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Meet ‘Undercover’ Star Adrian Lester

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In BBC America’s new political thriller Undercover, Adrian Lester (London Spy, Merlin, Being Human, The Day After Tomorrow) plays Nick Johnson, a dedicated husband and father with a secret past life as an undercover officer. Here he reveals how he prepared for such a dark and complicated role, the performances that have inspired him, and the crazy day he was appointed OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) — and looked like a regular at Buckingham Palace.

Undercover straddles several genres, with elements of legal, crime, and family drama. How would you describe it to a viewer?

Lester: I think most genres are really an amalgam of things, and are created when someone is brave enough to do something different. Undercover is thought provoking and intelligent, and it comments on society in ways that are brave and passionate. It encompasses the writers’ instinctive response to what’s going on in the world.

The best work I’ve seen on television, be it comedy, drama, etc., is always focused on something that we haven’t quite gotten right yet. Something that is happening in society that we need to look at in order to make ourselves better. This is one of those kind of shows. It’s my favorite type of show to watch, and I’m just blessed that I had a chance to be a part of it.

Tell us about your Undercover character’s complicated marriage.

Lester: Nick Johnson’s marriage is a good one. It’s nice and it’s loving — he’s been with Maya (Sophie Okonedo) for 20 years and they have three children. The only problem is that his wife doesn’t know his real name, or know why they met or how they met, or the fact that he works undercover. Apart from that, though, it’s great! It’s a great example of a happy marriage on television — it’s just that he’s been living a lie for two decades.

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What kind of energy does it take to play such a dark and serious role?

Lester: The assumption is that I’m going to spend my time onscreen being undercover, and being manipulative and dark. But it was actually much more interesting for me to play my character as a husband and father first — someone who was devoted to his wife and kids, and was then approached and forced to do something that he found reprehensible. Undercover works because you sympathize with my character, and to do that, you must see him as a father and husband who is trying to make things better. If you see him as a spy who is trying to be a husband and father, then that’s the wrong way around, and you get a kind of Machiavellian touch behind him. My approach to the character was to simply concentrate on all the reasons why he left the force and his job as a spy, and to keep the focus on his love for his family even as he does some of the most questionable stuff in the series.

Undercover deals with some very heavy subject matter. What was the atmosphere like on set?

Lester: Depends on what we were shooting. The scenes with my character’s family were fun, and we improvised a little bit and had our own rhythm. The scenes between myself and Sophie Okonedo have no music, and we did them like little scenes in a play. We’d look at the dialogue on the day that we had to shoot, and sometimes see that it was five pages and that they’d set aside six or seven hours to film. But then once we rehearsed and put the cameras in position, we’d do it in a hour! It was just like a play, and she and I were both trained that way. It was a little bit of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, in the middle of an BBC America show. Sophie is brilliant to work with — we pushed each other and bounced off each other, and I think we managed to get that on camera.

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What performances inspired you as you prepared for Undercover?

Lester: Glenn Close in Damages, Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, Denzel Washington in Man on Fire and Flight, and Robin Williams in Awakenings, among many others. They’re all performances where you understand the importance of what’s happening because you’ve been given clues by the actors, and not because you’ve explicitly been told. Performances like this also make the best talking points, because if its obvious, you don’t have to turn to the person next to you and say, “Wow, did you notice when such and such happened?” When you’re only given clues, you have that feeling that maybe you’ve understood something that nobody else has. Keeping that balance is wonderful.

You were appointed OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) in 2013. Tell us about that day. 

Lester: That day was crazy. I had been to the palace about six weeks before doing a Shakespeare and opera thing, and my wife and I had got stuck in the corridors because I had to get changed and was busy speaking to people. So, we got to know a couple of the guards and chatted with them.

Then, this is the best bit. I turned up for my OBE day with my mom with me, and as I handed over my ID, I mentioned that my name is different on my ID and my passport. The guard just goes, “Oh yeah, we know about you Adrian,” and just waved me on through! Then as I walked up the front steps, the guard at the top was like, “Adrian! How are you! You’re going to move in soon, huh?” I said “Oh yeah, how’s the East Wing?” My mom was like, “Oh my god!” I felt like a regular. I even knew where the bathrooms were. So that was kind of the best day ever. I wish I played it cooler, though…

It was so nice to receive the OBE, and a great honor to have my services recognized in that way. The icing on the cake, though, was having the people at the palace react in that way!

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