Luke Roberts knew very little about the world of private crisis and hostage negotiation when he signed up for Ransom. Now he’s in “utter awe” of the two people who inspired his character.
“Ransom” executive producer Frank Spotnitz created Roberts’s character, Eric Beaumont, as a composite of real-life and world-renowned crisis negotiators Laurent Combalbert and Marwan Mery.
Combalbert and Mery, founders of ADN Group, work on more than 100 negotiations a year worldwide—from dangerous to diplomatic. Like Eric in “Ransom,” they negotiate the safe return of loved ones in kidnapping and hostage situations. And must keep calm and present while doing so.
“They’re totally superhuman,” Roberts said of the real-life duo who served as consultants on “Ransom.” “You feel a sense of awe when they come on set.”
“Ransom” premieres at 8:30/7:30c Jan. 1 on CBS, then moves to 8/7c Saturdays starting Jan. 7.
In the series, Eric works with ex-cop Zara Hallam (Nazneen Contractor), psychological profiler Oliver Yates (Brandon Jay McLaren), and wannabe investigator Maxine Carlson (Sarah Greene). Maxine, who negotiates her way into the squad in the series premiere, has a big secret concerning Eric’s past—one that could make the seemingly unflappable negotiator lose his preternatural cool.
“We’re all waiting for the moment when he starts to flap,” Roberts said. “It does happen. It will happen. There will be flapping.”
Roberts and I talked more about “Ransom,” his discussions with the real-life negotiators and his research into their fascinating world.
What made you want to play Eric?
I was being fairly discriminating when it came to looking at new shows and auditions, because I felt I was working terribly hard on “Black Sails” and didn’t want to be distracted. I let a few slip through, and [“Ransom”] was sort of the first one that really, really caught my eye. It is definitely my kind of caper, sort of a modern tech thriller if you like. I thought something like that would be a really nice contrast to what I have been doing for the last couple of years with the wonderful writers over on “Black Sails.” It was just really kind of an antidote, I suppose, to playing an 18th Century English governor.
Eric is a fairly savvy, street-smart, contemporary American character. … And he’s such an intriguing character. The fact that he’s inspired by a real guy who’s still alive is refreshing. I play a character in “Wolf Hall,” who obviously was dispatched some time ago. I’ve played a few characters based on historical figures. I was enticed by the fact that it was a current, real-life guy.
I, like Frank Spotnitz, knew very little about the world of private negotiation beyond sort of pop-culture references to negotiators in big police and detective movies. It was a new world.
And this character particularly was just so present, which interested me. There are obviously a few parallels between negotiators and actors, certainly. Laurent Combalbert, who inspires the character of Eric, told me that. Negotiators, like actors, have to be so present in the moment, and have to improvise to a great extent. Obviously a lot of our stuff is scripted, but I thought this was a pretty interesting concept.
I also like that the guy doesn’t have a super power. He just has fine tuned his senses, as it were. I was interested in that, and the little micro calculations that he has to make in very extreme circumstances. That I found intriguing.
I really enjoy when I watch a character like this. The minutiae in a screen performance, where the merest flicker of an eye can sort of betray so much, certainly is interesting. There’s a lot of that, I think, in our show. I found that intriguing and was desperate to give it a shot.
Eric has this past that keeps coming up, doesn’t he? What can you tease about that part of it?
It certainly involves the character Maxine. … There’s a situation involving her past and Eric’s past and how they are intertwined, and it does keep resurfacing. It is essentially an episodic show. There’s a negotiation or three negotiations in the course of an episode, and it’s usually wrapped up, I hope satisfactorily. But there is definitely a serial thread, which I find quite satisfying.
This traumatic situation that has occurred many years before we meet these characters has gone a long way to forge Eric’s methodology. But it’s also definitely affected his psychological profile. It’s dangerous territory. Let’s put it that way. Each time it resurfaces, it threatens to sabotage a lot of things and potentially everybody’s lives.
Your character is sort of based on both Laurent and Marwan?
The scenarios very much draw from both of their experiences. They often allude to each other as sort of their equal partners, so absolutely. The two of them very much inspired the character of Eric. … In the room, Marwan is a lot chattier. Laurent is kind of economical with his words, but very sage and just comes out with these brilliant aphorisms and sayings and suggestions to me. I’m like, “Oh my God. I’ve got to remember that.”
Whose personality I’m leaning towards more I can’t be 100 percent sure. But I think everyone’s aspired to create this I hope interesting, enigmatic character. I hope he seems like a cool cat, sort of unflappable and almost infallible.
What did you learn when you met them?
I don’t think they’ll mind me saying this, but they take this professional role home with them to some degree just as the character of Eric does. They’re never off duty is probably a better way of putting it.
I met them in an outdoor patio area of a hotel. I met them just for an aperitif, I think, before dinner. They were both drinking sparkling water, which says a lot. And they both had their backs to the wall and they were both in the corner of the restaurant area.
They’re constantly sharp and have their eyes and ears open, which is very cool. As I was growing up, I loved ’70s and ’80s movies with international espionage and all these things.
If there is a message to “Ransom,” it’s certainly more of a peacemaking message—the notion that conflicts can be resolved with words rather than with aggressive acts of violence. It’s a cool concept. And it couldn’t be more relevant, I think, to where we are at this present moment.
Eric never wants to resolve anything with guns. Is that a Laurent thing, too?
Totally. Laurent says to me that he was very gung-ho in his youth. He was part of France’s elite tactical [police] group, RAID. Eric’s character has a similar background. He was part of the FBI. He was on the negotiating team, but it was sort of in our rendering of it, before the FBI had come up with a solid kind of protocol for negotiations. Therefore you do see my character in flashback carrying a gun.
His policy of non-violence and carrying no weapon has definitely come from a traumatic incident in the past where he did use a gun, and has vowed since then never to raise a gun to anyone again. You see me handling a lot of guns, but it’s usually sort of taking them out of somebody’s hands.
These plots are Frank’s creations, but what I can’t imagine is how the negotiators in real life can be so calm and quick in theses crisis situations.
Well, this is it—agreed. … I think with the character and probably with Laurent—I don’t want to presume too much—but I think they have a fearlessness born out of a post-traumatic existential sensibility. If you’ve looked death in the eye, then maybe you have a new arrangement with it. You’ve gone into the abyss and you’ve returned, which sort of lends itself to a fearlessness.
Then, of course, there’s this almost Zen Buddhist mental training that they put themselves through. They’ve conditioned their minds to respond differently than the average man or woman in any of these high-octane situations. I obviously would run for the hills in a cloud of panic, but these guys don’t.
They definitely prepare themselves. Laurent performs a few rituals before he makes “contact” with the perpetrator, or with the hostage taker, or the kidnapper, or whoever it might be. We have something akin to that with Eric.
They sort of prime themselves, but they have almost a meditative space that they can go into before engaging with these people. This is not exclusive to Laurent and Marwan. I was reading some other accounts of these situations from other negotiators. It seems that they must slow down everything in order to think clearly, and to be more lucid about what’s transpiring. That also takes the anxiety, to some degree, out of the people on the other end of the phone. You just find a way of creating that sort of meditative pause.
Yeah, I’m not sure I could do that. It’s amazing.
It is amazing. As a visual motif [in the show], we do have moments where things slows down. We’ve shot it in 44 frames per second so you can slow it right down. You sort of feel the way Eric might be able to almost freeze time. It suddenly becomes almost a supernatural power; I think what these guys are doing is a power. It’s quite remarkable, as you say. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?
I would love to think with that kind of clarity under pressure. But I suppose that is their job and they must get a kick out of it. I asked Laurent if ego comes into it at all, [saying,] “You must be proud to be able to do this.” He says, “Of course. It’s a skill.” They have a template for dealing with these situations, so they have already mapped out the flow chart of, “What do you do next? If such and such happens, go to there.” … They do have a plan. It’s not just that they’re super cool under pressure. It’s well-choreographed, well-rehearsed—and rather like acting. If you rehearse it well, if you know your lines well, then you can afford to improvise on the day.
What surprised you once you took the job and you did research?
This was even before shooting. You read a lot of stuff. One statistic that shocked me was that the longer you can draw out the negotiation, … then the higher the chance you have of getting the victim home. It sort of wears them down, as I understand it, because there’s a lot of anxiety. … I was shocked to read that. I suppose you have to tread very, very carefully.
Another aspect that really surprised me, and I don’t know, it seems completely logical now that I think about it, is that it’s all about building trust. It’s a weird, sort of temporarily immoral or amoral scenario, because you have to empathize—not sympathize, but empathize—and connect and forge a relationship with people who are doing very bad things. Of course, another arguably immoral or unethical aspect is that you reward them with money.
I was reading this piece by the writer Ben Lopez, who was obviously a negotiator at some point and I still think is a consultant, and he said, “If you think crime doesn’t pay, you’re wrong. It does.” In his scenarios, it does. It’s sort of an interesting world for sure, and a lot of paradoxical stuff comes up. But unless you’re actually focused on it, researching it, and sort of pretend to be one, you wouldn’t necessarily think about it.
What’s also interesting is that Eric, rather like Laurent and Marwan, tries earnestly never to lie. Obviously if you’re in the manipulation business, you assume there’s a lot of that going on. But in fact, it’s rather like poker. If you bluff, you’d better be prepared to have it called. That’s a pretty interesting concept, where you’re influencing people rather than lying to them or manipulating them. You’re trying to sort of cajole them or persuade them.
It must be really tough to do, but again, this is another reason why I was attracted to the role. It’s heavy on the reason, and so they’re pretty level-headed guys who have incredible powers of persuasion and reason.
You mentioned poker. Don’t they always say that everyone has a tell?
For sure. You’re the person who’s so confident and thinks that they don’t have one, unfortunately you’re the last to know what it is. Yeah, absolutely. I think the key is not to get caught in that lie, and I guess the best guarantee against that is to not bluff.
But I’m a hopeless poker player. Not because I can’t bluff. Obviously I’m an actor, I can probably bluff. I just can never remember what they are, the flush and the diamond straights. I have no idea. We should never play poker.
What was particularly difficult filming “Ransom?”
It was a relatively late green light, I think, for the writers room. There was a lot of script revisions as we went, and all for the better. All to improve it, but there were times when I had spent several hours learning a scene and then was handed a new one as I arrived to shoot it.
Does that get annoying?
Those moments are terrifying. You don’t know where to look. You want to rail against the gods, but if you don’t just get on with your work, you’re the one that’s going to look silly. No, it’s great. It was all just to fine tune it and make it as good a product as possible. We have a great set of writers, and thankfully you have Frank with that gift that he has: a clarity of vision. He knows exactly what it is he’s making and who these people are. To know that he always is at the end of the phone or an e-mail was great. He was so personable and so available. … There’s not a whiff of ego; he wants to collaborate.
As much as the best parts of Eric are inspired by Laurent, there’s also Frank. I was looking around thinking, “Who do I know that’s zen? I know I’m not.” I didn’t have to look much further than Frank. He’s just sort of always, to borrow a description from Bill Bryson, he’s sort of always strangely serene, in the best possible way. He’s kind of like always chill, but interested. …
It did seem like you guys knocked out “Ransom” pretty quickly.
Wow. Yes. Didn’t we ever? We had seven days to shoot each episode in Toronto, and we shot eight episodes, and then we had 10 days per episode in France, which sounds terribly leisurely. Relatively speaking, it was, but it had its difficulties in-built because the French system. The law is there that if you run over, you then have to deduct that time from the following day. That might well be on another location where you have a lot of stuff to shoot. Each system has its drawbacks, and they both encourage as much good work as you could squeeze out of everybody in the shortest amount of time. Yeah, it has been an intense whatever it was—five-and-a-half months—for the shoot.
More Luke Roberts soon
Robert and I also talked “Black Sails,” which I will share in a separate story closer to that show’s Jan. 29 return.