Damian Lewis (L) and Guy Pearce star in "A Spy Among Friends." Photo courtesy MGM+
NEW YORK, March 12 (UPI) -- Homeland and Billions alum Damian Lewis says Nick Elliott, the real-life British MI6 agent he plays in A Spy Among Friends, represents all the people with whom Soviet double agent Kim Philby broke faith.
Premiering Sunday on MGM+ with new episodes rolling out weekly, the six-part adaptation of Ben Macintyre's book was inspired by the real-life friendship of Elliott and Philby, which ended after decades in 1963 when Philby was unmasked as a traitor.
The limited series co-stars Anna Maxwell Martin, Stephen Kunken and Adrian Edmondson.
"No one knew who Nick Elliott was. He didn't betray his country for 30 years, but he was Kim Philby's best pal and adored and admired him and I think is shattered by the betrayal when he learns what Philby's been doing," Lewis told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.
"I suppose Nick in this sense is 'everyman.' He represents everyone who was betrayed by him. He's our way into the story and he's our way to see just how earth-shattering that kind of betrayal can be on a personal level."
Lewis said he thinks the limited series works on multiple levels from the entertaining to the thought-provoking.
"Yes, we have a spy thriller here, which we hope is compelling, trying to keep people on the edge of their seats, trying to work out what's going on because that's fun," he added.
"But we also have a simple love story, as well, about a guy who is successfully betraying his 'lover,' best friend and his wives and the intelligence agencies and his country and everyone around him, brilliantly."
Lewis was interested in exploring what it would feel like to be a "cuckold" and figure out how one recovers from it.
"What does that leave you thinking? It must take you years of therapy to get over something like that! Did I enable it? Am I guilty? Am I complicit somehow? What happened?" the actor said.
"It's not dissimilar -- I say this carefully because I don't want to make light of it -- from an abusive relationship. He's been abused and anyone that has been abused emotionally and/or physically is always left with this great shame, this great question mark. Did I make this happen somehow?"
In Elliott's case, he does share the blame, Lewis said.
"He was somehow complicit. Maybe just through negligence or a bit of laziness or maybe it was just blind love," he said.
"Or maybe he didn't want to challenge anything too much because they were having such a [expletive] great time is the truth of it. They were just having the best time. They had the best jobs, were members of the best clubs, drank the best wine."
Memento, Mare of Easttown and Jack Irish alum Guy Pearce still regards Philby as a mystery, even after playing him.
"He's an incredibly intriguing man because what you see isn't what you get. On the surface he is very charming very witty very smart very relaxed extremely capable and brought up in this British ruling class but of course we learn as all of England now knows, as well as the rest of the world i suppose, he was a man who not only spied for the United Kingdom, but also spied for the Soviet Union," Pearce said.
"What kind of complexity enables that is hard for me to get my head around," he added. "I'd be, as everybody would be, so curious to sit down with him myself if he was still alive to try to find that out, but that's never going to happen."
The actors think the drama is relatable in 2023 because intelligence officers continue to gather critical information for their leaders as the west remains at odds with Russia.
"We are at war, by proxy, with Russia and this is a story about a man working for the enemy, successfully, secretly for 30 years," Lewis said.
"Has anything changed? Well, it's not a Cold War anymore, it's a Hot War, but I think, sad to say, what's going on now makes our show all the more relevant."
Working on the series made Pearce realize just how much spying has changed over the years because of technology.
"It is a very different world now. The interesting thing about doing a show like A Spy Among Friends is that you look at the limitations of technology back then and it would function very differently now," he said.
"But, of course, as technology develops, enemies have to develop the ways in which they infiltrate spy organizations and policing organizations have to adjust accordingly. It feels like the nature of that kind of criminality will just keep on going no matter what," he added. "I'm sure it's an extremely complex web to figure out and depending what leaders are in at what time, they handle things differently."
Pearce and Lewis were filming in nearby Bucharest, Romania when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.
"It felt quite present for us, as opposed to Australia, which is usually 12,000 miles from anything like that," Pearce said of his home country. "This was 500 km up the road."