90210 fans can look forward to seeing the return of Dustin Milligan this winter in the role of Tom Cummings on CBC’s new spy series X COMPANY.
Milligan, who also stars as Ted Mullens on CBC’s other freshman series SCHITT’S CREEK, has not had a regular role on the small screen since his departure from the Beverly Hills-set drama back in 2009. But if fans are expecting more teen angst and love triangles, then they’re not going to get that from this series by FLASHPOINT co-creators Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern.
Instead, they’ll be immersed into a fascinating story that will make them curious to know more about how their country’s past. Filmed on location last year in Budapest, Hungary, X COMPANY takes viewers back in time to 1942 in the midst of one of the most harrowing six years in history, World War II.
Behind all of the covert operations is the headquarters known as Camp X, a top-secret training camp for spies that you may be surprised to know actually existed, was located on the shores of Lake Ontario between Whitby and Oshawa, and played a major role in providing the foundations of what we now call the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Although our heroes on the series — which include Aurora Luft (Evelyne Brochu), Alfred Graves (Jack Laskey), Harry James (Connor Price), and Neil Mackay (Warren Brown)— are fictional, the men and women they play are inspired by the real-life stories of the countless British, American and Canadian men and women who served as spies for the Allies during World War II.
As for Milligan, his character, Cummings, is a Madison Avenue wunderkind who is loosely based on David Mackenzie Ogilvy, the “father of advertising,” who worked with the British Intelligence Service. I interviewed the Canadian actor last month to talk about the new series, which premieres on Wednesday, Feb. 18 at 9 p.m. on CBC, as well as how his Draper-esque character’s persuasive abilities benefit the team. Check it out below!
Congrats on the show. I found it really interesting.
Dustin: Nice. You saw the pilot?
Yeah, I watched it twice, actually. The first time I had no idea that Camp X existed, so I thought it was just a fictional take on espionage. Was that a factor for you wanting to join the show? Did you know about that as well?
Dustin: I just learned Camp X. I just started hearing about it cause I think a documentary had come out.
The History channel…
Dustin: Yeah, the History channel. And then a couple weeks [later], the script came across my desk — I don’t have a desk. My laptop. I took a look at it and was like, “Oh, yeah. This is pretty interesting.” What I loved about it is that, yeah, it was this dramatized version of this real place and these real people. I think it’s so cool that the show, as far as a TV show in general to tackle that, but not be so strictly adhering to the history part of it and allowing it to be creative. You know what I mean? Just allowing it to be its own story as well, but still basing everything, rooting everything in this real place and these real — I mean, that is always a great opportunity, a great honour to try to do that. So I was excited about that.
What I also like about the show is that they’re basically ordinary people but placed in extraordinary situations. Do you think the fact that they’re more relatable than someone who has skills for fighting is going to help?
Dustin: That was something we were dealing with all the time cause your instinct, especially I think as a male actor, your instinct is to try to be Mr. Cool…I shoot guns, I run and look like an action hero. But what I found really interesting about it — and this is what I kind of loved about my character Tom [Cummings] is that’s not his trade. He manipulates, he convinces people to do what he wants, and he slowly changes minds through dialogue, through subtlety versus just bang, bang, you’re dead kind of thing. That was something I really identified with. The idea, too, that you could go to war and that you’d be trying not to kill people. Not only are you trying to save lives, but you’re trying to not have anyone die in your effort to save lives. If I were to be put into a war scenario now, that would be what I would try to do as much as possible.
Was it a challenge to play in such a heightened situation that’s not from your normal life, or is it fun to play pretend you’re in a war? (laughs)
Dustin: But that’s what’s interesting… It’s not from my normal life, but this was a real thing, so that’s kind of the trick. So how does one react as yourself or as this character, which is ultimately an extension of yourself. How do you react in something that’s not only an extraordinary situation but it’s also real? I think that’s a challenge, and I think an honour to portray not necessarily real, historical figures but to be able to portray these struggles that people all across Europe, all across the world, at that time were struggling with.
Another interesting aspect to the show is that none of the characters are black versus white. They’re always facing moral dilemmas. Was that also part of the appeal for you to the show?
Dustin: Yeah, I know. And I think that’s what’s great about Mark [Ellis] and Steph [Morgensern], the creators of the show, that they’ve done is that a lot of the missions are based on reality. There is the historical part of it, but again they’re weaving in character traits that are fiction and weaving in these arcs and struggles that, like you said, aren’t black and white. I think that’s what’s great is that, you know, especially World War II and just wars in the past as time goes on, things get idealized. And there’s so much imagery of this strong, American or Canadian soldier. Just this iconic idea and ideal of what those wars were. But the reality is very different, and it’s ugly, and it’s not this shiny, nice picture. I think that’s what the creators have done very well, is make sure that it’s not a comic book version of what the war was like. They’re actually trying to express, through these five brand new spies, express what the effects of war can be while you’re there in the moment.
Since Camp X was so secretive, you didn’t really have that much material or actual cases to look at. Did you find other resources?
DUSTIN. Yeah, there is actually quite a bit of literature out there [that] I didn’t really read… (laughs)
They told me that the guy who did JAMES BOND was inspired by it…
Dustin: Ian Fleming.
Dustin: You know, Ian Fleming was trained an Camp X. David [Mackenzie] Ogilvy, who my character is loosely based on, was an advertising guy who was also apparently trained and working for the Allies as a spy. Yeah, I think that’s what’s interesting about this show is that there’s so much you don’t realize was going on. Because of the nature of espionage, of course you won’t know what’s going on, which I think is relatable to war now, where we’re learning things five, ten years later of what’s gone on recently in the Middle East. Torture…And all that stuff. You never quite know at the time how bad things really are.
As you mentioned, your character is described as having specialities in propaganda and deception. But we never really got to see that in the first episode. Would you be able to say how he does that exactly?
Dustin: Actually, in the second episode, there’s a great example of him…He’s put into a situation, as a lot of the characters are, it’s kind of a kill or be killed situation…Tom is able to find an alternate option in a) Kill somebody b) be killed by somebody. He finds a c). He’s employing these skills he has. Then it pops up again throughout the series. But it’s not until episode two that you really get to see him do his thing.
What do you hope audiences will take from it [the show]? Personally, I find it to be kind of like a tribute to these unsung heroes that don’t really have names since nobody knows them. But they’re kind of doing it vicariously.
Dustin: What’s great is that it’s telling the story of war from a different kind of perspective. There is action, and there is explosions, and guns, and all that kind of stuff, which is inherent in war. But what we’re really doing is pulling the curtain back on, like you said, people who don’t really have names that are famous and written down in books for being spies. Just because of the nature of it, you can’t know these things. It is a nice tribute in a lot of ways, and I think, too, a tribute to Canada’s role in ultimately helping to develop modern espionage and modern spy craft.
Thank you so much. I look forward to the next episode.
Dustin: Thank you, man.