high wire act

Hijack, Starring Idris Elba, Is a Relatable Thriller for the Travel-Weary

Cocreator George Kay says he wants viewers to put themselves in Elba’s shoes: “What would you do in this extreme situation?”
‘Hijack Starring Idris Elba Is a Relatable Thriller for the TravelWeary
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Every summer, a new show seems to slip into an otherwise fallow period and become an unexpected hit. This year, it just might be Hijack, a British thriller from the cocreator of Lupin that unfolds in real time over seven suspenseful episodes. The Hollywood Reporter calls the show “slick, exciting, unfussy.” The Guardian says it’s “beautifully daft.” Oh, and it stars Idris Elba as a smooth-talking but fallible hero. In other words, it’s the perfect binge watch—all episodes are now available to stream on Apple TV+—as the days get hotter and the Hollywood strikes threaten to eat into fall’s new-release calendar.

George Kay, who cocreated the show with director Jim Field Smith, says that the idea for Hijack first came to him on one of his regular train trips to Paris during production on Lupin, when the train abruptly stopped while in the Chunnel. “I had a kind of flash through my mind. I wondered if this was some serious incident, and I looked around at all the passengers and I kind of prejudged them one by one,” he says. There was the arguing family, the business traveler, the guy carrying everything in a rucksack. “I wondered, If this was an incident, how would we respond? Would we all cower in our seats, or would we try and face up to whoever these people might be?”

The train started moving again after only a few seconds, but the experience stayed with him. In Hijack, the drama shifts to the sky. Elba’s corporate negotiator, Sam Nelson, gets more than he bargained for when his flight home to London from Dubai is taken over by a group of armed passengers. On the ground, Sam’s ex—who isn’t exactly looking forward to his return—and son, Kai, wait for his arrival as government officials, air traffic controllers, and a counterterrorism agent played by Archie Panjabi try to resolve the incident.

“The plane idea was much better because there’s a whole society in the air,” Kay says. “That put me in mind of what we call in England ‘blitz spirit,’ which was this moment where London was bombed by the Germans in the war. Average British people showed such stoicism and bravery, and went beyond the norm in terms of their response.”

From the UK, Kay speaks with Vanity Fair about plotting the nail-biter, recreating the experience of a long-haul flight on set, and what he’s learned about writing shows for international audiences. Warning: mild Hijack spoilers ahead.

Vanity Fair: Did you always know you wanted to tell the story of Kingdom 29’s hijacking flight in real time?

George Kay: I wanted to do a limited-series pitch, and they tend to be six or seven hours, which felt very much like the length of a flight. It just felt quite natural to try and let it flow for real. I know a seven-hour flight can be tiresome, but when you’re hijacked, it’s a bit more interesting.

How did that decision change how you approached structuring the show?

Constraints are so liberating because you have to find the answers within those constraints. How can I move characters from central London to the outskirts of London if an episode is only 45 minutes long? If you can’t find the answers within those constraints, then they’re not achievable and you rule them out. I’m really proud of how we’ve all achieved the real-time feel.

What’s your collaborative process like with Jim Field Smith, who directed most of the episodes? There are some directing challenges in this show. You’ve got a big cast all sitting on an airplane.

We’ve been working together since we were 14, so we have an inherent trust and understanding of each other’s abilities. We had done a series before, Criminal, and I knew that Jim would absolutely excel at the creative side of directing this, but he’s also really interested in the factual research. So the plane that they made, our production designer and the whole team created such a realistic environment. It’s a completely hermetically sealed set. Everything is the real size; every button works; the light that goes past the windows changes as the sunlight really would on a seven-hour flight from Dubai. It’s really well researched and well achieved. Credit to the actors who put up with what was essentially a long-haul flight every day. Not that these talented actors needed to have any help with their performance, but that just added to that real feeling. Those in first class had bigger seats than those in coach. I can imagine that being kind of irritating if you’re in coach for six months rather than in first class. No shortcuts were made in that respect.

Everyone knows what it feels like to sit in a cramped airplane seat.

That’s a good point, because going back to the original idea, I really want to do stuff that’s relatable, and travel is such a relatable thing for all audiences. I hope that we could all channel ourselves into thinking, I know what it’s like to get on a plane. I know what it’s like when we can’t find a place to put our bag above our seat. That’s why it’s fun to sort of throw a hand grenade into that. Once you’ve got the audience in a relatable place, you ask, What would you do in this extreme situation? Some of the most fun writing that show was the first 15 minutes before the hijack starts.

How much did Idris Elba’s involvement influence the Sam character?

He has a relationship with Apple, with Jay Hunt, who runs Apple TV+ in the UK. Before we were greenlit, and we were greenlit pretty quickly, I think she made a mental note to get him attached to the project. So as I started to write the rest of it—and as the team started to write with me—we knew it was going to be Idris.

I just love to write characters that are not super obvious sort of superheroes. So I didn’t want him to be too capable. I didn’t want him to be a marine or an SAS soldier or something like that. I wanted him to be a guy that we could relate to. But his charisma and his ability physically—he’s a big guy—we wanted to write into all of that stuff. On the one hand, he’s an intimidating guy for a hijacker, so therefore you might try to shut him up quicker or have less tolerance for him. He’s absolutely wonderful in terms of his thinking and his presence in a scene, even when he’s not speaking, which is a massive tool in terms of writing, because a look can say so much. In a story where you can’t talk so much, the look that he can give in close-up, the power of that is everything. It’s a big-budget show, but it’s never more high-end than when we’re close up on Idris.

Sam’s motives aren’t always clear to the other passengers on the plane. How much did you intend to leave the audience guessing about whom to trust?

There is a scene where they discuss his self-appointed leadership. On the one hand, he shuts down anyone else’s attempt to take on the hijackers. But at the same time, he doesn’t obey his own rule. That was a really important shift for that character. In episode one, he’s telling people, don’t do anything until we know more, which really reads as don’t do anything until I do. By the end, that whole society on that plane is working together to get that metal bird down from the sky. I decided early that he wasn’t going to land a plane himself because that character cannot fly a plane. And I wanted to write scenes where he didn’t know what he was doing, because I don’t want to see characters who can ace every aspect of a story.

It’s a big surprise who does end up landing the plane. Did you want to subvert expectations about who is a hero and who is a villain?

We don’t know who we’re traveling with. It was always a really early idea to bury some twists within the show in terms of who the passengers might be. Because it’s called Hijack and we’re having a hijack in the first episode, there’s got to be bigger twists and shocks to come. The whole achievement by everyone on this show, I hope, is that the tension keeps rising three, four, five hours after the hijack, which normally would be the most dramatic point of a story like this.

How did you work out the pacing for the action on the ground while the flight is en route to London?

It was important to open up mysteries in the seven-hour flight in terms of, who are these people? Why are they speaking in Scottish accents? They’re clearly British. Research was done into organized crime groups, but nothing too heavy. It’s a made-up story and a thrill ride. It’s not a true-crime show. It was about just making it feel the most menacing and the most tense we could, while hopefully making it feel relatively realistic.

Lupin was one of the first local-language shows on Netflix to become an international hit. What did you learn from that experience about how to tell stories that could resonate with a global audience?

The key, I think, is the relatability of the situation. Even though we haven’t been in a hijacking, or we’re not gentleman thieves and no one’s expecting to rob the Louvre anytime soon, it’s important to put in the heart of these shows characters that we can identify with. None of the characters in Hijack have perfect lives or perfect sets of skills. Sam’s got problems with his relationship. Assane, the main character played by Omar Sy in Lupin, has problems with his son. They’re superheroes in one respect, but they’ve all got their own personal issues.

The rest of it can be quite aspirational. It’s great to do shows that look great. The Kingdom 29 flight is a cool vehicle. The way it’s shown feels high-end and aspirational. When Lupin came out in lockdown, it felt like we couldn’t leave our houses, but at least we could kind of go on TV holiday to Paris.

Hijack is the type of international show that some have predicted will flourish amid the Hollywood strikes. Is the production stoppage impacting your work?

I’ve put my pen down on my WGA work. I’m fully supportive of the strike in terms of American work. In respect to Hijack, we’re in London; we’re making a show with British characters. We are really proud to show the world a British show made by British writers and producers.

You pitched Hijack as a limited series, but it feels like you’ve left an opening to bring it back. Do you have more story to tell?

I love Sam Nelson. We’re all very proud of Idris and creating that character. I’m sure there’s more story one could tell. Not every part of his story is wrapped up, but no updates.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.