As someone who was, at different points in his career, a closeted gay priest, a ruthless Viking king, a doomed Presidential hopeful and Bruce Wayne’s father, it’s safe to say Linus Roache has had quite a storied career. In the sci-fi film Division 19, out in UK cinemas June 21st, he plays futuristic dictator Charles Lyndon, whose management of the country is compromised when top prisoner-turned-unwitting reality star Hardin Jones (Jamie Draven) is broken out by the titular rebel group. We sat down with him to discuss the film, social media, and sci-fi…
How did you come to be a part of Division 19?
I happened to be in Los Angeles at the time and this offer came through from [director] Suzie Halewood. It all happened rather quickly. It was a question of me reading the script, having a talk with her and realizing that she was a very focused person, that she had a real vision for the movie and that it fit perfectly with the schedule I was on, so I extended my trip, stayed in LA and shot the movie, and I think my stuff was done pretty much within two weeks.
What attracted you to the script and more specifically to your character, Charles Lyndon?
I’m a big sci-fi fan. I love the way science-fiction can give us warnings and tell us stories about the present day by peering into the future. Good science-fiction makes you really think about what we’re doing right now and I thought that was in the story – that this over-privatization and commercialization of everything is dehumanizing us. In terms of the character, it’s always interesting to play the power-mongers and people who want to rule the world.
Having played government officials and similar authority figures in such works as Homeland, Law & Order, RFK and Vikings, do you find there’s something that draws you to characters who exercise power and the moral questions that come with it?
I think as an actor, generally, I’m drawn to a variety of different roles. I’ve been able to be diverse and play different things, as part of the fun of being an actor is the versatility of moving between different energies and types. For example, RFK is a hero of mine. He was truly dedicated to serve the people, unlike our current president who likes to serve himself. He actually was intimidated by the power thing, that’s part of the story of his campaign to become president; he didn’t find it easy to campaign, he was better off as the man behind his brother. In Law & Order, I learned very quickly that most prosecutors aren’t there for the money. They’re not there for the fame, they’re not there for the glory; it’s a real vocation. There might be a thrill to the job but I don’t think you can be in that game for your own gain; you do it to serve. So I think dramas often are about these types of people but I think within them I’ve managed to play quite a wide range. The role I’m playing at the moment in Homeland, I wouldn’t say he’s a power-monger either. David Wellington is very much a man who’s trying to navigate through a very complex administration. I think the best parallel to Lyndon is that, at the time, I was playing King Ecbert in Vikings and there was a synergy between those two.
It’s quite rare to see fictional dictators who are just part of a system that governs their life as much as it does the citizens they rule over and just never find the time to question it. Do you suppose this is how most high-ranking officials in despotic regimes think?
Well, I think that must be the case. Certain systems exist, they’re created out of society and culture and very hard to change. By now, even democracy itself maybe needs to be questioned and evolve into something new but it’s very hard to change the structures of things. Often, people are just inheriting the legacy of a system, therefore they’re perpetuating it. That’s why a lot of people got fed up with things in the last election with Brexit, and voted for a big change because they were sick of the status quo. They wanted something new, something different.
The film deals with a lot of topical issues, particularly relating to the omnipresence of social media and the power social media companies – in this case merged with government – hold on our everyday lives. Is this an issue you feel strongly about, yourself?
I don’t use Facebook, I don’t use Instagram, I don’t use any of those platforms. I’m a little intimidated by them but I don’t necessarily think they’re all a negative thing because they are a means of communication. It’s what we communicate that matters. There are some pretty obvious downsides to what these things are propagating in terms of alienation on one hand but they’re also creating stronger communities on the other. It’s allowing some political movements – some of those regimes we were talking about have been brought down because of social media, because it put power back in people’s hands. What I don’t like is when I see a generation becoming a slave to it, so I think we have to be careful not to let ourselves become defined by social media, that our image to the world is social media and that’s all that counts. I find that a little scary, particularly for young people.
In this age of mass surveillance, YouTube and reality TV, seeing fiction where regular people are on screens 24/7 hardly feels like an exaggeration at all. As an actor, does this world we live in where everyone seems to be both performer and audience ever feel disconcerting?
There’s this wonderful movie called Eighth Grade, it’s about an eighth grader and you’re seeing the world through her lens and all of her friends define themselves through their Facebook or Instagram or whatever…that’s their image to the world and it’s not necessarily a true or a real one. And I find that scary because, as you say, it becomes performative and not about real transparency. It doesn’t have to be that way; there are, I think, examples of people using this medium to be very transparent and to help other people. I don’t think we can demonize social media, we have to look at what it is that we’re putting through it. We’re the ones that control whether it’s used in a negative or positive way. The responsibility comes back to us.
You mentioned earlier that you’re a sci-fi fan. Are there any books, films or shows in the genre that you especially like?
Well, the films I love are mostly a lot of the classic ones like 2001 through to Blade Runner and The Matrix, etc. In terms of books, a book that really blew my mind recently was The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin. I think that is just one of the best sci-fi things I’ve ever read. It was on Barack Obama’s Top 10 reading list, that’s how I found it. As an exploration 500 years into the future, I really felt like the writing hooks you both in terms of human evolution and cultural evolution but also the technological evolution…it was so far out there, it was mind-blowing! So I highly recommend that one. I was hoping that Hollywood might do a film of it – I know they’re making a movie in China. I was hoping Hollywood might do it too.
I recall one of your most notable roles in that genre was in The Chronicles Of Riddick with Vin Diesel.
Exactly. I think at the time, it didn’t get very well-received but it became a very big cult-followed film and people loved it. People still watch it now. It’s fun!
You share most of your scenes with L. Scott Caldwell as fellow bureaucrat Michelle Jacobs and there’s a very casual, informal dynamic between you two that underlines how long these characters have worked together and know each other. Is this something you discussed together along with Suzie Halewood?
To be totally frank, a lot of it was very much about, you know, “it’s on the page, the story’s clear so let’s just commit to it, make it work.” There wasn’t a lot of deep discussion about back history and that kind of thing, there was just understanding the context of the scene. Sometimes, with these things, it’s just about chemistry; you get good people in the room and everybody brings that past life and energy to the scene. It takes care of itself. I don’t recollect there being any deep discussion about it.
Are there any scenes you especially enjoyed filming?
There was this scene with Jamie [Draven] at the end. I remember liking that, just the two-hander and setting the context for where Lyndon was coming from and where Lyndon was coming from, and the demise of it all. That part was quite fun to do. To be honest, in something like that, you really are just there to serve the director’s vision and hopefully make the movie as good as it can be.
You said it was a two-week job. Do you have any memories of those two weeks that stand out?
Well, it’s interesting how you can make some buildings in downtown LA feel very futuristic. There was one building we were in which was very much Lyndon’s main headquarters, and it was amazing! It’s not easy making sci-fi on a lower budget, you know, it’s very hard. Chronicles Of Riddick was on the other end of the spectrum, that was a huge movie and they spent tons of money building all those sets. When you’re trying to do it on a lower budget, it’s hard but I was impressed with some of the locations they found.
You’ve been acting for well over 40 years now since the age of 9. Most recently, you were the villain in last year’s Mandy, as mentioned earlier, and co-starred with Toby Stephens in the Cold War mini-series Summer Of Rockets. Do you find yourself still learning new things and going to unexpected new places in your career?
Yes, and I always look forward to an opportunity to do new things. Of course, there is some repetition where once you’ve played a lawyer, you might be likely to play another one [laughs] but quite often they’re different. In Summer Of Rockets, that was quite a unique character to play: a WWI hero who’s a politician but he’s deeply troubled by his experience in the war and he’s an alcoholic and trying to cover it up…there are lots of layers! I find hopefully every role brings new and interesting challenges but, equally, when you’ve been in the business this long, you’re also looking for a new experience. So, for example, Mandy was a very new thing for me to do. That director [Panos Cosmatos] took a real risk on me to play that role because I’m not, to a lot of people, very obvious casting. I understood the role, I understood how to do it, he and I made a strong connection and he gave me that opportunity. I look forward to being given those challenges because, as an actor, I like to be pushed, I like to go to places that I haven’t been before and experience these things I haven’t done before.
Your next upcoming film is the war film The Last Full Measure. What can you tell us about the film and your character in it?
Well, the film is basically the true story of William H. Pitsenbarger, who was part of a pararescue team in Vietnam who went down into a killsite where the platoon was on the ground, being picked off one by one. He got as many guys as he could onto the chopper and then waved the chopper off, stayed on the ground to fight and protect the remaining men, and he died in that process. So he’s a war hero but at the time, because he was airborne, he wasn’t given the Medal of Honor. For many years right up until 2000, the men in his platoon who survived were campaigning for him to get the Medal of Honor posthumously. And I play the secretary of the Air Force who gives the father the posthumous medal. It’s a very moving, powerful true story. When I read that script, I had absolutely no hesitation, I was begging to be a part of it. I have a small role in the movie but it felt like a deep honour to be a part of it and I got to re-enact the Medal of Honor ceremony with real war veterans, the real guys who were actually there. That was very powerful.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline you can tell us about?
I’m going to the Edinburgh Film Festival with another war movie, actually, a WWII movie Liberté: A Call To Spy. It’s about the underground spies who were sent from England into France to sabotage German operations and I play Maurice Buckmaster who was the head of SOE in London. So it’s very much the beginning days of early CIA, MI5 and how they deal with war not as soldiers but as spies. And this is all about female spies, the true stories of Virginia Hall and Vera Atkins. These women went through incredibly dangerous and heroic work, they helped us win WWII and shortened the war by maybe two years.
Are there any projects you haven’t started working on yet?
No, I’m on Homeland. I’m talking to you from Morocco right now, I’m here shooting at least until the end of July so nothing as yet on the horizon apart from this. But I love being part of Homeland because I love this genre. Sci-fi is probably my favourite genre, but what I read mostly is thrillers and what I watch mostly is thrillers, and I was a big Homeland fan so to be asked to be part of the show is really exciting because I love the way it can mirror reality. It’s drama but it’s drama that’s also insightful and educational and shows us what’s actually happening.
Division 19 is in UK cinemas from Friday 21st June.