The former Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star lifts the lid on life post-Marvel mania.
“Do we have golf clubs, or is this place just nice to look at?” Iain de Caestecker asks me at 9 am in Swingers, a luxury mini-golf spot in the heart of London.
We’re gearing up for our cover shoot, surrounded by neon lights and impossible-to-win mini-golf courses. By the time the crew sets up, we’re on hole number 4, and everyone seems to be on the losing side.
De Caestecker’s an intriguing archetype. You can’t put your finger on it, but something about him makes you wonder. The 35-year-old Scottish actor doesn’t take shortcuts. Before making his way onto the stage and big screen, he completed an HND in Acting and Performance at Langside College in Glasgow. The rest was merely a domino effect. Global success found him after landing the part of Agent Leo Fitz in the long-running Marvel franchise Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Now, he’s taking on the lead in the BBC’s The Control Room, due for release in mid-July. The series tells the story of Gabe, an ordinary man who works as an emergency call handler for the Strathclyde Ambulance Service. As the synopsis reads: “His world is turned upside down when he receives a desperate life-and-death call from a woman who appears to know him, but with Gabe under pressure to work out who she is, he makes a decision that threatens to have devastating consequences.”
What drew De Caestecker to the part in the first place? “The show was such a page-turner in how it was written. Every scene was relentless. It seemed like the problems just compounded more, and there was a twist at every corner. And I liked that. I find that fun. I find that captivating,” says the actor. “And then also, my character, Gabe, is someone who was stuck in the past; who had his demons and traumas. He was defined by his past, which had a hold over him that he couldn’t escape. To varying degrees, everyone can relate to that. It’s a universal idea.”
Yet universality is not the common theme as you watch The Control Room. Quite the opposite. It has been a common notion throughout history that the past dictates the future. But, in fact, what the past dictates is merely patterns. Identifying patterns allows you to break them. The show switches from the deepest pit of mundanity into a reality entirely out of control. A euphemism for life itself, if you will. Your life can change in the blink of an eye. It takes one moment. Everything happens in one moment. And now Gabe is faced with the moment he’s been avoiding all his life.
“When he gets that phone call – the catalyst for the storyline – he’s inevitably pulled back into his past. And he feels like he’s not faced with a choice. He’s taken aback and completely unprepared. Imagine – an ordinary guy thrust into a set of circumstances wildly out of his control,” the actor points out in agreement.
Without giving too much away, what sets Gabe apart from the majority of characters on our screens is an extreme level of emotional suppression – the kind that you bottle up, only to end up spiralling. When you first meet him, as endearing as he might come across, he is also exceptionally dull until you peel off the layers. “When we first meet him, he works in this control room. It’s a job that perfectly suits him. He’s closed off, very shy, and introverted.
But, at the same time, he’s a kind and compassionate person. He’s doing something that makes a difference while also staying invisible and in his comfort zone,” De Caestecker notes. “Gabe is the archetype of emotional suppression. He’s learned not to become attached or portray his emotions outwardly in front of people. In a co-handler job, you must suppress your emotions as protocol. So, the job is perfect for him. But all these things pile up. There’s not a lot of happiness in his life, but he just gets by, and he doesn’t have to confront his past.”
That’s always worked out wonderfully for everyone that’s ever been in that situation. But, unfortunately, waking up to your life’s reality isn’t something most people want to face. “These emotions are bubbling up through him, and he’s never experienced them beforehand. He’s numb, having spent most of his life suppressing his emotions. So, when his feelings resurface, they’re very severe.
I remember a friend once told me about getting his ears syringed. Afterwards, he was walking down the street and heard someone running behind him. But when he turned around, they were 20 feet away. He was sensitive to sound, having been deprived of it for so long. I think you can equate that to Gabe – these emotions rise, and they’re severe and confusing,” says De Caestecker.
Not particularly a fantastic way to live life. But the majority of society does lean toward mediocrity and zombie-like behaviour. Led by love or fear? Comfort or risk? Those are the questions that Gabe has to ask himself throughout the series. The catalyst to the storyline is an act that stems from love. At first glance, it seems the purity of their childhood connection is what binds Gabe and his long-lost friend, Sam. However, as the events unfold, it’s difficult to wonder whether it’s true love or a trauma bond.
“There is real love between the two of them [Sam and Gabe], and the storyline follows their connection. But something traumatic that’s happened in their past binds them. Without giving too much away, there’s something that happened to them both simultaneously, and things that have happened to them separately and have gone unspoken. That created a timeless, unbreakable bond. It’s both a love and a trauma bond entangled into one thing,” De Caestecker weighs in.
Were his actions towards her from a place of fairness, love, or mere duty? “He feels like he owes it to her to show up. And he also owes it to himself to shake himself up. So, he has to come out of his zombie-like state, plunge, and take a risk. A huge risk at that since it’s a situation that he knows he probably can’t win. But isn’t that the power of love?” the 35-year-old actor points out.
What about the fairness of the situation? “We all think that when things come to light, we’d do the right thing. But nobody knows what they’d do in that specific set of circumstances. You can’t predict how you will react when you’re in fight or flight mode. Unless you’re faced with the circumstance, you can’t say what you’d do,” De Caestecker continues.
Straying away from an existential crisis, De Caestecker is, in fact, light as a feather when it comes to the way that he leads his life and chooses his projects. But what’s the one thing he doesn’t want to die wondering about? “Let’s just go with skydiving. This interview was existential enough, and we were mini-golfing last week.” Fair enough.
The Control Room, made up of three, hour-long episodes, will be coming to BBC One on Sunday 17th July at 9 pm. The next two episodes will air nightly on consecutive nights at 9 pm.
Full boxset will be available on iPlayer.
A special thank you to Swingers Club for hosting.
Photography: David Reiss
Styling: Bertie Taylor-Smith
Styling Assistant: Florentyna Syperek