Academy award winning actress Samantha Morton stars in The Last Panthers, a raw and gripping six part television series based on the research by French journalist Jérôme Pierrat into the legendary Eastern European gang of diamond thieves known as the Pink Panthers.
The series written by Jack Thorne (This is England) and directed by Johan Renck (Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead), also stars John Hurt, French actor Tahar Rahim and Croatian actor Goran Bogdan.
Multiple storylines take us across Europe, and travel back and forth in time from the days of the 1995 Balkan conflict to the present, revealing to us a new world of organized crime where traffickers, drug dealers, bankers and war criminals do business together.
The writing and acting is top notch, and it’s a project Samantha Morton is proud to be part of. In the middle of eating her dinner and on the eve of moving house, Morton was more than happy to have a chat with Rialto Channel about The Last Panthers, and the effect the series has had on her.
Rialto: What were your first thoughts when you read the script?
SM: I didn’t read the script, first I met Johan Renck, Peter Carlton [Producer], and Jack Thorne and they kind of talked me through it, because when you read it, imagine there are so many characters and so many different countries and so many plotlines it’s hard work. So it was a matter of understanding it all and seeing if I was Naomi, and kind of how we were all on the same page, and that was just amazing. So, when they sent me the scripts I was absolutely gripped because I’d already had a meeting.
Rialto: It’s such a remarkable and unnerving story based on real events, what’s the reaction been like to the series in Europe?
SM: I think people have been blown away the rawness, and the realness of such a brave story, because ultimately people don’t want to say this stuff. They want Game of Thrones, they want to be in La La Land, they want fantasy – l mean look at all the superhero movies out there. This is as real as it gets.
When you look at the refugee crisis in Europe, when you look at everything to do with what the British military have done all over the world, when you look at British royal colonization and all of that, this is everything come back to haunt them.
I think that everything in the Balkans, the United Nations did nothing, really. I mean what does that stand for now? I’m embarrassed and humiliated when I think a lot of actors are very kind of proud and they want to be on the UN peace keeping mission or whatever for women or this that and the next thing, but ultimately … it is a shambles. An utterly impartial bollocks – it drives me crackers.
At the moment the refugee crisis that we’re having here and the fact people don’t want to let them in and look after them and help them, these are problems we’re created in past that are coming back to bite us in the bum. I think that we need to be there for people, support people and help people, and we’re not.
Rialto: The Last Panthers does feel like a wake up call, which is one of the reasons the series is so chilling.
SM: It is entertainment, but also Jack Throne is an incredibly clever writer in the fact that he’s saying ‘yes this is real’ but look at what we’re doing everywhere else and look at the consequences of our actions. For me playing Naomi, and playing someone over a 20-year period and a woman also whose past isn’t ruled by being a wife or a girlfriend or a mother or a sister, I’m just me. I’m literally this character that exists because she has a right to be there because of who she is, not who she is to someone else… She’s interesting in the fact that she is the kind of protagonist, the kind of part that is normally given to men.
Rialto: You play an insurance loss adjuster – did you know what they did before this role?
SM: Yes I did… but I didn’t realise the lengths that they went to and I didn’t realise that they operated in their own bubble and their own world, and I found that fascinating.
Rialto: We meet Naomi at various ages and stages of her life – which stage did you find the most challenging?
SM: The present. Naomi lives in the past, but in the present. So I found that really hard playing someone who is almost like a ghost, some who has suffered post traumatic stress really because what happened to her in the 90s that she didn’t have any therapy or help for, and that pushed her towards alcoholism and coldness and living in a world that ultimately she has to control because of past events.
Rialto: Films and TV series aren’t shot in order – was it tricky keeping track of where Naomi was at, what information has already been revealed and what was still to be implied?
SM: What we did shoot that was incredible, was we shot in location sequence, so that helped me massively. So the London stuff was all when she was older and we shot that mostly in sequence. So actually, [thanks to] Johan Renck and Peter Carlton, I was very privileged and lucky that I went in that sequence, and my past that we shot in Serbia and Montenegro, we shot in sequence pretty much so I was blessed. It was like a dream job. You hear of some actors in some jobs and on the first day you’re doing that last scene of the film and there was none of that. Johan was as much as humanly possible as supportive of the actors as he could be, because it was all about keeping it real... there’s a lot of authenticity there.
Rialto: There’s a sense that authenticity was the priority for everyone involved in this project.
SM: We didn’t make this thinking we wanted to please anybody, we made it with an agenda of truth and we don’t apologise for that. We made it with the best integrity in terms of this is what this is about, and not everybody is going to love it and not everybody is going to like it and it’s not going to answer questions for everybody, but what it is, is a piece of morality and take it or leave it, and I feel very proud of everyone for that.
Rialto: Often TV series have several directors at the helm but with such a complex story such as this, you can see the impact of having Johan at the helm throughout.
SM: Yes, it’s rare. Before this I hadn’t done television for over 20 years. I’ve done television I’m very proud of, but again I had loads of different directors. This is Johan’s voice, this is his message – it’s also not just that, it’s his look - he has a very definitely Johan Renck look going on and that’s his identity as a filmmaker and that was a privilege to be a part of.
Rialto: Do you think there’s a chance we might see Naomi again?
SM: I don’t know, I don’t think so, but I don’t know. I know they’re not writing any more at the moment or doing anymore at the moment but I could be wrong. I think this story is what it is and it’s an individual story but if they decided Naomi had other things to do I would play her again in a heartbeat. But I don’t see that on the table right now. Sometimes in life things are what they are, and you have to say goodbye.
Rialto: How much fun was it working with John Hurt who plays your boss Tom?
SM: Gosh he’s a hero of mine and I was a mixture of excited and nervous. He is a gentleman, he was kind, he was passionate, and he was tough on the writer and the director to get it right. Gosh he was a revelation. He’s been around a very long time and I love watching him work, I will remember it forever.
Rialto: The series features a very international cast, what was it like working with Goran Bogdan.
SM: He’s a sweetie. I found it really humbling actually to work with people who aren’t full of bollocks. Movie stars – I can’t bear that kind of that movie star vibe and the politics on set. Look I’m from Nottingham in England and we’re very real if you like, and I hate the crap that’s in the industry that’s about ego and power and games that people play, and it was so refreshing. I loved every minute of it because it was all about the work and not about who you are. Goran is amazingly talented but humble in listening to Johan and taking direction – he was amazing.
I didn’t have much to do with Tahar, but again when I had a scene with him I was, gosh this is just insane. He’s all about the work and all about the truth. He’s a huge star in France and I was so nervous that he might be a diva or a movie star and he wasn’t. He’s just incredibly talented and kind and ready to experiment, and it was refreshing having spent ten years in Hollywood.
Rialto: David Bowie wrote the amazing title track to the series – did you ever meet him?
SM: I didn’t, but I went to a concert in Madison Square Garden. When he was doing the music obviously we didn’t know he was sick, and he’d seen The Last Panthers and the fact that he’d given it his blessing - even thinking about it makes me emotional - he must have seen something in this film that we saw in it, and it’s like getting a seal of approval.
The Last Panthers kicks off on Tuesday 28th June, 8.30pm on Rialto Channel.