When director Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1960s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was filming outside London, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. As a big fan of what Ritchie did with his Sherlock Holmes movies, I was intrigued to see his take on a 60s spy thriller. If you’re not familiar with the story, the film is set during the height of the Cold War and stars Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill as a KGB agent and CIA agent, respectively, who are forced to team up in a joint mission to stop a mysterious criminal organization from proliferating nuclear weapons and technology. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. also stars Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, and Hugh Grant.
During a break in filming, I got to participate in a group interview with Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill. While they were guarded about revealing any of the secrets of the film, they did talk about their characters, the level of action, collaborating with Ritchie, their costumes, who gets to be the funny one, Hugh Grant, and a lot more.
Before reading the interview, if you haven’t seen the trailer, I’d watch that first:
What did you guys know about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. coming into this?
ARMIE HAMMER: Next to nothing, if not nothing at all. It was a little bit before my time, I never caught any reruns from that. The only thing I knew about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was Guy Ritchie was directing it and that was enough for me.
What kind of action can we expect from it? We’re told it’s an origin story, so how far are you guys into your training, are you guys learning on the job?
HENRY CAVILL: My character is not a born CIA agent, he was very much into the black market before that and got blackmailed into the CAA – CIA, not CIA, that’s very different [laughs]; different kind of killer. He has learnt some skills, but he’s not born and bred by any means. He’s learnt some essential skills to survive but it’s his skillset that he used on the black market that’s useful to the CIA.
HAMMER: Ilya’s a little bit different and that creates a fun dynamic between the two characters, he’s a born and trained spy. He’s a KGB spy and that’s the only thing that’s important to him and that’s pretty much all he’s about, and that does create some friction between the two of them.
I don’t think any of the principals in this film are using their own accents are they?
CAVILL: Luca [Calvani]?
HAMMER: But he changed it a bit, I think he went more Italian.
How does that make getting into the characters and staying into the characters and changing your performance?
HAMMER: There’s always something that you have to ground your character with when you’re acting, when it’s something as easy as an accent, when you have your accent down without thinking about it. As soon as you start speaking in that accent you don’t act like yourself; you don’t have the same inflections, you don’t use your hands the same, it’s a totally different way of speaking. That’s helpful, just changing it up, keeping it different.
You’ve mentioned in the past about collaborating with Guy and the improvising. I’m curious how it is on set in terms of tweaking the dialogue, because I know that’s how Guy likes to work?
CAVILL: We come in every morning, we run a scene, and when we’re in the room it’s easier to work out which dialogue works better. So every morning you know your lines but expect them to change, or be prepared for any kind of change. Some days they stay exactly as they are and other days they change completely, and that’s quite refreshing. I quite like it because there’s no opportunity for the scene to get too stale before you actually perform it. If you over-rehearse it, for example. So you can get in there and do it, and it feels very fresh and very new and of the moment when you shoot it.
Has there been any sort of dramatic change through the riffing of the dialogue, in terms of story or dramatic changes?
CAVILL: It’s entirely possible, we’ve had chunks put out and new chunks put in. Just the other day one of the actors had to have a tiny paragraph added, it happens often, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing, because the only reason it’s being added is to make something better.
HAMMER: Sometimes he’ll switch the languages on you. It’s all part of the fun, you’ve just gotta roll with it.
Henry, I wonder what was your knowledge of the TV show? Did you ever watch it and if not what attracted you to this?
CAVILL: I didn’t ever watch it, it was before my time much like Armie, and what attracted me was Guy, he’s a great director and the story was very cool, and I thought the only thing that could make this cooler was Guy. That was the selling point for me.
Have you guys gone back and watched it at all, or are you just going off the script here?
HAMMER: I did, yeah, before we started I bought them on DVD and gave them a watch to see what all the fuss is about.
CAVILL: I haven’t, personally.
Can you talk about the chemistry that you’re discovering between the two of you? Guy Ritchie films, especially the Sherlock ones, have two strong leads playing off each-other, how are you guys finding that?
CAVILL: Great, it’s enjoyable, a lot of fun. Because we’re both like-minded in our approach to work, it’s easy. We can walk in in the morning and be fine with line changes and small character tweaks, it’s one of those things where we all have fun together. We spend time sitting in Guy’s executive viewing suite, as we’ve come to call it, and we can all chill out together, as opposed to it being us disappearing off to our own separate trailers. So, certainly for me, personally speaking, I can’t speak for Armie, it’s been great.
HAMMER: It’s been great. That’s one of the things that Guy does so well, male-on-male relationships; how he’s able to create these friends who have these great dynamics between them. It’s been great.
Is there someone who gets to be funny and someone who’s the set-up guy?
CAVILL: We both have our funny moments, the characters are quite different, so the humour that comes from the characters is different.
Can you talk a little about the costumes, getting to play with the 60s wardrobe? Talk a little bit about the the collaboration with the costume designer.
HAMMER: Joanna, our costume designer for the project, is incredible. She has such a great eye for material and shape and texture, so we’ve gotten to play with some great period stuff. Some of it is actual vintage clothing that we get to wear, some of it is made for us, but each and every article of clothing is hand-selected by Joanna and Guy, and we get an input on that as well. It was a fun wardrobe process, getting ready, because even though we hadn’t seen the set, hadn’t seen the stages, we were reading a script that we didn’t know if they’d give us a whole new one, so there wasn’t a lot to know, but we would go into these wardrobe fittings and be like, “Ah, so this is the feel”. So it was informative, it was great.
The stunt work, are you doing a lot of physical work on your own?
CAVILL: There’s a lot of stunt work in this, and I’ll big-up Armie, because he will do that himself. He’s been doing incredible motorbike stuff, and incredible boat stuff as well. I had no idea he was so talented doing these things, but his stunt double, poor guy, hardly has a chance to do anything because he’s out there doing it all by himself. But generally, yeah, there’s some cool stuff we get to do. The really dangerous stuff they’ll do, obviously, for insurance reasons, but we do get to have a lot of fun.
HAMMER: We’ve done everything together. We’ve been on speedboats together, I’ve been on the back of his Vespa riding around Rome. We’ve got to do a lot of fun stuff.
That sounds romantic.
HAMMER: It was really nice, yeah. We had a nice bottle of Chianti.
CAVILL: Speaking of chemistry.
HAMMER: We didn’t have chemistry before Rome, I’ll tell you that.
CAVILL: We’ll always have Rome.
The personalities of your characters differ, what are their different traits?
CAVILL: Chalk and cheese, really. I’m anti-establishment and sort-of self-serving, I would say, whereas Armie…
HAMMER: He’s a hardcore red communist. It’s all about the establishment and all about the ‘abhorration’ about the sense of American entitlement. So there’s a lot of that. There’s a very different way we both approach our jobs, and at different times it definitely bugs both of our characters. They’re just at opposite ends of the spectrum, really.
It’s 60’s spies too, are there gadgets? We’re not hearing a lot about toys.
CAVILL: There are plenty of gadgets. Illya’s more of the gadget man, I tend to go a bit more simple. There’s only so much we can say.
When you first got the script, because obviously in the movie there’s a lot of dialogue, chemistry is important but the action is important as well. Were there any parts that made you wonder ‘how are we going to do this’?
HAMMER: There are big sequences, there are big set-pieces, obviously we can’t say too much, but I’ve been able to see things with my own eyes that I’m just like, ‘There’s no way they’ll be able to work this out, of course they’ll do that CGI…Oh no. In fact, there it goes right now!’ It’s big action pieces, and I think people are going to dig, but done in a Guy Ritchie style where it’s not about the action piece, it’s all part of the scene. It’s part and parcel.
Given that you are both veterans of big pictures before, is there anything you found on this set that surprises you or impresses you about this set in particular?
HAMMER: We do work short days.
CAVILL: Some days are short. The vibe on this set particularly, which is all thanks to Guy essentially, is a lot more relaxed. We’re here to enjoy telling the story. There’s less of a heart attack every day just to get through it, and Guy’s fantastic at creating that environment. He really wants to enjoy the process and he’ll make sure that happens.
Do either of you work with Hugh Grant in the movie and if so, what’s he brought to proceedings?
CAVILL: He’s brought Hugh Grant to the proceedings.
HAMMER: It’s a trump card.
CAVILL: We’ve got to have some interaction, and again I’m not going into any story details or anything, but it’s been great, lovely guy, fun to work with.