'Bodyguard' Creator on Its "Roller-Coaster" Success and How to Keep Surprising the Audience

Sophie Mutevelian/World Productions/Netflix
Madden as David Budd in 'Bodyguard.'

"It was always about playing the truth of the character," says Jed Mercurio, the creator of the Emmy-nominated BBC thriller, airing on Netflix in the U.S., that follows a veteran with PTSD who's tasked with protecting a politician.

Bodyguard, Jed Mercurio's six-episode series about a military veteran (Richard Madden) suffering from PTSD who is hired to protect a controversial politician (Keeley Hawes), blossomed from a British hit to a worldwide sensation after it debuted Oct. 24 on Netflix. The thriller has landed BBC its first nomination in the drama series category in nearly 50 years. Mercurio, 52, spoke with THR about why he thinks the show has become such a phenomenon, what he learned about bomb disposal and who from his cast would make the best real-life politician.

What was unique about the way Bodyguard took TV by storm?

It was an amazing kind of roller-coaster ride because the show had done extremely well in the U.K. But I think it maybe had something to do with the fact that every major country in the world has politicians and government and there are threats to these people and there are systems in place to protect them. So there were some universal touchstones there that I think help people access the thriller.

What did you and Richard work through to figure out his character?

I've worked with Richard before, so I knew him and had a working relationship with him. That creates a very positive platform to start with because we have that kind of shorthand with each other. It was always about playing the truth of the character, always knowing that he had to find what the scene was about for the real person, the real David Budd, and what was going on in terms of the game we were playing with the audience — which was, is he involved in the assassination, or is he not? Is he what he claims to be, or is he a danger to Julia (Hawes)? Those were all things that he had to trust the director and the editor and me to be delivering on.

There were lots of surprises in this story, including key character deaths. What is the process when writing those scenes that will stun the audience?

It's always the same thing, which is, "What is the best thing to happen for the show as a whole?" It might be that the audience is attached to a particular character, but if something bad happens to that character or that character exits the story and as a result of this the story is propelled forward, the stakes are raised, new questions arise. The consequences to the characters left behind are really dramatic and involving. Then that's the balancing act we have to work through.

You spent quite a bit of time in research and speaking with police and bomb experts. What was the most surprising thing you learned?

Probably the most surprising thing we found out was about the bomb disposal officers. We had been under the impression that they wore very thick, very high-strength protective clothing — the kind of Hurt Locker suit. But what they told us was that it was almost impossible to do their job wearing that clothing, so they are largely unprotected when they are carrying out bomb disposal work. They tend to just to wear a pair of goggles and trust their judgment.

The U.K. is going through real-life political drama. Have recent events inspired new stories for you?

I mean, politics is one of those things that can change so quickly, and when you're making a show that's set in that world, the one thing that you have to take into account is what could change in the real world that could very badly mess with what you're trying to say. So we kind of tried to steer clear of all the political turmoil that's going on over here in the U.K. around leaving the European Union and all the changes of leadership that have gone along with that. We stuck to dealing with the issue of national security just because it feels like it's quite a stable thing, that generally the threats to our national security have remained fairly constant over the past few years.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started this project?

I wish I had known that Waterloo Station was not going to let us film the opening sequence, because then we had to shut down production and completely reconceive the opening sequence.

Which member of your cast would fare best in a political debate?

Oh, without a doubt Keeley Hawes. Keeley at times would slip into an impression of Margaret Thatcher when she was doing some of Julia Montague's dialogue, and there are some scenes we shot in a mock-up of our Houses of Parliament, our House of Commons, which was incredibly boisterous. We got all the extras to try to shout at her and interrupt her and put her off in a really raucous way — which is how our lovely parliamentary democracy works — and she just was great. She just stayed in character and shouted them down and let them make fools of themselves and then hit back. It was just really, really great to watch.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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Odds Are...

If there's any indicator of Bodyguard's likely second season, it's Netflix's decision to position the yet-to-be-renewed British import in the drama race and not as a limited series. Still considered the center ring of the Emmys' big tent, drama competition is much stiffer and more difficult to crack. But it's in the race on the back of critical fervor, a strong showing at the Globes and favorable comparisons to early Homeland. Remember Homeland? That series' freshman season scored a 2012 coup when its timely talk of terrorism ended Mad Men's Emmy streak. Team Bodyguard is likely hoping for similar tailwind, but Homeland never had to contend with dragons. —Michael O'Connell

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What's News: A Brit Hit's 'Fulfilling' Transatlantic Triumph

Bodyguard turned into a hometown hit when it launched Aug. 26 on BBC One, racking up 6.9 million viewers to become the most-watched new U.K. drama in a decade. The Sept. 23 series finale landed 10.4 million viewers, the biggest audience of the year outside of the World Cup. The show went on to grab a huge U.S. audience after landing on Netflix, reaching more than 10 million households in its first four weeks, according to the streamer. Says Mercurio, "The fact that it seemed to resonate with people across the world from different countries and cultures was really fulfilling." —R.F.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.