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Photo by Charlie Gray, courtesy of Jack Lowden.

Jack Lowden Talks the Joys of Working in His Native Scottish Accent, Thoughts on His River Cartwright Character in Apple TV+’s ‘Slow Horses’

You can be forgiven if you were unaware that Jack Lowden is Scottish. It’s rare that he gets to use his real accent on screen. He mostly plays a somewhat middle-of-the-road Englishman, like in his current starring role as British secret agent River Cartwright on the Apple TV+ series Slow Horses.

Based on the series of bestselling novels by Mick Herron and starring Gary Oldman, Slow Horses follows a ragtag team of MI-5 agents, all of whom have been banished to the lower-tier Slough House office, as they repeatedly must save the day after the higher-ups have screwed things up.

A near-perfect mix of action, suspense and humor, with sparking dialogue and rich, well-drawn characters, Slow Horses is arguably the best thing on TV right now, and if you’re not watching, you should start. 

Lowden’s Cartwright is a fascinating study, a talented agent who often gets in his own way, and Lowden plays him with a charming level of frustration. He also gets to regularly display his action-hero chops, as River is constantly in the thick of things. The role certainly has set his star on the rise.

All three seasons of Slow Horses are streaming on Apple TV+, with Season Four coming this fall. Lowden spoke to us from his home in London.

How did you get started as an actor?

That’s a good question. It was very unromantic. My younger brother wanted to become a ballet dancer and is one. He’s a principal ballet dancer at the Royal Swedish Ballet. He wanted to do that at a young age and I sort of went along with him.

I was awful and was sort of quickly encouraged to maybe not dance in the shows but narrate them. I narrated everything from Alice in Wonderland to Sleeping Beauty to entertain the adults who’d come to watch their kids dance. That’s how I fell in love with the stage.

Then I went to drama school, and I got a job in a play for the National Theatre of Scotland that toured in the States. It was wonderful. I just sort of fell into it and can’t remember wanting to do anything else. I worked out very early that it was what I could do, rather than what I dreamt of doing. It sort of became what I dreamt of doing. I think that the most useful thing in life is to work out what you can do. It’s very easy to work on what you want to do.

That is an amazingly pragmatic way to look at being involved in a creative art. I think that most people do it in reverse.

(Laughs) It’s not to find the truth. I wish I could say something wonderful like that, to find the truth or to inspire. It’s to inspire first and foremost myself because I live in my head.

I was quite a shy kid. I’m still quite shy, so it seemed the weirdest thing to go and do as quite a shy person, but really, it was because I didn’t have to apply myself as much as math. (Laughs)

You’ve been working a ton over the years, but I think the first movie I saw where I noticed you was Fighting with My Family.

I love that film. It was a tough gig I had to put on a lot of weight and also put on a Norwich accent. I think the Norwich accent was harder than putting on the weight, to be honest with you.

You mentioned the accent. I didn’t even realize you were Scottish watching the show. I’m always curious about British people being able to switch in and out of the accents. On the surface, it looks very easy, but I’m sure it’s much more challenging.

It is. I very rarely get to use my accent. I think Dunkirk was one of the few where I was allowed to use my accent, and even then I had to convince Mr. Nolan that it would be okay to let me be Scottish and fly in the air. I very rarely get to use my own. That’s more of a sort of UK-based thing that there’s a natural pull towards certain accents and a push away from other accents on the British Isles.

I love working in my accent. I think a lot of actors do. I think you can tap into things a lot quicker, but I’m glad that you didn’t think I was Scottish because it’s a pain in the arse in many ways. But, it’s also part of the fun. It’s part of the dressing up, which is great.

Let’s talk about Slow Horses. I think first of all, that [Gary Oldman’s] Jackson Lamb is the best character on television right now, and I would put River just below him because the great thing about River is that he is good at what he does. He is just completely hapless and can’t get out of his way.

(Laughs) I think that’s a perfect description. I believe in him.

My favorite thing about him is how cynical he is. There’s nepotism involved because his grandfather was this huge legend of the service. In many ways, he’s got nothing really to complain about, other than the fact that he is very much Championship League when he should be Premiership level.

I think he has an innate self-belief that I’m amazed has managed to last for as long as it has, but that wonderful thing that happens in any kind of long-form storytelling is that I think he’s begrudgingly beginning to admire the Slow Horses, and in particular Lamb.

I’m always desperate for him to get back to the [main MI-5 HQ] to get back to the Premiership, but I imagine that if he were ever to get into that position that he would be conflicted for sure. It’s a nice warm jacket that he’s in right now, he just wants a cool leather jacket.

Mick Herron kills a lot of his characters in the books, which translates to the show. But he’s not killing Lamb, and I can’t imagine him killing River. That must feel good, having that kind of job security.

That’s a good point. I mean, I haven’t read all the books. What I chose to do is listen to the audiobook version before we start shooting the season. But nobody is indispensable.

I’m pretty sure that Lamb and River make it the whole way through, but like you say, Mick hasn’t finished writing the books, so that could change in a heartbeat. I guess we just have to smile at Mick Herron [and] just keep sending Mick Herron things, like, “Great joke, Mick!” (Laughs).

The people at Apple and [production company] Seesaw, they’ve been wonderful with letting me go and do other things. To make sure that I’m still flexing muscles somewhere else and not just getting as comfortable as River is in Slough House.

What are some of the other things you’ve been doing since you’ve been running around?

I got to do James L. Brooks’ latest film [Ella McCay], which was fantastic. I was in Rhode Island with Jamie Lee Curtis, Woody Harrelson and Emma Mackey, and it was lovely to be on that set and hear how big fans they are of Slow Horses, especially Jamie Lee and [husband] Christopher Guest. They’re huge fans of the show, which was just mad to hear. So that was great fun to do.

Were you playing an American?

Yes, I was.

So, accents again.

It’s just never not! I forget myself quite a lot. It’s fun, but it’s been confusing. I’m not complaining, but getting on and off planes and remembering, Who am I? What accent? Would anyone notice if I changed the accent? I’d love River to do an accent. Or a lisp. Or maybe a limp. (Laughs)

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