SPOILER ALERT: This story includes details about Season 3 of Peaky Blinders.
The Steven Knight-created crime epic Peaky Blinders recently concluded its third season on BBC Two in the UK, while all six episodes were released on Netflix in the U.S. on May 31. This was arguably the strongest season yet for the saga of the Shelby clan; Deadline has called it “sheer TV poetry in motion.” Despite a rabid fan base in more than 160 countries, Peaky is still an Emmy outlier. Could this be the year the Caryn Mandabach Productions/Tiger Aspect drama cracks the TV Academy’s collective consciousness?
Cillian Murphy plays Tommy Shelby, the intense and conflicted war veteran who leads the gangster family and who this season suffered the death of his wife, Grace (Annabelle Wallis), after a short window of wedded bliss. Set in 1924, Season 3 built on the Shelby family having ascended into high-society from its humble beginnings in Birmingham’s Small Heath, and the personal issues that presents — along with being pulled into an international arms deal, encountering a group of White Russians with cursed jewels, political upheaval and a truly evil priest (Paddy Considine). Tom Hardy was also back as the menacing yet comic Alfie Solomons. Meanwhile, Paul Anderson’s Arthur continued to struggle with his inner demons, and Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) aimed for new status. It didn’t end well for members of the family, as Tommy appeared to betray them all in the season finale at what Knight calls the character’s “most nihilistic.”
The series was recently renewed for two seasons and Knight is hard at work continuing to write the Shelby arc. An Oscar-nominee for Dirty Pretty Things, he’s equally busy in the feature arena. He wrote the Brad Pitt/Marion Cotillard WWII drama Allied which is in post, and has The Girl In The Spider’s Web and World War Z 2 on deck. Murphy meanwhile is currently shooting Dunkirk with frequent collaborator Christopher Nolan as well as Hardy. Wallis is on the set of the Tom Cruise-starrer The Mummy, and Anderson, who appeared in The Revenant with Hardy and In The Heart Of The Sea with Murphy, is about to start a new film. McCrory is currently on stage at the National Theatre.
Despite their busy schedules, they take four months out a year to toil in an intense, damp and cold shoot in the north of England. “They have to be passionate about it, it’s such hard work for not as much money,” says exec producer Caryn Mandabach. This is a passion project for musicians and actors, too, who roundly ask to be a part of it. The period setting is juxtaposed with a contemporary soundtrack that has included Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Radiohead and even the late David Bowie who was a big acolyte. Next season, we can expect more, “I want to see Cillian with Tom Hardy. I want to see Cillian with lots of different actors on screen,” says Knight.
Coming out of Season 3, Tommy has “stopped believing you can change and get respectability,” Knight tells me. In mapping out Seasons 4 and 5, Knight wants to “build him up again so that there’s a bit more hope.” But don’t expect it to be quite co cut-and-dried. Knight says, “It’s like throwing fireworks in front of a horse. I know what I’m going to confront them with, but who knows how they’re going to behave and who’s going to betray who.”
I recently chatted with Murphy, McCrory, Anderson and Wallis about Season 3, their individual characters, what sets Knight’s writing apart and the possibility of a Peaky Blinders movie. Here’s our discussion:
The Shelbys went in all sorts of directions this season and the finale ended with another tense stand-off. Steve says it’s Tommy at his most “nihilistic.” Did he really betray his family?
Cillian Murphy: With Steve, we’ve been texting and he says, “I’ve got a plan, we’ve got to talk.” So he’s obviously got it worked out. So, therefore, Tommy has got a plan. This whole thing is seemingly to betray his family and when that awful scene happens at the end, he knows what he needs to do. But I do think this whole [season] and the material wealth the family has amassed, and the whole power that they’ve amassed, exposed a lot of the characters and exposed a lot of their desires. And I think a lot of those weren’t very appealing to Tommy, you know? Polly in her need to become a woman of grace and substance, and the others’ need for wealth and stuff like that, and what they do with that wealth. I think at the end we see him feeling like the one thing that he holds true, the one thing that he holds close to his heart — his family — have they actually revealed themselves as something not worthy of that?
At one point in Season 3, Duchess Tatiana says to Tommy, “You break the laws, but obey the rules.” What’s your interpretation of that?
Murphy: I have to answer that in the general. Now that you’ve seen the whole six episodes you can tell where Steve was headed with Tommy and the family in general. It’s showing Tommy at his most emotionally and mentally and psychologically delicate state that we’ve ever seen him. And I think that scene at the end of the series where he appears to basically betray his family is the culmination of that and he’s back to being once again the ultimate outsider. And I think whatever this drive for him to be tempted by society or the establishment has backfired tremendously and I think for the first time we see him as this capable Tommy that we’ve followed for the first two [seasons] who has begun to unravel and we see him at a point where he’s completely unraveled.
A major theme of the series is whether people can escape their origins. Steve recently told me that he thinks people change and stay the same, but as they get older get closer to their true selves. What do you guys think?
Helen McCrory: I think absolutely you can escape your origins. Some of the most extraordinary people in history have come from very humble backgrounds with no opportunities. Many people with great opportunities are a**holes. With Polly, we see her at the end of episode 2 killing a man and she’s Catholic, and if you believe in God and that murder is a sin, you either have to repent — in which case true repenting means you have to change. You can’t just say “I’m sorry I killed a man. I’m gonna go kill another man so I’ll come back in a couple of weeks and get pardoned for that.” Or do you believe in a godless world? These are very fundamental questions for anyone, you know, “Why am I here? What’s it for?”
So I think that Polly absolutely wants to change in a way of moving into a higher, richer society. And the shock, I suppose the naiveté, is people used to think before the First World War that the people who governed the country were somehow better than them. What they eventually realized is that as you moved up, they weren’t necessarily better or purer, they were just more powerful and their crimes no longer affected just a small part of Birmingham but actually would affect a country. It’s very interesting Steve’s interest in Winston Churchill who is often seen as a hero because of his brilliant oration; but actually if you turn over some of the dossiers, there’s a murkier story behind that. Polly’s changing her outward circumstances and the real question is can you change who you are? Arthur and John you see drowning in a new society and unable to adapt. I think Polly does adapt. I think Tommy adapts because it’s sink or swim.
Paul Anderson: For sure you can change a behavior or a pattern in your life or a situation. You can get away from that area or that place where you live. There are situations that can be changed. But I think where Arthur is concerned and where he is right now, I don’t know. There are certain things you don’t change in the person. No matter where you go, you take yourself with you. Even if he moved to the U.S. with Linda, he’s still going to be Arthur Shelby who works in a convenience store and is trying to use a till. He’d probably get frustrated with it and throw it out the window until Linda tells him. I think in order for him to change properly, he needs constant supervision and reassurance.
Murphy: You see what happens with Tommy and Polly, what happens with Arthur. They’re all trying to change or having aspirations to change or desires. But ultimately, it’s that sort of class system shutting the door in their faces. But, you know I do think personally that Tommy has evolved. And I think he has changed and I’m very, very curious to see what happens next because I don’t think in terms of material wealth or influence. I think that’s the top of the chart for him and it’s going to be heading downwards now. I’m just guessing.
Was there a turning point for Tommy this season?
Murphy: I think the fact that his kid was stolen and nearly died. That’s the one thing that’s pure because they took away his wife and the little boy is the one thing that hasn’t been tainted by f***ing just life in general, not to mind the criminal world. So I think what he went through in the series emotionally, and physically, myself and the director Tim (Mielants) we always wanted to really, really push it and that’s why I think Tommy has been altered sort of irrevocably throughout this. Sort of because of what he suffered, what he went through physically and losing his wife and almost losing his son and now basically he’s left alone. That last shot you just see him standing in that big empty house and everybody’s gone.
Paul, what is it that attracts you to playing Arthur?
Anderson: I love everything about Arthur. I love the good and the bad and the ugly and the insecurities and the ego and the pain and the loss and the headaches from the war and the things he’s seen. Playing them in the third season it was the dichotomy of the good and bad. He’s wanting to change and yet in Season 2 he thoroughly reveled in the violence. There’s an interesting thing in the first episode of Season 3 when Arthur shoots the guy in the basement. Before we shot that scene, I took into account where Arthur was and the person he’s trying to be and Linda. I went through all of it and said to the director: “Arthur in Season 2 would have reveled in this; I would have been lit through about it. I would have taken my coat off and made a meal of it in terms of acting the pleasure of the scene.” Arthur didn’t kill the Russian the way I would have done in Season 2. It was much more scrappy and not as clean as Arthur would have done it because of the dichotomy. Originally, we shot it where he was strangling me and the gun went off accidentally. I liked that version because it added to the whole, he didn’t want to do it and the gun just went off. There’s also the dichotomy in Season 3 of the suffering and the anguish and the love for Tommy and the wanting. The character that Steven Knight has written is very complex and that’s why I like Arthur so much. He has so many flaws and attributes and they’re exciting to play. Tommy’s my younger brother yet I want to be accepted by him and I look up to him. It’s a strange dynamic – but give Arthur some credit. It’s not all about Tommy’s approval; he’s stepped out on his own.
Helen, how have you grown with Polly over three seasons?
McCrory: It’s fascinating. I’ve always said no to doing any sort of series because I will never sign anything because it means you can never guarantee the quality of what you’re doing, you’re at the mercy of a contract. I’m used to doing either a film or a play or something where there’s a finite character as opposed to a series. It’s quite odd. I was very nervous that suddenly Polly has her hair cut and is standing in a pink silk dress and you’re thinking, “Oh my god, the audience is going to be going ‘What the hell’s going on with Pols?’” But actually they just accept it just as if a person in your life was to do that.
How physically and mentally taxing is it to play these roles? You shot six episodes simultaneously. How do you keep all of that straight?
Anderson: Not in a negative way, but it is very exhausting. The playing of Arthur is a very exhausting process for me which starts as soon as I start to put the clothes on. That’s not my own moustache. I chose that on purpose. I thought if I’m constantly wearing a moustache I’ll be Arthur the whole time. I needed the act of putting that on and taking it off. With all of my work, I try to give everything to the characters but Arthur demands so much. On some things, you have a kind of balance, you can allow yourself to give some and keep some for yourself. With Arthur, you have to go all the way. Emotionally it was a rollercoaster for Season 3. It was a long shoot and cold — I experienced colder weather on The Revenant in Canada, but Britain can be a brutal place in the winter.
Murphy: You sort of have to accept a temporary absence from real life. You have to cancel real life and your whole existence is sort of devoted to try and figure out what is going on in the show and where you should be emotionally. Honestly, I’d prefer if we did it in two blocks, but economically it makes more sense to do it simultaneously. You know, it’s a mindf***. It’s like some mad mathematical equation that you’re trying to solve. But you just rely on a great production team and a great director and a great crew and you just kind of hang on for dear life.
Wallis: It’s so complex, poor, Cillian. First of all, he’s a genius to work out a schedule like that. The luxury that we don’t have in England, especially on the BBC is the luxury of time and money so everything is very much cramped into kind of one tiny schedule with a limited budget. But it really tests your ability to go places very quickly. There’s no room for the precious actor. I quite like that environment and I think Cillian likes that environment. It’s very testing, very high intensity, very immersive. There’s no room for slacking off and having a cup of tea, you’re in it.
You can be going from a very light scene to a very heavy emotional scene and Cillian is our guiding light and he never complained once. So none of us would. You can’t go, “Oh, I can’t feel it today.” Nope, we’re gonna get on and do it. That’s what I love about the show, there’s a testament to British TV and British filmmaking. There’s no excuses not to be anything but the best, or you’re out.
What was it like working with your new director Tim Mielants? Shooting those six episodes all at once, he made it look pretty seamless.
McCrory: I completely agree with you. The set can get quote boys-y because there’s a lot of boys in it. But with all that sort of energy as well — we’re going to do a fight this afternoon and that — and Tim couldn’t be less boys-y if he tried. He has a surrealist mind. He’s Belgian. Very soft spoken, always inventive, always calm, always imaginative. And I think maybe he had an advantage because he comes from such a different background himself. He doesn’t sort of go for the cliché because he doesn’t even know there is a cliché. So he will find new things and there’s things that I’ve wanted to do in it that the BBC were like “hmmm?” and he said, “Absolutely why don’t we go there? If that’s what Gangster Girl wants to do.”
Murphy: Here’s where the UK system differs slightly from the U.S. system. We have a directorial vision across the whole [season]. We didn’t in the first, we had two blocks, and the second and third each time had the one director. I think it helps tremendously. The look of the show and the atmosphere is set, that’s all been set by Otto [Bathurst] from the beginning, but I think it’s good for the actors, it’s good for the crew, it’s good for everybody working there. You have someone at the top that’s just consistently there throughout. I found it very, very hard when Otto did the first three and we had a weekend off and came back and had Tom Harper. As brilliant as both those directors are, it’s very, very tricky. So to have a director overseeing everything, we needed to have it this time because we shot all six episodes simultaneously. It was incredibly confusing and you needed one director to be on top of that all the time, you couldn’t possibly have broken it up into two. Tim did a really exquisite job.
What makes Steve’s writing special for you? Does he surprise you?
Murphy: I think that we’re lucky to have encountered Steve Knight in his purple patch. He’s in this period of creativity which is seemingly limitless. He’s writing these films and directing feature films and then churning out exquisite writing in Peaky Blinders. And I know because he’s told me that the Peaky stuff he does out of love. I’m sure there’s other jobs he does because he needs to do them strategically and there’s other jobs he does because he’s passionate about them. But he says pretty unequivocally he does this for love and he gets a great joy out of the whole thing and I think you can feel that in the writing. There’s a great freedom to it and there’s a great confidence to it and he really seems to know these characters. But he’s very unafraid to be unpredictable which is great. Safe writing is the most boring way to work as an actor and I think the audience doesn’t appreciate safe writing. But he’s very, very bold and confident and I hope he will keep being bold and unpredictable in the next two.
I think all of the actors really care about these characters now and we’re aware that the show has become this phenomenon that none of us could have predicted and you know there’s millions of fans around the place that are invested in it. We now have a sort of responsibility to it and it is a logistical challenge to get everyone back in the same place for four or five months to shoot this. But because you’re working with such great material you do it because you want to, because you want to be there.
Anderson: Joe Cole (John Shelby) and I have these conversations of trying to guess what’s going to happen in the coming episodes. We don’t get all six at once so we try to guess the outcome. When we were doing Season 2, we would speak about Season 3 and what Steve has in store and we’ve never got it right. Nothing we’ve ever said has ever happened. We were convinced on Season 2 that one of us was gonna die. I really didn’t see Arthur married and with a child or Grace being killed or the other route the business has taken.
Good writing is so easy for an actor to find a character, the character is on the page, in the writing and all the answers are there. And then come the nuances and layers that the individual actor brings. That’s what makes a great writer, it flows. He comes on set and watches us do what we do. We’re armed already with his writing, but he encourages us. We bring our own thing to it, we know them. But the only reason we know is because he’s written them in the first place.
McCrory: He takes you in directions you really don’t expect. For instance, I think everyone thought we were going to go to the States at the end of the last [season] and of course he takes you to Russia. He goes completely the other way. Everyone thinks, “Oh, how wonderful, we’re going to see Grace and Tommy’s life.” And, well, there you go at the end of episode 2 she’s down on the floor with a bullet in her head. So I think that sort of twists and turns is absolutely intentional; you’re constantly surprised by situations he puts characters in, where he takes his drama. Really unusually for a writer, sometimes we’ll get an episode rewrite and it won’t be, “Oh you’re cutting out this little bit, you’re not going to go here, you’re going to go there.” It’s “You died, or there’s a horse in the scene or it’s kind of the same but now you’re hanging off a police van at 100 miles an hour.” It shows you how much this story is really within Steve Knight’s DNA that he has the confidence to do that.
Wallis: Steve has the ability to take you from your world and transport you in such an immersive way into a completely other reality. His characters are rich and complex and bold and he’s brave with his writing. He writes people in all their flawed glory and there is something that resonates with people because it’s truth and we’re all looking for our truth. He writes these real characters with real problems making real mistakes and I think people respect that.
I found out [about Grace dying] just before we started the season. I was surprised, I knew Grace was always a character who was gonna be… she’s the emotional pivot, the element of mystery in many ways of that show. She was this kind of dark horse of a character that was very alluring, but I expected it because in knowing her, that’s the kind of life she leads. I knew something might happen to my girl, I mean she plays with fire.
The way Steve writes women is just wonderful, it shows he really listens and cares and understands and sees them as equals. He’s also writing women at a time when it’s very clear audiences want stronger women. There are so many people who love and appreciate the show and it’s so happy that, of course he’s been recognized before, but I think this is his baby. You feel it.
The season kicked off with Grace emerging from under the black veil and finally marrying Tommy. The next episode she was dead. What was her influence on Tommy over the years?
Wallis: There are a few times in life when people cross your life, be it in a romantic sense or a friendship sense they kind of change your course. I think that’s definitely what Grace was for Tommy. I think she was a reminder of a time and of a feeling that maybe had been very dormant within him through his PTSD after the war, through the life and family that he was embedded in. Therefore it had kind of chinked his armor as a human being. He’s presented with this girl, this character, this woman who is kind of mirroring what he’s going through and she has this kind of mysterious past and I don’t think it’s ever really been made clear on purpose so that he can almost imagine that she’s more like him in the not knowing. I really believe that they mirror each other in their bravery and their paths less chosen and their moral code that they follow very much suits themselves and their ego and their narcissism and their fight for grandeur and greatness and that makes for a very obsessive relationship. So I think she inspired things in him and made him want to be a better man but I don’t know if she was in love with the better man or just Tommy Shelby as is. If she had stayed within the show her intentions would be to grow within that family and as much as she wanted a legitimate life, I think she would have been lured back into some kind of dark corner of the Shelby world.
But you also have a theory she might not really be dead?
Wallis: I have so many friends so obsessed with the show, so I’ve had all these theories thrown my way of how: there’s no funeral or he’s done it to protect her. Some people are so devastated by her death that I’ve had to give them hope. So I’m just gonna go “maybe” and hold onto my conspiracy theories.
Cillian, this was the first time you had an executive producer credit. What was that like?
Murphy: I was involved in I suppose the making of the story afterward. It didn’t affect in any way the shooting of the series. I never watched playback or rushes or dailies or anything like that. But when we came to talk about the various episodes and they were beginning to take shape, you begin to watch with a more sober and analytical point of view which for me was a very new experience and one I found very educational. You begin to look at the arc of the story and the arc of all of the characters, so you begin to distance yourself from your performance which you’d normally watch through your fingers, you know? So it was very collaborative and helpful for me and I enjoyed it and I think probably to have an actor’s perspective on it is probably useful here and there.
So are you giving Christopher Nolan tips while you shoot Dunkirk?
Murphy: (Laughs) I ain’t got no producer credit on that movie!
Would you do a Peaky Blinders movie?
Anderson: Yeah I would. It’s a simple answer. There has been talk of it. I’m up for it.
McCrory: God, I’m pro. It’s so cinematic. It has such a strong visual image and such a strong score and music. I think it would be great I think it would transfer so well to cinema. It’s still seen as sort of a cult-y thing, though not in Britain. I’m working at the National and I go out every night and I’m just greeted by a sea of men with peaky hats on asking me to sign them. I keep going, “I don’t know if this is right, cause they’re a bunch of criminals, but, yeah, alright.” I think a movie would bring a bigger awareness. There’s a slow burn. It’s taken time to catch on and lots of people think that they’ve discovered it which is nice.
Murphy: I’m sort of ambivalent about it. I’m sort of like “eh, yeah, I don’t know, I’m not sure.” I love the idea sort of theoretically, but it has to come at the right time, you know? You can’t alienate the beautiful democratic thing of television where everyone just watches it. Cinema is trickier because you gotta pay your $10, you gotta leave the kids at home. You’ve got to do all of that, so it’s different and also you have to compress the story into probably just an event rather than the whole arc that we’ve normally been doing. It’s kind of a sexy idea, but I’ll reserve judgement until the idea is presented to me.