Bombed-out London in the 1940s. A city under Nazi control, teeming with murderers and black-marketeers. Buckingham Palace is crumbling and swathed with swastikas, and RAF fighter planes land on The Mall. This might not be the environment in which you would instinctively imagine the American actress Kate Bosworth, who rose to fame 15 years ago on the wave of surfer-flick Blue Crush. But Bosworth has never taken a linear route. As a child, she appeared alongside Scarlett Johansson in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, and credits since then include playing Lois Lane in Superman Returns, a chainsaw-wielding psychopath in Unconscious and Billie in her husband Michael Polish’s adaptation of Big Sur, Jack Kerouac’s overlooked charting of drug-induced mental deterioration. A starring role in the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s cult, counter-factual novel SS-GB suddenly does not seem so extraordinary.
“I haven’t had any strategy in terms in my career. I have always tried to follow material that has interested me,” explains Bosworth. “The first thing I consider is the words.”
When she was presented with the script of SS-GB, adapted by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the duo behind the last six Bond films, she was immediately fascinated by its dystopian reimagining of the Nazis winning the Battle of Britain, moulding the UK into a vassal state, and forcing its inhabitants to join either the ranks of rogue guerrilla fighters, or compromise for a comfortable life under the reign of Hitler. In fascist London, decisions that once seemed so unequivocally simple are plunged into a muddy arena of uncertainty and grey-tinged concession. “I was hooked on page one,” Bosworth says. “There are these great characters who are morally ambiguous, and the audience is essentially unclear as to what side of the line everyone stands.”
The drama is centered around Douglas Archer, a prominent sleuth who is not only an exceptional detective, but is lauded as a symbol of the Anglo-Nazi alliance. Called to investigate what initially seems like a simple murder, he becomes entangled with Bosworth’s character Barbara Barga, a journalist for The New York Times.
Bosworth wanted Barga to be an homage to the great actresses of the period, who perfected the role of the mysterious femme fatale. But she was wary of portraying just a flimsy, red-lipped façade. Barga had to be nuanced, and grounded in reality. “I wanted her to feel real and accessible. I didn’t want her to be a character of a femme fatale. I wanted her to feel like a real woman that you could watch and understand.”
It helped that Bosworth could develop Barga over a series of episodes, and she thinks that the growing popularity of television has offered women access to roles that simply weren’t available before. “With projects you can develop over longer periods of time, you are going to have more diverse, complex, multifaceted characters.”
When the cast started filming the project a year ago, they could have no idea how cohesively it would chime with today’s political climate. The story of SS-GB seems abstract in its apocalyptic threat but, imbued with the weight of reality, simultaneously tangible too: one twist, one choice could change the world forever. “History is cyclical,” notes Bosworth, sagely. “It is important to be mindful of those choices.”
“We are in very complex, tumultuous times globally. How I feel is that this is a reminder that there is a right side of history. We have been on the right side of history, and let’s stay on the right side of history.”
Despite this fractious, brittle landscape, Bosworth refuses to bend to negativity. Attribute it to her sunny L.A. disposition, if you will.
“I think there is a lot of fear right now, and I think that it’s important for artists and journalists to band together and not feed this kind of energy,” she says. “I think that good prevails.”—Isobel Thompson
Watch SS-GB on BBC iPlayer here
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