Keira Knightley and Matt Smith on the challenges of playing real-life characters: Official Secrets (Movie Preview)

Home » Keira Knightley and Matt Smith on the challenges of playing real-life characters: Official Secrets (Movie Preview)

In the volatile political climate of 2003, Britain and the US angle to invade Iraq, GCHQ translator Katharine Gun leaks a classified e-mail that urges spying on members of the UN Security Council to force through the resolution to go to war.  Charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act, and facing imprisonment, Katharine and her lawyers set out to defend her actions.  With her life, liberty and marriage threatened, she must stand up for what she believes in…

Bringing actors to Official Secrets was always going to be a challenge. “When you’re dealing with real-life characters as smart and unique and with the powerful personality of a Ben Emmerson or the genuineness, intelligence, kindness and determination of a reporter like Martin Bright or someone with the spine, courage and integrity of a person like Katharine Gun, you really need to find actors that embody those qualities in themselves,” says Director, Gavin Hood.

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The first actor on board was British two-time Oscar-nominee Keira Knightley, cast as Katharine Gun. “We just thought she would be the perfect person,” offers Doherty. “She’d never played anything like this, and if she would be willing to take a risk on it, it would be a phenomenal role for her.  That was the main reason and she gravitated towards it straight away, which was brilliant.”   

Knightley was 17 when the Iraq war began in 2003 and admits now that Katharine’s story was not one she recalled.  “I didn’t remember Katharine Gun.  I was pretty politically aware but at that point I was in America, and it obviously wasn’t really covered there at all.  So I thought it was really interesting that there was a story that is such a significant part of modern history that wasn’t really known about or remembered.  It was an important story to tell and to put out there.”

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When it came to research, Knightley diligently read the Marcia and Thomas Mitchell book and waded through the hefty Chilcot report.  She also read government e-mails from the time that are now in the public domain “to give me the background I needed to play the scenes; the knowledge I felt she probably would’ve had in some way that made her so absolutely certain that leaking that document was the right thing to do”.  

While Knightley also got to spend time with Gun, speaking to her about events wasn’t easy. “She’s in quite a tricky position because if you question her really on it, she still is bound by the Official Secrets Act.  I’m not a journalist, I’m an actress.  So I didn’t feel it was my place to push her into revealing to me any more than she felt comfortable with and that she had already revealed to go into the script.”

Meeting Knightley was also strange for Gun. “I met her before filming took place because she wanted to meet me,” she recalls. “We went out for a meal with Gavin and I felt relaxed quite soon after she walked into the restaurant because she came up to me and gave me a big hug! She had lots of questions. She was really keen to know absolutely as much as she could about how I felt at the time and what was going through my mind.”

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When it came to casting Martin Bright, Producer, Ged Doherty, suggested The Crown star Matt Smith to Hood, and the director agreed.  By chance Bright knew him already.   Back when he was political editor of the New Statesman, Bright had been an advisor on the TV show Party Animals, which featured Smith. “I’d shown him around Parliament, as I had with the other actors, as part of my job on that TV program,” says Bright. “We were able to have quite an easy connection as a result of that.”

Bright contacted Smith, who was on a beach holiday in Mexico at the time. “It was a strange situation to be in,” says Bright. “I was saying to Matt, ‘This is slightly awkward. Would you like to play me?’” Fortunately, Smith responded swiftly and positively.  “I just thought it was a very present and pertinent and interesting story,” the actor says. “Women speaking up and taking a stand…there are a lot of things that feel very present.”

As Hood recalls, “I love the comment that Martin made about Matt. He said, ‘You know, I think Matt is a better Martin Bright than I am!’” Bright clarifies: “On a very practical level he was just about the same age as I was at the time. He’s got a kind of intensity that is important…that kind of journalism involves a degree of intensity.  There’s a seriousness that’s involved that he was very aware of, so it did strike me that he was someone who could take on that role.”  

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Having played real characters before, Smith was all too aware of what was required. “It’s not like Prince Philip or Robert Mapplethorpe or Charles Manson where you can try and bottle a vague essence of someone.  With this, it was about bottling my version of this journalist in this story.  I tried to tell it as simply as possible. There’s a no-frills nature to him.” Smith even took advice from Bright who texted him some wisdom from the Sunday Times’ Nick Tomlin: “The main attributes of a good journalist are: rat-like cunning, plausible manner and a little literary ability.”

Overall it’s a hugely impressive roll call. “Every one of these characters is critical to the integrity of the story,” says Hood, who notes that “the stakes were pretty high” in terms of delivering an ensemble the financiers would back.

Yet, as Knightley notes, it was Gun’s story that drew in this superb cast. “[We had] people who were coming in to do one scene or a couple of lines who were extraordinary actors, who just felt they wanted to be a part of this thing… I think that gave an energy that was really special.”

In Cinemas Thursday 21 November

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Credit: Classified Films Ltd.