I had the chance to speak with actors Rhianne Barreto and Gamba Cole about their work in the new Prime Video series The Outlaws, a hybrid comedy-thriller created by Stephen Merchant (The Office, Extras, Logan) also starring Merchant, Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter), Ian McElhinney (Game of Thrones), and Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Barretto is best known for her work on Prime Video’s Hanna and ITV’s Honour. She won the Breakthrough Performance Award at Sundance for the film Share. Cole is also known for his work in Prime Video’s Hanna, along with smaller roles in projects like His House, The Protégé, and AMC’s A Discovery of Witches.
Barreto and Cole are really the leading roles in The Outlaws. The show, which hails from The Office creator Stephen Merchant, details the lives of seven convicted criminals forced to work together on a community service clean-up detail. Barreto and Cole’s characters have a romantic energy that helps enliven the series. Both feel like talents very much on the rise and worth keeping an eye on.
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
The Appeal of The Outlaws for Barreto and Cole
It’s really nice to speak with the both of you today.
Cole: Hey Bernard. It’s nice to meet you.
What drew each of you into the project?
Cole: For me, there were many things. First and foremost was having Stephen [Merchant] as the creator of this project, writing this masterpiece. As an actor, there are certain people that you just really would love to work with and for me Stephen was one of them. Also, it was filmed in Bristol, the city in the UK that I was actually born in. I have family there too now. It was nice to connect to the roots, and go back and do what I love doing in the city where I spent so many of my years. Those two were the main things for me that really drew me in. I had similarities with the character as well, but the main things were working with Stephen and filming in Bristol.
Barreto: I think, not to be a parrot, but when I first got the email from my agent it was just clear that everything Stephen does turns to gold. I knew from being a fan of his work that it would be so exciting to be a part of one of his projects. He’s such an incredible storyteller – he was in it, writing it, directing it, producing it. For someone to believe in it so much, it had real heart in it as well.
How the Actors Built Out and Humanized Their Characters
One of the things I thought was most effective about the show was the way it introduces all the characters as these sort of broad archetypes and gradually builds out their layers throughout the series. I think both of your characters start from places that are difficult tropes in storytelling and I’d love to hear about your process as performers to deconstruct the tropes that you start at and how you build out the characters throughout the series.
Cole: I’ll go! For me, it was important that I went back to Bristol before we filmed. I took time to really create the backstory for my character. I needed to understand where he would live, what school he would have gone to, the shops he would go to, where he would spend his time. Those sort of things were important to me. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the streets of Bristol and that area so when you do go into filming you have that sense of grounding. That’s basic for me first and foremost.
How about yourself Rhianna, how did you approach deconstructing the starting point of the character?
Barreto: When I first got the job, I went to Oxford and visited the University. I did a tour of the colleges to grasp the majesty and epicness of being accepted on scholarship to one of the most famous universities in the world. I wanted to understand what that meant, and what it might mean to maybe lose it because of her actions in the first scene. I think that really helped feed my character – I didn’t go to University myself – so it helped to make sense of that for me.
Playing a Couple on Screen
I wanted to ask how you built up the relationship between the two of your characters as scene partners. I think a lot of the heart of the show comes from the pairing of the two of you together. So I’d love to hear how you both built that out.
Barreto: I’ve played two characters in my life that have fancied Gamba’s character.
Barreto: Yes. We had worked together before on an Amazon Prime show. It’s easy to slip back in. How could I not fall into those beautiful eyes? It was made easy that we actually are friends. Before I got the job, we went bowling. We do self-takes together all the time. He’s like my family.
Cole: I agree! It was easy for me. That was the easiest part. When I had my recall, I didn’t know I would be reading opposite Rhi. When I saw her there, I immediately relaxed. I’ve worked with her before and I know I’m able to try things and she’s so receptive to that. We have this trust on-screen and off-screen. That part was easy. We went and did our work separately, but when we come together we know and understand the dynamics we need to work from. And it’s just so fun working with Rhi all the time.
Gamba Cole on Balancing Humor and Tension
One of the things I also thought was interesting was the tone – it’s such a balancing act between the comedy and the thriller elements. It particularly impacts, Gamba, your story where you may jump from scenes with really funny jokes here to serious action scenes very close together in storytelling.
Cole: I saw my story as split up. Because this is a comedy thriller, I immersed myself in the thriller side because the stakes really are high for my character. As we go through the episodes in the series, you start to unpack all of the things he’s dealing with and going through. His whole life changes by the end of episode 1. From that, it’s about constantly staying at that height. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to reveal all the plot, but for me seeing it as a thriller allowed me to take the responsibility of playing this character with so much more seriousness and making sure each point is met in the most honest, and best, way I could.
Rhianne Barreto on the Universality of the Immigrant Experience
Rhianne, one of the things I thought was interesting is your character’s half-Polish background. You can probably guess from my last name that it spoke to me a bit and is something I’ve not really seen depicted so much, the way post-Soviet Polish people have endured a cultural trauma from that era. I was curious if you looked into that, or how you approached that sort of cultural background in informing your performance and your relationship with the actor who plays your father on the show.
Barreto: That’s such a gorgeous question. My dad isn’t Polish, but my dad was born in Baghdad. I don’t know too much about Polish history, but I think I have an understanding of how being a child of an immigrant, or someone that has come from a completely different culture, who comes to a quite Western country like the UK and has that expectation of excellence and perfection. They know how amazing it is to have all the benefits of free education, free health care, and free opportunity. I immediately understood that. I think that is quite specific to my experience, at least, and I think that informed how my relationship was with that actor and my character’s dad. It’s interesting the universality of having a parent who’s an immigrant from another country. I’m sure children of all countries who have completely different histories and cultures, but have that same expectation of excellence.
That makes a lot of sense. I gather we’re at the end of our time so I just want to say congratulations to the both of you. You were both fantastic in the series. I’m looking forward to season 2 and I really appreciate having the chance to speak with both of you today.
Barreto: Thank you so much!
Cole: Thank you Bernard! Take care.
The Outlaws is out on Prime Video today, April 1