BBC’s Nightsleeper: Alex Roach Says The Hacker Thriller Isn’t Geeky – And At Times Felt ‘Quite Shakespearean’

By Tessa Dunthorne

5 months ago

The series follows a government agency try to take down a hacking threat to a runaway train

Alex Roach talks Nightsleeper ahead of its release on the BBC early this year – everything from getting familiar with the hacker she plays, working with Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole, and the theatrical immersion of full sized sets and shouting from balconies at seasoned professionals. 

Interview: Alex Roach On New BBC Train Hacking Thriller Nightsleeper

Portrait shot of Alex Roach

Hi Alex, how are you?

I’m well, thank you. Well actually… I’m alright – I’m recovering from the flu. This is my first day out of bed. Bear with me.

Poor you! You’re brave to be straight back into the press rounds…! By the way, I love your wallpaper. Whereabouts are you calling me from? 

This is my house where I live in Bristol; this is our spare room.

Oh, it’s incredible. Maximalist. 

When I put it up, I was like, I’m gonna hate this in two weeks, but I’m still liking it and can’t be bothered yet to redo it.

So fair. Anyway, we’re here to talk about Nightsleeper, not interior design. I wanted to find out a little bit more about it. What’s the show’s elevator pitch?

Nightsleeper is a fast paced thriller set on a train on which passengers find a dangerous hacking device. I play Abby, who’s the newly appointed acting head of cybersecurity at a government agency, and my job is to hack back into the device and save the lives of these passengers. 

Sounds like kind of quite a geeky thriller.

Yeah, a bit. I’m not sure I’d use the word geeky, but it’s definitely got a STEM aspect. My character, Abby, was a hacker as a teenager, who has found herself working up the ranks in cybersecurity. But she doesn’t really fit in: it’s very techie, male dominated, and she feels outside of it, coming from a working class background. She has to assert herself to be seen. When she’s given this new title, with this particular runaway train challenge, there’s going to be a lot of people in the office who aren’t happy with it. 

Would you say that you’re personally any good with tech

Absolutely not. There are moments in the show where she’s meant to be this incredible hacker that can do amazing, beautiful things with computers. And I was like, how am I gonna do that? I hope that I’ve succeeded, and people will believe that I’m incredibly intelligent with computers, whereas – in reality – faced with a problem, I tend to… switch it off and on again.

I’m pretty sure that’s a legitimate fix, to be fair. Other than kind of getting to grips with that world of cybersecurity, how did you prepare for the role?

I didn’t have too long before we started shooting, so I had to find her quite quickly. I looked into the hacking world – researched the hacking community – and so on. 

It did help that, filming in Glasgow, the team had built an incredible huge cybersecurity centre in the middle of the city. I didn’t have to pretend much, because this was such an immersive space, so when, in the show, we talked about the train, looked at its map, it was really there with us. It was easy to immerse myself in that world.

 That’s such a theatrical setup to have brought to life. 

I hadn’t really made that link until you said that! But actually the director was very keen on doing long, wide takes, and getting us to feel the freedom of, you know, stomping around this cybersecurity centre, shouting orders… I suppose it sometimes felt quite Shakespearean. It’s rare to get such a theatrical immersion with TV.

Was this role in or out of your comfort zone – is it something you feel you’ve played a few times before? 

This part was definitely a new challenge for me. I really want people to be rooting for her. Abby definitely feels a bit of imposter syndrome, where she worries she’s not the right person for the job. And at the same time, I had a level of this feeling myself, being the lead in a show like this. So I married those two feelings, because she’s definitely right for the job, and I’m right for this part. 

And then it was a bit of a technical challenge, too, learning all the cyberspeak, but I loved every second. 

You sound very fond of the character.

I am – I miss it. I’ve not had this feeling before, I do feel connected to her. 

Talk to me a bit about co-leading the show with Joe Cole – how was the cast vibe?

We were often quite split as a cast – a bit West Side Story – half of the cast on the train, half in ‘cybersecurity land’. But what was really great is that, in most of my scenes with Joe, where Abby would be on the phone with him, I really would be. The line always had somebody, usually him, on the other side – on the occasion he wasn’t there, someone would stand in. It brought the intimacy of the scenes to life. I really believed in the world, and what could happen, and got lost in it. 

Beyond that, the show shot three weeks on the train, and then three weeks with us. So we were quite separate as a cast. To date, I’ve only seen little bits of what they did on the train – but it looks incredible. They really had to sort of feel claustrophobic, trapped and facing high, imminent danger. By contrast, in cybersecurity land, we had all this space to walk about in, all the screens and technology. There were two very distinctive worlds in play. 

Are there any moments on set that you hold quite dear to you now?

Yes! When Abby has just been put in charge of this emergency. She’s given this acting title, and she’s been working so hard for this for years. And she has to give this speech to everybody, to rally the troops. But at that moment, on the day, it felt so incredibly nerve wracking, because I had to talk to everybody in my half of the cast. For me, Alex, that’s terrifying. How am I going to stand there in front of all these seasoned, experienced actors and win them over? 

And then the director said – I think you should go do it from the highest balcony, and shout the words out.

My heart was going, I had sweaty palms. And then I realised – Abby must be feeling this exact way too, you know, she must be nervous and anxious and hoping to be right for this job. So I took that energy and said those words and it felt so good afterwards. It was completely outside of my comfort zone and I loved it.

Quick Fire

I’m tuning into… True Detective: Night Country (on Now TV from 15 Jan) starring Jodie Foster in her first major TV role. She’s incredible. I can’t wait. 

What I’m reading… The Creative Act by Rick Rubin.

This year, I’m looking forward to… Seeing more live music. 

My favourite painting of all time is… ‘Running Away with The Hairdresser’ by Kevin Sinnott. I love the emotion captured in his work. 

My top flick of all time is… The Wizard of Oz (1939), for the complete fantasy of it – I watched it so much as a child. 

The band I’ve got on repeat… Always Christine & The Queens. 

My perfect Sunday involves… A relaxed late afternoon roast that spills into the evening with friends at the pub. 

My perfume of choice… Le Labo is my go to.

My chocolate bar of choice… I tend to mix it up and rarely reach for the same one but if I went to the shop right now it would be a Lion Bar. 

My restaurant of choice… Pasta Ripiena in Bristol. Such a cosy, family vibe and the perfect place to catch up with good friends. Obviously the food is also delicious! 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity, based on a Zoom interview on 19 December 2023. Nightsleeper will air in early 2024 on BBC iPlayer.