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Henry Cavill and Dua Lipa Steam Up the Spy Thriller Argylle

Between the Kingsman movies, Layer Cake, and Kick-Ass, filmmaker Matthew Vaughn has spent a lot of time on undercover operatives, clandestine missions, and flirtatious fighting banter. But with his new film, Argylle—which stars Henry Cavill as the secret agent of the title (or does it?)—Vaughn pokes fun at the stories that made him, both those he created and those he grew up loving.

“I’m guilty of being part of creating a clichéd culture of spies. I just love the idea of doing a spy movie that takes all the tropes and then turns it on its head,” Vaughn tells Vanity Fair for this exclusive early look.

The movie, debuting February 2, emerged from the pandemic lockdown. “I was watching lots of great movies from the past with my kids, because finally I could get them to actually watch films that I wanted,” says Vaughn, who has two daughters and a son with wife Claudia Schiffer. “So I showed them Charade and North by Northwest and then Romancing the Stone—all these fun movies that you think you know where you are, and then you don’t know where you are.”

What at first appears to be a straightforward spy thriller, featuring Cavill’s Agent Argylle in a seductive showdown with a femme fatale played by Dua Lipa, actually turns out to be a scene from a best-selling book written by Bryce Dallas Howard’s character: an introverted novelist named Elly Conway who has a robust imagination for intrigue despite being a devout homebody.
“She’s the J.K. Rowling of spy books. She’s agoraphobic. Her idea of a hot date is staying at home, writing more of her book, with her cat for company,” Vaughn says. “She’s not a victim, because she’s really successful and really funny and really smart, but she has issues.”
Fiction and reality begin to merge when the author is targeted by various deadly figures from the underground world of espionage, all because her seemingly fanciful new book has inadvertently described some true-life incidents. One secret agent becomes her protector, but he looks like Sam Rockwell rather than Henry Cavill—a charming everyman if not a square-jawed superhero.
Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard in Argylle“As I said, I’m guilty of handsome spies with great haircuts and wonderfully cut suits,” Vaughn says. “In reality, if you’re a spy, it’s a pretty dumb thing to do. You’re going to be the guy that gets noticed in the room. A good spy should be the person you least expect the spy to be. And that’s what this movie is all about. It’s like Roger Moore said about James Bond—what sort of spy walks into a room and everyone knows his name and what he likes to drink? It’s ridiculous. We’re having fun destroying these tropes.”
The plot of Argylle parallels a legend Vaughn heard about the thriller novelist Frederick Forsyth, author of The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File. Forsyth supplied information to Britain’s MI6 while working as a journalist in war-torn countries, and often had his espionage novels vetted by the spy agency—which wanted to prevent anything too on-the-nose from being published.
Bryce Dallas Howards author keeps an action figure of Henry Cavills Argylle on her work desk.

In Argylle, the novelist accidentally describes a rogue espionage group with too much accuracy, leading her to be targeted by bad guys who want to silence her—but also hope she can imagine other scenarios they might need to anticipate. “So the covert spy operation are like, ‘We’ve got to fucking shut this woman up and stop this book being published because people might start realizing we exist,’” Vaughn says. “And then she also stumbles on solving an issue they have as well. So they’re like, ‘Actually, we can’t just kill her. We need to get her. She can explain to us how she figured this out—then we’ll kill her.’”

She also wants to figure out how she got so close to the truth. “Most of the researchers at Langley and in the FBI and MI6 are boring guys who went to the university but had great minds,” Vaughn says. “That’s what I wanted to tap into. With the internet and everything, you can get even more information, so I actually thought that this is the time a novelist could be stumbling on stuff without realizing it.”

Samuel L. Jacksons winemaker shares some insights with Bryce Dallas Howards spy novelist in Argylle.

At times, the writer has been incepted by Samuel L. Jackson’s character, who has deep ties to the underworld through his Burgundy winery. “Sam’s character is one of the world’s greatest winemakers and is a big fan of Elly Conway as an author,” Vaughn says. “He was sometimes secretly helping her with her research without her knowing it.”

Bryan Cranston breaks bad again as the chief of the rogue spy operation. “You don’t want to fuck with him, let’s put it that way,” Vaughn says. “He’s a nefarious, charming, and clever man who, if he had better values, would’ve been a spy that we all would want in our lives. But he’s, dare I say it—he’s a Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney type of spy.”

Catherine O’Hara costars as the author’s mother and beta reader. “She doesn’t like talking to her agent as much. She rings up her agent, and her agent says, ‘Oh, it’s the best book I’ve ever read. You’re amazing. This is another big hit,’” Vaughn says. “And mom’s like, ‘Ah, you’ve got to change X, Y, Z.’ So mom gives tough love and helps her through. That’s why she’s such a good author.”

West Side Story Oscar winner Ariana DeBose and bodybuilder action star John Cena also appear as fictional characters from the author’s spy books. DeBose’s role remains under wraps, but Cena’s is obvious: “In the life of Henry Cavill’s character, John Cena plays the muscle. And in movies, muscle is literally muscle. John’s arm is the size of two of my legs,” Vaughn says. “But in the real world, when you meet muscle, they look like accountants. You would never believe it. They are strong, they are wiry, and they don’t look tough, but by the time you realize that they’re tough, you’re in pieces.”

Henry Cavill Dua Lipa and John Cena in one of the fantasy sequences from Argylle

Finally, there’s the cat: Elly Conway’s constant companion and perhaps the only one she can truly trust. “When Elly goes on the adventure, she brings the cat with her—and cats aren’t easy,” Vaughn says.

While the cat is often digitally rendered in dangerous situations, the real-life animal is Vaughn’s family pet. “What happened the first day of filming, we had a professional, very expensive acting cat that was useless. So I fired the cat,” he says. “They don’t have any rights, thank God. And I went home and went up to my daughter’s bedroom and grabbed her cat and said, ‘I’m borrowing this cat for three months.’”

Filmmaker Matthew Vaughn and the reallife Chip who plays the novelists beloved cat

Once again, fiction crossed over with reality—this time for the filmmaker. “It was pretty strange to me. It was a little bit of art imitating life because the cat was driving the characters mad. Can you imagine going on an adventure with a cat? But I was on an adventure driving to work every day and sharing my trailer with a fucking cat,” he said. “At the beginning of this film, I loathed cats. I’m a dog person, really. And by the end of it, I bonded with this little thing. We became friends, so I now love Chip.”

His supermodel wife also took part in the film as an executive producer, credited as Claudia Vaughn. The two, who have been married since 2002, have collaborated several times on feature films. He was a producer of Guy Ritchie’s films when she urged him to begin directing his own. “Claudia is my not-so-secret weapon,” Vaughn says. “It was her idea for me to become a director, and she helps me with the costumes, production design, and makeup and hair, ensuring that everything looks fabulous.”

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