Actor Rafe Spall (Desperate Romantics, Pete Versus Life) plays Jay Wratten, Wratten’s nephew and a key player in the drugs cartel, in Hugo Blick’s seven-part conspiracy thriller The Shadow Line.
Currently airing at 9pm on Thursday nights on BBC Two, the series brings to life a cinematic world of blurred morality and the conflicted characters that inhabit it.
How would you describe Jay Wratten?
“The story starts when a drug smuggler called Harvey Wratten gets released from prison, and he’s killed on the day that he’s released. At the same time as he’s released, his nephew Jay is also released. These people are at the head of this massive drugs network and with Harvey dead they need a new person to take over and run it. Jay comes out and finds a character called Joseph Bede (Christopher Eccleston) running the business, and Jay is biding his time as when to take over.
“Jay’s one of the most fun parts I’ve ever played because he’s extraordinary – he’s been given extraordinary words to say by Hugo, but he’s odd and strange, ultra-violent and unusual and hopefully, in the end, not what you thought he was in the beginning.”
How did you prepare to play someone who is so unhinged?
“I don’t know, when you get really good writing it does most of the work for you to be perfectly honest and Hugo has a vision for every single character that he’s written, so he knew how he wanted him to dress, he knew what he wanted him to look like, and a lot of the characterisation comes from the rhythm and the way that it’s been written. Hugo’s rhythms are familiar to me, so I was able to key into those, so a lot of the performance comes from the words.
“He’s a villain and a murderer and an evil person, but I didn’t want it to be cliché, going into it, Hugo wanted the opposite of any kind of London gangster. We wanted to do something different from that, so with that in mind it was a great challenge to try and construct this character.”
Was it difficult to play a character like that?
“No, it’s not at all. It’s not difficult because it’s acting, you have to remain focused but for me, one of the biggest secrets of acting is relaxation. If you’re relaxed and having a laugh on set, that will translate into your performance, no matter how evil or sad your character is. If you are too intense or too in it, then I think that comes across on screen.
“So, for me particularly I like to stay as relaxed as possible. I find the character comes easily if I’m relaxed and enjoying my day at work rather than being sat in a corner mumbling to myself.”
Did you have any scenes that were your particular favourites to film?
“In Episode 2, Jay goes on a reign of terror where he’s trying to find someone, he’s trying to get information out of several people, all of those scenes were really amazing to shoot because Jay intimidates people in unusual ways. I drown a cat, I beat someone half to death and I use all kinds of emotional torture in order to extract information; so as an acting challenge that was fantastic to do.”
It’s an incredible cast – have you worked with any of the other actors before?
“I wasn’t surprised when I found out who was in it because I knew that the quality of it was extraordinary. I was incredibly excited to find out that Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Stephen Rea and Antony Sher were all involved, I’ve grown up with these people, I’m fans of them all individually.
“I’ve done a bit, but I’m still relatively young so I learn from these people when I’m on set with them and watching them, and it’s an honour to be in the ring with this lot!”
Is there anything in particular from them that you learnt?
“I didn’t go to drama school, so my whole education of being an actor comes from other actors, so it’s amazing to see how different people go about it. They’re all nice people, and they’re all nice to everyone and I think that goes a long way; and not being introverted and selfish in their characterisation and keeping themselves to themselves – as TV-making and film-making is a communal thing and everyone’s got their part to play.”
Do you think it is clear cut with Jay as to which side of the line he’s on?
“He’s all out bad! But, I don’t want to give too much away, but you discover things about him that are interesting. He is bad, he is violent and he is strange but he ends up in a place that is going to be surprising to the audience.”
A lot of the cast describe Hugo Blick as a “genius”…
“Well, it’s a phrase that’s bounded around a lot nowadays, Simon Cowell says it every week on The X Factor: “Oh, that was a genius performance” so maybe the word is used too much. But if there was ever anyone I’ve worked with where that phrase is applicable, it’s Hugo – because he is rare and aside from all that, just a brilliant director.
“In terms of being a brilliant director he is incredibly specific about everything he wants and, beat-by-beat specific and he will direct a scene like one would conduct an orchestra. But, within this quite precise production, you are able to create and be free and to run with it, so it’s a perfect combination of specificity and creation that all comes from him.
“He enables you to do these two things, to create within the confines of his specifics, because he knows the story so well having come from his head. That again is rare and strange – only Poliakoff and people like that write and direct their own things for television.
“To work with someone who understands how to talk to actors and understands how to get the best out of them: he’s encouraging and complimentary, and will tell you if you’re not doing it right, but at all times you feel comfortable and creative with him. He creates a lovely environment to work in. On set it was a laugh, he’s funny and you feel relaxed and even though there’s not a lot of comedy in The Shadow Line it was a very fun set to work on, which is so important.”
Had you seen any of his other work?
“Yeah, I’d seen Marion And Geoff and Sensitive Skin, and I’d always thought he was brilliant.”
How did The Shadow Line differ from the American films you’ve recently made?
“It was the same really, at the end of the day, no matter how much money and no matter how big the budget is, the nuts and bolts of it are you with another actor and a camera. Whether that’s a short film made for £100 or a fifty million dollar film, you’re still in front of a camera with another person speaking to you, so the acting of it is the same – so what it comes down to is the director, and Hugo was brilliant.”