“You get to a certain age in your career, when the work’s not rolling in like it used to, and you just wonder how long it’s going to last,” says Penry-Jones, who has two children, aged 13 and 15, and is best known for playing chiselled good guys in series such as Spooks and Silk.
“It’s the voices in your head, just lying in bed in the morning. Once I wake up [at night], I can’t go back to sleep, I have to get up and stop the voices.”
Voices, which voices?
“Oh, I’m not telling you that!” he says, his words rolling together, like a stream going over rocks. Then he chuckles.
What, the voices many of us have, telling us that we’re not good enough?
“Well, exactly, it’s that sort of thing.”
From the outside, it’s not true – Penry-Jones recently starred, as a half-vampire alien, in Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro’s acclaimed TV series The Strain.
But it’s telling, that although The Commons, which premieres on Stan on Christmas Day, has looming environmental catastrophe at its core, it’s the smaller, psychological vulnerabilities of Penry-Jones’ character that the actor connects to most.
Because this is the way that showrunner Shelley Birse designed it.
While writing the script from her home on 250 acres in Bellingen, on the north coast of NSW, Birse had a burning desire to create a story about climate change, an issue she is deeply concerned about, that would hit audiences in the heart.
Her goal was to avoid “adding to the pile of those slit-your-throat kind of dystopian visions of the future, because we’ve got plenty of those”, or, conversely, creating one of those CGI-laden over-the-top stories in which “New York’s frozen overnight” that leads viewers to feel that “it’s good entertainment, but nothing to do with me”.
So, The Commons is set in Australia in about seven years from now, when global environmental crises have divided the country’s citizens into haves and have-nots. For the former, there is Dominic’s company, which provides the rich with a refuge via private generators, communications systems, food, water and medical supplies, among other basics that have become – for many – near-luxuries. His company also insulates them from the hordes of have-nots, who have begun to storm Sydney, daily, from areas plagued by fire and dwindling supplies.
“It was always about the epic and the intimate,” says Birse, of the show. “So the landscape, the backdrop is extremely large in lots of ways, and the ideas are really large, but we’re always expressing it through the most intimate little moments of humanity.”
Enter actress Joanne Froggatt, lying in the foetal position on a bed of dirt in an artificial rainforest, located in the clinical, white, high-rise building in which her character, Eadie, works as a neuropsychologist.
After several miscarriages, Eadie, who is Dominic’s sister, has just found out that she’s lost another baby, the result of her last go at government-assisted IVF.
In this Australia, all pregnancies and “date of hatch” are registered with the government, and at her age – next week she will turn 38, or, as it’s known, “Subfertile 38+” – she will no longer be a candidate for another IVF round, with her last remaining embryo, except for at an exorbitant rate.
So, with quivering lip, she wonders if she should get a friend to rig her official fertility records and have an “off the radar” pregnancy at a private clinic, behind her husband’s back. He’s against the plan as the treatment would make her vulnerable to new viruses now plaguing Australia.
At 39, Froggatt – best known for playing beleaguered lady’s maid Anna Bates in Downton Abbey – says she can relate to Eadie’s desire to have a baby, and is fascinated by her character’s desperation.
“It’s not as simple as getting what she wants,” says Froggatt, from behind large, brown-tinted ’70s-style sunglasses. “It’s getting what she needs. Which is a different thing. Yes, she does go to great lengths, but she almost feels like she hasn’t got a choice because she’ll be going against the person she is if she doesn’t.”
And in the hands of Shelley Birse – creator of The Code and co-creator of Love Is A Four Letter Word – it’s all anchored in the often cringe-worthy and familiar territory of tricky family dynamics.
Why, for instance, wonders Eadie’s step-daughter Ivy, can’t they live in a luxury high-rise in a protected enclave of Sydney, like Dominic? Instead of among the regular people, in their regular homes, with their rickety windows, under increasingly blustery skies?
It’s as if Contagion and a Noah Baumbach film, such as The Squid and the Whale, had a baby.
The complication doesn’t end there.
Birse has also woven in a version of artificial intelligence technology that actually exists today but that – to her knowledge – few know about. To help a traumatised border patrol officer (played by actor Damon Herriman) deal with his terrifying experiences, Eadie exposes him to video scenes of his trauma and then gives him a medication that helps him cleanse his memories of fear. (The technology has reportedly been used to quickly cure people of phobias.)
This too introduces ethically tricky territory – what are the ramifications of neutralising our fears? Surely some of them are there for our protection?
Herriman says he wouldn’t hesitate to use the technology, were it to become more widely available, in certain situations.
“Every time I’ve broken up with a girl, it’s such a traumatic experience… it’s so sad for everybody. I do think then, this would be a good moment to just kind of, yeah, erase it, because then you wouldn’t have to be sad for months,” says Herriman, 49, most recently seen on the big screen playing Charles Manson in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, with a chuckle.
Herriman’s not the only one wondering if the near future, despite its likely problems, might not be better, in some ways.
“In the show, [Dominic] buys a piece of land out in the countryside and plans to have this escape place where he’s got his own generators and running water, so he could end up like Grizzly Adams, which would be wonderful,” says Penry-Jones, his bright blue eyes lighting up. “I’d love that, grow a big beard and live in the woods.”
WHAT The Commons
WHEN Stan, from December 25