Tag Archives: Justin Marks

Seeing double

Counterpart creator Justin Marks picks out a key scene from the Starz spy drama’s opening episode that sets the tone for the rest of the show, which is currently in production on its second season.

Counterpart always came from this desire to do a show steeped in the feeling of the great Cold War spy thrillers that I grew up with. Whether that was Graham Green or John le Carré, the kind of spy thrillers that rely on mysterious meetings on park benches and people speaking in code; spies living these very fractured lives where it’s less about how they carry on as a spy than how they betray people who they really form close friendships with.

But I knew I didn’t want to do a story that was just a Cold War thriller. I feel like we’ve seen them. As someone who comes from science fiction, I wanted to find a way to sprinkle a little sci-fi on the top. The idea was to do a Berlin Wall thriller where the wall was more of a metaphysical construct – a divide between two worlds, two realities that were once identical but have since split off in both small and large ways.

On one level, Howard Silk (played by JK Simmons) is a meek and humble cog in the wheel of a very large bureaucratic enterprise, with shadings of those in movies like Brazil or Metropolis, who then learns that not only is there another side of himself, but this other side has grown quite differently over the last few decades. However, both of these men, while appearing to be different, actually share quite a lot. That’s what became most interesting for us as writers. It was not about how different we could make these two versions but how different they could be while still maintaining the same moral compass, the same flaws that have just manifested in different ways. At its heart, that’s what Counterpart is about.

Justin Marks (centre) on the Counterpart set

A very important moment in the show’s first episode is when Howard and his counterpart, who we call Howard Prime, from the other world, first get a chance to be alone together. In his apartment, after all the spy tradecraft has been talked about, they’re really just killing time.

We’re very proud of our action sequences and the intricacies of our plot. We worked hard to make it work and make it make sense. But the reason we worked so hard was so we could get it out of the way and let this show ultimately be about giving opportunities for two versions of the same self to sit in the same room and sniff each other’s asses for some period of time, get to know each other and study the similarities and differences between them.

One of the things that I find so interesting about the concept of Counterpart is that we all possess our own secrets and memories and our own ways of seeing things. How both relieving and also terrifying it must be to find there’s someone else who knows all those secrets and memories. So how do you keep secrets from someone who knows all of your secrets, in a world that’s all about secrets?

What starts to happen in that scene is Howard and Howard Prime start to explore each other. They start to talk about a bully their brother-in-law reminded them of, and we see by the way they talk about him that they had the same memory. But – and this is key to the philosophy of the show – I don’t believe memories exist in isolation. We treat memories as things that are being approached from the present. So we impose upon our memories the needs of our present, which means Howard Prime is going to extract from a memory a very different lesson to the one the main Howard will.

The series sees JK Simmons (Whiplash) play two versions of one man

Howard is a nice guy and has been run over throughout his whole life, and sees the bullying experience as another obstacle in the road to be endured, while Howard Prime simply sees the bully as ‘that asshole.’ That’s where you start to see the cracks between them. Everything about this show is laid out in that scene. The things they share and the slight differences that are going to get so much bigger over time, and yet they’re always going to have this rubber band that brings them back to the same centre.

It also presented for us and JK Simmons an incredible challenge in how to execute it and how to make it feel human and really portray it to an audience. These are two versions of the same self sitting there, but they feel like two completely different people when JK inhabits those bodies. The hope when you watch the show is you really do let go of, ‘How did they do it?’ and you just see it as there must be two JKs out there, doing two things; you stop wondering about the magic trick and start letting go. It’s about being able to explore another side of yourself. It’s not about the magic trick of putting one actor on screen with himself.

JK is a very inside-out kind of actor. We work hard to construct elaborate and detailed biographies for our characters on this show, and he was given access to all this information. He knew what made one version of one self different from the other, which is a key story that has not really been fully revealed yet. Certainly when you’re dropped into the world in the first episode, you don’t really have that specific answer of what made him like this and the other one like that. But JK knew the answer, so he was able to build his performance with that in his head.

A second season of the drama is in the works

What he does – and it’s really amazing to see it happen – is he can show up on set and, just by the way he’s holding his body, you know exactly who he’s playing. In the case of Howard, he slumps his shoulders and has a slower gait and a more defeated feeling. In the case of Howard Prime, it’s in the eyes. He looks around the world like a predator looking for his next prey, spotting the weakness of the person he’s in the scene with, whereas Howard recognises weakness but forgives it. When they’re interacting with each other, you see that starting to happen.

If I had it my way, JK and JK would be in every scene together. It’s just I wouldn’t survive and nor would the entire production, given the sheer obstacles to producing scenes like that. It takes a lot of time – you have multiple split screens set up, you have your strategy for how you’re shooting a scene and how you’re going to shoot two versions of the same person together. It’s a very difficult thing, made easier by having great actors, but it’s a time-consuming process.

This scene with two JKs took almost two days to film. On a television schedule, that is a nightmare. You cannot shoot an episode where one scene takes two days. So we pick and choose our moments, and we want them to grow separately and observe things so they can eventually come back together and share what they’ve learned – and they do in some very big ways.

Counterpart is produced by Gilbert Films, Anonymous Content and MRC and distributed by Sony Pictures Television. The series launches in the UK on StarzPlay on September 28.

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Seeing double

JK Simmons goes head to head with himself in spy drama Counterpart, launching on Starz this month. The actor, co-star Olivia Williams and creator Justin Marks talk about making the series, which blends sci-fi and espionage to create a high-octane thriller.

Few would dare cross some of the characters Hollywood actor JK Simmons has played in the past. There was the unforgiving restaurant boss in last year’s La La Land, cigar-smoking newspaper editor J Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and ruthless music teacher Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, for which he won an Oscar in 2014.

In Starz’s upcoming spy-drama Counterpart, however, he goes up against himself as two worlds collide in Cold War Berlin. The actor leads a cast including Olivia Williams (The Sixth Sense) and Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones, The Theory of Everything) as Howard Silk, a long-serving cog in the bureaucratic machinery of a Berlin-based United Nations spy agency.

When Howard discovers his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a shadow world of intrigue, danger and double-crosses, where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from the parallel world.

“It’s a show with two universes; so much of our cast play two roles and some more surprisingly than others,” explains creator and writer Justin Marks (The Jungle Book). “We take from the tropes of the espionage genre, that classic British world, and apply it to this high-concept science fiction, almost metaphysical or existential, premise.”

Counterpart stars Oscar winner JK Simmons as Howard Silk

Marks came up with the idea for the show while pondering his own background and what might have been had he not pursued a career in screenwriting. Starz has taken the unusual step of committing to two 10-episode seasons of the show, which was ordered straight-to-series and is being distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment. Season one debuts in the US on January 21.

Simmons, who also executive produces the project, tells DQ that playing two versions of his character was a welcome challenge. “Like a lot of high-end television now, it’s kind of a hybrid between traditional TV- and movie-making,” he says. “It’s great to have new challenges, especially having been around for a while. It’s an ideal combination of knowing you have a complicated and layered character in a complicated and layered story, but not really knowing where it’s all going to end.”

Produced by Los Angeles-based Anonymous Content and Gilbert Films, with Fireglory Pictures in Berlin, Marks reveals that the fact Starz ordered two seasons up front allowed him and his team more freedom in terms of planning out the overall story arc. He’s hopeful the show will continue beyond the first 20 episodes, of course, for more of the same. “We’ve been able to really slow-burn our story and make it much bigger, so much so that some of the characters aren’t even revealed in the first episode,” he explains.

One of those who isn’t immediately introduced is Howard’s wife Emily Silk, played by English actor Williams. Despite not having any lines in the first script, what she read of it was enough to win her over for the duration. “I had absolutely nothing to do in the first episode,” she says, “but I thought the writing for all the other actors was incredible and hoped whoever was writing for them would be writing for me. It held the promise of infinite interest.”

Simmons shares a laugh with creator and writer Justin Marks

Having appeared in countless US TV procedurals in addition to his Hollywood blockbuster roles, Simmons believes Counterpart’s storyline offers endless possibilities. Speaking while dressed from head to toe in black, Simmons’ outfit is perfect for a man lodged between two existences in search of his true identity. “The big difference is obviously, with a feature film, you know where you’re going with a beginning, middle and end. With Counterpart, all possibilities are open, and in this case times two,” the actor muses.

“Justin and I talked about the overall arc of where the first 10 episodes were going and I had a slight sense of a beginning, middle and end, but you’re really only getting one episode at a time, as opposed to a lot of US shows I’ve done where only the names of the bad guy might change each week. The infinite possibilities of it branching out keep it interesting.”

While Simmons is something of a TV veteran, Marks takes to the medium for the first time with Counterpart. So why the transition? “The choice to move into television comes down to the opportunity to tell a story and the chance to work with great actors who want to do longform,” he explains. “It’s been really different to the feature-writing experience where you’re a little more of a mercenary – you’re coming in and out of films and committing what you can. In this case, the show really is a piece of me and an exploration of a lot of ideas that have been in my head for a long time.”

Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) helmed the first episode of Counterpart’s upcoming first season before a rotating stable of three other directors took on three episodes each. Filming took place in LA and Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, and Marks reveals that shooting in Germany felt so authentic that he’ll be doubling the amount of time spent in the city for season two.

The series debuts on January 21

“There are plenty of cliffhangers; every episode expands our world a little further,” he says. “We’re talking about two universes that were once identical and are now peeling off and becoming more competitive with one another.”

Williams adds: “On each side of the universe, the characters have exponentially made billions of slightly different choices” – and now it’s up to them to deal with the outcomes.

Despite Counterpart being a sci-fi series, the creative team were keen to ensure the tech and special effects side of things didn’t get in the way of characters and story. The portal bridging both worlds appears simply as a doorway for that reason.

“You could apply a lot of theories to what may or may not be happening in the show,” Marks says. “In the end, what we’re really competing against as a culture is other versions of ourselves who share the same ambitions, hopes and regrets, and there’s a tragedy to that.”

It’s a story of both hope and regret, concludes Simmons – and seeing him scale the depths of his two characters this winter is sure to make for unmissable viewing.

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