Based on the Mick Herron book series of the same name, the show sees Gary Oldman play Jackson Lamb, a washed-up spy and reluctant ringleader of a group of MI5 losers put out to pasture in the unglamorous surroundings of Slough House. The series, which also stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Jonathan Pryce, has already been renewed for a third and fourth season, both of which are currently in production.
Ahead of Season 2 premiering today, Chung sat down with Variety to discuss his return as Roddy Ho, his work on an upcoming (top secret) period drama and whether East Asian representation has improved in the industry.
What can we expect to see from Roddy in Season 2?
This season you get to see Roddy get out in the field a bit more, which is great because you’re so used to seeing him sat behind a computer screen. He starts to become a bit more of an active participant in what’s actually going on. He gets out into the field, he gets chased around by Russian spies. It’s a lot more satisfying than being a desk warrior.
Roddy is known for being insufferable. How did you find your way into the character? Do you like him?
I don’t think you can judge your character because it makes it very difficult for you as an actor to be able to understand them if you have a judgement on them straight away. From a very surface-level research point of view, I downloaded a lot of hacking games and I played those. They’re probably nothing like what hacking is but I just wanted to [see how they worked]. And then I read a lot of articles about different hackers and how some of them fall into it and then further down into like, how people end up coming into MI5. And we actually got to talk to a real spy as part of our research during our rehearsal process for the first season, which was super insightful. Because the thing that runs through with “Slow Horses” is that [the spies] are just normal people, and they’re all flawed. [In] the Bourne trilogy or Bond it’s casinos and it’s tuxedos and suave. But in reality, [spies are] just normal people just sitting next to you at the coffee shop.
Is pretending to type quickly harder than it looks or can you just stab wildly at the keys like one of those keyboard cat gifs?
It’s all hotkey, which means that when I press one certain button, something will come up. But I will only get the command list – [the list setting out] what the keys do, because it’s programmed before I get to set – two minutes before we shoot the scene. And so I’m doing the lines, doing the blocking with the other actors, and then also trying to choreograph when I need to hit the exact right key so that the right thing comes up. It’s really difficult, because some of them are very complicated. Some of them are like, zooming in, zooming out, making this thing happen, making the other thing happen with the dialogue. But you get used to it.
You’ve read most of the Slough House books. Is there a scene you’re particularly looking forward to playing if the series gets picked up for further seasons?
Some of the things in the third book, the third season, that I was looking forward to have already happened and I’ve filmed them. They were everything that I wanted and more and you’ll know [them] when you see [it]. But I think book five – we haven’t been picked up for that yet, but if it goes ahead – I mean, there’s some really cracking stuff in it for Roddy. A lot of the storyline plot is based around him and his girlfriend. So that would be really cool to play.
You did a lot of theater, especially musical theater, before joining “Slow Horses.” [Chung starred in the West End adaptation of “Heathers,” among other projects.] Is that something you’d like to do again in the future?
I think if it’s the right project. Doing musical theater – or just theater in general – is something that I love doing and I think it’s such a different skill-set in terms of stamina. To be able to sustain a performance for eight shows a week you have to be like an athlete.
I’ve been writing at the moment, writing a short [musical] film with a friend of mine, Caroline Kay, who also wrote the musical “Daisy,” and we’re looking to hopefully put that into production at some point next year.
Do you plan to direct it as well?
Some of the people that I’ve been talking to about it [have said] “You should direct it.” And it’s something that I’ve been kind of toying with. This story is so personal, and I feel like it could be such a vehicle for me to tell something that I don’t know if, in any other way, I’ll get to tell it without me being on screen. That’s why I wrote it. I don’t think I’d have the stamina to star in and direct it. It’s a 15-minute short, but it’s also something that’s incredibly personal. It’s called the “Hardest Part” and it’s about a musician that’s on the precipice of becoming a superstar and he has a mental breakdown. And it’s about trying to find his way back to his music and to himself again – in 15 minutes. It can be done! I wanted to make a musical because musicals are so important to me, but also not in a traditional way that you would think about a musical.
Even if you don’t end up directing this project, can you see yourself moving behind the camera in future?
I think so. I think further down the line. There’s a lot of power in terms of being able to make the world you want from being behind the camera. Again, it’s something [I’ve experienced] from being able to be on “Slough Horses” and I’m about to start a new feature film next week. I am starting to see that that’s really how you can start to affect change within the industry.
Is there any one real-life person you would love to play?
That’s very sweet.
I’ve been trying to write his story for years. He’s had such an interesting story, because he was an immigrant from Malaysia, he came to London to study engineering, and my mother was here from Ireland and they met. And like, I’ve never seen interracial relationship in that kind of formation played on screen, but especially in the ‘70s in London.
Speaking of on-screen representation, do you feel like the dial has moved at all for Asian actors, especially given they are so under-represented on screen?
It’s hard for me to comment on that, because I’ve been [acting] in something for the last two years. I’m much more aware of what the landscape is or the temperature is when I’m auditioning or meeting for things because you feel first and foremost, what are the barriers that are put up against you and why they’re there.
I definitely think that the conversation has moved forward in big leaps and bounds – it isn’t as if it is there yet [in] any way, shape or form – but I was having a conversation with a friend of mine last night, another East Asian actor, and we were just discussing how back in the day the competitiveness between us – between East Asian actors – was rife because there’s one job and you’re all gunning for it. We were saying that it’s not like that anymore because there is more opportunity and more opportunity allows you to champion each other more and not set you against one another.
From what you’ve seen or heard, are East Asian actors are still predominantly being offered a narrow set of (very stereotyped) roles or have things moved on from that perspective?
I think it has moved on. I think it’s because the younger generation of my community are more savvy. The film that I’m about to start is a period piece, and I never in a hundred million years would have thought that I would have been in a period piece. And here I am and it blows my mind. It’s exciting to me. I was like, “Yeah, why couldn’t I dream that?” Because having done the research now on the part, I definitely existed back in those days, in this world. So why haven’t we seen it on screen yet?
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.