(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the “Black Mirror” Season 5 episode “Smithereens.”)
On the surface, “Smithereens,” the Season 5 episode of “Black Mirror,” can feel a bit like a departure from the rest of the glossy sci-fi anthology series — for one thing, it takes place in the past — but upon closer inspection, it bears many of the show’s most recognizable hallmarks.
Set in the year 2018, the episode features no futuristic technology or lavish special effects, just a good old-fashioned phone call between two men, played by Andrew Scott and Topher Grace, who both have come to feel a growing sense of isolation in a world ruled by big tech companies, though in two very different ways. And if there’s a common theme running through every episode of “Black Mirror,” it’s the idea that technology, for all its ability to bring people together, can rip us apart and isolate us just as quickly.
“I’m especially drawn to the episodes that are slightly less about the technology and more about emotion, and I thought this episode was that,” Grace told TheWrap. “The thing I loved right away when I first started reading it was the fact that it’s a period piece. It takes place in 2018, and for ‘Black Mirror,’ that’s like the distant past. I thought that was really interesting. And then the character was just delicious.”
Grace’s Billy Bauer is a somewhat pitifully tragic character whose absence — thanks to a 10-day “silence retreat” to contemplate the fact that his company has grown beyond his control — consumes much of the first half of the episode. But much of the episode’s forward momentum comes from Scott’s heartbreaking turn as a man whose grief has become so all-consuming he’s willing to go as far as taking a hostage to force someone to finally acknowledge it.
Scott was already attached to the episode when Grace was offered the part, and as a self-proclaimed fan of both the actor and of “Black Mirror,” Grace jumped at the opportunity. “I’m a huge fan of ‘Sherlock’ and the work Andrew’s done on that,” Grace said. “I mean, there’s no finer actor.”
But in an appropriately “Black Mirror” twist, the two actors never physically shared the same set. Grace’s scenes were shot on a cliffside in Spain, while the bulk of Scott’s performance was delivered in a London field. Their dialogue, over the phone, was spliced together in post-production.
“It’s unbelievable, the work he’s done on this episode,” Grace said of his co-star. “My only regret is that we didn’t get to do it together.”
We talked with Grace about his favorite “Black Mirror” episodes, the inspiration for Billy Bauer, and why he almost shaved his head for the role.
TheWrap: Were you a fan of “Black Mirror” before you signed on to do this episode?
Grace: Oh yeah. Big time.
What was it that made you want to do this episode, and play this character in particular?
I love all “Black Mirrors.” It’s one of my favorite programs, hands down. But I’m especially drawn to the episodes that are slightly less about the technology and more about emotion, and I thought this episode was that. The thing I loved right away when I first started reading it was the fact that it’s a period piece. It takes place in 2018, and for “Black Mirror,” that’s like the distant past. I thought that was really interesting. And then the character was just delicious.
How was Billy described on the page? What in particular jumped out at you?
It’s funny, I had this little bit in “BlacKkKlansman” too, where I was this big part of the movie, but for the first part of the movie everyone’s just talking about the character. That same thing happened here. It’s a little bit nerve-racking as an actor to be turning the pages and hearing so much about your character but you still haven’t met him yet, so there’s kind of a build up. What surprised me was when I started reading the character’s point of view and seeing where he came down on the situation. It just goes to show what a lovely writer [co-creator] Charlie [Brooker] is that he went in a totally different way than I thought [he would] — and, I think, the way the audience watching the episode will think it’s going to go.
Twitter chief Jack Dorsey kind of seems like the obvious connection to make here, but did you look to this group of young tech moguls who are all of a sudden finding themselves in over their heads when you were forming this character?
Yeah, I didn’t use the word “young,” though. They were all young at some point, sure, but they brand themselves that way, these guys, even if they don’t know it. You know what Steve Jobs’ look is. You know what Richard Branson’s look is. They really set themselves apart, and I’m not even sure it’s something they know they’re doing. It probably is, but I don’t know. When I first started, I called Charlie and [co-creator] Annabel [Jones] and said, “I wanted to shave my head bald.” Because they always have a look. They always have something before they’re successful that makes you gravitate to them, and I think that’s something they’re trying to do. In the end, they talked me out of that, plus I was about to do press for “BlacKkKlansman,” which is probably not the best time to have a shaved head. So we landed on the look that he has on the show. It comes from him clearly being in an interesting place in his life where he’s built this thing, this whole image, and it’s become kind of a runaway train.
The first half or so of the episode is Andrew’s character trying to get through to Billy, but there are all these layers of people trying to protect him, or protect the company, at least –
Yeah, I don’t think anybody’s trying to protect Billy. [Laughs.] It’s funny. I was excited to play the character when I thought I knew where it was going. But when it went in a totally different direction, I was like, Man, I have to do this. This is amazing. Only Charlie would write you into a specific place and then take it somewhere else entirely.
But what’s Billy’s motivation there? Why does he decide, after everything else that happened before, actually yeah, I’m going to talk to this guy?
I think a lot of these guys really understand publicity. They show a couple shots of magazine covers and press photos in the episode, so [Billy] clearly knows how to navigate that world and knows how to really stand out. It’s a new thing. Where you haven’t even heard of this guy’s platform and then all of a sudden your whole life is run by that technology and that guy has a hand in every part of your life. Or that company does, at least. And one thing these guys also share besides having that specific look, is they all have this quest for spirituality. I’m not sure if they believed in it in the beginning or if they believe in it now, but I think that they think they do. So Billy’s definitely at an interesting moment in his life. You meet him on this silence retreat, and whether or not it’s real, he believes it is, this moment of crisis that he’s going through.
So much of the episode is driven by Andrew’s performance –
He already had the role by the way, when I received the script. And I’m a huge fan of “Sherlock” and the work Andrew’s done on that. I mean, there’s no finer actor. It’s unbelievable, the work he’s done on this episode. My only regret is that we didn’t get to do it together.
How much were you aware of what he was doing while you were shooting your scenes?
In “BlacKkKlansman,” I also had a lot of stuff on the phone, with John David Washington, but we were set up back to back for those scenes. And we were both on camera at the same time, so we could interrupt each other and connect. I’d never had that experience before. For this, my part was in Spain. They showed me a photo of this house on a cliff, and I thought, ‘Wow, this location is great, it says so much about the character.’ My only misgiving was that I didn’t get to do it with Andrew. But they could not have been more wonderful; I had the most amazing experience on this show. They flew me to London, and I got to see the field and see where the rest of it was taking place, and then James Hawes, who directed it, hired an actor to come with us to Spain and read Andrew’s part. He had watched the other performance and was sort of keyed up to the level Andrew would be at. I really felt so grateful to Charlie and Annabel and James. They didn’t have to do that, but it really helped me match the level he was at.
After that phone call, whatever happens at the end of the episode, what does Billy take away from that conversation? How does he proceed from here?
Oh, well, it’s Charlie’s episode. I wouldn’t want to impose on that. What’s so great about what they do is they let it be more ambiguous than American television is sometimes. So I wouldn’t want to wade into how Charlie would want you to experience it.
Fair enough. “Black Mirror” is the kind of show that seems to invite people to pick and choose their favorite episodes. As a fan, do you have a favorite?
You know a show is working when it’s like trading cards, and people can’t stop talking about their favorite ones. My favorite is “Be Right Back,” which I think is true for a lot of people, the one with Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson. But that one was my first one, and I have a theory that with anthologies like these and like “Twilight Zone,” you’re always chasing that high of the first one you experienced. But I loved “USS Callister.” “Nosedive,” too.