The two stars chat about what espionage film ‘A Call to Spy’ has taught them, and how the world of women spies is still untapped
“[Virginia, Noor and Vera] are the real hidden figures of the World War Two spy films,” says Sarah Megan Thomas over a video call. The actor-screenwriter-producer is talking of her new inspired-by-true-events film A Call to Spy. It also stars Radhika Apte as Indian-Muslim Noor, Stana Katic as British spymistress Vera Atkins and Sarah as American Virginia Hall.
A Call to Spy follows these Special Operations Executive agents who aided in the French Resistance against the Nazi regime during World War II. The film is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and a video interview with Radhika Apte and Sarah Megan Thomas reveals the humanity of the film, as well as the spirit of perseverance.
- At the mention of co-star Stana Katic, Sarah and Radhika start beaming. Ask them about the camaraderie and Sarah exclaims, “You want to know about our bar nights in Budapest! We’re spies, we can’t talk about that!”
- Laughing, ever-curious Radhika tacks on, “Stana is great, and full of life. I was always interested in what she wants to eat because she’s vegan. Funniest thing though, because she played a British woman, she spoke in an accent the whole time! And [after shooting], I heard her speaking in her original accent and I was shocked. She had never let go of her accent once during the entire shoot process, which was incredible.”
Sarah explains, “These are three women who won every award you can imagine; their acts of heroism are indisputable, yet there haven’t been films about them before this. Resistance films à la Charlotte Grey are romance, she goes to get the guy. I hope we can look at films with women and show women being complex, diverse, and good at their jobs. This is about the daily grind of courage of ordinary women who said ‘this is my duty, I’m going to put my life on the line even though I have a 50-50 chance of survival’ and they didn’t do it for a man!”
On-boarding producer Lydia Dean Pilcher (Queen of Katwe, A Suitable Boy) as director was serendipitous for Sarah, who says, “I haven’t taken on the hat of ‘director’ in any of my films, and I actually love to bring on directors because it’s a value add, instead of a hand-off, to have that outside eye that challenges you. Lydia, has travelled the world, worked internationally and supports women — that’s what this story is.”
Radhika, who had read the script before bagging the role of Noor, was immediately pulled in. “No one is telling stories about women in any war, about their stories and contributions. Plus, I knew of Lydia through Mira Nair’s films. The most important hook was my character.” Radhika had heard of Noor but had not read anything about her. Upon doing research, the actor knew she had to take on the role. “It was an incredible personality just to be offered: intimidating and exciting.”
Determination and spirit
Playing their respective characters taught Sarah and Radhika a world more of resilience. “The takeaway of this film is, if push came to shove and the world got worse than it is, what would I do to protect the freedom of others?” states Sarah, “I’m a new mom with a baby, so I would hope I would put my life on the line. So I think we should try and challenge ourselves to make a difference in whatever way we can, in what we believe in.”
Radhika agrees: “I understood the fact that we always have a choice, whether or not your philosophy might clash with what is going on. We can always do something, however little may be in our control.”
It is no secret that Virginia Hall faced her own set of difficulties, the main being her leg amputation and resulting wooden prosthesis. How did Sarah address this while also celebrating Virginia’s life as a spy?
“Everyone wanted disability to define her,” she responds, “she wanted to be a diplomat and she was rejected, not only because she was a woman but because she was disabled. She wouldn’t let that happen; she took that ‘no’ and said ‘forget it, I’m going to change anyway’. I wanted to honour her legacy, the fact she had a wooden leg, the obstacles and pain she had to endure. These prostheses were made for men so they didn’t even fit in the 40s, of course. The point is, I didn’t want to over-play it.”
Sarah had spoken to the late spy’s family who said she didn’t want anyone to know and look at her in a different way, “So I chose key moments, like in the mountains or the stairs, where you see the limp and where you see her take off her prosthesis. We shot and purposely cut certain scenes with the leg because it became too much. This is a woman who did not let her disability define her, so that’s how we wanted to portray her.”