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Treason star Oona Chaplin: ‘The structures of power are run on blackmail’

Oona Chaplin says new Netflix thriller Treason proves the system we live in works perfectly – in that it’s designed to keep people oppressed

Oona Chaplin has found her paradise. She’s calling The Big Issue from a “little farm community land project” in Northern California. There are a few families living together “with the trees and the frogs and the little shrimp we have in the creek”.

The actress and activist is finding balance in her life.

“Not long ago I went to the Avatar premiere,” she says (Chaplin will appear in the next film in the franchise). “I felt like a complete country bumpkin. I was turning compost in the morning and then suddenly I was on the red carpet – or the blue carpet, rather.”

Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie, daughter of Geraldine, is a familiar face on TV screens. She’s starred in Taboo, Black Mirror, the best episode of Inside No 9 (the totally silent A Quiet Night In) and was a victim in the most infamous moment in Game of Thrones, the impossible-to-forget ‘Red Wedding’ episode.

Her latest series is the Netflix smash Treason, a breathless thriller that keeps audiences guessing until the final shot. Treason explores the upper echelons of the establishment, as well as focusing on the personal cost people in power pay.

Treason is about what high offices and spy agencies do to family,” Chaplin says. “We’re used to seeing highfalutin ninja people and this is much more like: who are these people, what’s their family like and what happens when they accept these kinds of jobs?”

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As soon as he becomes MI6’s new chief, Adam Lawrence (played by Charlie Cox, aka Daredevil in the Marvel cinematic universe) is caught up in conspiracy orchestrated by an old flame and former Russian spy (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko). Chaplin plays Lawrence’s wife Maddy, caught in the crossfire, doing whatever she can to save her family.

“Not to toot my own horn but I think Maddy is a freakin’ hero,” Chaplin says.

Did playing this kind of character give you sympathy for people in power who often seem to make choices based on self-interest rather than the greater good?

“We hope powerful people are going to be altruistic, honourable, dignified and honest. And as much as these people might want to be initially, they are inevitably put in situations where they have to compromise their ideals. I think it’s good to see that. Ultimately, it does show that power is fallible.

“The quicker we understand that the structures of power are essentially run on blackmail, the better. Then we understand them. We don’t blame, we don’t think they’re terrible people, but we don’t idolise them either.”

But isn’t that just accepting a broken system without trying to fix it?

“The system isn’t broken,” Chaplin states. “The system is doing exactly what it is designed to do, which is oppress the people. It’s working very, very well. What having that perspective does is it makes it not personal. It isn’t about the people that are in power. They’re not bad people. The system puts them in situations where they have to make decisions that are dishonourable.”

As much as Treason’s twists and turns are thrilling to watch, seeing foul play around a political leadership contest and the meddling influence of Russia makes one long for a show where the corridors of power aren’t full of skulduggery and backstabbing and where righteousness is rewarded. In our reality, that would represent true escapism.

“I’ve been wanting that as well,” Chaplin says, “to watch it and to be in it. A world without conflict.

“We’re obsessed with this idea that drama is conflict. Like if you want to create a dramatic story, there has to be conflict. But there is room now for stories where the conflict isn’t exterior, the conflict is interior. I feel like we should have more stories that encourage us to imagine a different way, as opposed to imagine ways to survive the current way.

“I’m interested in moments where characters have to make choices. Where they have to use their free will in order to move the story forward. It seems like such an obvious thing, but most people in life aren’t using free will. They’re just kind of bobbing along and going with the current. For me, it’s very powerful. I feel like it exercises my own muscles in my own life to do that.”

Chaplin is a long-time champion of the Boa Foundation and Aniwa Community, which works to amplify the voices and share the wisdom of Indigenous people. This, plus her developing moral muscles, led her to found the community farm where she now lives. So has she discovered a system that actually works?

“I don’t know if it’s the better system, I don’t think it’s for everybody. I fully recognise the immense
privilege that I can live on land. But I don’t think that you need to go off and live on a farm in order to do that.

“Making a choice based on principles then actually living by them, that’s a really hard thing to do. Every day is a challenge but it’s very rewarding. I mean, it’s been tried and tested for hundreds of thousands of years. So I’m not like reinventing the wheel in any kind of way.”

Treason is streaming on Netflix from 26 December

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