In Taboo, Michael Kelly stars as Dr. Dumbarton – an American physician with a not-so-innocent sideline in espionage. Created by Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) in collaboration with Tom Hardy and his father, Chips Hardy, the new BBC/FX series follows the exploits of James Delaney (Tom Hardy) – an adventurer who returns to London in 1814 to inherit what’s left of his late father’s shipping empire, only to discover enemies lurking in every corner.
Best known for his Emmy-nominated turn as Doug Stamper on the Netflix series, House of Cards, Michael Kelly recently starred in Black Mirror (Channel 4/Netflix) and the J.J. Abrams produced, Person of Interest. Upon the release of Taboo on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download in the UK, we spoke with Michael about the making of the show in Los Angeles.
I understand your character is actually based on a real life figure?
Yes – I’m not sure that all of the ways in which we see him are exactly what happened historically, but there was a real Dr. Edgar Dumbarton.
How much research did you do?
I read about him, but I didn’t go crazy. I didn’t go crazy about the time period either. You know, the way this was pitched to me was: ‘We’re going to take Pride and Prejudice and turn it on its ass!’ So (laughs)…
Tell us more about your character.
I’m the American spy, doing the work of America. It becomes a big priority to try to get our hands on the Nootka Sound (Delany’s inheritance) because of its influence on shipping across the world, all the way to China. This is taking place right when the lines are being drawn between all the countries. It’s a really big deal.
And in the end it’s not just Nootka Sound – it’s the whole of Vancouver Island?
You’re right. It’s in Episode 1. Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) talks about that. If you have that, then you have the water around it, which then gives you access to the Chinese trade route. So it’s a really big deal and Strange is downplaying it. James Delany (Tom Hardy) knows it’s a big deal, and so do I. So Dumbarton must navigate those muddy waters with James of how do we become ‘the top bidder’ for this piece of land? “What is it that you want, and can we be of service to acquire that, to have that piece of land for America?” Meanwhile, [Dumbarton] is also competing with the East India Company, who were as big as the America government at the time. I mean, the East India Trade Company was a massive influence across the world back then. Steven Knight puts it best: “If they were in business today, they would be bigger than Apple by tenfold.” That’s how big they were, to put it in context.
What initially attracted you to the project? How did it come about for you?
It came to me as an offer, believe it or not. “There’s this limited series starring Tom Hardy; Steven Knight is writing it and Ridley Scott’s producing…” Well, that was enough for me. I’m such a fan of Tom Hardy’s – and now having worked with him, I’m even a bigger fan. So for me, without even reading it, I was intrigued. Once I did I read it, I found that the writing was so good and so deep. Every single character was so well presented – you could really see it and feel it… I’ve tried very hard over the years to work with great people, great directors, and great writers, and this just happened to have it all. The hard part, of course, was scheduling, because I was right in the middle of filming House of Cards. But both sides worked it out eventually… I went and shot, I think, two episodes [of Taboo] in a week, and then went back and forth and shot the rest of it after I finished the season.”
It seems there’s more interesting work for actors in television today, than in film…
It has a lot to do with the writing – the evolution of the writing and the evolution of how great television has become. In a sense, we’re doing movies for television now. It’s so much better and there’s so much more content, so there’s also many more opportunities… When I started House of Cards, it was the first original programming for Netflix. And to think, here we are 4 ½ years later – I wake up this morning and hear Apple is now getting in the game? That’s how far we’ve come. It’s incredible. It’s so incredible.
Has it changed how you approach projects?
I just stick with, what for me, is the best way to go about it. Look at the director, look at the content, look at the stars, and continue to work with the best people. If you work with good people you have a lot better chance at success.
You’re certainly working with some remarkably talented people in Taboo.
Again, that’s originally what drew me in – Tom and Steven’s involvement, and Ridley Scott. It was really simple for me. A lot of the other people, like Jonathan Pryce, were cast at the time as well. And then when I read the scripts for the first few episodes, I realized, sh** – all my scenes are just me and Tom Hardy. He’s an actor who I really, truly look up to. Why wouldn’t I want to work with him? To go see how that guy works. To see what his method is. Same thing with working with Kevin Spacey and playing the role of Stamper [on House of Cards]. I got to learn from Kevin Spacey every single day just working with him, and I knew I was going to learn from Tom… I grew a little by working with him too. By watching him, I learned. It was an incredible experience.
What was the shoot itself like? If anything it seems that London in 1814 was one grimy place. And your character certainly gets his hands dirty. How long did it take just to wash up at the end of the day?
A long time (laughs)… If I knew I was working the next day, I wasn’t going to spend that long at the sink because my character is also working with dyes. So my fingers are…One day I’m green, one day I’m blue. You see it a little bit in the film. That was the attention to detail that these guys went to. If my sleeves are rolled up, I’m red from the elbows down, or I’m green, or I’m blue (laughs)…
Did you ever question your decision to take on the overlapping schedule of House of Cards and Taboo? It must have been exhausting for you?
Never. No, I’m so grateful. I’m an extremely grateful man… This is my dream. This is what I’ve wanted my whole life and it’s happening. You know, my mother and father always told me to set my goals and write them down. I did, I’m achieving them – and it’s mind blowing (laughs)… I never gave up. I never stopped believing. And so to see it all come to fruition is amazing.
What was the biggest challenge making Taboo?
I hate to speak of challenges, because for me there weren’t any. I went to work. I worked hard, and did the job.
What kind of show are audiences ultimately in store for?
I’ve only seen the first four episodes, but I can honestly say each one is better than the next. After watching Episode 4, I was just like: “How do they pull this off?” I think David Hayman (Brace) put it best. You’re peeling this onion with Taboo. You just keep peeling back the layers of these characters, peeling back the layers of the story, and as everything unfolds in front of you, it’s just brilliant.”