Spies Of Warsaw

A thrilling spy story set in Poland, Paris, London and Berlin in the years leading up to the Second World War

Janet Montgomery plays Anna Skarbek

Category: BBC Four; Drama

What attracted you to Spies Of Warsaw?

For me, it was the fact that it gives us a totally different perspective on World War II. Yes, it’s a spy thriller – and of course Alan Furst has created a fictional group of characters here – but there’s also a lot in this drama that’s factual, that many people might not know about. The idea that there were spies working out of Poland who had a major impact on the War, the fact that Polish people suffered so much during the War... It was just a story that I wanted to be involved in telling.

Who is Anna Skarbek? How would you describe her?

Anna is a young, very intelligent woman who works for the League of Nations, which was like the United Nations of its day. She’s a lawyer. She’s quite womanly. Quite seductive, I suppose. She can be quite flirty, but in such a confident, ungirly way, because she is so smart. She has that Helen Mirren-style, mature confidence that women sometimes have, but in a fairly young woman.

How does she first meet David’s character, Mercier?

Mercier is going to this party and he needs someone to go along with him. And he ends up taking Anna after a friend sets them up, though they’ve never met. They’re attracted to each other fairly instantly. But she fights it because she’s in a relationship with another man, Maxim Mostov [played by Piotr Baumann].

What does she see in Mercier?

I think she finds her soul mate in him. They have a connection; the sort of thing you can’t explain unless you’ve had it with someone yourself. It’s one of those ‘we were made for each other’ moments, I guess. But I can see the attraction that she has to Max, as well. He’s a bit older. He’s opinionated. I think when they first met he must have given her a lot of confidence in her own opinions. And I think the demise of their relationship is very painful for Anna. She’s torn. She’s in love with Mercier. But she loves Max in a different way.

Can Anna be trusted, though?!

Well that’s one of the things I love about Spies of Warsaw. Because it’s a spy thriller, you don’t know what her intentions are. You don’t know what Mercier’s intentions are. I think at this point, just before the War, everybody felt like that about each other. You don’t know who you can trust.

Did you know much about this period of history?

Not really. When I learned about the Second World War in school, I learned about it from Britain’s point of view. Which was often what was going on in Britain whilst the War was happening – things like rationing, people’s husbands heading off to war and so on. But Warsaw of course was right in the thick of it. Just a small percentage of Warsaw survived the War. It’s astonishing, really.

Did you do any historical research for the part before you took it on?

I did. In fact of all the projects I have worked on, this is probably the one that I’ve had to do the most research for. I had a few days off before filming began, so I got a train to Krakow, hired a car and went out to visit Auschwitz. I cried the whole time I was there. I’d never seen anything like it.

Did the visit change the way you felt about the drama in any way?

Absolutely. The majority of the story is set within Warsaw, which is under the lingering threat of war. Of course I knew about World War II, but I wanted to go somewhere that would allow me to see what the consequences were for ordinary people – what being captured might result in; what war results in. I’m glad that I made the visit. I don’t think I would have been able to fully grasp what went on without it.

You’re British, but much of your recent TV and film work (Entourage, Human Target, Black Swan) has taken place in the States. Where do you call home?

Right now I’m based in LA but my family are in Bournemouth, England, so I often go back home to stay with them. I also have some very good friends in London who put me up when I’m shooting there.

Apparently Americans often tend to mistake you for an American?

A lot of them do, yeah! I get that quite a lot. Which I’m obviously flattered about because, hopefully, it means that I’m doing a good job playing them!

Is it true that you started out as a dancer?

Yes! I had a strange sort of introduction to acting. I trained as a dancer at the Stella Mann Dance College in Bedford, England, where I studied everything from ballet and tap to jazz. While I was there, I realised that I probably didn’t want to do it professionally. After leaving, I couldn’t get an acting agent because I hadn’t been to drama school. But then I produced a play with my friend Gethin Anthony, who is now in Game of Thrones. And I was lucky enough to get an agent through that.

Alan Furst has written other novels involving Spies Of Warsaw characters. Would you be up for filming more?

Definitely! I’d love that. Alan has written many different novels. And of course Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the writers who adapted Spies, have such an incredible track record, from TV shows like Porridge to films like The Commitments. I hope they would want to write more for us.