Too Close for comfort
Actors Cush Jumbo, Richard Armitage, Jo Joyner and James Nesbitt tell DQ about teaming up with Harlan Coben for the author’s latest Netflix thriller, Stay Close, in which four people are each confronted by secrets from their past.
When it comes to a Harlan Coben thriller, you can expect plenty of twists and turns, an ensemble cast of characters who unravel in the face of dark secrets, and cliffhangers that leave you on the edge of your seat.
What the actors of his latest Netflix series, Stay Close, didn’t expect was to be presented with two different scripts – one following events in the present and another set 17 years in the past.
“I found it so confusing,” admits James Nesbitt, who stars as Detective Michael Broome. “I’m not in it as much as others but, fuck me, it’s so confusing. What I find hard is what we’re supposed to know or not know in the flashbacks. You need to do a course before you do a Harlan Coben thriller.”
“I’ve never worked on something where they’ve had an entire flashback script that comes in its own entirety,” adds Jo Joyner, who plays Broome’s partner – and ex-wife – Detective Erin Cartwright. “If you’re looking at a normal script, it’s really easy to decipher what you want to forget because your character wouldn’t know it. If you’ve also read the book [on which the series is based] very close to filming like I have, it becomes even more confusing because then you’re going, ‘Well, was that in the book or was it in the script?’”
Over the course of his 30-year career, novelist Coben has sold more than 75 million books worldwide and seen his work translated into 45 languages around the globe. Now, with the release of his latest Netflix series, the thriller writer is becoming just as prolific in his television work as he is with his novels.
Since Coben signed a multi-year deal with the streamer in 2018, Netflix has launched five of his shows: UK series The Stranger and Safe, Polish drama W głębi lasu (The Woods), Spanish-language El inocente (The Innocent) and France’s Disparu à jamais (Gone for Good).
Based on Coben’s book of the same name, Stay Close promises plenty of his trademark thrills, suspense and secrets of past crimes as four people – Maggie, Ray, Lorraine and Broome – are each confronted by secrets they have kept from those closest to them.
The series opens as mother-of-three Megan (Cush Jumbo) celebrates her hen night and her impending wedding to Dave (Daniel Francis). But when she meets long-lost friend Lorraine (Sarah Parish), Megan realises she will have to fight to keep her family safe as the truth about her past life as a nightclub dancer called Cassie begins to emerge.
“When the adaptation of this book begins, Megan is living what on the outside looks like quite a content life in the suburbs with her husband and children and the family car and the tennis lessons,” says Jumbo. “It all looks very lovely, but it starts to become clear there are some fractures beneath that when somebody from her past shows up. It’s a past her partner knows nothing about.”
Ray (Richard Armitage) is a former war photographer-turned-paparazzo who has never recovered from being left by his fiancée and suffers from blackouts relating to his PTSD. When men connected to him start disappearing, he starts to piece together what happened, leading him to question whether he can face his own haunting past.
“A large amount of the story is about uncovering this buried truth from 17 years ago,” Armitage says. “Ray’s part in that story was that his life changed because of this significant event that happened 17 years ago and he’s been looking for answers for 17 years. It’s a bit of a Harlan Coben signature about who people say they are and these hidden aspects of their life and personality. Everybody, at some point, has that quality in them.”
Stay Close isn’t the first Coben drama Armitage has starred in, following his previous role in The Stranger. This new series, he says, has a darker quality to it as the action switches between the past and the present to create the kind of complex story for which the writer is known best.
“There’s a lot of flashback and a lot of jigsaw pieces that slowly start to emerge through memory, which is a key theme with my character – this loss of memory, which I find fascinating,” he says. “Harlan’s really enjoying himself with this again. He just loves weaving a really complicated story.”
The Good Fight and The Beast Must Die star Jumbo says she is drawn to stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and series she describes as “technicolour thrillers” – something partly naturalistic but with a heightened style.
“That’s kind of what Harlan’s books are and it’s what I think Stay Close is because it’s enjoyable to watch and it has some stuff woven through that’s serious but also you can go on quite epic journeys with it,” she says. “I loved the idea of playing two people between two times, especially because Megan and Cassie are living such different lives in every way.
“I also like the idea of what a person would do if they were faced with this explosion of their current life, if somebody was to show up from the past like that. There is something about the Megan character I liked as a representation of what a lot of women in that situation go through. She’s got the house, she’s got the car, she’s got the husband, the three kids – she’s achieved.
“She’s where she should be, and yet inside she’s slightly discontent because she’s never sure whether, in another universe and another time, life would have been different. Most people don’t have the opportunity to go back through a wormhole and go back into that life, but Megan does.”
Meanwhile, Broome is haunted by his failure to solve the disappearance of a man 17 years ago. When he finds similarities between the cold case and a new disappearance, he and Erin believe he may have a chance to finally solve the mystery.
“It’s rare a former couple can work together without having been able to live together,” says Nesbitt. “They’re very much a balancing act. Broome is an optimistic character. He’s someone who wants to see the good in people, who believes very much in his job, who has had failures, has flaws, has had sadness, heartbreak. At times, I do think you can see wee bits of regret in both of them.”
“Erin is a good dependable working mum,” continues Joyner. “She’s very strong-minded and rational. It probably takes a lot for Erin to let her hair down, and one of the brilliant things is that Broome, possibly in their relationship in the past, has really been able to bring out the wilder side in her. He’s that great guy you went out with, who you had the best time with, but you just knew you would never settle down with this person who wasn’t always going to play the dad.”
It was the relationship between Broome and Erin that first intrigued former EastEnder Joyner about the scripts, describing it as a very modern take on a relationship between a couple who were once married but can still work well together.
“I liked that. I’ve been playing a detective [in BBC series Shakespeare & Hathaway] who’s quite fluffy and silly the rest of the year, so to play someone who was very straight, logical, loves her evidence and is more grounded and capable was really attractive. Equally, I loved the fact they threw in that she’s a working mum and it’s just incidental. It’s not harped on about, we don’t go on about it.”
“I loved the scripts, the journey of it all, the partner I play with,” says Nesbitt. “I had an immediate rapport with Jo and I really wanted to work with [executive producer] Nicola Shindler. I had also never done a Netflix original series. It’s all well and good thinking you’re Billy Big Balls, but I hadn’t done anything like that before.”
The show was filmed around Manchester and the North West of England, and Jumbo jokes that the various Covid-19 restrictions weren’t as challenging as shooting on Blackpool Pier “in the rain [during scenes] set in the year 2000, when fringes were long, hair was poker-straight and everyone wore very thick lip gloss, and trying to do a scene when your hair stuck to your lip gloss…”
Such were the number of locations used in the show – different houses, the beach, the woods, both in the past and the present – that “I feel like I’ve shot 10 shows in one show,” she says. “Then you might not see some people for weeks because there’s all these criss-cross storylines.”
The actors all recall the show’s first script readthrough, where they had to sit between plastic sheets to keep everyone safe. “It was like something from ET,” Joyner remembers. “We were in shower cubicles with iPads and tests and masks. It was just not how it should be. It’s been very surreal, as I’m sure it has for everyone.”
Like The Stranger, Safe and 2016 Sky drama The Five, Stay Close comes from producer Red Production Company, execs Shindler and Richard Fee and co-creators Coben and Danny Brocklehurst (Ordinary Lives), who is also the lead writer.
“It’s always nice to come back and work with people you’ve worked with before because you’ve instantly got a rapport,” says Armitage, who is also known for Berlin Station and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy. “The thing that’s brilliant about Harlan, Nicola, Danny and Richard is they’ve always got their ears open to a new idea, an observation about the character or your character’s journey, so you start to prepare in a slightly different way.
“Quite early on, I put some thoughts on the table, and then you really feel like you have a responsibility for your character and that they’re listening, adapting and moulding around you, which is brilliant. It makes for a much more efficient way to shoot as well, because you’ve got an instant vocabulary with them. They’re fun as well – they never say no. They always listen and say yes first, which is a bit of a gift.”
“I absolutely love Harlan because, from the very beginning, he made it clear there was no question he will not talk about or answer, and he’s full of this enthusiastic energy,” Jumbo says. “He loves his books and the people in them, but he’s also really open to the fact that when his books get adapted, it’s going into another medium. That sometimes means some stories grow and some stories pull back and new stories are created. It makes him a really good showrunner.”
New Jersey native Coben can usually be found talking to the actors in person during the readthroughs, but for Stay Close, he was confined to Zoom thanks to the pandemic.
“It’s a real shame. I have been a fan of his work,” says Joyner. “There’s quite a nice female flavour to things and a sense of female empowerment about the piece that is really lovely and slightly unique for some of Harlan’s work. I just think he’s so brilliant at giving us lots of characters. Then Danny brings it together with some very real dialogue that is easy to learn because it flows so easily. The combination of all of them has been really special. It’s been lovely to be part of.”
In contrast, Nesbitt acknowledges: “I didn’t know Harlan’s work. I’m the only person in the world who didn’t.” That meant he didn’t quite know what to expect from the series, but the Cold Feet and Bloodlands star says he was impressed by Coben’s ability to think quickly and plot different storylines with different characters.
“The way they merge and weave paths, there’s something kind of brilliant about it,” he adds. “It’s a tremendous marriage of science and art. I don’t think we’ll forget being in a Harlan Coben story.”
But what will make Stay Close, which launches as a boxset on Netflix in 190 countries on December 31, stand out from the numerous thrillers now vying for viewers’ attention? Jumbo points to the show’s use of flashbacks, as well as the numerous locations, that will keep audiences hooked until the end.
“It’s quite rich in all the different textures you have on the show – it’s a bit glitzy, it’s a bit beachy, a bit dirty, a bit crime, a bit dark,” she says. “There’s woods, of course. It’s Harlan, there’s always woods. Don’t forget the woods! In New York, you’d call it a ‘pu pu platter,’ where you have all different kinds of sushi in one go. It’s like a pu pu platter of a story because it’s got just a little bit something for everybody.”