When you think of secret agents or action heroes, an endless montage of American or British figures are likely to appear in your mind: James Bond, Captain America, Sydney Bristol, Natasha Romanoff, etc. The list goes on and on.
But what if I told you that a synesthete, a journalist, a student, a policeman, and a salesman were among the ordinary citizens who were handpicked by the Allies to become some of the world’s first secret agents? That’s the concept behind Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern’s (FLASHPOINT) new CBC spy series X COMPANY, which is led by a rising English export from the British stage — Jack Laskey.
Set against the back drop of World War II, X COMPANY introduces viewers to Canada’s biggest secret: Camp X. The real-life facility, which was located on the shores of Lake Ontario before it closed in 1969, was where British, American and Canadian men and women trained to become secret agents before going on dangerous covert missions abroad.
As Alfred Graves, Laskey — whose on-screen credits include roles on the TV series ENDEAVOUR and the upcoming feature GIRL’S NIGHT OUT — plays a quiet, unassuming man with synesthesia, a unique neurological condition that enables the individual to experience two or more senses simultaneously. In Graves’ case, he has fivefold synesthesia, which means all five of his senses are fused, giving him a perfect memory.
His synesthesia soon proves to be a crucial asset for his team — Aurora Luft (ORPHAN BLACK’s Evelyne Brochu), Neil Mackay (LUTHER’s Warren Brown), Tom Cummings (90210’s Dustin Milligan), and Harry James (BEING HUMAN’s Connor Price) — after he is recruited by Camp X leader Duncan Sinclair (FLASHPOINT’s Hugh Dillon). However, Graves doesn’t view his special ability as a gift or a weapon. He sees it as a curse.
I had the fortune of doing a one-on-one interview with Laskey last month at a press event to talk about his role on the new series. You can check it out below.
First of all, I wanted to say congrats on the show. I’ve actually never heard of Camp X or this whole espionage world in World War II. Were you aware of that prior to the show?
JACK: I think it’s a big thing that loads of people don’t know about. I mean, the majority of Canadians who worked for the show didn’t know about Canada’s extraordinary role in the Allied victory in World War II. It’s an important thing to put on the map, right? Anybody who helped in that crazy world that resisted then deserves to be recognized for it. It’s great that CBC has given this voice to this role that Canada played.
What I like about it is that they’re these normal people but placed in extraordinary situations. Do you think this is saying that you don’t really need to have those physical attributes that you normally associate with agents, or fighters, that you can just use your normal talents to rise up to occasions like these?
JACK: Yeah, there’s an aspirational thing in there about that. This show is about a group of people improvising, and modern-day spy craft hasn’t been coined yet. It hasn’t been invented yet. So loads of people try to work out the best solution in the circumstance. Everyone’s using their natural attributes to the best of their abilities. And, yeah, so there’s something aspirational in there. There’s also something historically interesting about it. These are the foundations of what became the CIA, and what we understand from James Bond and all those stuff. But it’s not sort of as polished at this time as it has now become. Spycraft is a much more polished art now. And there’s something which this show does, which I really love, which is kind of the messiness of it all, and people trying to get it right, and sometimes getting it wrong.
Each of these characters have their own talents that they bring to the table. Yours has synesthesia, where basically one of your senses will automatically trigger another one.
JACK: My character’s got fivefold synesthesia, so the response can be in all five of the senses. You can taste it; see a sound; you can see a colour; you could smell it; you can feel it in your right hand — a tingling sensation.
Did you meet with any people with that [synesthesia] to prepare for the role?
JACK: Yeah, I talked to people with synesthesia, one of who is on our crew, and is one of the co-creators on our show, one of the writers, one of the executive producers — Stephanie Morgenstern. She has synesthesia. She doesn’t have fivefold synesthesia, but she was an amazing asset to chat to. Apparently, I mean, stats vary, but one in 2,000 people have some form of synesthesia, so it’s actually very common. Loads of amazing, famous figures had synesthesia. Lots of artists. It’s a very creative way to see the world.
Is it more of a challenge to maintain an accent or play a character that’s really sensitive to everything?
JACK: I love both of those challenges. I love, as an actor, transforming through each role to having a different accent.
So the more obstacles, the better it is? (laughs)
JACK: Yeah, yeah. Pretty much. I just love climbing the mountain in every part and trying to make it more accurate. It’s a great privilege to play someone with a very different perception to your own. Everyone has a different perception of the world, but something as extreme as synesthesia that leads you to all sorts of different understandings of what it means to be human.
Speaking of your character’s view of the world, he’s very timid when we’re introduced to him. He even admits to [Duncan] Sinclair that just going to do his groceries at the supermarket is a challenge for him. Will we continue to see him be tested in his confidence but in the battlefield instead of a desk job?
JACK: Yeah, absolutely. He’s very quickly thrust behind enemy lines in occupied France. He has a fascinating conversation with his confidence over the first season. He’s lived this reclusive lifestyle because he always saw his synesthesia as an obstacle. He was encouraged by his father to hide his difference and not let people understand him. For the first time in his life, he is able to have some friends and have some conversations. The sort of experts at Camp X help him to find coping strategies.
At the beginning, there’s a scene that flashes back to you and Aurora [Luft]. And then at the end, we see what stimulated that scene. Is that saying that they knew each other prior to meeting at the camp, or am I asking for spoilers right now? (laughs)
JACK: Well, it soon becomes clear… But, no, Alfred didn’t know Aurora before.
Okay, I kind of overanalyzed it, assuming that one of them was a mole, playing both sides, cause it was odd that they showed that scene [at the beginning].
JACK: Well, it could be, right?
Or maybe I’m just inventing storylines. (laughs)
JACK: It is great. Invent away.
What do you hope people will take away from this show? Personally, how I see it is that since these characters were based on people that didn’t really have identities, they’re kind of a tribute to these people that served on Camp X.
JACK: I think it’s a very hopeful story about human endeavour, and human resourcefulness, and the coming together of a team, and what a team can do, whereas individuals we could be very isolated. But when we’re together as a team, we can manage to do much more than the sum of our parts. In a relationship, you create something in between you that is another kind of entity almost. The five of these people all bring out amazing qualities in each other and challenge each other. We come back to these war stories over and over again because we need to learn from our past. We don’t want to repeat history. There’s always a danger, which is actually quite close to the surface, that we could go back to a similar situation. There’s always war going on, and we could end up very quickly with someone in power who commits atrocities like Hitler did. And we come back to these stories about World War II because of the warnings it gives to humanity and to understand man’s inhumanity to humanity. Also, it’s an important part of Canada’s history. I hope this show goes around the world, and people know more about that now as a result of the show.
Finally, why do you think it’s this specific war that continues to resonate with audiences? I have my opinion on it, but I’m curious to know yours.
JACK: What’s your opinion?
I think that this period between 1939 and 1945, even if you weren’t directly involved in the war, you were affected in some way. So my grandparents’ generation, and their children…
JACK: Absolutely. We’re all trying to make sense of that still, of how people can do that to other people. As you say, it’s very close in our bloodline, very close in everyone’s bloodline. Everyone has stories from World War II. Lots of people are still alive, who fought in World War II, so there’s an urgency to be telling these stories now. Because quite soon there won’t be people from that generation, and we need to learn from our past experiences.