surrounding its future? Will this be the last season, as some have suggested?
Max Brown: You hear those rumours every year… but I think it happens with every long-running show. There’s always a few skeletons in the cupboard, but I don’t think for a show of its quality, and which is still so popular… I can’t see why the BBC would want to scrap it, only to have to find a show of a similar nature to fill the void it would leave. I think there will always be rumours, even on a hugely successful show, but I’m personally very excited about the prospect of doing a tenth season. And I’m hoping an announcement will be made very soon.
Q. What is the enduring appeal of Spooks in your opinion?
Max Brown: I think part of the enduring appeal is that it doesn’t have a set format. It’s unpredictable as a show and always very well written. Sometimes it has some tongue-in-cheek jokes, but it’s also up-to-date on current affairs, and it almost feels like you’re watching a drama. It can be slightly far-fetched but it’s always so well put together and fast paced enough to keep you guessing with each series.
Q. So, how was your experience of playing Edward Seymour on The Tudors?
Max Brown: I loved that again. I mean, it was a group of mid-30-year-old to mid-20-year-old actors working in Dublin. So, the social element was fantastic. But Michael Hirst, who created the show and wrote many of the scripts, also wrote Elizabeth, so the language and the characters that he wrote were brilliant to get under the skin of. I always try to look for more interesting characters and I enjoyed researching Edward. I definitely pushed to explore who Edward was and why he did the things he did. I became quite focused on the real history surrounding the character, as opposed to what The Tudors made him.
He was kind of the baddy in the piece in The Tudors, but in real life he was a forward thinking politicians… he realised power didn’t always lie with the king and the gentry and played with that. So, I tried to play an element of that in Season 3 and read between the lines a little more. But it’s great playing a real life character like that because you can bring such a wealth of knowledge to the role. You can discuss certain points about them, which may help to inform the role a little more or explain certain decisions. It gives you a lot more back story to play with.
Q. Does playing a historical figure bring with it a sense of responsibility and added pressure, because you’re more likely to be criticised for getting something wrong?
Max Brown: Yeah, in a way it does but you have to not put too much pressure on yourself and remember that you are making a drama and it’s about entertainment… it’s not about sticking to the facts as closely as possible. In fact, I think one of the reasons it was never as popular in England as it was around the rest of the world is that it had to be freer with the history in order to make it entertaining. King Henry’s reign was short but very intense… so much happened and there was so much drama to it. So, to fit all of that into a script with enough interesting characters was always going to be difficult. Certain characters had to be combined and things were condensed and certain historians were a bit angered by that.
But it wouldn’t have been entertaining otherwise and I totally trusted the show’s creators to do what they thought was right. It didn’t mean you couldn’t have a conversation, and if there was something I wanted to keep from history, I would talk about that with them. But The Tudors was always a lot of fun to be a part of… what with being able to ride horses, wear the costumes, enjoy the sets and being in Ireland. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard work, but it was always worth it in the long run.
Q. I have to ask… what was wearing a codpiece like?
Max Brown: [Laughs] We didn’t! We took the decision not to have those because it could have been a bit distracting, especially when they went to war in Season 4. If you’ve seen Henry’s codpiece in the Tower of London, it was ridiculous! But then it was way of showing off back then. I don’t think he would have been able to get on his horse, though!
Q. You mentioned the film Flutter… isn’t that coming out next year?
Max Brown: Yes, I think it’s coming out at the start of next year and that was another really interesting experience. I read for it and then came to LA to meet the producers, but it gave me the chance to work with a young actor called Luke Evans. He’s doing really well at the moment… he just did Tamara Drewe. But we’ve been friends for 10 years. So, it was great knowing that he was on board, and I met the producers for the other role of Wagner. I had never done a comedic role on film and the character was not meant to be a handsome guy, so we played around with his looks. I ended up with a long wig and had to look like this really downbeat character… a street boy. But it was really fun getting under the skin of him. He ended up being dressed like Frank Gallagher out of Shameless! But the film is really good. It’s about gambling and the various aspects of that… how much you’re willing to risk and to lose and what’s important in life to a young man who has nothing.
Q. How hard is it to get a film like that made in the current economic climate?
Max Brown: I don’t know if that one was particularly difficult. I noticed on the last few movies I’ve made that there were at least six or seven producers, so they’re pulling in money from more sources now. This had American money in it, so we had funding, and we shot it in Newcastle where the tax incentives are good. There is a lot of TV and film work going on up there at the moment. But quite often there’s an element of luck needed for a movie to get off the ground.
Scripts can be knocking about for years… this was around for five or six years I think and it went through a lot of re-writers. It was always close to being made… we were just lucky that we were ready to go at the start of this year. But I try not to pay too much attention to all that. It’s very frustrating when you’re up for a role and the money suddenly falls out. But it is a business at the end of the day and it relies on a lot of money to make a movie. It can and does go wrong sometimes.
Q. I gather that as a general rule you’re attracted to darker roles because you enjoy going to the extremes of people’s emotions?
Max Brown: I think so, yeah. For me, it has to be something I can get hold of. That, for me, is key to what I’m trying to do. Even with something like Mistresses, the character I played in that was quite an innocent guy, but I wanted to play a dark element to him when he found out that Sarah Parish’s character was sleeping with his father… I wanted a dark shadow to overtake him. In fact, I remember being taken aside by one of the producers and being told to lighten up a little bit because I was getting a bit psychotic [laughs]. But for me, at least I went that far and you get feedback if it doesn’t work. It’s part of the fun of the job… that you can play around a bit. It helps if you’re working with the right directors, too, as they encourage you to be bold and to try new things where appropriate.
Q. How much of a boost to your career was getting the chance to appear in a movie like Paradise Lost (or Turistas as it was known in the States)? Did you learn a lot from that experience?
Max Brown: I actually came out to LA on the advice of the director and immediately felt like a little fish in a very big pond. But it made me more focused on what I wanted and made me realise that I would have to work a lot harder than I thought to get where I wanted. It did give me a certain rep around town, but you really have to be the breakout star of a movie like that to be able to launch a career off the back of it.
Sometimes, you’re lucky and the movie can be a little gem, or you get to play the character a certain way that connects with people. I did get a certain amount of heat off the back of it. But this business thrives on your level of popularity and how marketable you are and so you have to learn how to maximise your potential from the opportunities you get given, or make for yourself. It’s a difficult combination again, and there’s no right or wrong way of making it. You just have to find some method to the madness that keeps you sane [laughs] and hope for the best… hope that you get noticed.
Q. I bet when you look back on your career now that roles in Grange Hill and Hollyoaks seem like a long time ago though…
Max Brown: I haven’t seen myself in those for many, many years. But I learned my technique on TV unfortunately, which is a bit like hanging out your dirty laundry – everyone has already seen what you’ve done! But I think I’ve developed a lot as an actor over the years and consistently been improving and playing more and more interesting characters. It’s been a great journey and I’m really happy with the way things are working out at the moment.
Spooks is on BBC1 on Monday nights from 9pm. The fourth and final series of The Tudors will be screened later this year.