Iain de Caestecker on BBC Thriller The Control Room: ‘If It Was Me, I’d Be Having an Anxiety Attack!’

The Agents of SHIELD and The Fades actor tells Den of Geek why new three-parter The Control Room isn’t your average thriller.

The Control Room BBC Iain de Caestecker
Photo: BBC

Warning: contains (mild) spoilers for the Agents of SHIELD finale.

Emergency call handling is one of the highest-stress jobs that take place in an office environment. Handlers need to keep their head as they extract information from panicked and injured callers, who are often in dangerous situations. There can be highs, like the first call taken by Iain de Caestecker’s lead in BBC One thriller The Control Room – over the phone, Gabe talks a scared couple through the emergency roadside delivery of their child and they name the baby after him, their own angel Gabriel. The lows of the job are intense, particularly for Gabe who one day receives a call that unravels his life.

At the start of The Control Room, Gabe’s isn’t much of a life at all, de Caestecker tells Den of Geek over Zoom. “From the very start, I don’t think his life’s good and he’s cheerily plodding along and then this terrible thing just grabs him by the neck. He’s already not getting any enjoyment out of life, he doesn’t invest in relationships, he doesn’t even have one with his dad. He is completely self-reliant and anonymous, by choice. You have to ask yourself, what has happened to someone to make them like that?”

That’s the first of several mysteries in The Control Room, which packs its three episodes with twists and revelations as Gabe’s present-day crisis plays out alongside childhood flashbacks.

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Though its title makes it sound like one, The Control Room isn’t a workplace crime procedural. Gabe’s story opens at his desk, but it follows him home in every sense of the word. This is a sensitively drawn character drama, which suited de Caestecker’s research-heavy approach to roles. Before playing Gabe, he shadowed control room shifts, read several psychology books relevant to his character’s experiences, and with the team, ploughed through a stack of screen thrillers to work out how they wanted this one to go. Frantic starring Harrison Ford, and French feature Tell No One were a couple of favourites.

“The thriller stuff is the thing that makes your heart race and keeps you on the edge of your seat,” says de Caestecker, but at its core he sees The Control Room as a love story and its writer Nick Leather (Murdered for Being Different) as a romantic. We talk about how the emotional and psychological side can get lost in some thrillers, which take an ordinary character and instantly transform them into an ultra-capable action hero. That’s not the case with Gabe, de Caestecker laughs. “We tried to show the level of fear and discomfort that told the truth about how much he is not built for that world. If it was me going through some of that stuff, within the first hour I’d be having an anxiety attack!”

A Fitting Ending for Fitz

In Agents of SHIELD, the ABC/Marvel comic book series that ran from 2013 – 2020, de Caestecker played tech genius Leo Fitz, a role that involved in plenty of fictional life-or-death situations. He’s still very fond of Fitz, a character he describes as “like me, but a much better version of me. Smarter, kinder, braver, all these different things. It felt good playing him.” So much so that when the story required him to play an evil, alt-reality Fitz, it felt like a betrayal. “I hated it! Because I was very comfortable in that character and you put some of yourself into it. Then suddenly you’re playing a nasty version and you’re making your friends cry!”

After being absent from much of Agents’ final season due to a scheduling conflict, de Caestecker returned to wrap up his character’s story in a way he describes as “very, very fitting.” Fitz and his colleague-turned-wife Dr Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) had been modelled on Agents showrunning couple Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon – Mo and J to de Caestecker, who calls them close friends – so the characters’ ending was inspired by Mo and J’s family life. “They’d had a little girl while we were filming and it felt very fitting to me, after everything Fitz and Simmons were put through in the show, that they and their daughter would live happily ever after.”

If there were ever an Agents of SHIELD revival, de Caestecker is circumspect about whether he’d return. “We had really loyal and supportive and brilliant fans of the show, so I wouldn’t want to disappoint them and say no, but at the same time I think it’s nice that they had their ending and I think it’s nice to leave them.” He would however, jump at the chance to work with co-star Henstridge again “in anything. Just because I love her very much.”

Henstridge isn’t the only colleague de Caestecker effuses about. In the course of less than half an hour, he’s full of praise for the Scottish cast and crew of The Control Room, from Daniel Portman’s “effortless charisma” to Joanna Vanderham’s “incredible thoughtfulness” to the love he has for Stuart Bowman who plays Gabe’s father, and their “incredible” director Amy Neil.

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The Fades Memories Haven’t Faded

The love continues all the way back to his first lead role in 2011 BBC supernatural drama The Fades. De Caestecker is still pals with many of the cast including co-star Tom Ellis (Lucifer), describes Daniel Kaluuya Get Out, Black Panther) as “one of the nicest, most talented people you’ll meet” and has nothing but adulation for Jack Thorne’s scripts. All actors talk like this in interviews, of course, but from de Caestecker, the fondness and gratitude actually ring true.

There was one scene in The Control Room with Stuart Bowman he remembers that he just couldn’t get. “We’d been working on this a while and I was so tired, I just couldn’t for the life of me work out this thing. It was the simplest scene, just two or three lines and Stuart was incredibly patient with me. I really owe people big time.”

He’s grateful that The Fades happened in his early twenties, he says. “I took it in my stride more than I maybe would do now. Now, sometimes I overthink things a little bit too much.” The kissing and nude scenes on The Fades have stuck most in his memory, “They were the ones that made me the most nervous, because at that time I’d never really done those things. For me at that age, that was a very scary thing.” Filming a scene in which a live moth flew out of his character’s mouth has also been hard to shift. “We had to get a moth guard fitted in my mouth. I think the moths were specially trained!”

He holds happy yet bittersweet memories of making The Fades, because of its early cancellation. “I feel sad to think about it now because I knew the incredible ideas they had for the future, for the next season.”

De Caestecker’s acting career began as a child, when it included several years on ITV soap Coronation Street. The very first role he competed for though, was dim-witted priest Dougal in Channel 4 comedy Father Ted. Not the TV version – he was only eight when that was being cast – but the version he and his brother Callum would act out at home from a book of the show’s scripts, fighting over the parts. “Everyone always wanted to play Dougal cos that was the most fun part, but I would usually play Ted. That’s where I remember starting.”

Coming Home to Glasgow

De Caestecker credits brother Callum for sparking his interest in film. Being supportive, their mum would tape movies they requested that were on TV past their bedtime. “Movies that clearly, we shouldn’t have been watching at that age!” Goodfellas at age nine made an early impression. “I had nightmares for weeks,” he laughs. It was Ken Loach’s 1998 film My Name is Joe that really ignited his ambition to act. Maybe it was Peter Mullan’s performance, maybe it was the setting in his hometown of Glasgow, but something connected.

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Filming The Control Room in Glasgow after spending so many years away, felt special, he says. “It’s beautiful and the people are just lovely, there’s a real down-to-Earth feeling.” One sequence filmed after hours at the city’s Kelvingrove Museum took him right back to childhood, when his parents used to take him there. “I remember there was one specific metal ship I’d always remembered from when I was younger, I was just peeking around the place all night looking.”

The locals too, weren’t backwards in coming forwards during production. The series’ exteriors were filmed on busy Glasgow streets around the city centre and attracted curious onlookers. “This guy came up to me, a stranger, and asked what we were filming. I told him it was a BBC drama and he asked me if I was in it and when I said yeah, he gave me like, this pat on the back and said ‘Well done’. It was such a nice thing, like a welcome home.”

The Control Room airs from Sunday 17th to Tuesday 19th of July at 9pm on BBC One. All episodes will be available to stream on BBC iPlayer after episode one has aired.