Christian Cooke

Most 23-year-old actors are to be found waiting tables or pulling pints. The lucky ones get to do a little fringe theatre. But it's a rare actor indeed who, at the age of 23, has a successful television career stretching back over a decade, and is the star of a major new TV drama by one of Britain's foremost film-makers.

The actor in question is Christian Cooke, and the drama is The Promise, by Peter Kosminsky; a gripping four-part tale of love, hate, heroism and oppression set in modern day Israel and 1940s Palestine.

Here, Cooke reveals what it was like filming in Israel, why this project means so much to him, and how far he has come since his rather surprising TV debut.

You're only 23, but you've already got a phenomenal amount of TV work under your belt. What are the projects you're most proud of?

I started back when I was 9 or 10, and between then and the age of about 20 it was just about working and doing whatever came my way. It was all about getting the experience and just growing up and learning the trade. I suppose it's only in the last couple of years that I've started choosing my projects more carefully.

Not that I'm not proud of the work that I did before, but it was all really a stepping stone to the stuff I've done in the last couple of years. I'm proud of the film I did last year with Ricky Gervais, Cemetery Junction, and I've just shot a film up in Newcastle called Devil in Me, which is a really nice little independent.

Looking at your CV, you've jumped around from genre to genre, you've done comedy, whimsical drama, serious drama - is that a conscious decision, so as not to get typecast?

Well, like I say, for a long time I was just doing whatever roles came up. But then, after that, I think generally, you just try and go where the good scripts and the good parts are. It wasn't ever a conscious decision to take on something because it was the complete opposite of what I did last time. I guess I'm lucky to have done so many different things, though.

Your first TV appearance was in an advert for Birds Eye Beef Burgers, wasn't it?

That's right, when I was 10. I'd done a little bit of extra work before, but that was my first proper thing.

What did you have to do?

I was on a football pitch. The joke of the first one was saying how good this little lad was at football, and then 'he' actually turned out to be a girl, and my friend next to me says, 'That's not a lad, that's my sister.' And then I say something like, 'This calls for an emergency Birds Eye Beef Burger.'

As you do!

Exactly!

Moving on to The Promise, is it fair to say it's the most heavyweight piece of work you've done?

Without a doubt. It's certainly the most important, in terms of what the film's saying and how important it is that people see the drama. Definitely.

Why did you want to make this series?

Peter Kosminsky is a big draw for any actor - he's one of those directors you want to cross off your list. And his scripts were amazing - he'd spent seven years researching and writing them - I think everyone that worked on it felt that it was among the best scripts they'd ever read and ever been a part of. And the character was great - it's an amazing journey that Len goes on throughout the four episodes. It was just a really great project to be involved with.

How would you describe Len?

He was a young man when he went to fight in the Second World War, and he's been through so much by the time the series starts and he's sent to Palestine. He's got so much integrity and dignity about him, he always wants to do the right thing.

For a young man who's really uneducated and comes from a very poor, deprived background, growing up in an orphanage in Leeds, I think he's got tremendous moral values. Sometimes he gets caught up in decisions that are made over his head, but he always wants to do the right thing. He's a really dignified person.

Did you do any of your own research for the role, or did you just use the script as your reference?

I felt obliged to know the history, to know what Len would have gone through in the war. What Peter wanted me to do was really know Len's war, and know the battles that he would have fought in. So I did a big back story, right from when he was born, the circumstances he grew up in, signing up to the army.

That happens even now, a lot of the kids that grow up in care go into the army - it's another institution where they're looked after. So it was a natural thing for Len - it was either that or down the mine. So I really wanted to get behind why he went into the army, and know where he'd fought and how that shaped him into the person he is when the series kicks off, when we find him in Palestine. And I read a book called Cordon and Search, which was a book that detailed the 6th Airborne's time in Palestine between 1945 and 1948.

Where did the filming take place?

In Israel. We were based in Tel Aviv, and we filmed a lot there, but also in Jerusalem, Haifa, and many other locations.

Had you been there before?

I'd been a couple of times, when I was nine and ten. My dad's wife grew up there, so I went back with them to visit her family, but I didn't really experience it on the level that I did this time. We were out there for three months of filming, and travelled around, so I got to see the whole country and really take it all in.

What were the logistical issues in filming there?

As an actor, you're mollycoddled, and it seems like everything's running quite smoothly even when from a producing point of view it is a logistical nightmare. I think the producers might tell you it was very difficult to orchestrate certain things, and when you're working with a foreign crew, there can always be differences in working practice, and problems of communication and stuff. But from my point of view it was fine.

The production featured both Jewish and Arab actors. What was the atmosphere like on set?

It was great, absolutely fine. There was absolutely no animosity as far as I could see. It was amazing, from my point of view, to get to work with people from so many different cultures. We had German actors and Israeli actors and Palestinian actors. I struck up a wonderful friendship with Ali Suliman, who's one of the best actors I've ever worked with. It was just one great big melting pot.

It deals with some massive themes, but this is also a gripping thriller and a love story, isn't it?

Yeah, I think it's important to remember that aspect of it. It is a fictional story, based around some historical events, and so it's really exciting and moving on a personal level, and not just about the politics and history of the country.

Having said that, you also can't get away from the politics in a story like this. But great care has been taken to show both sides of the story, hasn't it?

I think that's how a writer and director should deal with it, it's important to show people on both sides. It's a very complicated situation, it's all grey, there's no black and white. I think what Peter's done has been totally faithful to what happened; he doesn't tell the audience what to think, he leaves it for them to decide what their thoughts or opinions are.

You and Claire Foy are the two leads in the series, but due to the structure of the story and its timeframe, you presumably barely worked together.

That's right. We had one scene together, which is a fantasy scene, but we didn't work together other than that. It's basically two films - the guys shooting the stuff in the 1940s went out there for nine weeks, and then Claire's story started. So it was like working on two different films. I think that's what's exciting for us, actually, as actors. When we watch it, we're going to have no idea about the other story.

Peter Kosminsky described it as the hardest shoot of his life. Did you find it tough?

Yeah, it was definitely the hardest thing I've ever done, in terms of workload and hours and climate and everything. It ended up being 16-hour days, including travel, and you'd go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 5.30am to go and do it all again.

But that's nothing compared to what Peter went through. He was there every single day for three months, and before that was obviously doing all the prep. He's lived with this for seven years so I think it was tough for Peter and really took its toll.

A lot of it's very emotional and harrowing. How do you deal with that when the camera stops rolling?

You've just got to get on with it - but it is quite hard to switch off. There's a bit in one of the episodes where we're held hostage in this box under the ground for fifteen days. And that was two days of shooting where me and these other two guys were just literally in this box, barely able to move, and it was really emotional.

There is really difficult stuff, when you're crying your eyes out, or when someone's died in front of you and there's blood all over you. It is kind of difficult, it does sport of overlap with your life for a few hours, but what I always find really useful after filming is that long drive home after you've finished. That helps bring you back to reality.

It's all a long way from Birds Eye Beef Burgers, isn't it?

Just a bit!