Christian Cooke talks replacing Ed Westwick in Ordeal by Innocence

Eleventh hour: main, Christian Cooke in London this week. Above left, as Mickey Argyll in the BBC’s murder mystery drama Ordeal by Innocence: Matt Writtle
Eleventh hour: main, Christian Cooke in London this week. Above left, as Mickey Argyll in the BBC’s murder mystery drama Ordeal by Innocence: Matt Writtle

Class it an occupational hazard but Christian Cooke — handsome as he is — is receiving more odd looks than usual on the London Underground. The Bradford-born actor, 31, is a prime suspect in the BBC’s latest three-part Agatha Christie whodunnit, Ordeal by Innocence, the first episode of which aired last Sunday night, and people can’t stop staring.

“It’s not like I’m acting unusually,” says Cooke. “People in London are too cool and don’t say anything, but what you do get are lingering stares on the Tube.”

If a blood-soaked Christie adaptation felt incongruous as an Easter treat, that’s because it was — the show was originally slated for Christmas but was yanked after actor Ed Westwick became embroiled in historical abuse allegations — all of which he denies. Cooke replaced Westwick for reshoots in January

“If it wasn’t me it would have been another actor,” Cooke says. “If I shot my movie and found out I couldn’t put it out — it’s f***ing soul-destroying. ”

Luckily Cooke had all the credentials to step up to the plate: he’s no stranger to period dramas, having been part of the original “corset crew” with Douglas Booth and ex-girlfriend Vanessa Kirby, playing Mercutio in Carlo Carlei’s 2013 Romeo & Juliet. He also replaced James McAvoy in Channel Four’s Israel-Palestine TV show The Promise, starring opposite Claire Foy (McAvoy couldn’t commit to three months shooting in Israel at the time).

Cooke therefore threw everything into playing Mickey Argyll, a “tortured soul” in an all-star cast that includes Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor, Matthew Goode, Luke Treadaway and Eleanor Tomlinson.

In the opening scene, the domineering Chancellor is bumped off with a decanter to the skull. Argyll, one of Chancellor’s progeny of unhinged adopted children, returns to their stately manor to close the circle.

“What you discover is that he has a lot of pain,” says Cooke. “My prequisite [for director Sandra Goldbacher] was that I was going to do what I wanted to and not be shoehorned into whatever they’d done already.”

That idiosyncrasy included a scene in which Cooke improvised by burning a cigarette into his arm. “It actually burned me a bit — it was on a fake scar, so I thought I was a bit protected. I just thought: ‘F*** it, I’ll see if I can get that in’ .”

Cooke only let his affected cockney accent slip once during filming in Glasgow, at the hotel bar. “People start listening for mistakes if you don’t stay in character. But I was with Luke Treadaway and the others and got a bit drunk and thought, ‘F*** it, I’m going to come out of accent’ — and they were like, ‘F***ing hell, he’s Northern’. I’ve played Scottish 24 hours a day for two months. I’ve done TV shows in the US for five months where I’ve been American.”

He was enraptured with Bill Nighy, talking to him about The Rolling Stones, jazz and Bob Dylan.

Fortunately there were no rifts in this production. “If I don’t like someone I can’t lie about it. I did a job with a girl once — a big ensemble cast — and I hated her. It soon got around — I didn’t spread anything — but I couldn’t deal with it. The writer wrote this scene in where I had to give her a foot massage — and I knocked on his door and said, ‘I can’t do this scene’.

He was like,‘What? The chemistry between you guys is great’. And I said, ‘I can’t: I hate her, I hate her’. His wife was on the show and she said, ‘To have chemistry with someone you just have to feel something for them. If you’re indifferent, there’s nothing. But if you f***ing despise her and have to play lovers and something’s going to be there’.”

Cooke has been slavishly devoted to acting since his single mother, Dianne, sent him to drama school aged nine “as a way of getting me and my brother off the streets”.

There are projects — like theatre work at the Donmar Warehouse, where he starred in Knives in Hens last year — which he’d do “for free”. He lives in Finsbury Park, is single and stays in shape with a gruelling boxing regime.

He points to Daniel Day-Lewis as an inspiration. “He said, ‘Ninety-nine per cent of what I do won’t end up on screen but I do it because I find these people more interesting than me. You’ve got to earn the right to play the part’.” Whatever happens next, Cooke has certainly earned his breaks.


Ordeal by Innocence continues Sunday, April 8 at 9pm on BBC One.