‘The Night Agent’ EP Shawn Ryan On Spy Thriller’s Plot Twist & Body Count, A Double Diane Farr, Season 2 Questions & Hopes For Averting A Writers Strike

SPOILER ALERT: The series includes details about new Netflix series The Night Agent, based on the bestselling novel by Matthew Quirk.

The Shield creator and S.W.A.T. showrunner Shawn Ryan is venturing into a new genre territory with The Night Agent, a slick conspiracy thriller that just debuted on Netflix. Created, executive produced and showrun by Ryan, the 10-episode drama stars Gabriel Basso in a star-making turn as Peter Sutherland, a low-level FBI agent who works in the basement of the White House, manning a rarely used emergency hotline for American spies. When a call comes in from a terrified civilian, Rose Larkin (Luciane Buchanan), it sets off a quest by the pair to uncover the truth behind the murder of Rose’s aunt and uncle, taking them to the highest level of power in the government and putting their lives in grave danger as they try to evade two assassins sent out to kill them.

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In a standout performance, newly minted Oscar nominee Hong Chau plays Diane Farr, the conflicted Chief of Staff of President Michelle Travers. She starts off as Peter’s biggest champion — despite him being a suspect in the metro bombing and his late father being accused of treason — before she is revealed as accessory after the fact to Vice President Ashley Redfield and military contractor CEO Gordon Wick, who were behind the bombing and now plan a bigger one that targets a foreign political leader — as well as President Travers.

Peter and Rose, with the help of remorseful Diane and Secret Service agent Chelsea Arrington (Fola Evans-Akingbola), are able to prevent the terrorist attack before Peter finally finds out the truth about his father and takes on a new job as a Night Action spy. He jets off on his first mission, with Rose seeing him off.

In an interview with Deadline, Ryan recounted the wild story behind adapting The Night Agent novel, which he listed in December 2020 tweets about his favorite books of the year under “Books I Read, Decided To Adapt For Television And May Have Already Finished Writing The Pilot Episode.”

Crediting The Night Agent with reigniting his passion to write, Ryan explained the changes he made to the book, including the introduction of the storyline about Secret Service agents protecting the Vice President’s daughter Maddie, switching the President’s gender, steering clear from the novel’s Russian references (It features a Russian mole in the White House and a Russian assassin), as well as adding a female killer and making them a couple.

Ryan also shared an amusing story about the casting of the Diane Farr character, revealed how the producers settled on the grey wig Chau is wearing, and why so many characters, including Curtis Lum’s lovable trooper Cisco, had to die.

The writer-producer provided some clues where the series, produced by Sony Pictures TV, would go from here if it’s renewed for a second season and whether any characters besides Peter would return.

As a longtime active WGA member who was on the negotiating committees in 2007, 2011, 2014, 2017 and 2020, Ryan also spoke about his hopes for the guild’s ongoing talks with the studios as both sides face a potential strike.

DEADLINE: Let’s start with the origin of the series, which you wrote on spec, as revealed in your 2020 tweet. How did you find the book and make it into a Netflix series?

RYAN: The last meeting we had before the pandemic started — this would have been in early- to mid-March of 2020 — we met with Jamie Vanderbilt and some of the people at his company; it was just a get-to-know you thing. Near the end of the meeting, Jamie mentioned “Hey, there’s this book that we have optioned called The Night Agent. Will you be interested in reading to consider adapting it?” and I said, “Send it over, and we’ll see.” And then, literally a few days later, all of a sudden the pandemic becomes a very serious thing, everyone’s been shut down, now I’ve got the book in my house, and I’ve got all the time in the world.

I finished it in two days. I was immediately captivated by what I thought was an amazing hook, a concept and characters for a TV show. I also knew there wasn’t enough in the book to fill out a full TV season. I’d been working on my own separate idea about Secret Service people who are protecting the daughter of the Vice President while she’s at college, which I thought was an interesting change from usually protecting the President. But I didn’t have enough ideas on that front for its own TV show.

I immediately saw a way I could combine this original idea I’d been working on with the main thread of the book. I’ve been showrunning S.W.A.T. and done other things but I haven’t really done a lot of writing, and I would say during the pandemic, I really went back to my roots and found my passion again for writing. I told Sony, I want this to be a project I do, and then I said, I really don’t want to pitch this. I see this show so much in my head already, I just want to go off and write a script for it. And so I went off to this little vacation home we had at the time in Ventura, I explained to my wife, give me five days where I can just disappear. It takes me a long time to figure out what to write and then I’m very quick when I actually write it.

So I disappeared for five days, and I wrote the script and shared it with Sony. A couple of months later we took it out into the marketplace, there were multiple bidders involved but ultimately we felt like Netflix was the right place for the story, and fortunately they were really interested. This is a political thriller, so they wanted to know what happens in the rest of the season. I went and put together a whole pitch, and then a month later it was greenlit, and off we went. It all happened very fast.

DEADLINE: Let’s address a couple of changes that you made. In the book, the mole in the White House is Russian, and so is the assassin, which is not the case in the series. You gave the killer, Dale, a female partner, Ellen, for a Natural Born Killers vibe. Also the President is a man, Michael, in the book and became a woman, Michelle, on the show.

RYAN: The Russian character works really well in the book; the book’s great, everyone should go out and buy it and read it. To have the sole assassin worried me. In a book, you can put the readers into the heads of the characters and you understand what they’re thinking, why they’re behaving. In a TV show, having this sort of lone assassin just silently moving through, I thought we won’t really get to know much about that character. And in the TV/film world I’ve seen a lot of sort of Russian bad guys.

The two characters we call Dale and Ellen in the show, you said, a Natural Born Killers thing, we’ve referred to as a little bit of a Bonnie and Clyde thing. Those were characters that were part of my Secret Service idea.

So I thought I already was invested in those characters, plus there were two of them, so we could really get into their relationship and get into their minds in many ways. As it relates to the President, again, I had the story in mind about the Vice President and his daughter in college. The Vice President is not a character in the book, so when we made the Vice President the father, we liked the idea of the President then being a woman.

One of the things that I really wanted to get into in this show was the idea of how men and women work together in different workplaces. If you look at the series, Peter and Rose have to develop a working relationship as they’re on the run; Dale and Ellen, these killers, have this working relationship along with a personal relationship. Chelsea and Erik, the two Secret Service agents tasked with protecting Maddie, have to have this relationship.

I liked the idea that there’s a female President and a male Vice President and their dynamic, how does this man feel about being the Vice President for this female President? Well, turns out he’s not very happy about it.

DEADLINE: Quick sidebar question. The Chief of Staff’s name on the show, Diane Farr, is the same in the book. Do you know if it has any connection to the actress Diane Farr?

RYAN: No, but I will say that the actress did audition for the role. And we were like, “Oh my God.” I was like, it’s tough to tell Diane Farr she can’t play Diane Farr. I felt really bad because she’s a really great actress and gave a really good audition. Ultimately, we settled on Hong to play it but I did a double take when I saw the audition thing, it was a double Diane Farr. So I am aware but I don’t think the author Matthew Quirk intentionally tied it to the actress.

DEADLINE: I have to ask about Hong’s hair. She was barely 40 when she was cast as Diane. How did the decision to give her that grey hair come about?

RYAN: This was something that when she took the role, she and I first started talking about it. If you saw her at the Oscars, she looks amazing, she’s beautiful. She was very young, and she was worried that maybe she, as a person, was a little young for the role, especially playing a contemporary of the President. And she sent me two pictures. One was of Elizabeth Warren with hair that looked very similar to that and another was a friend that she knew that worked in government or something, and she was very interested in this look. She thought there was a classiness and political presentation to it but she also liked the idea that we age her up a little bit, she felt it was more appropriate for that role. How often do you have actresses coming to you saying, “Hey, I’d like to look older”? it shows the commitment to the role.

So we had some conversations about exactly what that look should be, we had different wigs and we tried out different haircuts on the wigs before eventually settling on that. What I love about Hong, you can watch her in different things, and she’s a bit of a chameleon — she looks so different in The Whale from The Menu from this, she also did an episode of Poker Face where she looks very different.

DEADLINE: One of the biggest twists in the story is when Diane is revealed as being in cahoots with the Vice President and Gordon Wick. I rewatched early episodes, looking for clues, but that turn came very much out of the blue. Why did she encourage Peter to keep digging if she knew the truth about the bombing and was complicit in the conspiracy? If Peter and Rose kept looking for the truth, that would inevitably lead them to her and her co-conspirators. The three of them had multiple meetings, including at the motel, so Diane had opportunities to stop them and even eliminate them but she didn’t agree to it until much later.

RYAN: One of the things we did when we wrote the show was, we wrote all 10 episodes. And then we went back and went through each episode to figure out how we’ve answered all the questions. So what I would say to you there is that she’s unsure if the proof that could incriminate her and her co-conspirators in all this is out there. Peter and Rose — because of Rose’s relationship with her aunt and uncle — seem to have an inside track to try to figure this out. And in fact, at the end of Episode 2, they do find the hard drive that has information that her aunt and uncle put up. What I believe that Diane Farr’s attempt here is that she’s using them, knowing that she’s got Peter on a short leash, and if they do find something, she’s going to get access to it and be able to control it because she believes she can control them.

We find out later on in Episode 6 when Peter realizes that Diane Farr’s betrayed him, “Oh, in Episode 3 when she came to the motel, she must have been the one to put the tracker on the car.” So she’s allowing them to look for this, believing that if it’s found, she’ll be the first one it’s brought to and then she’ll be able to control and/or destroy that evidence.

Whereas just killing them would bring much more attention, potentially throw it open and then would still have the evidence out there for potentially someone else that she doesn’t have control over to find in some way. So I believe that we’re rock solid and tight on that. If it was confusing to you as a viewer, then I have to re-examine that, but that’s the rationale for why she did what she did.

DEADLINE: I was not familiar with Gabriel Basso but he looks like a bonafide leading man. How did you find him?

RYAN: Those guys are hard to find. By the way, we didn’t have to go to Australia or England to find him. He is the St. Louis kid. I’ve said it for years — the hardest thing to do is find a true leading guy in his 20s, and I think we found him. Hopefully it’s on this show but even if it’s not, he’s the real deal, and he’s going to be a star. I think it’s going to be on The Night Agent but he’s got big things in his future.

DEADLINE: A lot of people died in the show, many innocent ones. I would argue for a few but specifically for Cisco. Was there any talk about keeping him alive? He was such a great guy, and so young, it was painful to see him die. Did you consider not killing off all the people that you did?

RYAN: Well, we didn’t kill off everyone we could have. I think what you’re reacting to is that Curtis Lum, who plays Cisco, is just so damn likable. We had conversations about what his fate would be. I do think it was important for Peter’s emotional journey and his guilt that he feels at Cisco’s loss. So the script was pretty much in place. And then what we had is we cast someone who you’re really rooting for and like so much.

So yeah, I think the death was really painful. I would argue that that speaks well for that character and the show that you have that reaction. I don’t think we’re the kind of show where you’re always going to get the happy ending; we’re a little bit different than broadcast like that. Some bad guys, including Gordon Wick, get away at the end, they aren’t brought to justice so it’s a little messier, I think, in a more realistic way.

So certainly I didn’t relish killing off Cisco because we really enjoyed him; him and Peter together was really good, I really liked Rose and him together. But that was the story we set out to tell, and we told it.

DEADLINE: I want to focus on the ending; you mentioned that Gordon Wick got away. It feels like a reset for a James Bond-type of show with Peter off to his first mission on a private jet. There’s no book, so what would a potential Season 2 be based on? Is it is going to be a completely different story? Will we see Gordon again, will any of the other characters come back, including Rose, continuing her relationship with Peter?

RYAN: Listen, until there is a Season 2 picked up, the writers and I aren’t getting paid to figure that out until it becomes official in some way. I certainly have some ideas; I probably want to keep those to myself until the time comes. What I will tell you is that the initial pitch for this show that we sold to Netflix was that each season would tell its own, mostly self-enclosed, a beginning, middle and end story, and any future seasons would include a few but not most of the characters that we saw in the previous season.

That was the original plan; I think it’s still a pretty solid plan. To me it was important. I don’t want to tell this specific story over five seasons, I want to tell this specific story in one season and give some satisfaction to the audience that they see how things turn out. They learn what the truth is about Peter’s father, they learn what the conspiracy was. You can feel a sense of completion. If we are successful enough that Netflix wants more seasons, I think there’d be a whole new world in which you would see a limited number of characters from this current season going into that. But that’s something that I’d have to sit down with the writers and have it all figured out.

I really love the questions that we need answered on: What does it mean that Peter would be a night agent? Where is he going? Now that Rose is going back to California to try to restart her tech career, where does that leave Peter and Rose? I think these are all questions that we almost certainly would love to answer in a potential Season 2, and I certainly hope we get the opportunity to do that.

DEADLINE: You expanded Peter and Rose’s relationship on the show in a major way.

RYAN: Yes, I think it took up less page time/screen time [in the book] than we devoted to it. And I think we were able to, because of the length of the show.

I did a lot of thinking about the thriller space, and why it’s had more success in movies than it’s had in TV. But one of the things that happens in thriller movies when they try to forge a romance is they usually seem rushed, and it to me doesn’t seem earned. So even a great movie like Three Days of the Condor, the relationship between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, who he literally kidnaps, ties up and then somehow they end up making love to each other; it’s kind of a ridiculous romance. What I liked in this show is really taking the time to see two characters get to know each other in the middle of a crisis, have to lean on each other in order to survive, go through this forged experience that’s very difficult and learn how meaningful they are to each other before there’s even a first kiss. So I love the idea that we could really take our time and earn that relationship.

DEADLINE: If you get a second season, the writers’ work on the show may be interrupted if there is a strike after the current WGA contract expires May 1. What is your take on the ongoing negotiations? The Night Agent is on Netflix, and issues closely associated with streaming, like residuals and mini rooms, are at the focus of the talks.

RYAN: I really don’t want to say too much because I do occupy a somewhat unique position in that I’ve been part of the previous five negotiations, and the last time I was around, I was co-chair of the negotiating committee so I do know that my words carry extra weight. I am outside the leadership group this time through my own choice, not because this isn’t an extraordinarily important negotiation, but just in my own professional and personal life, I feel like I have the time that I knew I would need to devote to that.

I don’t want to say anything other than I trust our leadership; the issues that we’re bringing to the table are really crucial to the survival of the working writer in Hollywood. And I hope that’s recognized by the companies and I hope that there’s an agreement that averts a strike. And beyond that I don’t really want to say anything else.

DEADLINE: Any final thoughts and a message to viewers?

RYAN: We’re extraordinarily proud of the show. The people who’ve watched it, the reaction has been incredible. I would say, watch one episode and I dare you not to watch the second.

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