What’s the story of “The Undeclared War”?
SP: “The Undeclared War” is about a young student called Saara Parvin who takes a work experience placement at GCHQ at a time when there’s immense upheaval in her own life – and a terrifying geopolitical crisis evolves while she’s there which she becomes embroiled in. It’s a juxtaposition of huge global events and extremely personal stuff for Saara.
Could you briefly introduce us to Danny and tell us about his story?
SP: Danny Patrick is the Chief of Operations at GHCQ, so he’s the point of contact between a huge number of intelligence professionals and hackers, and David Neil, who is the head of the operation. Danny is a really dedicated and benevolent father figure to everyone at GCHQ, he’s very diplomatic and cares a lot about his staff and his job, he’s fair and he’s liked but he feels the weight of responsibility heavily on his shoulders, all the time.
What attracted you to the role of Danny?
SP: Firstly, the opportunity to work with Peter Kosminsky, who’s track record speaks for itself. I was flattered to get offered the role as well as I’m often associated more with comedic stuff, to be offered such a meaty, dramatic role was a gift. I read the script and loved it, I was gripped by it and I’m bad at reading scripts – especially reading feature scripts – but this was six hours and I read it in a day and felt utterly honoured to be offered the role. Danny as a character was really attractive – I liked him as a person, so it was a no brainer really.
What has been the most challenge aspect of playing Danny?
SP: Obviously he’s an expert in his field, he’s worked at GCHQ for a long time and worked his way up and he’s very knowledgeable – so conveying that degree of authority and knowledge of the way things work at GCHQ, I wanted to make sure that came across. That’s been quite challenging, but in a really good way, I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s part of what acting is but also sometimes the heat on set can be a challenge – in a room full of computers and screens it can get a little bit sweaty!
What have you learnt about through working on this project?
SP: I’ve learnt a lot actually. As a kid, I grew up in the shadows of GCHQ. Two of my uncles worked there and I never knew what they did because they weren’t allowed to tell me. My brother did all the electrics for the new building but as should be the case, I wasn’t entirely aware of what goes on there or what the job entails but I learnt a lot about the fairly nascent cyber society that exists there now.
It’s only been about 20 years that the threat of cyber warfare has loomed and learning all about that – about the state of play, how we respond to it, about how we’re ready for it – has been a real education. I think it’s something that people really should know about, it’s a very real domain of conflict now and I think starting to understand it, it felt like “wow, I should know this, I should know what’s going on really”. I should be aware when I go on social media that a lot of the people I’m talking to aren’t real, and that there’s a lot of propaganda out there, a lot of fostering of echo chambers to prevent genuine dissent in society. It’s been an education.
Are there any themes in “The Undeclared War” that particularly resonate for you?
SP: I just loved the kind of microcosm and macrocosm of the show, in that there’s this young girl who is enduring this incredible personal upheaval in her life, in her relationships, with her family, with her lover, with new friends, authority. Meanwhile, the country is also undergoing an awakening in a way and realising how it is being played and manipulated by another power.
The contrast between those two dynamics just works and they really play well off each other. Saara’s involvement in the latter, the fact that she discovers minutiae within this plot against the UK and becomes pivotal in almost saving the country (we hope at least) works beautifully. She has two different fields of experience that play out really nicely in Codeworld, which is a kind of figurative language that we see in the show which is inside Saara’s head as she’s in the virtual world. It’s just beautifully constructed.
How has it been working with Peter Kosminsky?
SP: I love the fact that Peter is such a good writer of dialogue and some of the scenes are often quite long, and they do feel like mini plays. Often when there’s a developing shot you start with one character and move to the next, and as an actor you know your speech is coming up and the stakes are really high – but I really love it, and I love saying his words.
As a director, he is one of, if not the most, helpful actor’s director I’ve ever worked with. He’s incredibly sensitive to your process, but he knows exactly what he wants. He’ll come to you and say ‘I think perhaps you’re thinking this and this’ and it’s so helpful to be guided like that. That’s what a director should do and he’s just brilliant. He never gives you a line reading, he never tells you how to do it, but he’ll give you his ideas about what is going on inside the character’s head and 100% of the time you’ll agree with that. It’s the best you can hope for as an actor and he’s just very, very sensitive and I can’t tell you how helpful that is in terms of maintaining a sense of good morale on set. You know the crew love him, the actors love him, and he leads from the head down and his enthusiasm, his passion for the work infuses the entire production.
Before we started, he gave me a backstory for Danny, which was really detailed in terms of his childhood, how he grew up in foster care, the fact that he’s married and has two sons, and he’s a rugby fan and his kids play rugby, he really wants to be a present father and husband, but he also has the weight of national security on his shoulders, so he finds that stressful. You can’t hope for more going in, you know yourself and you know what you’re doing. The worst thing about being an actor is when you feel at sea and you’re not sure what you are supposed to be playing – but there’s no danger of that working with Peter. I’d work with him on everything forever if I could.
What do you love about “The Undeclared War” as a piece?
SP: “The Undeclared War”, for me, is something which I love just looking in on, and the way it completely absorbed me as a reader and will absorb the audience as viewers – it pulls you into a very human story and a much, much bigger national story at the same time.
It’s utterly, utterly gripping in terms of the intrigue and the threat. I found myself sweating while reading it, and the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up because of this incredibly feasible, probable situations that the characters find themselves in. It’s not far from reality, in fact it feels to me like reality, even though it’s set in 2024, this is something that could – and maybe will happen even.
That alone reminded me of a show from the 1980s called ‘Threads’ which was all about a nuclear war and growing up in the shadow of the Cold War, I remember it terrified me and I feel like this is ‘Threads’ for the 21st century because it deals with a similarly awesome threat in a way that’s incredibly convincing, but at the same time exciting.
What words come to mind when you think of “The Undeclared War”?
SP: I would say gripping, absorbing and fascinating. There are things that came up when I read this, for instance the Twitter bots – the place where Vadim (played by German Segal) works (Glavset), where it’s just Russian people pretending to be British people – the fact that that exists, and I didn’t know. Absorbing, gripping, and fascinating.