Jack Lowden can barely contain his rage. In person, he’s actually a pleasant, thoughtful conversationalist. But barely suppressed (and sometimes unsuppressed) anger provides the keynote for his performance in Slow Horses, an excellent Apple TV+ series that recently concluded its six-episode first season. (A second season is already in the works.) Adapted from a 2010 novel by Mick Herron, Slow Horses is set on the far fringes of the British intelligence world, specifically Slough House, a kind of home for disgraced and misfit MI5 overseen by Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman), a slovenly but sharp intelligence veteran. Lowden plays River Cartwright, an up-and-coming agent whose family history entwines with MI5. But a misstep in the midst of an intense training exercise prompts MI5’s second in command Diana Taverner (Kristin Scott Thomas) to exile him to a stint performing grunt-level work under Lamb’s command.
A darkly comic series that doesn’t skimp on thrills and twists, it’s a fine entry in the 31-year-old Lowden’s impressive and expanding resumé. An actor from his youth, Lowden graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 2010 and has spent the years since alternating between television (including a well-received adaptation of War and Peace and a memorable role in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe), theater (where he starred in an adaptation of Chariots of Fire and opposite Hayley Atwell in a gender-reversed production of Measure for Measure), and film, where his credits include Dunkirk and a turn as the young Morrissey in England is Mine. He’ll next be seen in a starring role as World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction, the upcoming film from Terrence Davies, the highly esteemed director of The Long Day Closes, The Deep Blue Sea, and A Quiet Passion. Behind the scenes, he runs Arcade Pictures, the production company he founded with Saorise Ronan, his off-screen partner of several years.
From London, Lowden spoke to GQ about playing a disgraced spy, why no one wants him to use his Scottish accent, and what it means for a one time resident of Edinburgh’s Leith neighborhood to hear Oldman sing along to Leith’s most famous musical export.
As Slow Horses begins, River is a competent person who’s been thrown in with a bunch of people perceived to be incompetent. Is anger what drives him in those early episodes?
I think anger is playing a large part in everything he does. To have fallen from grace as much as he’s done and to end up in a room with people that he definitely thinks he’s better than… Definite, definite anger.
Does that shift over the course of the series?
I think it does. When the thing happens with Sid, the fact that she’s a casualty of the whole thing that they’ve been wrapped up in becomes the next catalyst for him. I think it probably switches to sort of, not avenging her, but acting on the anger that he feels for the people that have caused that. But still always, there’s this undercurrent of trying to prove himself to get back to where he should be and prove himself to his grandfather as well.
The plot revolves around an instance of nationalistic terrorism. Does that kind of get to the heart of why River wanted to be at MI5 in the first place, in your reading of the character?
In a way. I also think that a large part of why he does what he does is because of legacy, and sort of in the way that people go into the army because their fathers were in the army. I think he’s definitely in MI5 because he’s capable. But I also think he has a fascination with the work, with that world of espionage, and the stories that he heard from his grandfather. In the books there’s a lot more discussion about that, about him and his grandfather talking about John Le Carré, and things like that. It’s not always for king and country.
Slow Horses is an example of something I feel like UK television does very well, better than American television, in that it’s a thriller with strong connections to current politics. Does part of the appeal come from joining a project that comments on the tenor of the times?
Not personally. It’s not something that I look for. In fact, I quite often look for things that don’t do that, or maybe do it by accident. If you go into work constantly trying to be current or trying to comment, I don’t feel that’s the job of an actor. And it’s definitely not something that… It’s something that’s fantastic if it’s a byproduct of [the work], and people get certain things or closure or relief from certain things that are going on in the world. But it’s not why I’m an actor.
You undoubtedly grew up watching Oldman, Thomas, and Jonathan Pryce. When you suddenly find yourself playing opposite them is there an intimidation factor?
You would think so, but I’ve worked with Kristin before. With Gary, there was at first when we were in rehearsals and when we first started shooting. But because I’ve now spent so long with Gary… I mean, we shot that thing over a year, basically. And he’s such a warm and generous man that being starstruck or intimidated or whatever has all gone out the window. It’s sort of non-existent because we were on it for so long.
Oldman is someone who’s alternated between leading parts and supporting roles over the course of a very long career. Is that a career path that you kind of see is something you’d want for yourself?
To do what Gary Oldman’s done? Yeah. [Laughs.]
But no, I think the only similarity that I’ve got with Gary is that I’ve sort of been doing that for a while. I’ve played a lot of supporting roles and I’ve played some lead roles, and I’ve really enjoyed both. I don’t particularly just want to play leading roles or just play supporting roles. But it’s a really lovely thing to be able to sort of flip between the two, and you get an opportunity to… I would play a tiny role on anything if it meant getting to watch and work with some of the people I’ve been lucky enough to work with.
You’ve played characters created for films, historical figures from Lord Darnley, Morrissey, Siegfried Sassoon and characters adapted from literature. Do you prepare differently for those different sorts of roles?
No, no, not really. I mean, I have a fear of forgetting my lines. I think that comes from years and years of being on stage, that it’s drilled into you to know your lines before you set foot in a rehearsal room. So that’s always the first port of call. It was quite amazing to find out that Gary’s exactly the same. And that’s because Gary did a lot of stage work as well. Gary knows his lines months in advance. He works that hard at everything. He does the work as they call it. And so, no, it doesn’t seem to change, though the great opportunity is when playing real people is the volumes of stuff that I get to sort of nerd out on before. My passion in life is history, so to get any chance to do anything — like to sit and read a textbook on how to fly a Spitfire, or whatever — it’s always a wonderful [to have an] excuse to do that.
Benediction hasn’t opened here yet, but I’m eager to see it. I tend to hate asking “What was it like working with…” questions, but I can’t resist it with Terrence Davies because he’s such an interesting character. What was that process like?
Well, I think this was a fairly unique Terrence Davies experience, because it became very clear very quickly that I was playing Sassoon, but I was also playing Terrence. I think he sees a lot of himself in the Sassoon that he wrote and it’s one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read. On paper it’s phenomenal, the way the scenes are worked out, the retorts. It’s so fantastic, and I can feel him. You could feel him having acted out every bit of it. And I don’t know if that’s what Terence always does, but that was my experience. He was incredibly specific about what he wants. And it’s less about your interpretation and more about your following the path he’s carved for you essentially.
He’s also very, very meticulous when it comes to saying exactly what’s written and how he said it. He’s a real stickler for how people talked back then. So there’s no room for “ums” and “ohs” and “sos” and “mmms” and “you knows” or anything like that. But he shoots very quickly. He moves on instantly. He will give you another take if you ask for one, but he’ll more than likely use the one before it, which is the one he liked. It was quite a unique experience, but it’s always ultimately great to know that you’re in the hands of someone who knows what they want. He woke up knowing what he wants, so you feel very, very protected.
Apart from Dunkirk, you’ve largely stayed away from big American productions. Is that by design?
No. It’s not by design it’s I’ve never been asked to be in one really. There was one and I couldn’t do it. So I had to do something else. So, no. But also the work here, things that are being made here have just gotten so good, and I like to work when I can in my own accent, but that very rarely happens. So it’s nice to work here, but no, it’s just never sort of materialized.
About accents: You’ve played Scottish but also characters from other regions and those who know accents can pick up on any slips. How much work does it take to get the regional sound exactly right?
It’s difficult. As a Scottish actor, you have to work twice as hard, because you’re very rarely asked to do that accent. I was in LA two or three days ago, and I met a guy at an event who has a really heavy Boston accent. And when I was talking to him about this and he said, “You know, man, it’s the same for me. No one wants my accent. No one likes my accent. I’m constantly having to hide that sort of Boston, Southie twang at the end of words. They don’t want it, they don’t want to hear it.” So it’s not just a thing here. I think it’s the same all over the world. You have to work quite hard because there’s so many different accents on this tiny island. I’m doing something at the moment where I’m doing a Cockney London accent, which is just another one to get my mouth around. I’ve only ever done one American accent and it was a Boston accent [for Capone].
As someone who’s lived in Leith, what’s it like when you hit the Proclaimers song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” in the script for Slow Horses?
It was a very bizarre and slightly moving thing to see Gary Oldman singing along to that song. And as I’ve gotten to know Gary, Gary cut his teeth really in the profession at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. He did countless productions there, and it was back when the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow was him, Mark Rylance, Ciarán Hinds, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean… It just seemed like this factory of brilliant actors at the beginning of the career. So yeah, it was a lovely moment. It was one of my favorite scenes in Slow Horses anyway. But, he’s got a big connection to Scotland, Gary.
I couldn’t help, but notice that when you run in this it’s much the same way of running as Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible movies. Is that an homage?
Well, that’s the best thing I could hear because my natural run is dreadful. It’s shocking. It’s sort of far more expressive, you’d call it. So there was a lot of work done on my run and for James Hawes, the director, that was a particular bugbear of his. He definitely helped me with that. As a man about the same height as Tom Cruise, James’ run is far more a beautiful thing to watch. As someone who’s over six foot one, it’s a lot harder to make a run look sort of contained and neat. I’m glad you picked up on that, because it felt like my elbows were sort of trying to make love with my belly button!