War, what is it for? Elaine Benes may think this is an actual quote by Leo Tolstoy, but Edwin Starr’s protest anthem against the Vietnam War is as good a question to ask in 2022 as it was in 1970. Yet instead of guns and bombs, wars today are fought by 1s and 0s, as cyberattacks and sophisticated computer technology are now the weapons of choice between warring nations.
This is the scenario that the Peacock series The undeclared war operates as the show depicts a realistic future where Russia tries to undermine the UK election in 2024 by hacking into its systems and causing chaos. Sound familiar? In an interview with Digital Trends, stars Simon Pegg (taking a break from his Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises) and newcomer Hannah Khalique-Brown discuss the challenges of playing sophisticated hackers, Pegg’s enjoyment of playing a simple dramatic role, and what audiences can gain by watching the show.
Digital Trends: Simon, what was it? The undeclared war did you like it ?
Simon Pegg: Well, script aside, it was Peter Kosminsky, who is an incredibly respected and prolific titan of British TV drama. He has done so many things and everything he has done has won awards. He’s someone you want to work with. So to get the script from him in the first place, I was like, “Well, obviously I’ll do that.”
And then I read it and was so engrossed in the story that I consumed all six episodes in one go. And in the end, I was amazed and flattered that I was offered the role simply because it’s a really important story that people should see. The show is about a very real situation we find ourselves in these days.
Your character, Danny, is pretty high up the food chain at his job. How did you prepare for a role that required a lot of technical knowledge?
peg: Peter is an incredible acting director. He strives to put his actors at ease and give them everything they need to give their best performance. He gave me a document about Danny’s life and his journey to work at GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters]his early childhood to his family ties at the time.
I also made sure that when I approached the script as an actor, I learned my lines well in advance, because I wanted to be able to say those lines and feel like they were flowing from my tongue. With all the dialogue with the terms about coding and about politics, I wanted Danny to sound like an authority and have authority, and that really came down to approaching him in a very studious way. Usually I get down to business and learn my lines in the makeup chair, so I liked doing something that was a little more difficult.
Hannah, Saara is an incredibly complex character who undergoes many transformations throughout the series. How did you approach his role?
Hannah Khalique-Brown: Excellent question. Well, she is very different from me. It’s funny, Peter sort of made a joke about how we’ve been working together for a few days and really getting to know each other. He told me I wasn’t really like her. His way of thinking is different, his way of speaking is different and his way of standing. She doesn’t move her hands like me.
The key for me is whoever it is, I have to understand the character and fall deeply, deeply and unconditionally in love with them. And that was my key to Saara. Right from the start, I felt this intense connection with her that opened up all the doors of her mind and all the things that are different about us.
I like to work in a way where I’m really building a human life that’s separate from mine. I have to build this memory, this life story, this story. I have to live these memories. I have to make sure that Saara is a real human being who has lived 21 years in her life.
Simon, Danny has limited screen time, and we only really see him at work. How did you bring it to life in those settings?
peg: I spoke to Peter at length about Danny. He had actually met people like him from GCHQ through research. We talked a lot about him and who he was and his relationship to the rest of the characters. Danny is very avuncular and normally quite funny under normal circumstances. He’s probably very approachable.
We thought he was well-liked at GCHQ, but the moment we find him is the start of an international crisis. And so you very rarely see the glimmers of his kind of funny side, because all he does is put out fires for the entire series. It was really interesting to have that knowledge of him in the background so that I could play that as kind of the foundation of who he was, even if you never really see him. It was a very detailed approach to playing the character.
How did you approach your scenes with Hannah?
peg: Well, it was really, really fun just because Hannah is so new to this. It took Peter a year to find Saara in Hannah. And he really hit it off with her. She’s such a capable, competent, talented and confident actress. But also, she wears a kind of innocence on her sleeve. It was really fun to work with someone for whom everything was so fresh. It can only rub off on you. We had a lot of fun.
Hannah, you share several scenes with Simon and Mark Rylance. Can you talk about acting with these two guys?
Khalic-Brown: It was amazing. I couldn’t believe that one of my first acting jobs was working with Simon and Mark. They are both amazing actors who are very different. Simon is best known for his comedy, but I think he wows everyone with the nuance he brings to this performance. He’s such a kind, generous, lovely man, and he’s really funny on and off screen.
Mark is one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever met. I have this book that I take with me everywhere and in which I write everything I learn about acting. And I wrote every day in the green rooms, in the car, on the way home and before the start of the day at lunchtime. And I was asking him about acting and writing it down. I told myself that I would never have this chance again. I learned so much from him. It was a complete master class to work with him.
What do you want viewers to take away? The undeclared war after watching it?
Khalic-Brown: I think on a personal level, I would like them to find themselves able to fall in love with Saara. She’s definitely flawed and complicated and probably not like the usual protagonist of these types of shows. I also hope they watch it and think about the larger political and social issues the show depicts and realize that this stuff really happens, and we shouldn’t let it go where it goes on the show .
peg: I want viewers to reconsider their relationship to the internet and the world and understand that what the show is about isn’t science fiction. The undeclared war is not particularly exaggerated. It is dramatized, certainly, but it is not an exaggerated reality. We are confronted with this situation daily. We have an even more tenuous form of deterrence than we had in the 1980s with nuclear arsenals.
We are constantly vulnerable to attack, even on the personal, social and political levels. And all of this can come from the internet. And it’s still relatively new. And yet, since it has existed for a long time, it has had a prodigious effect on society and on our reactions. This caused arguably irrevocable damage to our interactions. And I think that’s something that we should all be really aware of.
The six episodes of The undeclared warThe first season of is available to stream on Peacock.