Can we fight terror with torture? Is damage to an individual morally justified if it saves the life of many? In Complicit, MI5 agent Edward Ekubo is a man torn between conscience and love of his country. Edward has reliable intelligence of a jihadist plot to smuggle ricin (a deadly, fastacting poison) from Egypt to the UK with a view to killing thousands in a 7/7-style terrorist attack.
The suspect is also a British citizen. If the suspect is handed over to Egyptian Security Services, information will be extracted under torture and the plot will foiled. How would Ekubo – and the actor who plays him, David Oyelowo – act, faced with such a situation?
Oyelowo leans into the question like a biker on a dangerous curve. “Depending on the time of day you ask that question, I think both I and my character would give a different answer,” he replies. “The world has changed post-9/11. Certainly post-Guantanamo Bay, the level of scrutiny on the security service has, quite rightly, changed. And it has made their job very hard. No one wants to be seen making any more gaffes. But when these guys are in the field, they have to make quick decisions. And I am, daily, grateful that these are not my decisions to make.”
It’s not the first time Oyelowo, who was born in Oxford to Nigerian parents, has played an MI5 operative. Viewers will remember him as officer Danny Hunter in Spooks. “I was very keen not to just do a film version of Spooks,” he says. “Spooks was basically Bond for the telly. Complicit is way more indicative of what MI5 officers actually do. It is slow work. It’s laborious. And it’s a very selfless job. This is a more realistic depiction.”
Complicit offers no easy answers to the moral questions posed. “On the one hand,” reasons Oyelowo, “we believe we are not a society that tortures people; we say, as a society, that torture is fundamentally inadmissible. And I would agree with that. On the other hand, when we send drones and thousands of troops into foreign countries to take out terrorist leaders, there is ‘collateral damage’: countless men, women and children who are innocent and who are killed in order to eliminate a single terrorist.
“We don’t lie awake at night thinking, ‘Oh, the collateral damage of war!’ But that, I think, is what the drama is saying torture is – emotionally and spiritually, it’s a kind of collateral damage.”
Guy Hibbert’s subtly layered screenplay also addresses complicated issues of race and racism in British society. “It goes to the heart of this multicultural society that we talk about all the time,” says Oyelowo. “And it asks some very hard questions. What does it mean to be British? You have two Brits with two very different views about Great Britain. Both of whom feel very passionate about their points of view, both of whom are not white.”
Oyelowo, who first hit the headlines in 2001 playing Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company, made the move to Hollywood six years ago, and now lives in LA. “There are all kinds of opportunities there – I can play civil rights activists, I can play fighter pilots, I can be in a film like Lincoln. But it’s not just to do with being black. It’s also about the scope of the industry. Judi Dench has to go to America, Ralph Fiennes has to go to America, because it’s the zenith of our industry. And it feels genuinely meritocratic.
“America has its own class system, but it’s about money. The more money you have, the higher up the ladder you are. Here, you can have talent and money and still be deemed ‘working class’. That means there are certain glass ceilings. So the world in which we could have a black prime minister feels eons away. We like to think we are as progressive, as forward thinking as America, but it’s this class system that feeds into everything. It’s very insidious.”
Now that Oyelowo is at the top of his game – he recently starred with Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher – the only limits are self-imposed. Married with four children, he’s a hands-on dad who shares home-schooling duties with his actress wife, Jessica. “It’s a big commitment, but it’s a decision we made for the family so that we are in our children’s lives.”
Nor will he accept work that compromises his strong Christian principles. “Unfortunately we live in a world where what actors do, what directors do, is paid more attention, sometimes, than what politicians do. So if something is gratuitously violent or morally questionable, then I can’t go near it.”
There is shocking violence in Complicit but, he argues, it is the opposite of gratuitous. “I hope the film will elicit conversation,” he says. “Conversation is the means by which people form opinions. And those opinions will become the barometer for how they live their lives.”
Actor as game-changer? Drama to make the world a better place? He does not find the idea unreasonable. “Why else,” he asks – and he looks like he really wants to know – “would you do it?”
Complicit is on Sunday at 9:00pm on Channel 4