Richard Coyle is very quietly setting about becoming one of the best known actors on UK TV these days, here he talks about the character he plays on ITV1 The Whistleblowers.
When we meet Ben he is unhappy in many ways with his life and the way things have turned out. He’s unfulfilled. He’s volatile and excitable and always has been: that’s his nature. But I think his personality has clashed with his job as a personal injury lawyer. Being a lawyer requires a cool and collected head. Ben kicks against that, and when he sees Mohammed Agiza it drives him to do the first truly spontaneous thing he has ever done.
Ben’s a man who needs to flower, and I think he does that throughout the series. The whistleblowing agency is a way for him to start to live. It’s like he suddenly finds a conscience. He finds something inside himself, a curiosity and a sense of belonging – and that’s what drives him.
I was attracted to the fact that it was a Tony Marchant script and I love his work. And I hadn’t read anything like it. It reminded me of those great 1970s conspiracy movies. Those are my favourite films and that’s my favourite period in film-making, so to get a sense of that from the script was terrific. When I met the director and he said that was how he wanted to shoot it too, I was really excited. I’ve tried to show the dilemma you would face as a human being in Ben’s situation – what would you do if you met a terror suspect? I was interested in examining the prejudices and preconceptions we have. If you read in the media about a terror suspect, do you immediately write them off as a terrorist?
I would like to think I’d be open-minded enough to challenge that prejudice myself. Then the question is why do you do something heroic - is it to be good or is it because you get something out of it? Are you only ever brave if there is a payout or if there is a reward for being brave? Or is truly being brave when you do it with no expectation of reward? I think that’s getting to the core of who you really are. Hopefully, I would have done the right thing. But that’s what Tony writes so well - he puts you right on the line between what’s right and what’s wrong.
All of the moral dilemmas in the series are, in one way or another, pretty gut wrenching. For Ben, I think part of his journey is learning how to empathise with the whistleblowers and not to see it just as an exciting game. I think it particularly hits home when one of them tries to commit suicide to escape their situation – it becomes very real all of a sudden. I think you’d have to be so hard-hearted not to be a little bit wrenched by all of the situations. The key has been to understand why Ben and Alisha fight each time, because they are not superhuman. But in each case there is something which triggers them and makes it appeal on some personal level.
In the face of impossible odds they pursue these cases because it is personal, whether it’s because one of them has been physically attacked or because they can identify with someone’s actual situation. I’m glad that sometimes the outcome is ambiguous. I think it’s right that the cases don’t always have a happy ending. We don’t have all the answers, and we do make mistakes. Some people do get away with it - it’s realistic. You can’t suddenly bring down the whole education system or an environment agency but you can score a small victory in some way. I think that is part of the message - that it’s important to make these small victories. Without sounding too cynical, the good guys don’t always win – and sometimes the bad guys do ruin good people’s lives.
There are a lot of detectives in television who try to be very wry and knowing and a bit too clever for their own good. I don’t want to be po-faced and earnest - it’s not real and I don’t buy it. We can empathise with Ben and Alisha because they are real. They are clearly very much in love, and they compliment each other. Ben is a bit more gung ho than Alisha but I think that’s a good thing for them. Add to Ben and Alisha’s relationship the subject matter, and the whole tone of the series is quite different. It would be easy to sideline Ben and Alisha in favour of the whistleblowers each week, but we see that their journey continues and that they are learning from their mistakes throughout the series. I like the fact that they are not superhuman. You can admire Jack Bauer and look up to him, whereas I think you identify with Ben or Alisha as ordinary people. You can actually put yourself in their situation.