'Would like to see more humanity in spy thrillers': Sarah Meghan Thomas on writing, producing, and acting in A Call To Spy
The remarkable story of American espionage agent Virginia Hall is one that has never been explored in Hollywood. But that was until Sarah Megan Thomas came on board. In A Call To Spy, the historical drama/spy thriller that the 41-year-old wrote and produced, she also plays Virginia, the physically challenged spy, who worked with the United Kingdom's clandestine Special Operations Executive and the American Office of Strategic Services in France during World War II. Portraying the story of three female agents who help undermine the Nazi regime in France, the film directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher also stars Stana Katic (Vera Atkins) and Radhika Apte (Noor Inayat Khan) who makes her international debut. Ahead of its premiere in India this week, we catch up with Sarah over a Zoom call, where she discusses how she prepared for her role, her writing process and why she has chosen to tell female-driven narratives.
You have written, produced, and acted in this film. What drew you to this project?
What attracted me to the project was that this is a film about three real heroes in World War II. And we have never had a movie about them before. The movie is about their heroism. They are not the wives or the nurses in a World War II film. They are on the center stage, putting their lives on the line for freedom. And that’s the story that hasn’t been told before so I wanted to make sure to tell it.
In the film, you play Virginia who is a physically challenged secret agent. How did you prepare? Were you conscious as to not to overplay or underplay this disability part?
Thank you for asking that. In terms of preparations, I met a prosthesis specialist and learned about what it was like to wear one of these wooden legs in the early `40s. They were made for men, of course. Interestingly, they never really fit Virginia so there were blisters all the time, she was constantly in pain. As an actress, for the role, I would walk with a limp. It was described to me as walking in ski boots all the time. But I did not want to overplay it. Actually, we have cut certain things out of the movie — any hint of overplaying it. And the reason is, Virginia Hall is a woman who did not get her disability get in the way of her job. I spoke to her family and they said she didn't want anyone to know about it. Some people never even noticed it. So we just chose moments like the stairs, so that you won’t forget about it. But we didn’t want that to be the defining thing that you see when you are watching the movie.
Could you take us through the research that you did before writing the film?
Yes, so I read all the spy files that I got my hands on— Vera’s, Noor’s, and Virginia's. I also got access to the CIA files. I spoke with friends of Vera’s in the UK, I had SOE consultants and I spoke with family members here in the states. Then at the end of the day, you have to make a two-hour movie and you have to throw away some of the research and that was the hardest bit, letting go. Because you go down the rabbit hole for years. And because I'm an actress it was a lot of fun, I did a lot of readings with friends and they would critique it saying, ‘Cut the first ten pages’, and all I would be like ‘No! Iit took so long to write the first ten pages (laughs)’.
The movie brings together people from diverse nationalities and cultural backgrounds. What would you say is the relevance of such a multicultural context in today’s world?
It’s so relevant. Because of the pandemic, we are realising it more that we are all in this together. We live in a global world. And I wanted to tell the story of women from different nationalities, different religions, who united to resist a common evil. There were 39 female spies in France, I could have chosen any three, any two or anyone. It was really important for me to choose women from different nationalities to have this more global conversation about how our diversity is what makes us successful.
The previous movies you have worked on such as Equity, Backwards among others also explore female-led narratives. Is that a conscious choice?
Absolutely. Of the three films that I have written and produced, they all have a couple of things in common. I like to pick a commercial genre, because my films have to make money so my investors come back so I have a career. So I always start with the genre — sports film, wall street, spy thriller, and then I look at it and try to see what women-led stories haven't been told on an independent level. And I want to tell original stories.
You worked alongside Radhika Apte in the movie...
Radhika is amazing. When people see this on Amazon, they are going to be amazed. Radhika has so many fans, I don't have to tell you that. But this is just a heartbreaking and honest performance from her. I don't think anyone can play this role again because she’s so good.
You contribute to the artistic and financial side of films. How do you balance both without one affecting the other?
I think they do affect each other. I certainly would like to do a film where I had a bigger budget and a larger team to support. But I would say, this is my third time balancing those hats and I'm learning as I go along. Talking of challenges, for instance, I have a lot of investors in this film, so they all need to be updated since they all have invested in this movie. They all need to be part of the conversation meanwhile you need to balance the problems on set. And then I have to learn my lines. It can be difficult at times. But I love it and that’s why I do it.
What do you think has to change in the way spy movies are being portrayed?
I want to see more of humanity. I'm interested in special effects, romance and glamour just like the rest of them. I would love to see a James Bond movie where even more time is spent on the characters. For example in this movie, the thriller aspect isn't the main thing, it’s ‘will they or won't they survive’. And I would argue that it's equally as compelling. So I would like to see more of that. I want to care about the characters in my spy films more.
And what would you say is your favourite spy film of all time?
I love Briget of Spies! It's not female-driven but it goes back to what I just said - it's complex. It's about different nationalities, it's about characters, and it's thrilling. Moreover, it’s beautifully shot.
A Call To Spy will premiere in India on Amazon Prime Video today