Getting into character for The Little Drummer Girl took on a whole new meaning for actor Michael Shannon – with an Auschwitz tattoo evocatively placed on his arm every day in make-up.
The placing of the blue Nazi numbers was nothing less than “spooky” for the 44-year-old actor, who takes on the role of Kurtz, an Israeli spymaster in John Le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, which begins on BBC One on Sunday night.
The 1970s-set drama focuses on Kurtz’s elaborate plot to track down a Palestinian terrorist using the lure of Charlie, a young English actress, played by Florence Pugh, who is recruited by Mossad agent Becker (Alexander Skarsgård).
The six-part adaptation is directed by South Korean film-maker Park Chan-wook and uses the same production team behind The Night Manager, which includes Le Carré’s sons, Simon and Stephen Cornwell.
In taking on the role of Kurtz, Shannon says he tried to empathise with a man “who overcame a deeply brutal childhood” and survived life inside the camps, before leaving for Israel and joining Mossad.
That character preparation included the wearing of a tattoo, which was applied every day – even though it is only seen once on screen.
“My make-up artist and I never talked about it. She just did it and so it was there. It was a nudge, a reminder who this guy really was. You become who you are in the first years of your life and that’s [the camps] where he spent his.”
The star of Groundhog Day, Man of Steel and The Shape of Water adds that while others would resort to violence in fighting their “enemies”, Kurtz’s way of dealing with terrorists is more sophisticated.
“There is something beyond anger inside him. Anger is so low on the totem pole. You get angry when you’re at a restaurant and you don’t get what you order, but he’s beyond that. Literally to keep from sinking into despair, I believe Kurtz had to
create a matrix for himself, infused with the hope that he could make the world a better place.”
Alongside his tattoo, thick 1970s moustache and heavy-rimmed glasses, the twice Oscar-nominated actor also had to work on another of Kurtz’s distinguishing features: his Israeli accent.
Much of the final result was based on listening to recorded interviews with prolific Israeli author and intellectual Amos Oz.
Shannon reveals: “I heard Amos’ voice and I instantly thought that sounds like Kurtz to me. I would listen to the interviews pretty obsessively. Every day when I went to work, I would turn on another interview and listen to it. I’m not saying I sound exactly like Amos. In truth, there’s no real thing as an ‘Israeli’ accent.
“The country is a real melting pot, and Kurtz himself is not from Israel originally, so it’s a mixture of where he comes from and where he is now.”
Swedish-born actor Skarsgård also reveals the work he undertook to understand his Mossad agent character Becker – and did so with a little help from his Israeli friends on set, including co-star Michael Moshonov, who plays Litvak.
The 42-year-old star, known for his roles in True Blood, The Legend
of Tarzan and Big Little Lies, says with a wry smile: “I’m a Swede who’s
never been to Israel, in a drama directed by a Korean, with Michael Shannon who’s American – so to have guys from Israel was really important, especially in speaking to them about their upbringing.”
Skarsgård was, however, already well-prepped in understanding Becker’s back story as a soldier in the Six-Day War before joining Mossad: he himself served in the Swedish military aged 19.
Recalling his 18-month stint, he tells me: “I learnt a lot about discipline and collaboration. We were a small unit, so we had almost complete autonomy to protect against sabotage and terrorism on an island outside Stockholm. I hated it at times, but it’s something I did voluntarily. I needed the physical and mental challenge.”
For rising 22-year-old star Pugh – who has been tipped as the next Kate
Winslet – being offered the central role of Charlie provided the opportunity to “really understand the how and why” of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The star of Lady Macbeth, who reveals she has now been inspired to visit Israel in the coming months, says: “I made sure I knew what was going on. I wanted to educate myself further, because how am I going to understand these characters, if I don’t understand it like they do?”
As an English actress recruited by Mossad to lure a Palestinian terrorist into a trap, Charlie finds herself in the unenviable position of being torn between two worlds – and falling in love with both. It was this very “human” reaction that attracted Pugh to the role.
She adds: “I think we’re very used to watching these perfectly-made characters on screen and ultimately she’s totally normal and one of us.
“That was the thing that made me fall in love with her – she’s flawed and she’s human.”
The Little Drummer Girl begins on Sunday, 9pm, BBC One.
Listen to this week’s episode of the Jewish Views Podcast:
- Florence Pugh
- Alexander Skarsgard
- Michael Shannon
- Little Drummer Girl
- John Le Carre
- Park Chan-wook
- The Night Manager
- Big Little Lies
- Kate Winslet
- Man of Steel
- The Shape of Water
- Groundhog Day
- True Blood
- The Legend of Tarzan
- Lady Macbeth
- BBC One
- Simon Cornwell
- Stephen Cornwell
- Kosher Culture