Slow_Horses_020206_Credit Apple

Source: Apple

‘Slow Horses’

In series one of Apple TV+’s espionage drama Slow Horses, Jack Lowden’s MI5 operative River Cartwright is consigned to Slough House, a dumping ground for disgraced spooks, after a training exercise goes awry. There, he is forced to endure the daily derision of his slovenly, gassy, noodle-slurping boss Jackson Lamb (Gary Oldman). At the start of series two, River has had enough and is angling for a job in the private sector. But nothing goes to plan.

As embodied by Lowden, River is a slippery character — the viewer is never quite sure if he is misunderstood, arrogant or just plain incompetent. “That’s a fair summary,” says Lowden, one of Screen International’s UK Stars of Tomorrow in 2014, alongside Taron Egerton and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. “The incompetence is amazing. We’re shooting series four now and it’s still there. To me, he’s like the guy in a football team who is always in the ear of the referee, constantly complaining, and nothing’s ever his fault.”

Part of the joy of Slow Horses is watching veteran actors such as Oldman, Jonathan Pryce (who plays River’s grandfather) and Kristin Scott Thomas (as Lamb’s boss) spar with the show’s young cast. For Lowden, it is an education. “I’ve never been precious if someone’s got a better idea than me about what to do,” he explains. “When you work with guys like that, they tend to have better ideas than you — sometimes. Both will tell me, but I invite them to. That’s my favourite thing about working with them, other than the fact they’re both, as is Kristin, brilliant theatre actors. They work very hard. They turn up ridiculously well prepared. And that’s because of [the] stage.”

Not that Lowden is inexperienced in such matters, having won an Olivier award for Richard Eyre’s 2013 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, before making his mark on TV and film. “I came to screen quite late because I did so much stage,” reflects the 33-year-old actor. “And the thing I always struggled with was the lack of rehearsals and lack of grind, particularly in the film industry. Everything’s geared towards the spontaneous, which is wonderful and sounds super sexy, but it’s hard to quantify and put it into practice if you come from a very drilled background. I’m hugely thankful I have that grounding.”

Character building

Slow_Horses_020106_Credit Apple

Source: Apple

‘Slow Horses’

Lamb and River’s hate-hate relationship is the backbone of Slow Horses. “Gary and I spend our time trying to think what could make every situation funnier,” Lowden continues. “He’s quite a shock-and-awe actor. He doesn’t take on anything that’s not difficult. Another of the great joys of this job is being in the [rehearsal] room to see Gary work it out, fuck it up, then refine it. To watch Gary and Kristin together, it’s fascinating. That’s what Apple should sell a subscription to!”

Born in Essex but raised in Scotland, Lowden grew up wanting to be a footballer before switching first to ballet (his brother dances for the Royal Swedish Ballet), then acting. He joined the Scottish Youth Theatre, took summer classes at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama before going on to star in the National Theatre of Scotland’s revival of Black Watch, which toured the UK and US. That led to more theatre, TV and film, and, eventually, roles in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, Steve McQueen’s Small Axe and Terence Davies’ Benediction. “It’s been a funny career, in a way,” he says. “I’ve been doing this [for] about 12 years, and I’ve been afforded time to gradually build. I was lucky not to come straight out the blocks and be thrown into something huge.”

As well as Slow Horses, Lowden recently starred in The Gold, a six-part BBC drama written by Neil Forsyth (Guilt) about the 1983 Brink’s-Mat bullion robbery at Heathrow airport. He plays Kenneth Noye, who was convicted of conspiracy to handle stolen goods before being sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering a motorist in a road-rage incident. It is not the first time Lowden has played a real-life character, racking up several so far, including UK politician Tony Benn, musician Morrissey and First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, but the process is the same as if they were fictional. “It’s a portrait. It’s not history. I’m never trying to look or sound exactly like them. And because writers are so brilliant, the characters end up being far more fascinating than the real-life people.”

Given his height (6’1’’), good looks and experience playing a spy, even a slightly tarnished one, Lowden’s name has been mentioned as a possible future James Bond. “People have said this to me a lot, and it is flattering. I’m not an idiot; if you run about in a suit, it sort of suggests itself. But no, I haven’t [screen-tested], I haven’t done anything. Slow Horses takes all my time.”

Not entirely. In addition to starring in Benediction, Lowden was also executive producer, and subsequently produced (with Dominic Norris) 2020’s Kindred as well as The Outrun, which is currently in post. The latter stars Lowden’s off-screen partner Saoirse Ronan, with the pair producing, alongside Norris, via their company Arcade Pictures, and finance coming from BBC Film, Screen Scotland and Protagonist Pictures. The move behind the camera was “purely selfish”, Lowden says. “It was something to make me busy on a film set. I just don’t feel busy as an actor. I get jealous of the busyness of most departments. When I’ve been fortunate enough to play out-and-out leads, I’ve genuinely enjoyed them the most, because I’m busy. Producing came from that.” It has, he notes, been a “huge learning curve”.

“At first, I thought it would make me think that actors don’t do anything. But it had the opposite effect,” he says. “I’ve produced two films and come out of both thinking [actors] are the most valuable thing on a film. I know it’s a dreadful thing to say but they are, because they’re not a button, they’re not a light, they’re nothing that can be turned up and down or turned on instantly. Acting on film, it’s like walking up to a couple of guys on a building site and going, ‘Do you want to hear some Hamlet?’ And just starting. It sometimes feels as bizarre as that.”

But if Lowden wants to be busy on a film set, then surely the next step is to become a director. “Ultimately, yeah. I want to prepare myself as much as possible and discover if I really want to do it. But since I started acting, I’ve known there’s a massive part of my brain I can’t switch off and gets in the way of when I act, which is seeing it from the outside all the time. I seem to get more joy out of thinking how a certain scene could go or how it could be shot, or what if you said that instead of that. I think the acting part of me was dying away for a while. But I love it again.”

He has, however, yet to convince more directors to let him use his own Scottish accent — the last one being Steve McQueen for the role of barrister Ian Macdonald in 2020’s Small Axe: Mangrove. “It’s so bizarre,” Lowden sighs. “I want to develop as an actor, and I feel I’m not getting better because I’m using 50% of my brain when I’m acting in an accent. I want to rip that last thing away and really get better.”