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Film Talk: Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton on chemistry and Covid fears while shooting All The Old Knives

The film adaptation of Olen Steinhauer’s All The Old Knives sees two CIA agents reunite over an investigation into a plane hijack.

Thandiwe Newton as Celia Harrison and Chris Pine as Henry Pelham
Thandiwe Newton as Celia Harrison and Chris Pine as Henry Pelham

Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton’s chemistry was so instant, All The Old The Old Knives director Janus Metz says he felt “almost irrelevant to the situation because they were so into each other” during the pair’s first meeting.

“That’s when, as a director, you just step back with a big fat smile on your face and think, ‘Wow, this is really going to be great’,” he says.

Pine and Newton play CIA agents and ex-lovers, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, in the book adaptation of spy thriller of the same name by Olen Steinhauer.

The two reconnect when the CIA discovers one of its agents leaked information that led to the deaths of more than 100 people when a plane was hijacked eight years earlier. Henry is assigned to root out the mole from among his former officemates at the agency’s Vienna station – which includes questioning his retired station colleague (and love of his life) Celia.

Star Trek star Pine, 41, describes the All The Old Knives as “a great yarn, a great drama, a great thriller – mixed in with an incredibly passionate, dramatic and heartbreaking romance”.

“And that is precisely why I loved it,” he says. “This is one of the best scripts I’ve read in years. It’s what I would love to read travelling on a plane, it would be something I’d want to watch on a Friday night.”

Over the course of an intimate dinner, we see the two seasoned spies cautiously reminisce about the past – both professionally and personally – while edging ever closer to the shocking truth behind the tragic incident. But Henry and Celia’s romantic history (and very present chemistry) can’t be ignored in their exploration of what happened.

Newton, 49, says the characters’ romantic chemistry balanced with the story’s simmering “whodunnit”’ tension was “really well choreographed”.

She says: “Janus spent a lot of time thinking about the reveal of certain things. At what point should the audience know this?

“The script changed in tiny ways, right up until we finished, because he was so keen to give the audience the full, ‘ahh’ suspense. It really is about suspense, about what point you reveal [things], and you just don’t know until you’ve shot it.

“Chris mentioned about [it] feeling like theatre – it kind of did.”

The film, which also stars Laurence Fishburne and Sir Jonathan Pryce, explores ethical dilemmas and betrayal, alongside global espionage and a hunt for the truth – between two people who happen to be experts in secret-keeping.

Metz says that was one of the biggest issues he was wary of in the film’s making. He added: “How do you portray characters that essentially lie and keep secrets?

“The constant double game and the constant permeating sense of paranoia and mistrust between all the characters, was one of the most fun, interesting and intricate elements of making this film.”

So much of the tale and secret-revealing is in the subtleties – particular in the scenes played out over the dinner. “It was really about the twitch of the eye, the little hand movement, or lean over the table. That whole setting of two people in a restaurant trying to catch each other out in this cat and mouse game.”

For Pine, it was the dinner table scenes that really helped him bond with Newton. “We really connected on this movie. When you find yourself sitting across a dinner table from someone for eight weeks, and it’s just the two of you, you inevitably get to know them really well. So a great friendship developed between us.”

Pine’s character, like many great spies, is emotionally closed off and highly adept at compartmentalising his feelings. “Part of that is because of what happened to him early in his CIA career, so he’s carrying a heavy burden of guilt and shame with him at all times,” says Pine. “But then he meets Celia, the love of his life. His heart starts to open up and he becomes a vulnerable human being, only to have it quickly shattered again.”

Newton calls Henry “the rock star of the CIA as far as Celia is concerned.”

Pine, who is also an executive producer on the film, was involved in its development early doors. According to Metz, Pine thought Newton “would be amazing” for the role of Celia. “I remember Chris saying, when we started discussing her, that he thought she was an extraordinarily soulful actress.”

He adds: “They’re both super generous and collaborative and I think they had a lot of fun together.”

Shooting during the pandemic had its challenges though, as well as it’s pluses, Newton says. “One of the benefits of working during a pandemic is that everyone arrived wanting to do it.”

But it meant the film’s stars didn’t have much time ahead of filming to build up a relationship.

“I only really got to know Chris halfway through making the movie,” Newton says. “We had an intimate scene together, and neither of us have a reputation for doing love scenes, so we supported each other through that, and he was so generous and kind and sweet. After that scene, we developed a bond that lasted the rest of the film.”

But filming shutting down due to a Covid outbreak was a real fear. “We were being tested everyday so there was this real commitment to work, I’ve never felt anything like it. You literally show up, [say] ‘I am healthy and fit to work’ and then you go and damn well do it, because you know you might not [be] tomorrow.

She says: “We had one surprise midway through the movie where we thought a whole bunch of people had it – it turned out they were false positives.

“Then we got to the end and kind of fell across the finish line, because it was intense and we didn’t shut down.”

All The Old Knives is in selected cinemas and on Amazon Prime Video from April 8.

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