BBC America Enters 'The State Within'

The explosion of a British-bound airliner shortly after takeoff from Washington, D.C., triggers fears that America is under a new terrorist attack in "The State Within," a taut, head-spinningly complex miniseries premiering Saturday, Feb. 17, on BBC America.

The three-part, six-hour production stars Jason Isaacs (Showtime's 'Brotherhood") as British Ambassador Mark Brydon, who finds his job and his life turned upside down in the wake of the politically charged disaster. As he delves more deeply into a series of thorny secrets behind the explosion, he finds himself going up against Lynne Warner (Sharon Gless, "Cagney & Lacey"), the formidable U.S. secretary of defense who has taken an increasingly hard line since the death of her own son in Afghanistan.

"The State Within" takes viewers through a challenging labyrinth of plot twists and reversals, all part of a tautly crafted conspiracy thriller that makes for crackling entertainment.

"It's less upsetting than the news. At least there's a resolution to this," says Isaacs, playing a straight-on heroic leading man for one of the first times in his career.

"There are dishonest and self-serving people in any walk of life, so it's ludicrous that it would come as a shock to anyone that our governments don't always tell us the truth or that big business isn't interested in getting bigger and richer. Much more so than in Britain, so many people in (the States) seem to have so much faith in the people who represent them that they are blind to the idea that they might also be human."

Gless, who tears into one of the meatiest parts she has had in a long time, says she found the script so multilayered and complicated that she read it three times before agreeing to sign on. Even then, she hired a dramaturge to work with her on cracking her complex role.

"She broke the whole thing down in terms of every single corporation that is listed in the show and every person, because I knew what my role is, but I had to figure out how I fit in with all those other people: whom I might be manipulating and why I was doing it," Gless says. "The best thing she did was write down every thing that every other character said about Lynne behind her back. That's how I learned how to play her and who she was.

"My favorite line was when someone says, 'Be very careful, because she will mesmerize you with her certainty.' That one line really gave me a step up to see how to play this woman. I don't think Lynne doubts herself for a moment. She really believes that, in her job, you do send your son to war like every other boy in this country. In fact, she seems to have given up a lot for her country."

Mark and Lynne frequently find themselves going toe to toe with each other, and Isaacs says he relished playing those scenes with Gless.

"Was it Mark Twain who wrote of us as being 'two nations separated by a common language'?" he asks. "British politicians, especially, but really all British people have a habit of saying one thing and meaning something entirely different, which is discernible to the British ear.

"Americans, however, say what they mean, and you can hear that they mean it. If they are absolutely apoplectic, British people may use more extreme vocabulary but they won't sound any more riled, whereas Americans will actually begin shouting. So it was such great joy to be able to play the complexity of these two people who occasionally wanted to kill each other, but it's all couched in niceties."

Off camera, the two actors got along famously, although Isaacs admitted to worry about working with Gless at first.

"She is this huge TV icon and you never know what someone is going to be like," he says. "I had watched her since I was a kid, and you don't know whether someone like that is going to arrive on the set and be a terrible diva and act as if they are slumming.

"That is so far from what Sharon is. She is such a great mucker-in, fixing tea and baking cookies. I think she really enjoyed being part of a very different universe."

Part of living in that universe, however, was very upsetting, like the day Isaacs found himself standing in the horrific [if simulated] debris after the terrifying air disaster scene.

"A mile of street was filled with overturned and burning cars and charred 'bodies' and the walking wounded," he recalls. "We shot it right by the [Tornoto] airport, so I felt very badly for all the people who were driving by and about to get on a plane, because a lot of them were freaked out. Of course, they were putting it out on the radio all the time that this was a fake plane crash for a movie, but still, if you're about to get on a plane, that's not a mental picture you want to take on board with you.

"Just to get out and walk through those hundreds of extras covered in blood was very unsettling, to say the least. You're trying all the time as an actor to trick your imagination into believing that something is actually happening and that wasn't a pleasant place to be."

Not surprisingly, Isaacs adds, he wasn't able to leave such real-world concerns behind when filming wrapped on "The State Within."

"You can't walk away from the issues that this story is built around, because they're all around us," he says. "When I flew here to do press for this, I had to not carry liquids and answer a series of questions and feel my heart beat faster as I got on the plane. I had to phone my wife and tell her that the guy who does our life insurance has gone to Australia to open a surf club and who she should call in case the plane crashes.

"These are all serious considerations that cross my mind every time I get on a subway train in London. At least in our show, you are transported into a classic thriller, where you get all the fun and excitement, along with closure that, sadly, real life doesn't give you."