Every dad wants his kid to be proud of him, but some kids won’t be impressed no matter what, even if you become a secret agent. This is the premise of the British sitcom, Spy, which airs on Sky1 in the UK and is exclusive to Hulu in the US, with new episodes every Tuesday through the end of the season. In Spy, Tim Elliot, a newly divorced father stuck in prolonged adolescence, is trying desperately to win custody of his 10-and-a-half year old son, Marcus, who is by far smarter and more sophisticated than his old man. To attempt to improve his chances, Tim quits his dead-end job and accidentally applies, and is accepted, to Britain’s internal counter-intelligence and security agency. A mixture of family comedy, espionage spoof, and absurdist dream, Spy is a fun and unique show. We spoke to the show’s star, Darren Boyd, about the show, his role as a father/provocateur, and the joys of physical comedy.
Nerdist: For those who don’t know, please explain Spy and your character of Tim Elliot.
Darren Boyd: The show is essentially about a single father who inadvertently becomes a member of MI5. He was a trainee in the first series, and as we head into the second series he’s a qualified agent, so a little more out in the field. It’s essentially a dysfunctional family sitcom with this rather different backdrop. The character of Tim is very much caught between trying desperately to impress his son whilst not being able to reveal his true identity. So, he’s in the middle of a custody battle for his son and wants nothing more than to sort of win his approval and affection, which he fails to do at every turn, of course. And now he has the greatest secret in the world; that he is in fact a spy, but can’t tell him.
N: Tim has a very complicated relationship with his son, Marcus; what is it like working with Jude Wright, the young actor who plays him?
DB: Jude’s a pretty unique kid. I haven’t worked with children that much, but I think it’s pretty generally agreed that he is sort of freakishly wise and talented beyond his years. He’s not only good on set and with the character and what he does on camera, but also his knowledge of comedy and film is rare. He’s one of these kids who’s sort of 13 going on 30, and I think his abilities sort of speak for themselves. He’s really been a standout feature of the show. And the fact that he looks a little younger than he actually is helps as well, because he’s got that sort of angelic face but he ends up being sort of like, I think I referred to him before as a live action Stewie from Family Guy. He’s really a nasty piece of work, actually, but I think Tim has that kind of unconditional, familial need to see past his mean spirit.
N: How would you describe Tim’s parenting skills? What kind of a father is he?
DB: I think Tim is a very optimistic father. You know, I think he feels the shame of the separation between him and Judith, his ex-wife, and the subsequent custody battle. And I think, if anything, where Tim has really failed has been in growing up himself. I think that’s what sort of leads to his decision to quit his job at the beginning of the first series. Marcus has sort of essentially outgrown his father in a way when we first meet them at the beginning of Series One. I think Judith represents more of what Marcus requires on an intellectual level as well as an experience level, and I think Tim is being who he thinks Marcus wants him to be, but at the same time not betraying himself and trying to find the confidence in himself to bring those two sides together and succeed that way. But I think he tries very hard, and he’s not a quitter. I think he’s the eternal optimist in that way, I just think he’s a bit of a child himself. And, as I said, I think that’s basically led to Marcus outgrowing him.
N: The show tackles these family issues but it’s still quite absurd and can do things in a strange way. I’m thinking, for instance, of a main actor changing between seasons and having it explained away by a haircut [actor Tom Goodman-Hill portrayed Marcus’ headmaster/his mother’s new boyfriend in series one and is replaced with Mark Heap for series two. They could not look more different] Are you ever surprised by where the scripts go, week to week?
DB: I think that it walks a very fine line. We’re dealing with these issues which, in their own right, are quite serious – the custody and relationship break-ups and that sort of thing – but within the world we can cross over into the world of MI-5 and you have characters like The Examiner, played by Robert Lindsay. You’re very clearly in a world that walks a very fine line between anything close to reality and real jeopardy and sort of cartoon buffoonery. It’s lovely for me playing that character traversing those worlds and those characters, particularly in the first series where Tim was very much the fish out of water and very much finding his feet in this new environment and being surrounded by these complete lunatics, and having to negotiate some sense of normality. As an I actor, I find that same sort of thing internally. I approach it, for the most part, and play things “for real” in a sense, but with this heightened awareness that we are in this stretchy world of make believe. And we can go to very strange places, almost like an animation can sort of fly all over the place. I sort of like that the world is sort of… fake-real, you know what I mean?
N: Definitely. You mentioned Robert Lindsay and how his character, the Examiner, is a complete lunatic, which is totally true; what is he like to work with and what are those scenes like to shoot?
DB: I love shooting scenes with Robert and, I don’t think he’d mind me saying, he really relishes that part. Robert was in a very long-running sitcom here [My Family] and it was a very successful show, but I think when you’ve been playing a character for a long time – he was playing a sort of everyman father character, which he played very well – but you can sort of tell he’s absolutely relishing this chance to play a character who is certainly very different to that one he played previously but also to anything he’d played previously, really. Because, you know, it’s an extreme character. He’s the perfect example of how this world is a cartoon, in a way. I don’t know what reality he’s based in, as a character. He has one, and the relationship he has with Tim is at times very real and kind of touching and very sincere but is also, for the most part, ludicrous. You can just sort of sense his enjoyment playing it, and to kind of bounce of that is a joy.
N: The show is called Spy, though it’s not necessarily about spying, but did you have to go through any kind of “espionage training” before you started shooting?
DB: I did go away on a day course that was more to do with how to hold a gun and defend yourself with a rolled-up newspaper and leap over a bonnet (hood) of a car. Not that that’s ever come in handy for me, but it was great fun. The gadgets we get on the show, we just tend to have someone come in and show us how. I haven’t had that much to play with; I seem to find myself falling off things a lot, so I find I work more closely with stunt coordinators and stuntmen. I just turn up for work and find myself suspended 30 feet in the air by some sort of cable and doing a bungee in an abandoned car park somewhere, which I love ‘cause I love doing the physical stuff more than anything. I’m a big sort of physical comedy nerd, going back to silent comedy and stuff, so for me any chance to get physical with the part, I kind of dive in to that.
N: Speaking of that, you got to play John Cleese in a TV movie [called Holy Flying Circus] and he’s a very physical comedian; were you a big fan of his beforehand, and a fan of Python in general?
DB: I was a big fan of his; I was never – when I was a kid, Python was always a bit too punk, a bit anarchic, too, kind of, esoteric for me. I think I was a bit too square as a kid to really appreciate exactly what it was. I don’t think I really got it when I was a kid. I’ve come to appreciate it much more. But I was very much a fan of Cleese and in approaching that, I think, it was as much about getting his physicality as it was getting his voice, or my voice to a place where it was similar to his, and getting his little ticks and the way he holds everything – his body, his chin, his jaw – it’s all kind of in the makeup there. I don’t think I’ve ever tried so hard to not do a job as I tried not to do that job. I was terrified at the idea of playing someone who was so well known by so many, and still alive, and there was nowhere to hide of you got it horribly wrong, but I think I scraped by. We’ve had some lovely comments and messages from some of the Pythons; Michael Palin and Terry Jones, they both sent lovely messages saying they really enjoyed it, so it was lovely to get that sort of approval.
N: Congratulations of winning both a British Comedy Award and a BAFTA TV award for playing Tim; that must have been tremendously thrilling for you.
DB: Yeah, and completely unexpected. It was… yeah, and it’s great for the show as well, you know; it’s lovely to stand up there and represent everyone and the whole team. Yeah, it’s a lovely feeling; I haven’t really sort of experienced that before so to get two in the space of 12 months was a really, kind of… it’s a lovely feeling, yeah.
N: The episode of Spy on Hulu this week has Tim taking Marcus to work with him, and trying to keep him from seeing anything; was that fun to finally get to bridge the family world and the spy world, even if briefly?
DB: Yeah, what’s been fun with season two, I think, is that the two worlds sort of have to begin to collide in a way. There’s going to come a point where the two begin to merge, and that obviously will be a bit tricky for Tim, which is great. I think at the beginning of season two he’s a little bit more confident in his own shoes. I think he knows the world he’s in now and I think he understands how it works, and as a result of that we need new obstacles for him and new things to cause him trouble. And so the fact that these two worlds are going to come perilously close to overlapping is a great way to put him up against new problems. So, this episode is exactly that, is quite literally that, and, sort of talking about Robert and The Examiner, I think this episode is about as out-there as it gets for him. He’s kind of… he’s out there in this one. It’s all sort of borne out of farce, in a way, with Tim dragging Marcus around and trying to hide. It’s all the kind of good stuff you want for a comedy.
The first season of Spy is available on Hulu with new season two episodes added every Tuesday.