On the surface, “The Rook” could be any spy drama. Last fall, as the Starz series filmed an episode in a contemporary mansion in Surrey, near Heathrow Airport, it was possible to mistake all the sneaking around and clandestine takedowns of guards as more of the usual: British espionage in the vein of “The Bodyguard” or “The Night Manager.” Except here the three leads are women and “The Rook,” a psychological thriller with supernatural undertones, is unlike what’s come before.
Its premise, spelled out in the opening minutes of the first episode, seems simple: Myfawny Thomas, played by Emma Greenwell, wakes up on London’s Millennium Bridge surrounded by dead bodies and without her memory. As she tries to understand what’s happened, she discovers her administrative role in a secret government intelligence agency called the Checquy. But as the story unfolds, “The Rook,” which premieres Sunday, becomes more and more complex, revealing a detailed world in which a small segment of the population has extraordinary skills known as “extra variant abilities,” or “EVAs.” Joely Richardson and Olivia Munn play fellow agents, with Richardson as the head of the Checquy and Munn as an American officer who arrives in London to investigate the incident on the bridge.
Based on Daniel O’Malley’s 2012 novel, the series comes from Stephen Garrett, the executive producer behind AMC/BBC One’s successful John le Carré adaptation “The Night Manager.” Garrett brought writing team Sam Holcroft and Al Muriel on board to adapt the pilot nearly four years ago, with the intention of stripping away some of the book’s fantasy elements, and eventually brought the series to Lionsgate, which owns Starz — a network that previously explored a sci-fi twist on the spy genre with the now-canceled “Counterpart.”
“There’s a danger with this type of story that you can be YA [young adult],” Garrett says. “I have no desire to make a YA show. With Starz on board, it became more grown-up and more sophisticated, darker and grounded. I would say it’s a spy show with strong supernatural elements. It’s set in the real world. It’s in the here and now.”
Garrett hired showrunners Lisa Zwerling and Karyn Usher, who took the reins from “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer after her departure over creative differences, and tapped director Kari Skogland, of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Showtime’s Fox News drama “The Loudest Voice,” to helm the first two episodes. Garrett wanted to ensure that a story centered on a female characters had matching representation off-screen: Women directed six of the season’s eight episodes.
“Speaking personally, I prefer working with women,” he explains. “There are clearly extraordinary voices out there, both as filmmakers and as writers. I worked with [director] Susanne Bier on ‘The Night Manager’ and that was a very deliberate choice. To have a female gaze on that very male world was more interesting. The spy story has a testosterone-charged reputation. To bring an estrogen element into it just makes it more interesting.”
Munn, who refers to the London of the show as a “heightened world” rather than supernatural, was attracted to the characters because “at the end of the day they’re just badass people who are really great at their jobs.
“There are three female leads and that was very new to me — and different,” she adds. “To be able to work with two other female leads was a big draw for me. Unless it’s a story where everybody is trying to find a husband, that doesn’t really happen. I have my own criteria for what I want to do, or not. I ask myself one question, which is: Would she exist if he doesn’t exist? This show passes that test. [Monica] exists completely on her own. It was really important to me that we’re telling stories where you see people on screen that are a reflection of real life.”
Of course, the duplicitous world of the Checquy isn’t exactly real life. The agency, where the intelligence officers are known by the names of chessboard pieces (Myfawny is a Rook), flickers with reminders of that heightened world, particularly when we see the agents use their powers. Richardson based Lady Farrier, the agency’s King, partially on Stella Rimington, the female former director general of Britain’s MI5 security service. The actress, who previously explored the underbelly of espionage in last year’s “Red Sparrow,” wanted to convey the nuance of being a leader in precarious standing. She was also interested in the relationship between her character and Myfawny, a connection similar to that between Fiona Shaw’s Carolyn and Sandra Oh’s Eve on another British spy drama, “Killing Eve.”
“She’s a woman holding on to her position — or trying to,” Richardson says. “And I love the fact that the main, central emotional relationship is between an older woman and younger girl. It’s a mentor relationship, and that’s so unusual for that to be a central relationship. Both have complications and both have vulnerabilities, and both are just trying to manage, maintain their dignity and do good work.”
Greenwell, best known for her role as Mandy Milkovich on “Shameless,” was cast in part because the showrunners felt that Myfawny would be most believable in the hands of a less famous actress. “If you look at the Starz model and the other actresses that Starz has been successful with, it seemed like a discovery was a really good idea,” Usher notes. Greenwell asked to stay in the dark, only learning the events of the story as she got each script.
“I’ve been guessing the whole time,” she says. “It was very stressful the first few weeks. But I’ve realized I have to allow it to happen. The joy of it is to be able to create the character from scratch and in each situation feeling how she would react to that, knowing she has no preference and no idea what she likes and what she’s scared of. She’s trying to figure it out. To me, the beauty of the show is that supernatural element is like a quiet whisper that is very much grounded in reality. It’s very different from other shows where the powers are flashy.”
For the showrunners, it’s important that viewers don’t get distracted by the supernatural elements and instead follow the twists and turns of the story, which sees Myfawny slowly uncover a nefarious plot against those who possess EVAs. Each episode asks as many questions as it answers, all leading up to a cliffhanger finale (the actors are signed on for two seasons, although a second hasn’t officially been announced).
“Audiences now are accustomed to being drawn into a world that isn’t exactly the world they’re familiar with and being able to adjust and catch on and become engaged,” Zwerling notes. “That’s part of the fun. I don’t think people want things over-explicated. Audiences are really sophisticated, so we played to that.”
For Greenwell, “The Rook” isn’t just about flashy set pieces or furtive spy games, which may be a result of the female-led storytelling. The expected moments of action and drama are there, but the series also uses its multi-genre backdrop as a way to examine fundamental questions about identity.
“What makes you who you are?” the actress asks. “Through playing this role I discovered that it’s not one thing or one moment — it’s the accumulation of things. I don’t think the powers define these characters. I don’t think anything really defines them. It’s all about the situation and the history and how that combination in that moment comes through.”