Allen Leech on The Imitation Game: It’s Challenging to Find Your Place When You’re Constantly Lying to Everyone
“I can’t fucking beat it!”
Despite playing a master cryptanalyst in The Imitation Game, British actor Allen Leech (Downton Abbey) couldn’t contain his frustration with the mobile app version of Monopoly he’s been obsessed with lately.”I have it on hard, and I tried beating it on my way here. An 11-hour flight! Fucking cat keeps beating me!” He referred to a certain feline opponent in the game as he chatted with me and a couple of other journalists during the film’s press day in San Francisco. Who could blame him? Games are hard.
Directed by Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game centers on the life of Alan Turing, an English cryptanalyst and mathematician who helped end WWII by cracking the code of an Enigma Machine, machines the Germans used to communicate with each other via encrypted messages. Turing and his team of code breakers worked under tremendous pressure to unlock Enigma, while his secret life as a closeted gay man was a persistent threat, as homosexuality was a crime in England at the time.
Revelatory, thrilling, and genuinely entertaining, the film tells the story of a man who changed the world, but was ultimately dealt a tragic injustice. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Leech as fellow code breaker John Cairncross, with Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Matthew Beard rounding out the team of “cardigan Avengers”.
Joining Leech for our roundtable conversation was screenwriter Graham Moore. The two discussed why the film had to be entertaining; how bad at puzzles they are; their fascination with period pieces; Leech’s approach to the role; the tragedy of Turing’s demise; Cumberbatch’s performance; how Turing being gay directly affected his life’s work; and much more.
Graham, you’ve talked before about how hard this screenplay was to pitch, considering it’s about a gay mathematician who kills himself in the end. The film’s entertainment level is very high. How important was it for you to make the film entertaining and not depressing?
Graham: It was important to all of us. We felt that Alan Turing’s legacy deserved an entertaining film. The goal was always to expose a new audience to Alan’s story. His life had been explored so well on the page before and on stage, but there’s never been a full-on narrative cinematic treatment of his story. His legacy deserves to be so much better known than it is. We’ll have these screenings, and after the film we’ll have these lovely moments where people–especially mathematicians and engineers–will come up and say, “I’ve heard of Alan Turing before–I studied him at university–but I had no idea he was gay. I had no idea that he suffered such horrible persecution at the hands of his government.” Making an entertaining film was important to us. He was a lively man, a passionate man, a funny man. He was not the sort of doddering mathematician you see on screen or think about. He was an olympic-level marathon runner. When Benedict came on during our rehearsal period, he’d just come off of Star Trek. He asked if he should lose some muscle to get ready for playing a mathematician. We said, “You actually have to get more muscular for this!” He started working out to get his calves thicker. We wanted to make an engaging, lively film that represented the full spectrum of Alan Turing’s life.
Both of you are associated with historical projects [outside of this film]. What’s compelling to both of you about working in another era?
Allen: I’m fascinated by history and the characters that existed. I love immersing myself in another time, when society, class, and culture were so different and examining how we’ve developed as a society and as people. I’ve had the privilege of going all the way back to Roman times, through a time when I played a character who hung, drawn and quartered. It’s kind of a morbid privilege to experience what these people did in certain aspects of their lives. I’m fascinated by that and by getting into the minds of historical characters. It’s a great challenge as an actor.
Graham:I’ve written a couple of historical pieces in a row now. As a writer, it almost feels like I’m cheating, like someone else did the first draft for me, because it happened. I love being able to explore contemporary issues in other times. What we loved about this story is that it’s a contemporary story. The issues going on are such contemporary issues, but we can talk about them by dramatizing history and showing you how these issues were being treated not so long ago. On a dorky level, I just love research. I love being able to dive in. This film required a tremendous amount of research from all of us. It was like we were trying to solve our own historical mystery. At Bletchley Park, we have such poor records of what actually happened. The scene at the end of the film where they make a bonfire and burn all the records is true. So much of what’s left is classified, so we were all off doing our own research to piece together what actually happened at Bletchley Park.
Before you made the film, did all of you guys get together to go through some sort of cryptology bootcamp?
Allen: We were afforded the luxury (and it really is a luxury in modern-day filmmaking) of two and a half weeks of rehearsals. That was an amazing opportunity for us all to come together with the research we’d done separately, sit in a room, flesh out these characters, and flesh out what we believe would have occurred at Bletchley Park during those days. A lot of that was based on who knows what about the Enigma Machine. Matthew Beard, who plays Peter Hilton, was probably the most mathematically-minded of the group. He’d tell us what he thought, then we’d go to the books and try to read up on it. We had a broad understanding, but in technical terms…no. [laughs] There’s this great line Matthew has where he says, “We’ll use the loops.” I remember I turned to him and said, “What are the loops?” He goes, “I have no idea. Apparently I’m going to use them, though.”
Graham:We tried to explain the big-picture concepts to the audience, and then we had wonderful advisors and technicians to help us.
Allen, we experience a pivotal revelation when it comes to your character. I’ve seen the film twice now, and what I’ve noticed is that there’s revelatory a scene between you and Benedict that you could have embellished more in, but choose to play it straight.
Allen: That’s one scene I wanted to do, because I wanted to keep it on a level where, when that revelation comes, there’s absolutely no sense of…[pauses]. As an actor, of course you want to go, “Hint hint, wink wink! Look out for this guy!” But that’s the last thing you should do. I think it’s much more powerful in that he was a confidant. Using the power of secrets is a theme throughout the movie, and I love the idea of the quiet compliments in having secrets. That’s something I wanted to play with in Cairncross.
What I found compelling about your character is that you’re playing someone else who’s playing someone else. How do you approach that?
Allen: It’s a challenge to play someone who’s hiding their status within that group. Cairncross is an outsider, like Turing. They’re both characters within a character, together. That’s what draws them together. That was the challenge, of finding your place when you’re constantly lying to everyone. I love the moment when the whole group is being questioned in relation to espionage. I sit just on the very edge of that table, and I’m the only one who interacts with Alan in that moment. Is it bad what Cairncross did? In his book he says, “I did what I believed would end the war quickest. I believe that sharing information was the key.” I think his involvement with MI6 was greater than they admitted as well. He was never prosecuted at all, and he committed high treason, whereas a man was convicted of the crime of “being gay”. But Turing was ultimately the man who ended the war two years early and saved 14 million lives. He was convicted, while a man who committed high treason walked away scot-free. That’s an incredible injustice in itself.
Graham, did you have actors in mind when you were writing the screenplay?
Graham:I don’t think I could allow myself to imagine actors of this caliber when I was doing my work. As Allen was saying, we had this two and a half week rehearsal period to spend time together and hone in all the voices. As a team, we felt like the code breakers at Bletchley Park, freezing to death in our studio in the South of England last fall. We had an eight week period, so we knew we had to make the movie quickly. We were under a lot of pressure.
In what way did being at Bletchley park inform the filmmaking process?
Allen: A lot of Bletchley nowadays is kind of built around the museum, but the one part that was untouched was the bar area, which we filmed in. When you walk in there, you get a great sense of their presence still within those walls. You can imagine the energy that went through that room, the frustrations that they dealt with every day. This is the only place they could go to let off steam. The hair stood up on the back of our necks. Matthew Goode said, “If we dusted for fingerprints, you’d probably find them here.” That’s how untouched it was. That reminded us of the importance of what these people did, how incredible the task was set upon them. Having the ability to use locations that these people existed in cemented for me the importance of the story we were telling.
Graham:We wanted to shoot on real locations whenever possible. Accuracy was so important to us. We shot at Bletchley for a week, at Sherborne School, the real boarding school [Alan attended]. We used real Enigma Machines. Every Enigma Machine you see in the film is a real one used by the Nazis.
Allen: When it first comes to you, you get a sense–as brilliantly written by [Graham]–that it’s the crooked hand of death itself. It’s horrible.
Graham:When you open up the lid, it has the Nazi logo on it. You almost don’t want to touch it. There’s the logo, and then this long text in German. We didn’t speak German, so we were like, “What’s written here?!” Someone who spoke German came over, and we were like, “What does it say?!” She said, “Oh, it’s the cleaning instructions.” [laughs]
What’s it like psychologically spending all day immersed in history and then going off and doing contemporary things, even if it’s just going into a hotel room fitted with a big flatscreen TV?
Allen: I do it a lot! [laughs] I’ve never experienced focus on a job [like on this film]. People were so tuned in to what we were trying to do that by the end of the day, you were quite happy to go back home to comforts. The studios we shot in were so cold! There were only three working toilets.
Graham:We can’t overemphasize how cold it was! [laughs] Ironically, the internet wasn’t working in the studio where we were shooting the Alan Turing movie.
Allen: I like the ritual for me of getting into a costume in the morning and getting ready to go back and immerse yourself in a time period. I’m also now quite adept at getting out of that costume in four minutes, getting into a car and going home. I find it quite easy to get out and jump back in. It makes you very appreciative of the comforts we enjoy today.
What would be the one modern luxury you’d miss?
Allen: Hot water. The ability to turn the tap on and go, “Ah. Brilliant.” The idea of having a bath back then was something you had to really plan, you know what I mean? “I will wash…Tuesday.” [laughs]
In the film, Turing uses a crossword puzzle as a tryout test for cryptographers. Did you use the actual puzzle he used, and have you attempted it?
Graham:The crossword puzzle you see in the film is the the real crossword puzzle Alan Turing used himself to recruit code breakers to Bletchley Park. We tried to solve it one day and it was a disaster. Collectively, we got four answers. We’re terrible at it.
Allen: We were on a night shoot for four days, and we took that same puzzle around with us all the time. Keira, Benedict, Matthew and I couldn’t break it.
I’ve seen a few interviews with Benedict about this film, and the most common question he gets asked is about awards, since he put on such a great performance. He always says that his ultimate purpose in making this film is that he wants more people to learn about Alan Turing’s story. Awards are exciting, and you guys did fantastic jobs as well, but is it also the ultimate purpose for you to spread Turing’s story to the world?
Allen: Certainly when I joined my desire to be in this movie was to tell Alan’s story and shed light on the injustices he suffered. While it’s a tragic story, it’s also told in a way that’s a celebration of his life and a tribute to being different. The fact that it was bought by a prestigious company who saw the merit and worth of the project is all a bonus. The fact that people are talking about it in terms of awards means that they’re talking about Alan Turing, so that’s great. You want to make the best movie you can, but for it to be spoken about in this way is very humbling.
Graham:Any day that Alan Turing’s name appears in newspapers is a good day. If this can be a reason for that to happen, fantastic.
How important has the LGBT element of the film been to people who have seen it thus far?
Graham:I think it’s tremendous. I think Alan’s experience as a closeted gay man in Britain in the ’30s and ’40s is fundamental to his life’s work. That’s one of the things we all wanted to show in this film. You read his paper on The Imitation Game for instance, in which he proposes, in a nutshell, the idea that we are only what we can convince other people that we are. We are human to the degree that we can convince someone else that we are human. This is this major concept that revolutionizes philosophy, mathematics…To have something like that coming from a closeted gay man in Britain in the ’30s is remarkable. One of the things I’m fascinated about is the way his personal experience as a gay man so deeply influenced his work, which has laid the foundation for the world we enjoy today. In addition to theorizing the computer, he did extremely high-level espionage work for the government during the second World War. This is a guy who was able to keep secrets for the government so well precisely because he’d been keeping secrets his whole life as a gay man.
Do you see the film in different ways the more you watch it?
Allen: I’ve seen it about five times, and I have to go to Benedict’s performance. It’s so nuanced and so detailed. I get something from his performance every time. One of the last viewings of it, I noticed that he limps. It’s not because of the drugs; it’s because Turing cut his own thigh.
Graham:He went through several months of government-mandated hormonal therapy where they put an implant in his thigh to keep the estrogen levels in your system. After a few months of it, he tried and failed to take it out manually.
Allen: While that’s never eluded to in the film, Benedict put that limp in. That’s the level of detail in Benedict’s performance. It’s amazing. I’m so touched and angered by the end that this man was taken from us too soon. The last scene where Benedict breaks down is an acting lesson.
Since your ultimate goal is to get the word about Alan Turing out there, I imagine you’d encourage filmmakers and other creators to make more movies and TV shows about him in the future. What is something about his life that you weren’t able to cover that they could?
Allen: I’d love to see the whole aspect of when he worked for the MI6 after the war. He has this great encounter with Ian Fleming, who worked at MI6 as well.
Graham:He had so many tremendous accomplishments. There’s a scene I wanted to put in the movie where you see that, at the end of the war, the British government sent Turing to the United States to lie to the Americans about how far the British had gotten with Enigma. The idea that he becomes this professional liar on behalf of the British government I thought was amazing. After the war, one of the tragedies of his life was that he became a public intellectual of sorts, traveling around England having debates about whether machines could think. Someone who debated him said, “Machines will never think! They’ll never have a soul!” Alan would talk about The Imitation Game. He was publicly making a gay rights argument. I don’t know if he knew what he was doing or if anyone picked up on what he was saying, but I think that’s very much what he was saying.