photography Clement Pascal style Romina Herrera Malatesta interview Vivian Wang
Prime Time: Counterpart’s Harry Lloyd on spy-fi and the evolution of storytelling
“It’s been a gentle start to the day,” Harry Lloyd says with a smile, speaking at a subdued volume while his six-month-old baby naps in the other room. We’re chatting on a Saturday afternoon, and Lloyd’s tousled hair is silhouetted against the sunlight streaming through the hotel room windows. It’s a warm day in Los Angeles, a stark contrast to the subzero chill that he braved for last month’s photo shoot in New York.
On screen, the English actor’s piercing gaze bespeaks a calculating persona, an agenda beneath the charm. Offscreen, there’s an unguarded, guileless ease to Lloyd’s manner—he’s thoughtful and genuinely engaged in the questions posed to him.
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Lloyd is perhaps best-known for his portrayal of the unscrupulous, throne-obsessed Viserys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones. Since his character’s macabre demise, the 35-year-old has been plenty busy. Among other screen and stage projects, Lloyd played the classmate and confidante to Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything; a brilliant (and womanizing) novelist in The Wife (Lloyd mentions that he’s thrilled for Glenn Close’s Oscar nomination); and an intelligence officer, opposite J.K. Simmons, in the Starz original series Counterpart. His latest undertaking—the reason he’s in LA—is the Marvel comics-based series, Legion. For the third and final season of the FX show, Lloyd will play the role of David Haller’s father and X-Men leader, Professor Charles Xavier. (In so doing, he joins the ranks of Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy, who portrayed Professor X in the film series.)
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Our conversation starts with Counterpart, the sci-fi/espionage thriller. A Cold War experiment in East Germany has splintered the timeline, and two formerly identical worlds now exist in an uneasy and rapidly unraveling détente. Each character in the show has an “other” self—a counterpart on the other side—and crossovers between the two dimensions wreak geopolitical havoc. There are slick diplomats, hapless bureaucrats, a contract assassin—and at the center is Peter Quayle, the director of Strategy in the Office of Interchange, a sort of United Nations-meets-MI6 outfit.
The morally obtuse Quayle is not exactly a sympathetic figure, but Lloyd embodies the character with a subtlety that allows the vulnerability to seep through the cracks in the bravado. As Quayle’s carefully-calibrated life crumbles, you feel for him—a national security strategist who’s in way over his head, blind to the fact that his own wife is a mole. Those pale, elegant hands are not meant to be dirtied fumbling about dim halls and holding rooms—and that’s not even getting into the subplots within the plot twists.
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Lloyd’s enthusiasm for the project is clear. He calls Counterpart one of the favorite things he’s ever worked on, and credits Justin Marks, the creator of the show: “The writing is excellent, which attracts really good actors.” Among the sterling cast is, of course, J.K. Simmons, who plays two Howard Silks—the placid paper-pusher, Howard “Alpha,” in dimension one; and the cocksure clandestine operative, Howard “Prime,” in dimension two.
“I was very scared of him originally,” Lloyd admits with a laugh when I ask about his experience working with Simmons, who garnered an Oscar for his portrayal of a ruthless music instructor in Whiplash. “But he [Simmons] has been so welcoming and makes you feel at ease. I’ve learned so much from him—and we have a lot of fun.”
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The scenes with Quayle Alpha and Howard Prime are often tense, even claustrophobic, not just because they take place in dark cars and cramped rooms, but because we sense the stranglehold of identity—the underlying question of just how much of one’s self is the product of choice versus circumstance. If you put John le Carré and Jorge Luis Borges in the same room, they might come up with something like this—forking paths that diverge and converge, labyrinths of spies and alter egos.
Lloyd describes Quayle Alpha and Howard Prime as an “unhappy couple, both caught in this lie, who must rely on each other even though neither likes or respects the other.” On the flip side, Lloyd continues, “Quayle Prime and Howard Alpha have a completely different relationship” such that playing his character’s “other” feels “like a completely different job.”
There’s a cerebral, granular detail to Lloyd’s musings when I ask about the characters, fictional or real, that he draws from in portraying the two Quayles.
He explains that while on break between filming the Berlin and LA portions of season two, he and Justin Marks discussed the aesthetics of Alien 3. Marks envisioned Echo, the interrogation facility in dimension two, as a “penal colony, rather than a hospital or prison. The relationships between the inmates and officers draw on that” psychological dynamic.
In conveying Quayle’s “slightly unhinged” persona, Lloyd takes cues from other classics: Billy Bibbit from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a “somewhat childish figure who looks up to McMurphy,” and Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, who harbors a manic obsession with Marlon Brando’s Kurtz. Lloyd incorporates elements of these characters in Quayle Prime’s dynamic with Yanek, a warden at Echo—there’s an “evangelical fervor, where you sense [the character’s] loss of contact with reality.”
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Season two of the show delves deeper into the deceit, paranoia, and existential quandaries inherent in navigating and manipulating two worlds. (It seems no coincidence that the writers chose Alexander Pope as the name of the character who trains sleeper agents—a little learning is a dangerous thing.) I ask Lloyd about the techniques he uses to keep his Alpha and Prime personas from getting jumbled.
“In terms of playing two parts for the first time, I’m lucky in that Quayle Prime exists solely in the Echo location, so we were able to do all that filming in a couple of weeks over the summer,” Lloyd tells me. “This season, we started filming in Berlin and ended in LA, so having a new location, new set,” helped keep the two characters separate.
Lloyd can’t discuss more details from season two without risking plot spoilers, so we pivot to other projects. I mention the internet speculation over whether Viserys Targaryen makes a comeback in the next season of Game of Thrones. “Really?” Lloyd replies with a mix of curiosity and incredulity. “That death seemed pretty final to me—I’m not sure how he comes back from that.”
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I explain that the Reddit murmurings refer more to flashback scenes, and then ask Lloyd about filming his character’s grisly exit.
“That was pretty much the last scene I filmed on that show, and I remember that day very well,” Lloyd says—the amusement is pronounced in his voice. “It was freezing cold. We shot quite early in the morning, and I had to act drunk. Doing that so early in the day can go horribly wrong,” he explains, as you don’t want to overact it. But with a death scene like that, where the would-be king is “crowned” as molten gold is poured over his head, Lloyd could really let loose with the screaming—a finale that’s seared into fans’ minds.
Lloyd draws out nuances in his characters through deep-dives into their back stories. When filming the Game of Thrones pilot, he kept George R.R. Martin’s books under his chair for ease of consultation. As the filming continued, though, Lloyd wanted to get beyond Daenerys Targaryen’s narration of Viserys as the “brute—the petulant, unkind older brother.”
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In Lloyd’s view, that perspective discounts the whole of Targaryen history: “This character feels the weight of his family on his shoulders. He’s had a terrible childhood; his parents are dead. He has no family apart from a little sister who doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. He carries these scars, and by re-writing the narrative as the ‘Chronicles of Viserys Targaryen,’ we start to see how Viserys justifies his cruelty.”
Lloyd pauses briefly, mulling over this re-framing: “That’s the job of an actor—to give your character a mouthpiece” and guide the audience as to where our sympathies should lie.
“It’s a great time to be an actor,” Lloyd continues. “I’m lucky to be working with people I’ve admired for years, and to arrange projects [in a way that allows me] to explore different avenues. I hope it stays like this—there are so many more stories to tell.”
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Our conversation drifts to more meta territory—how technological evolution continues to reshape the way we consume and relate to art and storytelling. Lloyd is democratic in his engagement with cultural mediums—he enjoys audio books and made-for-radio plays, and he’s fascinated by the future of VR. He loves the stage and recently played the lead role in The Good Canary, John Malkovich’s London directorial debut. Lloyd has also been on the other side of the camera, writing and directing “Supreme Tweeter.” The short web series, made in 2015, is premised on a cheeky concept that came to his co-creator (and now wife), Jayne Hong, in a dream: What if North Korea’s Kim Jong-un suddenly follows you on Twitter—what absurdity might ensue and what are the implications of treating your identity as a commodity, a “brand”? (I point out that this satirical take on social media as propaganda was an eerily prescient concept, given our current Tweeter-in-Chief—a topic that Lloyd diplomatically sidesteps.)
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With streaming services supplanting cable and the proliferation of social media content, it’s a challenge, says Lloyd, “to hold erratic attention spans for more than a moment.” Among the tech-driven transformations that he references is how long-form television shows like Counterpart, with intricate plot lines and character arcs, are replacing the novel as a way of enjoying long-form stories. He also observes that interactive video games are looking more like films, with complex narratives and attention to visual detail and cinematic soundtracks, and vice versa—there are online films that contain a choose-your-own-adventure component with multiple plot lines. These various forms of entertainment may all be converging, Lloyd hypothesizes, as “new audiences have a desperate thirst for full immersion.”
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For all these innovations, though, Lloyd jokingly refers to himself as a “fuddy-duddy” who loves to read books and has a record player back home in London. That doesn’t rule out throwback video games, though—for Christmas, Marks gave him a miniature version of the original Nintendo system, preloaded with all the old NES games. His favorite? “Super Mario 3, where Mario gets to wear the raccoon tail.” And continuing the theme of constant evolution, Lloyd points out that players now design new levels for these old games, which everyone can then upload to their own handheld consoles.
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For now, though, there’s not much by way of free time. Lloyd is a new dad, and it’s entirely endearing how his tone and manner warm to the point of giddiness when discussing fatherhood. “Long story short, it’s phenomenal, beyond description,” he says. “There’s definitely a lot to learn,” but he’s enjoying the daily agenda, which includes “a lot of singing and chatting and mimicry” with the baby—spending time “staring at each other, making each other laugh, communicating in this pre-language way, just getting to know each other.”
As for audiences just getting to know Lloyd, the depth and versatility he brings to screen and stage promise many more dimensions beyond Quayle’s Alpha and Prime selves to be explored. Lloyd doesn’t rule out anything when it comes to collaborations and characters—as he puts it, “the more you give, the more you get out of the experience.” And more of Harry Lloyd is a very good thing.
The next episode of Counterpart airs February 10th on Starz
Article: Vivian H.W. Wang
Vivian is a New York-based writer and photographer. By day, she advocates for wilderness protection; by night, she documents the wildness unleashed on stage and screen. Vivian holds a BA from Columbia University and an MSC from Oxford University Website: lithophytephoto.com
Photographer Clement Pascal Fashion Stylist Romina Herrera Malatesta Talent Harry Lloyd Groomer Leonardo Manetti for Ion Studio NYC @SeeManagement Fashion Assistant Elaine Ragland Special thank you to Jessica Sze & Jenny Tversky @ ShelterPR