Ed Westwick on Playing a 1980s Salesman in New BBC Comedy 'White Gold'
The star and Damon Beesley, creator of the 'Inbetweeners' reunion of sorts, also discuss 1980s nostalgia on TV, as well as Brexit and Trump.
The BBC is on Wednesday launching White Gold, an original six-part comedy series set in Britain in the 1980s that brings together Gossip Girl star Ed Westwick and various names who worked on The Inbetweeners.
Unveiled by BBC Comedy and Fudge Park Productions last year, the show was written and directed by Damon Beesley (The Inbetweeners series and movies) and stars Westwick, Joe Thomas (The Inbetweeners), James Buckley (The Inbetweeners) and Lauren O’Rourke (Drifters).
It tells the story of a double-glazing showroom in Essex in 1983, led by charismatic salesman Vincent (Westwick). Smart, handsome and confident, he will happily break the rules if it guarantees a sale.
“It’s a story of dodgy shenanigans, scams and petty rivalries — alongside free-flowing drugs, cash and sex,” according to a BBC show description.
During this year's BBC Worldwide Showcase, THR talked to Westwick and Beesley about how the Inbetweeners reunion of sorts came about, how Westwick got the lead role, 1980s nostalgia on TV, and how the political situation in 1980s Britain compares to the present, including the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's election as U.S. president.
How did this project come together? Did you basically decide to bring together folks who worked on The Inbetweeners and add in some Gossip Girl star power?
Damon Beesley: The idea came from my childhood. In 1983, when this is set, I was living in a town very much like the one we are portraying. My dad was a double-glazing salesman. As a 12-year-old, I used to wander down to the showroom quite a lot and see these very charismatic young working-class men sitting around, smoking, playing practical jokes on one another, and I used to think what the hell is this, what kind of job is this? And that stuck with me.
So after The Inbetweeners, I threatened to write this for a while, and the head of comedy at the BBC, Shane Allen, loves the story and always said you have to write this. He gave me a huge push. And once it was written, I created the world. That’s when the cast came together. I was very, very fortunate. I didn’t think I’d find anyone who could play [protagonist] Vincent Swan, I was really worried. He is a huge, charismatic guy full of star power who needs to grab this town by the balls and shake everything out of it. I didn’t know if a millennial actor would even understand this character from the 1980s the way I had in my head.
How did you cast Ed?
Beesley: Ed was the very first audition we had. I gave him an incredibly difficult scene to do. I don’t know why, I was just feeling sadistic. It was an eight-page scene with time jumps in it, pieces to camera, a big stunt. Without a single note from me, he delivered pretty much Vincent Swan. I remember thinking, This doesn’t happen. You don’t get holes-in-one. So we are really, really fortunate.
And then Joe Thomas and James Buckley who were in The Inbetweeners were almost my first names on the team sheet. I almost wrote those characters for them, because I was thinking it’s OK for Judd Apatow to do that, so why can’t we. I was like they are great, they are really funny guys and they both live in Essex, so it’s not even far for them to commute to work. It was a dream cast. It’s been a dream, especially for me as a first-time solo director. Someone’s looking down on me.
What connection do you have to the time, Ed? You are too young for that time period, right?
Ed Westwick: I was born after when it’s set. I was born in 1987, it’s set in 1983. In terms of the world of sales, my oldest brother was in sales for years. He did time share in Portugal, so I had that kind of personality closer to me growing up, not as extreme as Vincent, but definitely there were traits within him that resembled parts of Vincent’s personality. My other brother also got that gift of the gab and charm and the thing that can get him what he wants. And I think I must have it somewhere as well.
When I read the script, I just fell in love with it and thought it was just such a fun riot and a very exciting character to play. I liked how naughty he was, but at the same time he definitely got slapped down when he went too far. And I hadn’t done a comedy before. The way he talks to the camera and stuff like that is very unique and a challenge.
What did your salesman brother say when you told him about the role?
Westwick: He loved it. We did a screening a couple of weeks back, and he’s like, "I got some ideas for the next episode."
Beesley: There is something about those characters. My dad is very similar. There is something about the ambition they have. I came from a fairly working-class background at the time. My dad was a terrible father in many ways, but I remember that side of things, that ambition. It does have an impact on you. I never felt like there was a glass ceiling, and we were minimum wage kids to start with. To me all these things were possible, because that’s what these characters make you believe. So there is something in Vincent that is inherently attractive, and that allows some of his more questionable traits to exist as well. You want to feel conflicted. And that ambition comes from a fairly well meaning place, it just runs out of control a bit, and that’s what we get to see as the series evolves.
The U.S. is known for having good salespeople. Do you think the show will play well there and in other markets?
Westwick: It is a localized story in terms of being set in Essex in ’83. The issues we touch on are global. The personalities we see is humanity. The ambition is something that is attractive to us all. These are things we see all over the world. I think it’s a show that could work anywhere really.
Beesley: My influences are quite American as well, like growing up, my taste in TV. My dad used to make me watch — actually I enjoyed it — Dallas when it first came out. My first TV hero was J.R. Ewing. And I think there is that culture of the maverick bad boy, but very endearingly charismatic and handsome as well leads. We don’t necessarily have that so much in British TV shows and comedies. I grew up thinking about Burt Reynolds movies and then loved Tarantino in the '90s, bringing back these kind of very interesting, complex characters that were inherently flawed or bad, but people are enjoying them. I have always liked that and [Martin] Scorsese’s films as well.
Hopefully, it feels international. Everybody knows a con man. It’s like close-up magic, and it’s quite fun getting to see how it’s done. Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards character Frank Underwood is also a hugely conflicting character — you don’t want to root for him so much, but you do really. It feels like it might have a certain universality to it. So we have got very American influences. And Ed is an American, having lived there for seven years.
Ever watched Gossip Girl, Damon?
Beesley: I actually watched an awful lot of Gossip Girl when it was first on and when I first started researching Ed. He is another one of those great American villains who everybody should hate, but actually loves.
Why is the character of Vincent interesting for you?
Westwick: They are complex characters. That’s what makes them attractive to me. There is a lot to explore, different sides of humanity.
There seems to be a lot of 1980s nostalgia on TV? Why do you think that is?
Beesley: I think it’s just because of the age of that generation of storytellers that is coming through now. The Duffer Brothers who made Stranger Things are probably similar ages to me. Sorry, Duffer Brothers, if you are much younger!
I remember in the '90s there were a lot of films about the '60s, and that’s also because of the storytellers and filmmakers, and they were recapturing their youth. Plus, the 1980s is a fairly unique decade, certainly the beginning. Just for the music alone, I am very excited about doing this. We should probably try and do some sort of Easter egg reference to Stranger Things. We can have one of the characters from Stranger Things selling windows.
Westwick: I agree with what he is saying. There is always a charm in nostalgia, and we like to be reminded of some the experiences we had as kids. There is a certain warmth perhaps it brings to us. It’s a fun era to play in.
Beesley: There are also some parallels to now. This is a story about the Southeast of Great Britain where we had this sort of economic boom going on, while there was quite a lot of chaos in the rest of the country, because there were strikes everywhere. But there was this boost because the government let people buy their own council houses, which was a very right-wing policy at the time. [Margaret] Thatcher was in power, [Ronald] Reagan was in power.
Maybe that’s quite interesting to filmmakers now. There seems to be a sort of move back toward that kind of political landscape in Europe and in America. When we started this, when we were selling it, I used to say what we wanted to do is have a window onto the 1980s just to look at this bubble of where it was all going good when Thatcher was in her pomp in this heartland of the Tory government supporters. You don’t see that represented so much in comedies and dramas. But then with the events of the last two years, with Brexit and Trump coming to power, it feels a bit like similar parallels. Maybe that’s why people are returning to the '80s as well, because there is something in the air, something in the water.