The stars of Around the World in 80 Days – David Tennant, Ibrahim Koma and Leonie Benesch – tell DQ about their adventure making this globetrotting period drama, which is pitched as a family-friendly take on Jules Verne’s classic tale.
The first time David Tennant, Ibrahim Koma and Leonie Benesch all met was over lunch in London. The occasion? To mark their casting as the three lead characters in a new television adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic story Around the World in 80 Days.
As Tennant tells DQ, “it was a bit of a gamble – we might have all hated each other!” But thankfully, the trio hit it off famously, and that bond would serve them well as the actors overcame months of uncertainty and delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to film a period drama featuring daring stunts, costumes and elaborate sets in a story that takes place in numerous countries around the world.
Opening in London in 1872, the story introduces Phileas Fogg (Tennant), who is inspired by a newspaper article about the exciting advances in travel to take on an almost impossible wager – to circumnavigate the globe in just 80 days. Having spent the past 20 years in a comfortable leather armchair at the Reform Club, he leaves England to start his extraordinary journey with the support of quick-witted Frenchman Passepartout (Koma), with Daily Telegraph journalist – and daughter of the paper’s owner – Abigail Fix (Benesch) also in tow.
This is not the first time Verne’s novel has been adapted for the screen, the story most recently being retold in a 2004 film led by Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan. So it’s little surprise that former Doctor Who star Tennant initially questioned why it would be remade again.
“When you get with something like this, you kind of go, ‘Well, it’s Around the World in 80 Days… that’s been done a lot,’ so you open the script thinking, ‘What’s exciting about this?’” he explains. “Then you read it and go, ‘Oh yeah, great, this is a story I want to read. These are characters I’m already involved with.’ By the end of episode one, you can’t wait to find out what happens in episode two.
“You can ruin a good script but you can’t make a bad script good. I just remember reading that first episode in one go, very excitedly being taken on this journey and wanting these characters to succeed. When you’re dealing with well-worn IP, it needs to jump off the page and assert itself as something worth making. That is absolutely what that first script did. It was a big, exciting adventure. I could just imagine families across the nation sitting down together to go on this journey, and that’s the sort of show you want to be involved in.”
Koma agrees. “When I read it, everything was amazing,” he says, while Benesch was in the unique position of playing a character who is quite different in the novel.
“There is a character named Fix in the book, but my character only has the name in common,” she says. “Abigail Fix is a very stubborn, intelligent, unconventional young woman who is on a mission to impress her dad and make her mark. She’s very determined to make this journey happen. She’s someone I’ve never played before because she talks all the time. She has an opinion on everything and is pretty unstoppable. It’s great fun to explore that.”
As episode one sees Fogg take on the wager and set off for his first destination, Paris, it quickly maps out the structure of the series, with the characters arriving in a new locale in each of the show’s eight episodes. It means the story, penned by a team led by head writer Ashley Pharoah, moves along at a fair pace, but still manages to introduce new characters, dilemmas and personal revelations along the way while also addressing themes of class, race and gender.
“It feels modern and urgent and exciting,” says Tennant. “The book is of its time and it’s not a book you would faithfully adapt anymore because it slightly suffers from being of a different era. Therefore, [this adaptation] feels like the version of this story you need to have.
“It’s also a romp,” he continues, “and that’s part of what gives it that forward momentum. There’s a ticking clock, which is the engine of the whole thing. It’s got a breakneck feel while telling character stories at the same time. That’s what was so appealing about that first script.”
Tennant is used to playing a range of characters, from real-life killers and police detectives to devilish demons and, most recently, himself. Now, as the cosseted and aloof Fogg, he is challenged with portraying a man who has never before stepped out of his comfort zone and yet is about to embark on the biggest journey of them all.
“From an acting point of view, it’s exciting to play someone who is so at sea, literally and emotionally,” he says. “There’s lots to go on there. You’ve got an extraordinary journey to take a character on, and that’s fun, that’s exciting, that’s challenging – all those things. He goes on this odyssey of self-discovery, whether he wants to or not.”
As part of his preparation, Tennant read the novel for the first time. But while he found it interesting to have a greater understanding the source material, the Fogg he plays on screen is very different from Verne’s original.
“Our Phileas Fogg is not someone who would naturally set out on this adventure, so part of the challenge then is how does that first day work out?” Tennant says. “When he wakes up in the morning, he has no intention of doing anything other than going to the club for breakfast, lunch and dinner, reading the paper and going home to bed again. A lot happens from him getting up in the morning to him going to bed in France that night.
“And he’s a naive Fogg, which in a way allows you to do no preparation whatsoever. He’s got to be alarmed, taken by surprise and readily freaked out by almost everything that happens to him. You’re just trying to capture the sense of someone spiralling out of control, taking that first step on a journey that he really is not equipped to go on. The book was interesting but probably not very helpful.”
Meanwhile, as viewers will discover, Passepartout joins Fogg on his adventure as a way to escape his problems in London, only to find more of them waiting for him when the trio arrive in his native France.
“For him in the beginning, he wants to go away, to flee from something, and then he meets Fogg and he’s different from every other person he’s ever met,” Koma (OSS 177, Wulu) says of his character. “Maybe he reminds him of someone or something, but he finds him different and he likes him. Somehow, he wants to protect him, so that’s why I think he keeps going with him, because otherwise he wouldn’t. He’s doing it for himself, but he also wants to help people. That’s why he goes with them.”
But it’s Fix who is most motivated to join Fogg, having written the article that inspired the wager but later discovering her byline has been removed from the newspaper because she isn’t taken seriously as a reporter.
“Abigail Fix is quite spoilt. She was raised by her father, who has given her all kinds of freedoms that a woman in that time and at her age just really wouldn’t enjoy,” says Benesch, who has previously starred in The Crown and Babylon Berlin. “So it’s deeply offending that her father didn’t give her a byline under her first article. Because her father plays such a huge role in her view of the world and he’s such a hero for her, she wants to impress him, and she uses Fogg’s idea as a vehicle to go on her journey.”
Benesch had a chemistry read with Koma in November 2019 before the pair met with Tennant over lunch. They then all reunited in South Africa to begin filming the series, which is produced by Slim Film + Television and Federation Entertainment. France Télévisions, Italy’s Rai and Germany’s ZDF are the original commissioners, while Federation agreed further sales with Masterpiece PBS in the US and UK pubcaster the BBC, among other networks.
For Benesch, arriving on set was the realisation of an acting ambition she had held ever since she first watched Disney blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean as a 13-year-old.
“I don’t want to say it’s like Pirates of the Caribbean, but it’s the kind of family comedy-drama adventure I set out to become an actor for,” she says. “Coming to all those different sets was amazing. They’re so beautiful. There was a bit of green screen but not a lot. It was beautiful. I loved it.”
“It’s great to always be on the move, always finding these new sets, new casts,” says Tennant. “There is a story of the week [in each episode], so there’s a whole new set of characters and new actors to meet. Most of everything was done in-camera, so we were on the most amazing sets and some standing sets that existed in studios that had been built for lavish productions some other time. But when we’re on a stream train, we’re on a stream train! When we’re in an Indian village on a hill, we’re in a village on a hill. It was very exciting to always be turning up in these extraordinary places. There was very little we had to imagine, really.”
Just one episode had been filmed when Around the World in 80 Days became one of the most high-profile series to be shut down in the wake of the emerging coronavirus pandemic in March last year. Several months later, filming was able to resume, with shooting also taking place in Romania.
“I think, as humans, we all struggled to get through that year,” Tennant notes. “We all thought we knew what life was like, and then it stopped. None of us really knew what happened next. We had seven months of thinking we were starting, stopping again, starting, stopping again… and wondering if we would ever start again. There was a real joy about going back to work, which made the second leg even more joyous than the first, despite there being protocols and masks and PCR tests. You appreciate what you’ve lost all the more.”
Launching on BBC One with a double episode this Sunday, the series stands as a perfect example of television that can bring the whole family together, continuing the trend for family viewing that has characterised numerous Covid lockdowns.
“I have a family with a wide range of ages and I can imagine – apart from the fact they won’t want to watch their dad in anything – there’s something that fits for all of them,” Tennant says. “It’s got that cross-generational appeal. I love the fact that it’s destined for Christmas time. It’s the perfect bit of family Christmas viewing.”
“When I saw the first rough edit, I was really surprised by how moving I found it because it was always going to be a fun, funny adventure show, but I didn’t expect to be as moved as I was,” Benesch says. “I just think there’s something for everyone.”
“You laugh, it’s moving. There’s lots of tension as well,” Koma adds. “You have drama, you have action and you have really good acting. That’s very important because people today, you cannot fool them with a great story and have bad actors and all that; it doesn’t work anymore. When you work on something, you want to have a project that will last for years and years. And I think we have that with this. It will go through lots of generations.”
The actor says anticipation for the series is particularly high in France, Verne’s place of birth, where the series debuted yesterday on France 2.
“He is revered and everyone loved his books, especially Around the World in 80 Days. Every time I tell people I’m going to be Passepartout, everyone is very excited and they’re very excited to see what a black Passepartout is going to be like,” Koma says. “Of course, I want it to be seen and to be enjoyed because we’ve worked a long time on it. It was a very difficult shoot for everyone, and everyone has had the strength to go to the end and always be very happy and positive. You want to have a good outcome. That’s all we want.”
Slim TV and Federation are already in advanced development on a second season, while they are also looking to adapt another Verne story, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. But in Around the World in 80 Days, Tennant promises to take viewers on an exciting journey following the central trio, who must face numerous obstacles if they are to reach the finish line.
“They’re not an obvious set of best friends, and yet the adversity they go through brings them together,” he says. “There are a few fallouts along the way, but it’s about that journey – three people from very different backgrounds, who are treated very differently by society, who all find a common ground. That’s the beating heart of it, and if we get that right then hopefully we’ll take the audience with us.”