Why did you want to take on the role of Craig Oliver?
Because of the drama itself really, and the writing. James is a writer I’ve known for a bit, and whose work in the theatre I’ve really admired. I particularly enjoy the way he writes with such equanimity both about the subject matter and the characters he presents. I’ve thought if anything could do with some equanimity it was an approach to this topic that has engulfed us for the last few years. We’re focussing a little bit more on Cummings – not only because Benedict is playing him – but he’s definitely one of the unknown leading figures of the campaign. Not completely unknown obviously, but particularly at the time he wasn’t face forward as it were.
And we’re seeing the different approaches of the two campaigns, and the two personalities in it. It’s looking at that time within from when it was first announced. As viewers, we have to join up the dots with what decisions were made at the time that have led us to where we are now. James spoke to a number of the main players first hand, to get under the skin of an episode of British politics that most people have an opinion on, and I think he does it with considerable balance.
It’s such a contentious and emotive issue. Did that give you pause for thought when you were looking at taking it, or does that make it more attractive?
You want to know that it wasn’t just going to be rehashing everything that people have been swamped by for the last two or three years. It tells the story with a freshness of approach and with a wit, which James always does with his writing, that doesn’t unnecessarily add to the pain and the feeling of being engulfed by this issue – which I know a lot of people feel. It looks at that particular period of time and does it with deference, wit and balance I think. I know people have an appetite for it, but it might also be illuminating and about how these things are run.
For all the notion that it was a vote for the people and by the people – obviously every time an election is run for the people and by the people – there are smaller networks of power in place that are trying to persuade the people. I guess because it was a referendum this time, that a lot of us hadn’t been involved in before, hadn’t voted in before in terms of a binary response, to get to see rather the usual electioneering that we’re more au fait with, how these campaigns were run, is instructive.
And how did you prepare for the role? Did you meet Craig Oliver?
I did, yes. I read his book beforehand. Much of what he feels and what he sees as being the result of the vote he’s already written about. And he’s spoken to James as well. Obviously there are elements of the film that are fictionalised to a certain extent but they’re all imagined from a place of fact.
He’s written on record whether or not he still firmly believes in the campaign, but he thinks absolutely that Cameron had no other option other than to call the referendum, for the sake of his party and – in his mind – for the country. He’s unchanging in that. He’s also very loyal to Cameron, which you can see as a commendable thing as well.
I guess I was more interested in the day-to-day life of it when you’re running a campaign and the impact it has on your family, on your own mental health, that side of things. You can see hopefully through the drama there was a quiet confidence when they first started the campaign. The first time we meet Oliver there’s a cocksureness that is both their attitude to winning and the surefootedness that they would have, having been the government of power and having won elections previously. As the drama goes on, obviously for him and their side and the Remain side there’s an element of not knowing where this momentum is coming from for the Leave side and how they’re gaining such traction – and also a distaste at the way this whole referendum is being conducted. I don’t think anyone could necessarily say, from whatever side, that the manner in which the referendum campaign was held was an edifying spectacle.
How much do you study the voice and mannerisms of when you’re playing real people? Is it easy become too obsessed with that and therefore losing something from your overall performance?
It depends. Quite fundamentally it depends how famous these people are. Obviously there’s a brilliant Boris that Richard plays, Michael Gove that Oli plays, and they knew that they would have to give people the Gove and Johnson that people knew. You would feel the gap between their performance and the real people because everyone has those people in their lives every day for better or worse. With Craig Oliver and to a certain extent Cummings as well, there’s not that much of them either online or in people’s memories.
I met Craig for dinner and said, “I won’t be examining your mannerisms, the way you hold you knife and fork,” because I think it’s more important to get the spirit of the person and their attitude towards what they were doing and the inner life they must have had, rather than everyone going, “Oh yes, that’s exactly how Craig Oliver speaks.” I’m not sure that many people will know.
You mentioned the fact that Oliver starts off being very confident about the Remain campaign. Do you think there was an element of complacency in there?
I don’t think so. Only in the sense that the Scottish Referendum had been so close. While that probably gave them the confidence that they could get things over the line I think they knew that they were going to have to work for it and they did. But it was sort of unlike any campaign they’d fought. Craig Oliver had run the previous general election campaign. In some ways that was an easier sell.
The momentum of the referendum campaign became more about people’s hearts than it did their heads for the first time in British election history. Remain were unprepared for that and they were unprepared for, as the programme goes into, the number of people who came out to vote who had previously never voted. They saw every time an election happened it was an establishment figure verses an establishment figure, whereas this time you could vote for the establishment or vote for something against it. Millions of people came out to vote who had never voted for just because of the nature of the question.
That’s similar to what’s been happening in America and many countries in Europe. Why do you think there is this massive move against the establishment?
I sort of feel I’m unable to report on British and American politics in too much detail! I am after all an actor. What the programme goes into and begins to explore is that sense of much more accurate data-mining which goes into voter profiling. People are able to be targeted much more accurately according to their online life. Whether or not that generally has an overspill into voting against the establishment I’m not sure. But certainly it feels like a style of politics, or at least a style of debate, has grown. Whether or not that has grown to fit public opinion or to shape public opinion – some people would say it’s a lot more based on getting the worst out of people, or at least appealing to people’s worst behavioural instincts, than it is their best.
How important do you think the roles of Oliver and Cummings were in the outcome of the referendum?
I certainly know Craig realises it’s what everyone is going to know him for. He knew that very quickly. I think if you run a campaign and you’re coordinating everything, which is what Cummings and Oliver were doing, and obviously they had help and they had a lot of people with their own opinions who they both tried to corral or at least shepherd to a certain holistic message, I feel like if you’re the head you take responsibility for it.
In terms of messages that they wanted to limit their sides to, and how they responded to each other – the scene in the drama where Oliver is appalled at the fact that the Remain side have to respond to Leave lies all the time where actually what they’re doing is emphasising the Leave lies in people’s minds rather than necessarily countering them – I think they were fundamental to the messages that are put out.
Did you get a sense of what Oliver thought of Cummings? Do you think he respects him?
In the drama to a certain extent from speaking to Craig himself, he was a totally different character to Dominic. To be honest I don’t think they thought about each other that much. Cummings had been a fairly eccentric and vocal figure within the Department of Education as special advisor to Michael Gove. Politics is a small enough world that eccentric vocal people get opinions formed about them fairly quickly. We never discussed “what did you think of him”, but I think there was a frustration with the way he was leading the campaign and the way in which people considered him some sort of Renaissance genius.
You mentioned this fantastic scene where the two go for a drink and discuss the whole thing. How did you find shooting with Benedict?
We’ve known each other since we were about 19 actually! It’s always nice to catch up. We did another film, The Imitation Game, in which we had a long scene over a desk, so it’s sort of becoming a bit of a habit!
It’s important to recognise that this isn’t just a dry rehashing of history strictly for politicos. It’s hugely entertaining in places isn’t it?
I don’t think James would ever want to write something that bored people to tears with the minutiae of the political system, however much his appetite for it is huge. I think what’s brilliant about the arc of the piece in general is it does start off fairly boisterous, fairly energetic, funny, full of large characters and personalities a lot of whom we know, a lot of whom we don’t. At the beginning there’s an excited adventure on this campaign. Then we sort of chart the generation of not only the campaign, the people involved in the campaign, the style of politics, the mood of the country and then that leaves us in a place where we are at the end of the drama just as in the dark and scared as a lot of us are now.
What are your own views on what’s happened?
I think I’ve probably said it. I found the whole referendum a worrying style of binary politics. It’s not something, the binary nature of it, that I’ve particularly enjoyed because as it says in the drama it necessarily divides. It was the same as Scotland in the independence referendum. There’s no reason why it should have been any different in the Brexit referendum.