“The opening paragraph of chapter two of the novel is emblazoned on the inside of my brain,” says Hiddleston, looking supremely dapper as usual in a Berlin hotel bar. “It says, ‘Jonathan Pine, graduate of a rainy archipelago of orphanages, foster homes, half-mothers, cadet units and training camps, sometime army wolf-child with a special unit in Northern Ireland…’ So you get the sense that Pine’s wasn’t an upbringing of enormous privilege, but his service in the Army and hotel management has given him this access to the manners and the milieu of the very wealthy.”
The crucial upshot of this is gaining the trust of arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), “the worst man in the world”, and using this to report back on his nefarious activities to British intelligence. Roper is part Bond villain, part mirror image of Pine – both are interlopers in the English class system drawn to each other’s opportunism and drive. It’s a lot of fun, of course, but Hiddleston takes the role a little more seriously than that – he’s happy to think through the real-world implications of this plot, which has been extensively updated from Le Carré’s book, for instance by moving the timeline to just after the Arab Spring in 2011.
“There must be people like Pine,” he decides. “I remember being fascinated by the debate last November on whether the UK should join air strikes against Islamic State. All we got was that intelligence had come from the ‘highest level’. I’ve listened to John le Carré talk about what happens in those meetings. There must be people who are truly hidden from society, gathering intelligence about targets, about numbers of troops, about weapons and so on.”
Early reactions to The Night Manager have found it hard to shake off the James Bond parallels, even going so far as to suggest that it feels like a virtual audition piece for Hiddleston as 007.
“I’ve been getting a lot of that,” he admits. “There are similarities insofar as Pine and Bond are granted a licence above and beyond the law to do bad things for the greater good. Bond has a 00 licence to kill. I don’t know if Pine is a 00 just yet…”
“Nobody would say no to Bond!” interjects Hiddleston’s director, the Oscar-winning Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, who is making her first inroad into long-form drama with this series. “Even if you ask Olivia Colman, she’s going to want to play Bond. Or any director. It’s part of the air we breathe.”
The glorious Colman, hiding a pregnancy bump under some heavy jumpers, plays Angela Burr, the spymaster who recruits Pine and installs him at the heart of Roper’s operation. In the book, Angela was a Leonard, but Bier leapt at the chance to do a gender switch.
“Part of my worry about a contemporary spy thing,” she says, “was that you’re going to alienate the entire female audience. Because you’re gonna relive that world of men having been to public schools, having more or less got the same education. And I think it’s slightly dusty. The real world is somewhat more diverse, and we have to reflect that.”
You won’t catch her implying that Le Carré’s worldview is sexist, however. “He has a very contemporary mind,” she explains. “I think he was pretty adamant to make it current.”
The process of updating the book while also satisfying Le Carré’s legion of fans was helped by the writer’s own input – Bier says that keeping him happy was a high priority. “Through him we actually got access to a whole network of spies, of people working within the weapons industry. To me as a director, almost the most frightening aspect is that people who deal with weapons might as well be dealing with luxury cars. Can it be this easy not to be found out? Apparently it is.”
Hiddleston does a pretty spot-on impression of Laurie, tilting his head with a “Well, I, erm…” that conjures pure Bertie Wooster. He calls his co-star “an extraordinary mixture of deep seriousness and irreverence” who is “painfully honest” with himself. Bier says that a resolute loathing of hypocrisy unites both men. She’s curious to know if Hiddleston ever contemplated being a spy when he was younger. “I thought about it! But I just thought my personality is too visible, in a way. I’m not disposed to secrecy.”
An actor who doesn’t like camouflage? Here Hiddleston finds himself playing a character who goes by four different aliases, and conceals his true identity from almost everyone.
“That was the challenge and the thrill of it. In every scene I had to hide sufficiently that Roper and Co aren’t smelling a rat, but not hide so much that I’m hiding from the audience. I liked the idea that there is anonymity in uniform. He finds security in the silhouette of someone who is of service. But then you scratch behind that, and what is his center?”