(Warning: This conversation includes spoilers and a discussion of a long scene depicting a rape in Sexy Beast’s second episode, “Donny Donny Donny”.)
There are scenes in certain TV shows that are so shocking, so traumatizing, and so disturbing that, even before they’re over, you know you’ll never forget them. The new series Sexy Beast wastes no time, serving one up in its second episode.
The original film version of Sexy Beast was an instant classic of British crime drama when it hit movie theaters in 2000, yielding raves for Ben Kingsley’s unhinged performance as Don, and for first-time director Jonathan Glazer (just nominated for 2024 Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on World War II drama Zone of Interest). A new prequel series of the same title premiered last week on Paramount+, co-starring True Blood’s Stephen Moyer as up-and-coming London crime boss Teddy Bass, a role originated by John Wick’s Ian McShane.
The original film’s screenplay is silent on the characters’ backstory, which provided an opportunity for the TV series’ writers and actors to “tease out who these characters are, to really start from scratch”, Moyer tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, a freedom he took to with relish. As “a massive fan of the film”, he was particularly captivated by how well it plumbed the depths of its characters’ psychology as “a gangster film about male anxiety around emasculation, status, and power, and people being forced to do things that they don’t want to do.”
Knowing where Teddy would end up, and that his performance would need to mesh with Ian McShane’s dangerously mesmerizing turn in the film, gave Moyer both structure and space as he prepared to play a very Big Bad. Best of all, the writers provided one further detail about Teddy that helped him unlock the character: Teddy Bass was a teen runaway who came to London in his early teens. Moyer took the notion and ran with it, writing “a biography of who Teddy is before he arrives, and what he had to experience to survive in London by himself—how that affected him, and what he has become because of it.”
The darkness of that backstory manifested itself in a shocking sequence in Episode 2 of Sexy Beast, which is now streaming. (And this is a series in which Teddy shot a man point-blank in the face in the series premiere, so the bar is high for “shocking.”)
In the scene, Teddy takes a break from an evening in the club with his girlfriend to take the measure of a rival who has taken over some of Teddy’s mentor’s territory. Seeing in Freddie McGraw exactly what he expects to see—a cocky, obnoxious rich boy playing at running a nightclub—Teddy approaches a second encounter with Freddie exactly as a lion would stalk its prey, cornering his quarry in a secluded space he can’t escape.
The moment Teddy has pinned Freddie against the frosted glass window overlooking the dance floor from the men’s restroom, we know that he’s not there to knock Freddie around, or even to slit his throat. Teddy’s going to force Freddie’s pants down around his ankles, use his own saliva in place of lube, and rape Freddie, leaving him very much alive and burning with shame in front of his own girlfriend. It’s an awful, stunningly effective power play, setting in motion some outrageous gangland chaos that has us in its grip for the entirety of the series’ eight-episode run.
Just prior to Sexy Beast’s three-episode premiere, Moyer reflected on the process of building a believable history for a larger than life character, how Teddy Bass uses his cunning and creativity to exert his terrifying will, and one pivotal scene destined for the villainy hall of fame.
To flesh out Teddy’s biography, did you draw on particular screen villains and antiheroes?
What touched me very specifically about Ian McShane’s performance are his stillness, his silence, his power, his status, his ability to just be in frame and not move. And Jonathan Glazer does a thing that nobody ever does, holding close-ups for like six, seven, eight, nine seconds, on actors who don’t move. I was really influenced by that as a journalism technique. If you ask a question of me, and I answer it, and I stop. And then you don't say anything? If I'm a people pleaser, which I am, I’m going to want to fill that space. I’m fascinated by that, so I used it a lot in Teddy. I would hold on purpose before saying my next line, just to see what that would make the other actor do. That’s a key element of who he is.
Definitely. There’s a coiled stillness in him, a sort of scary withholding.
Yes. We used to play this status game at drama school, where everyone playing got given a playing card, face down. You put the card on your head with the number facing out, and you only get to work out who you are and your status within the group by the way the other players treat you. If you have a king, you’re at the top, and if you’ve been dealt a two, other people start pushing you out of the way to claim their spots.
At the end of the game, you end up in a line from lowest to highest, but you’ve learned where you belong based on other people’s behavior. You start to wear that suit that other people are giving you—your whole physicality changes. It works so well.
The cold, sort of inhumane impersonality of that sorting game makes me wonder: Did you look to touchstones outside of humanity, too?
Teddy is quite animalistic, no question, and I tried to make his movements very snakelike. I directed the seventh and eighth episodes, and when we got to editing them, our series editor Matt Barber and I played with including flash frames of predator animals attacking their prey—tigers catching antelope, snakes taking down a cow or whatever. There was definitely something snakelike about Teddy that he’s been able to harness. He knows what works, and is always looking for people's weaknesses, and how to exploit them.
That loops back to Teddy’s backstory—what did he go through? Children aren’t learning about alligators’ hunting techniques and then thinking about how to lie in wait to exploit other kids’ vulnerabilities.
I don’t think he was born a sociopath, and I hope people will see as the series unfolds that everything gets deeper, psychologically and emotionally. It's a character-driven heist, which is great fun to watch—the planning and explosions and gangsters. But underneath all of that, it’s a character-driven romance, about who’s going to end up on top, and how?
As I get further into the series, I’ve been thinking that Sexy Beast is what you’d get if you took the bones of a show like EastEnders and draped a big blanket of power dynamics, crime, and violence over it. It's fundamentally a show about a neighborhood, where everyone knows everyone else’s history going back decades.
When I worked on True Blood, Alan Ball always used to talk about the best drama being a soap. Succession is a really, really classy soap—every episode repeats over and over and over again every week. You’re watching and wondering, “Oh, is he going to take over? Is Brian Cox gonna die? No, he’s come back again. He’s taken it back over.” That’s really all it’s about, but it’s so beautifully written, and the characters are so well drawn, that you just keep coming back again to see who’s maneuvered themselves up and down and round and through.
Sexy Beast uses some of those elements—as you say, it’s a very character-driven piece—but relishes adding major dramatic twists, too. One of the standouts is a scene at the end of the second episode, where Teddy Bass rapes Freddie McGraw, who’s the adult son of his rival, Dominic McGraw. How did you and Nicholas Nunn prepare for that?
In terms of frame of mind, Teddy is ambitious and emerging in his organization. He has been an underling up until this point, a very powerful one who gets jobs done. Now Dominic McGraw has exiled Teddy’s boss, Roger Riley, to Spain, and his son Freddie is running the London nightclubs that once upon a time belonged to Roger.
All Teddy wants is to take those people down, so when learns from his right-hand man Stan that Freddie McGraw went to private school—he’s what we call a public school boy here, which is very confusing—in that instant, he infers that Freddie would have been a domineering, strong, nasty piece of work, a spiteful bully who would have been dishing out that nastiness within the class system in his school and elsewhere. Now, that’s all subtextual, just my interpretation, but it makes sense when Teddy chooses to use the most emasculating tactic possible to own Freddie, to break him.
I’ve been wondering about how much Teddy’s choice to rape Freddie was driven by his having been a posh kid. He could have done all sorts of terrible things, but went with the nuclear option: It’s public. It’s brutal. It’s extremely personal.
Yes, exactly. Nick is brilliant and we got on so well together, and it was so important to everyone that we get this scene right. We worked with our stuntman Gordon, and our intimacy coordinator, Adelaide, to draw out the scene on the floor in that nightclub men’s room over a few days. Adelaide learned that Nick had never done anything like this before, and as you may know, I’ve done quite a few scenes like this before.
I’ve seen a few of them here and there, yeah.
This is a really interesting, powerful scene, because it’s about the yielding of power by somebody who believes that he’s in control who then loses that control in the most humiliating way. And in front of one of his girlfriends, which is absolutely by design; nothing Teddy does is by accident.
So it was all about making sure that Nick was comfortable, and felt safe at all times, so we rehearsed it a lot. He wanted to make it as brilliant as he could, and because Nick and I are very close, there was already a sort of intimacy between us, where I was checking in on him and making sure he was okay.
The combination of Freddie’s desperation and Teddy's implacability is so intense. There’s an inevitability to the scene that I think the audience perceives before Freddie does.
Yes, exactly. And, you know, again, without spoiling too much of the show, we will go back to a past moment in Teddy’s life where we’ll see who Teddy was, and which explains a little bit of who he’s become, and his particular distaste for aristocracy.
Tell me about Teddy’s violence portfolio. He’s got this array of techniques he can choose from to exert his will over people and events, and as you pointed out, nothing he does is accidental. How much of it is improvised?
It’s kind of all in the little biography I created. Let’s imagine a young man who's run away from home—possibly because of how he’s perceived by his father, or because he’s being beaten by his father, or possibly even being abused by a family member—and coming to London at age 14 or 15. There’s a sort of Rolodex of things he will have seen and been responsible for, and possibly have happened to him, that he can call on as he goes on.
I imagined him spending a few nights on the street when he got to London, and probably being beaten up really badly, and that driving him to join a boxing gym. Boxing is a longstanding tradition in my family, so it felt natural that Teddy would have done so, too, to learn how to protect himself in any situation. There was probably a knife down his boot, which at some point he’d have had to learn how to use.
But also within my little biography, I worked in the idea that there was a young man working as a trainer, who took this kid in, and let him stay in the boxing club. That guy was Stan, who is Teddy’s right hand in the series. I envisaged this world where the boxing club is where they become inextricably linked. Being so intertwined, and with so much history between them, it's almost like Stan knows what Teddy's thinking, what he’s going to say, and he’s just waiting for Teddy to say it out loud.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.