In an upcoming episode of "Slow Horses," an MI5 agent working under Jackson Lamb, Jack Lowden's River Cartwright, brings information to his boss, who's eating lunch by himself at an Asian restaurant.
As Lamb — portrayed by veteran actor Gary Oldman in the British spy drama series, available in the U.S. via Apple TV+ — listens and offers some thoughts, some of the noodles intended for his stomach fall out of his mouth and back into the bowl.
It's pretty much par for the course for Lamb.
"Does he have good table manners?" Oldman reflects during a recent video interview. "I don't know, but he's going to provoke you, isn't he? It's like someone deliberately eating with their mouth open."
Honestly, for those in his charge at the outpost known as Slough House, a place where MI5 banishes its not-so-shiny operatives, that's about as good as it gets.
The constantly drinking, always sloppily attired Lamb doles out insults along with assignments for River, Louisa Guy (Rosalind Eleazar), Min Harper (Dustin Demri-Burns) and Roddy Ho (Christopher Chung), who's as obnoxious as he is.
He's even pretty rough on Catherine Standish (Saskla Reeves), the kind office administrator who is a recovering alcoholic and carries around what feels like a lifetime of emotional pain.
At least Lamb gets as good as he gives from his boss, Deputy Director-General Diana Taverner (Kristen Scott Thomas), who never passes on an opportunity to tell him just how disgusting he is.
"Slow Horses" is an adaptation of the "Slough House" book series by Mick Herron. Even though the six-episode first season, based on Herron's 2010 novel "Slow Horses," debuted earlier this year, we already are getting a second, based on 2015's "Dead Lions." "Slow Horses" returns Friday with its first of six weekly installments.
In a conversation about the show, the new season and their characters, Oldman — whose long list of credits includes "The Dark Knight Trilogy," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and an Academy Award-winning turn as legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 2017's "Darkest Hour" — is joined by Reeves ("Belgravia," "Roadkills").
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
Q: Gary, you haven't done a lot of TV. What was it about this show, and maybe Jackson Lamb specifically, that got you on board?
Oldman: Well, you're always looking for really good material.
I love long-form, and I love streamers and the quality of the work that I'm watching. And so it was (the possibility) was hovering around. (I thought), it would really be nice to find something to do. I would watch with envy at these people who were repeating a character, season after season, with the different dynamics and different scenarios that they were in. And then ("Slow Horses") came in — and it almost fell from the sky — it just dropped in. The quality of the writing was really good. The pedigree, as it were, was there because of the books, and it's just an absolutely fabulous sort of character to play. It didn't really take much for me to say, "Yeah, let's let's give it a go. Let's do this."
Q: Jackson Lamb is pretty hard on his subordinates, but then he also has this soft, caring side — it's under there. What's your read, ultimately, as to what he's about?
Oldman: I'm not even sure that that soft side isn't an act as well.
Reeves: (Laughing) What are you referring to when you say "soft, caring side"?
Q: Well, by the end of the new season, you see that, in his way, he sort of cares about Min, cares about people. But in the beginning, it's just insults. It's a lot of fun.
Oldman: Yeah. Yeah, he's very — deliberately — provocative, and really gets great pleasure out of it. But they are, as he says to Taverner in the first season, "They're losers, but they're my losers." He does in his own way — I don't know that he respects them, necessarily, or respects them some of the time but not all of the time — but he's very loyal to them. They are his joes.
It's that odd thing of, "I can abuse them, but you can't."
Q: We're either of you a fan of the book series or have you since dug into them?
Reeves: I didn't know about them until the role was coming in my direction. I've read all of them, and I've just read (2017's) "Spook Street" for the third time, so I'm constantly diving into them and noticing things I hadn't noticed before because it's purely from my point of view now. Me playing Catherine Standish, I'm constantly pulling things out that I might use I'll hold on to or that will just keep me entertained when I'm playing her.
Oldman: Yeah, you use it as a sort of reference. You can always go back. Our main writer, Will Smith — he's overly protective of what he writes. He's very open to ideas and suggestions and things and you can often say to Will, "Listen, I went back into the book, and I noticed this little beat or this line" or whatever, and he's very open to changing the script. You know, it's when in doubt, if at all, you know, go back to the book.
Reeves: Yeah, exactly.
Q: Saskia, you mentioned Catherine Standish. In both seasons, she starts out as, maybe you'd say, the least important person at Slough House, and then by the end, she's a major player. Is it time for us to stop underestimating this woman?
Reeves: Well, yeah, except then all the fun would go out of it, wouldn't it? (Laughs).
She doesn't have a lot of self-esteem, so she's very self-deprecating and blames herself for her boss' death, and so she doesn't think she's good enough — although she has many, many skills and probably is a better spy than most of the people in the office, I think. Yeah, she's she's very interesting, isn't she? She's complicated.
Q: This season, there is a sequence where she plays a high-stakes game of chess that also gets into her character's backstory.
Reeves: I thought that was my "Queen's Gambit" moment.
I like the fact that she's actually quite innocent and quite brave all at the same time. And he's quite selfless. And yet she's very isolated. So she's this she's a lot of mixture of stuff, and so therefore she's quite disarming. And I think she wants to do a good job and she doesn't want history repeated. She really wants to protect, a bit like Jackson. She sort of looks after these losers in Slough House.
Nobody takes a blind bit of notice of her, but they will.
Oldman: She's quite matronly, isn't she, in that way?
Reeves: I think it's because she's in the 12-step program. She wants to be open, and she wants to live a life of integrity — because you can't stay sober if you don't start being honest and open. So I think she sort of expects that of her co-workers, and none of them are there yet — especially not Jackson Lamb. So she's quite different in that respect, because she's trying to deal with her dysfunction.
Oldman: We met a sort of technical adviser, someone that was an ex-spy, and he was talking about the casualties (of being in the intelligence world) — with marriage and alcoholism. You are in a world where you are very secretive. You have information — sometimes very high-profile, delicate information.
It's an odd thing: Alcoholics Anonymous is, for the individual, a program of rigorous self-honesty, and it doesn't fit with the spy makeup.
Reeves: No. No, it doesn't.
Q: Speaking of makeup, Jackson is both pretty darn good at his job but then also not too concerned about looking the part. This isn't a role for someone who's pretty vain. How have you enjoyed digging into that rough-around-the-edges side of him?
Oldman: Yeah, I like it. I've really embraced that. I mean, he really is just offensive, isn't he?
Next year, we start (shooting) Season 4, and there is one moment where a character says to him, "What about a shower? Do you think you might have a wash?"
You've probably noticed a seasonal shift: We have a very dark, kind of gray, wintry first season, and then "Dead Lions" is set in a very hot summer. And I've switched out basically an overcoat for a Mac. And the Mac is filthy, and it's got cigarette burns and various drippings of whatever on it. And that's fun working with the costume designer, Guy, and the production in general — just the sheer chaos of his office and his clothes.
Normally, (the makeup artists) cover up — if you've got any blotches or broken veins, they're normally covering them up. For Jackson, we enhance what is already there — and then add a layer of sweat over the top.
Q: This show's been renewed for two more seasons so far. Might we see more scenes between him and Taverner? You and Kristin Scott Thomas shared the screen in "Darkest Hour," and your scenes are great, but there haven't been that many of them.
Oldman: Yeah, they're coming up. And more stuff with (Lamb and Standish) and River and some new characters that come into the world that we interact with. There's lots of real juicy stuff coming up.
Q Anything else you'd want to say about this season, which involves Russian sleeper agents and all kinds of things?
Reeves: When I watched them all — and I'm not just saying this — by the last three hours, I couldn't stop watching it, and I know what was happening. But I just also love being around the characters. I liked seeing my fellow actors and the work they were doing. And I loved the chase sequence on the train with Roddy — you'd never expect him to in a train chase sequence. Stuff like that is just brilliant fun.
Oldman: Obviously, you read the scripts, and you know the storyline and you know what other people are up to, but when you're coming in and only working really working on your (part), you just forget all of that. And so when you see it back, it's a surprise and you go, "Oh, wow! I'd forgotten this sequence coming up!" And it's interesting to see what your fellow actors have done with it and how they contribute to the story.
But it's a good one. If you like Season 1, then I would say this kicks it up a notch. It doesn't disappoint.