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Close to the Enemy: Jim Sturgess Talks "Refreshing" but Cryptic Post-War Thriller

Why you should watch the Acorn TV period drama

Kaitlin Thomas

With all the television available to watch these days, you'll be forgiven if you've not yet heard of the drama series Close to the Enemy. Currently unspooling weekly in the U.S. on Acorn TV, a streaming service dedicated to bringing the best of British TV to everyone's eyeballs, the cryptic BBC One drama stars Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) as Callum Ferguson, a British Intelligence officer nearing the end of his service after World War II who's assigned one last task before he can begin to put the horrors of the war behind him.

The seven-episode series, written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, follows Cal's attempts to convince Dieter (August Diehl), a German aeronautical engineer with sought-after knowledge, to work with the British to build a jet engine. Dieter and his young daughter are removed from their home and taken to England where they're held in a hotel that, like much of Europe, is rebuilding in the wake of the war. But given the uneasy political climate and the distrust that exists between Cal and Dieter at the outset, Cal's job is not an easy task.

Although the drama is in no hurry to reveal answers to the many questions it proposes, it's well-acted and stuffed to the gills with a number of familiar faces. In addition to Sturgess, viewers will recognize Angela Bassett, Alfred Molina, Freddie Highmore and Alfie Allen among others. TVGuide.com recently caught up with Sturgess to discuss his role and what to expect from the series.

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What peaked your interest in Close to the Enemy and drew you to it?
Jim Sturgess: Really it was just the script as it always is. I just got this script from Stephen Poliakoff so already I was kind of interested just 'cause it had his name written on the front of the script. I kind of knew the sort of world I was going to get my head into so I was already very excited to read it. You know, Stephen's writing is very particular, the way he writes these kinds of screenplays [that are] very different from a lot of other scripts. It's almost like reading a novel really. You get really drawn into it and sucked into it. It was just a period of history that I didn't know much about as well, so it was quite informative as well as being really enjoyable to read.

What is something about Cal in particular that was easy to access, especially if you weren't that familiar with post-World War II history?
I mean he's quite a complicated and layered character. So there wasn't one thing in particular, but it was an interesting place to sort of start a character's journey, I suppose, in the sense that you're starting his journey at the end of the war. The residue of that war is sort of sitting heavily on his shoulders. To discover what he'd been through during that time and what he'd seen, the sort of destruction and all the terrible things that had gone on for him, that's kind of where you start with him. And that's kind of an interesting place to start with any character really.

But yeah, I started sort of specifically not really knowing what I thought about him. I read the first two scripts, I think, before I got to sit down and talk with Stephen, and I remember being very unsure of who he was and what his intentions were. He was sort of as equally as charming as he was sort of obnoxious. I didn't know if I trusted him. So that was very interesting.

Speaking of Cal being layered, we get these small hints of these things that he's been through in the first couple of episodes, what can you tease about what his journey is like through the whole series? What is he really trying to accomplish on an emotional level by the end of this?You go through this journey and this relationship that he has with a German aeronautical engineer -- with Dieter -- and they really start to become friends. They really have a sort of mutual respect for each other, and very quickly the atrocities that happened in the war slowly start to fade away as they become the people they really are.

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What is Cal's journey like throughout the series then? How does this affect him?
It's sort of hard to talk about that without giving too much away, you know what I mean? He goes through a lot. He gets more and more kind of caught up in his own -- in himself, actually. ... As he holds more power within his movements in the hotel he becomes even more arrogant in a way in places. And [he] becomes more and more concerned about his brother and the protectiveness he has for his brother.

Speaking of the hotel, it's kind of like a prison for certain characters like Dieter and his daughter, but it also sort of means that Cal isn't completely free either. What did that sort of setting add to the series?
The setting in the hotel was huge. I mean, it was a big character in the story and it was amazing that we were able to get this old derelict bank, which is actually what it was years ago in Liverpool. You'd never find an empty building like that in London these days. But yeah, it becomes a huge character in the story, which Stephen does a lot. He likes to have a stage for his actors to kind of come in and out of, and so the corridors and the "behind closed doors" becomes a sort of big thematic character in the show. It's a strange time because, I mean, as much as these people are being held up in the hotel as prisoners, they're also sort of being given this VIP treatment. As much as they were prisoners they were sort of guests of honor at the same time. So it was an interesting dynamic.

We have this big backdrop of post World War II. We can see the war is still very present on Cal. How will that continue to affect him?
I think that sort of trouble of the war, he discovers more and more stuff as the story goes on. There's a whole thing with the character Alfred Molina plays whereby he's given more information about things that could have been stopped and things that could have prevented the war, and it just fuels his fury for what happened really more than anything. So that becomes a real definite, sort of passionate aggressive drive to do something about that.

Kathy [Phoebe Fox] from the War Crimes Unit isn't making things easy for him at the beginning. Should we expect them to keep butting heads?
Yeah, I mean she's kind of a constant reminder of this moral tightrope that he's constantly walking. She's consistently sort of there nagging at his heels, reminding him that you can't just let these people get away with what they've done just for the sake of burying information and for national security. So yeah, she's a constant reminder and a constant presence of the flip side of that moral tightrope. She definitely doesn't go away; they butt heads a lot. But also they start to help each other. There's a mutual respect between them, I think, throughout the show.

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The first few episodes are a bit of a slow burn and you can tell that something is building up, but we're taking our time getting to know these characters at first. What can you tease about how the action ramps up later and why people should be sticking around?
It's so hard to say much of this stuff without giving anything away. It's really difficult. But Stephen is so brilliant at writing. What's great about it is it isn't just full of twists and turns and shock factors and cliffhangers. He just writes so you become so intrigued with what these characters' stories are that you just want to keep kind of following them down a corridor, if you like, and just sort of peaking around the corner to sort of see what they're up to and the story definitely gathers momentum.

You know, Stephen's brilliant. [He's] just daring enough and is skilled enough to sort of take his time with the storytelling and with the characters. And it just has a really sort of uneasy kind of build throughout the journey of all the characters. More and more the characters get introduced and they all bring a different dynamic to the story, and they all come with their own stories and with their own -- everyone's sort of carrying their own personal residue from after the war 'cause everybody had different experiences during the war. So everybody's coming at it from a different perspective. So yeah, it just continues to build in a quite eerie, unsettling kind of way.

This show seems to have an overarching theme of unlikely people coming together and working together even though they're from very different national backgrounds, which seems very apropos in this current global political climate. Do you think that this is an important show for people to be watching right now?
I do and I think it's always interesting to go back into history to look at key moments in history and sort of remind ourselves about those periods of time to sort of move forward into the future. It's definitely a period of time that we should never forget and to continue to tell stories from. ... So yeah, I do. It's as current now as it ever has been.

And why should everyone watch the show?
I just think it's a brilliant piece of writing. Stephen is so amazing at what he does. It's so tried and tested. He's been writing and bringing sort of high quality drama to certainly British television screens for many, many years and he continues to do so. Like I said, when I read it, for me it was just really refreshing that something wasn't just trying to trick you all the time. It wasn't using those sort of writing stunts that kind of shock you. The characters are so intricately woven that you really just want to keep with them and sort of discover what is going to happen next, not because you're being tricked into it or sort of shocked into it. There's just an intrigue. I just believe it to be a really well-crafted piece of writing and drama.

Close to the Enemy is currently airing Mondays on Acorn TV.

(Editor's Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.)