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Hot stuff: Meet the young cast of new primetime BBC drama White Heat

From The Evening Standard, February 24 / by Stephen Armstrong

When the cast of White Heat come together for our shoot, it feels, for a moment, like seeing the 1980s Brat Pack – Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald and co – posing for a poster for their latest cult comedy. In other words, this is a cast that’s going places. Sam Claflin has been on a roll since Pirates of the Caribbean and United; Claire Foy’s screen-burning intensity in Channel 4’s The Promise was one of the performances of 2011, building on her breakthrough role as Little Dorrit; Reece Ritchie shone in Prince of Persia; while Swedish-born MyAnna Buring has a legion of obsessive fans after joining The Twilight Saga.

White Heat feels like the show that will bounce them all into full-intensity red-carpet stardom, much as the outrageously successful Our Friends in the North did for Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Gina McKee and Mark Strong in the 1990s, and State of Play and Skins did for so many in the 2000s. The drama is an intimate yet epic BBC Two thriller from writer Paula Milne, of The Politician’s Wife and Small Island fame. Milne dripped her own life into the ambitious script, which follows the lives of seven friends from 1965 to the present, starting out as flat-share students in London and ending sprawled in the wreckage of love, loss, drugs and politics 40 years later. Imagine following the cast of Fresh Meat over the next four decades. The actors all say they’re lucky to play complex characters over decades of adventure; Milne says, ‘Me, I think we are lucky to have them.’

Claflin plays prime mover Jack, the rebel with a cause who just happens to be rich enough to own a large house in Tufnell Park, which he lets out to new students he finds interesting. He interviews hundreds, saying he’s planning an ambitious social experiment forged in 1960s’ idealism to create a perfectly formed commune where everything, even sexual partners, is shared. ‘You have to feel sorry for him,’ Claflin grins. ‘He starts off like a freedom fighter and ends up as everything he hates. He recruits like he’s got a list of stereotypes: the Asian gay guy, the black guy, the techie, the feminist… One from each group to see what happens. You’d expect it to go wrong, of course, but actually the flat share is the best bit for him.’

Claflin has done the flat share – at drama school with a bunch of buddies who ‘lived in each other’s pockets, all slept with the same person; we had burglars wander in while we were out at the pub, who were chased off through the kitchen window by our drunk mate who’d crashed out on the sofa… the usual stuff’. The experience proved so bonding that they are all his best friends, despite his career rocketing ahead after sharing a screen with Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush in last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Snow White & the Huntsman opposite Kristen Stewart comes out later this year and Disney has optioned him for three more movies. ‘That could be Pirates or a script developed with me involved, but at the same time it could be High School Musical 7,’ he deadpans.

His sparring partner, intelligent Northern feminist Charlotte, is played by Claire Foy in a bitter inversion of the One Day storyline’s unrequited devotion. ‘It’s a very red role,’ she grins. ‘Charlotte has got deep red hair and she’s intensely political in a way you really don’t find these days.’ Foy is light, friendly and down-to-earth, the opposite of Charlotte’s intensity. Indeed, during filming, Foy’s corpsing was the main reason for re-takes: ‘I’m 27 and I was told off for giggling,’ she admits. ‘Everyone knew how to set me off. In the big set-piece scenes, like when we were all sitting round for dinner, I’d have to avoid everyone’s gaze.’

Right now, she’s about as hot as an actor can get: she starred in Channel 4’s News of the World spoof Hacks over Christmas and plays alongside Elle Fanning and Max Irons in a forthcoming Vivaldi biopic, although she secretly fancies a bit of musical theatre. She warns us not to believe any hype: ‘I hope they don’t look back at this show in ten years’ time and say I was the duff one. The rest of the cast all went to Hollywood and Foy was left alone in a flat with her cats.’

Foy and Buring share a few ageing horror stories: adding years to their characters involved grim facial torture such as stretching out glue across their skin, ripping it off and letting the skin scrunch up in artificial wrinkles. ‘I think I’ve got some permanent ones. I call them my White Heat wrinkles,’ Buring grimaces. Her character Lilly has a fragile beauty and damaged storyline belied by MyAnna’s hearty voice and action-packed life. Born in Stockholm, her father was a surgeon and she spent her childhood travelling across the Middle East – ‘I say surgeon, he could have been a spy,’ she laughs – going to school in Oman, before coming to London for sixth form and drama school. Since then she’s been a muse for British indie directors, working as a sort of Uma Thurman to director Neil Marshall’s Quentin Tarantino in his films The Descent and Doomsday, before having the thriller Kill List written for her by Ben Wheatley.

‘Lilly probably suffers most at the hands of the 1960s,’ Buring muses. ‘Looking back at the changes that hit her – legalised abortion, new divorce laws – you think of the past as a very dark place.’ Indeed, Milne has placed politics and pleasure at the heart of the series’ plotlines. Kicking off with Churchill’s death, the Vietnam War and student protests, global events bleed into the characters’ lives: Jack turns to drugs; childbirth issues plague the women. It’s Ritchie’s gay Asian medical student who ultimately benefits most from the sweeping changes: ‘What really resonated with me was when his family cut him off for being gay and he lost touch with all of them,’ he confesses. ‘My family are everything.’ The 25-year-old from Lowestoft is straight, but is as happy playing across sexuality as he is twisting Arabic opposite Gemma Arterton and Jake Gyllenhaal for Prince of Persia, or playing Puck alongside Dame Judi Dench in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.

Back in the Kilburn house where ES is photographing the cast – clothes strewn everywhere, MyAnna asking to borrow a jumper/skirt combo for a launch party later – these four actors at the start of their journey seem unfazed, giggling and narrowly avoiding a food fight with plates of jelly. Ritchie pauses for thought. ‘I reckon Sam will be our Johnny Depp, Claire will be the next Dame Judi and MyAnna – whatever she does it’ll be mayhem,’ he says. ‘Every day on set there was something astonishing. You watch them. The show may have the history but I reckon you’re watching acting history right now.’

White Heat will be on BBC Two next month

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