Actors & Spies Talk at V&A

V&A museum LondonOne of the most intriguing talk I have attended this year was called The Art of Deception at V&A museum, London. It was an interview by director Giles Ramsay with the award-winning actor Sam West and the spy writer Nigel West. The discussion was about the similarities and differences between acting and spying – the mutual arts of deception.

According to V&A the talk was about analysing the processes and devices involved in creating new identities, sustaining believable characters and inventing scenarios.

On Character building

According to actor Sam West acting is about the way you do things. Characters are gradually built. An actor is keeping what is same and changing what is different in the character. After a while being in a character begins to feel normal, but this requires time. Actors are gradually putting layers into the character.

What makes acting different from spying is that the audience knows that what they see is deception. On the contrary, we don’t know who the spies are. Most of the time even their closest family members don’t even know.

On Spying

Nigel West is an author specialising in security, intelligence, secret service and espionage issues. He points out that instead of spying we should talk about collecting intelligence. What is in the heart of the act of spying is the relationship of the agent and the case officer. The deceit happens between them. The case officer must invent a convincing narrative, a cover story to persuade the agent to act. In recruiting the case officer is acting to become who they think the agent is most likely to believe. So it is a false fact recruitment.

On Directing

According to Sam West a good director is making the actors do it as well as they can, not just in order to please the director but also believe themselves in the role.

On Actors

Good actors find themselves in a part. The process starts by knowing what you need to change. It can start with something specific and concrete like finding the right shoes for the character. When they are found, the actor can see how ‘that’s not me anymore’; they have become the character.

According to Sam West best actors are moving rather than impressive. If the role is boring, they should be boring. He gives an example of Ben Affleck’s character in Argo, who is rather a boring person, making Affleck’s performance good even though he wasn’t appraised for the role.

A bad performance is the one you don’t try anything new.

On Spies

Good spies are narcissistic and manipulative people. The agent must be able to trust totally the case officer. In the past spies (like the James Bond character) were wild in their private lives. This has not changed, although technology and targets have. Espionage is still about human relationships between people; loyalty and betrayal.

Similarities and differences

Spying is very different from acting in the sense that a spy is trying not to be noticed. Similarities include adjusting to new situations quickly. Apparently women are much better spies and also being recruited much more because of their ability to have an eye for detail. Also women are more sensitive to know e.g. if someone is following them.


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