“As soon as I read the script, I just knew,” says actor Daniel Mays, remembering his first encounter with Netflix mystery-thriller White Lines. “I got to the scene with the banana, the cocaine and the dogs and that was it: I was sold.”
In the eagerly-anticipated new show, which is already being hailed as the hit of the summer, Mays plays Marcus – a washed-up, 40-something DJ living in Ibiza who dabbles in drug-dealing to make ends meet. In episode one, we see Marcus’ supplier deliver a giant, inflatable banana full of cocaine to his house. As Marcus tries to move it out of sight, the banana splits, leaving a trail of coke across his garden. Moments later, Marcus’ dog starts to lap up the powder, before feeling the inevitable effects – and later collapsing.
“And then, and then…” Mays says excitedly as he talks to NME over video call, “there’s the bit where I resuscitate the dog. When I filmed that, I jumped in the pool, swam over to this pretend dog thing they had, dragged it out and I’m pumping it’s chest like…” Mays starts to demonstrate some frantic CPR moves. “And then I remember turning to the director and asking, ‘Well, how was that then?’” The director shook his head at him. “He said: ‘Danny, the tail dropped off the dog as soon as you came out of the pool. We’ll have to go again.’”
White Lines is a furious cocktail of action, suspense, drama and – as Mays story illustrates – frequent hilarity. Set between ‘90s Manchester and club-laden Ibiza, it’s gonzo television that flits across the serious and the surreal as it attempts to uncover who is responsible for a homicide. Yet this is no straight-forward murder-mystery. It’s more of a whodunnit on acid with a killer soundtrack to boot (there’s The Prodigy, Portishead and Primal Scream for starters).
Created by Álex Pina, the brains behind Netflix’s biggest global smash Money Heist, the new 10-part series combines multiple genres and complex storylines to create something truly original. Split into two interweaving narratives, White Lines tells the story of a group of music-loving teens who bring Madchester vibes to the Rainy City via illegal raves, ecstasy and acid house. Eventually, they leave drizzly England for the sunny, drug-fuelled climes of Ibiza, each with dreams of becoming superstar DJs.
After some initial dreamy, hedonistic days, things turn sour when one of the most talented of the group, Axel (Tom Rhys Harries), is murdered. In the show’s second timeline, it’s Axel’s sister Zoe, played by Laura Haddock, who leads the complex search to find out what happened to her brother 20 years later, after new evidence is discovered.
“It was a treat reading those scripts,” says Haddock, who is also the show’s main narrator. “I’d just finished watching Money Heist, and I just love how Pina’s brain works. His character crafting, his story arcs – they’re incredible. It’s mad, entertaining and super-high octane but it’s also rooted in emotional truth. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
By episode three, it’s revealed that Axel was involved with the daughter of the Calafat’s – one of Ibiza’s most powerful and dangerous families. Wild, obsessive and primed to self-destruct, he was also prolifically talented. Rising star Harries, who plays Axel, says the closest he came to the character’s full-tilt lifestyle was getting in trouble after attempting some daring stunts.
In the trailer for the series, we see Axel jumping off a high tower into a swimming pool – a set-piece Harries performed himself. “I’m quite reckless, I think. I was like, ‘let me jump into these big ol’ boxes, that looks fun!’ But I kept getting told off by the stunt coordinators all the time… I managed to jump in some anyway,” he laughs.
Elsewhere on-set, Angela Griffin, who plays Anna, dubious businesswoman and ex-wife to Marcus, spent a lot of time grappling with her character’s extreme nature. Griffin (best known for terrestrial dramas like Waterloo Road and Cutting It) would often be surrounded by dozens of naked extras as her character runs drug-fuelled orgies for Ibiza’s elite.
“I quite like the fact she has no shame at all,” says Griffin, remembering one of Anna’s earliest scenes where she’s proudly setting up naked couples at a mass orgy. She struggled not to laugh. “Anna walks through that party and she’s the queen, it’s her domain, she’s giving everyone a good time – and she wants to be adored for that. There’s something about that confidence I really admire – but I absolutely couldn’t do it myself.”
Along with Cel Spellman (who plays young Marcus), Griffin is one of the only other cast members who has lived and worked extensively in Manchester. When she was travelling back and forth to work on Coronation Street in the ‘90s, Griffin would often end up in the Haçienda – New Order’s iconic nightclub which played a pivotal role in the rise of rave culture.
“I’d been travelling over to Manchester for work for four years and I done the Haçienda in 1996,” says Griffin. “I’d done all of that scene and some. I could absolutely call on that when it came to Anna.”
Spellman, who grew up in Manchester, says being from the city helped him appreciate the importance of music more in the show. “As a Mancunian, you’re really aware of that period and you still feel its importance in the city day-to-day just being there,” he explains. “White Lines is any Mancunian’s musical dream.”
For a show built around music, it’s perhaps no surprise that it has a fiercely eclectic soundtrack. As well as ‘90s throwbacks from the likes of Happy Mondays, The Farm and The Charlatans, there’s also an incredible cover of Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ and newer tracks from contemporary artists such as Mabel, M83 and Aitch.
Spellman says his work as a BBC Radio 1 DJ helped him identify with his character, and Mays actually turned to him for advice about older Marcus. “It was amazing to learn more about that world from Cel,” Mays says. “I certainly appreciate that DJing is an art form now, a lot more than I did when we started this.”
Another of the show’s characters, Boxer (played by Nuno Lopes), spends his weekends DJing all over Europe to thousands. “Nuno was amazing because he’s just so passionate about his craft,” Harries says. “He was tutoring me on set, freely giving up his time alongside Edward Teach – a DJ with a residency in Ibiza. Nuno would often show us selfies of himself DJing to crowds of 4000 – it was incredible!”
Unfortunately, Harries’ own experience on the decks was much less euphoric. “We’d have these massive crowd scenes, like 700-800 people on set,” Harries explains. “They’re really funny to film. You have dialogue in them so you can’t actually have any music on – so there’s hundreds of people raving to silence.”
As well as silent raves, another crazy in-club scene emerged in the shape of one of the show’s most unlikeliest characters – a cow from Madrid. In episode three, we discover that another member of the original group, David (Laurence Fox) turned his back on a life of clubbing, travelling to India to train as a guru. In one scene, he asks Zoe to hug the cow in order to find “inner peace” following news of Axel’s death. Yet when it came to filming, it resulted in one of the show’s most memorable moments.
“They trained this cow for months in Madrid,” Mays says, already laughing from the memory. Harries adds more: “It was like some vegan cow that they had on this holistic retreat for seven months, prepping it for this shoot. It cost more than all of us put together.”
“When it arrived on set, it went mad,” Mays laughs. “Laurence went to hug the cow and it freaked out from the off. It lifted its head up and charged around the set, destroying it. People jumped into trees, I jumped underneath the DJ desk, everyone else scattered for miles. On screen, the moment looks beautiful, but behind the scenes it was madness. Which is White Lines all over really.”
Due to its dual narrative, the show was a hugely ambitious filming project with multiple shoots going on simultaneously all around the world. “I feel very lucky looking back at what we could do so freely, now that we are limited in moving about,” says Harries, when NME asks about the impact of coronavirus on the industry. Haddock agrees, and says she already misses the show’s European crew. “This was written in Spanish and then translated into English and we formed an incredible bond with the Spanish cast,” she adds. “We also had an incredible mix of international people.”
Once lockdown is eased, the show’s future will be up for discussion. Will there be a season two – or does the series end with the revelation of Axel’s killer? “By the time you get to episode 10, you will feel satisfied but there’s still life in this show yet,” says Griffin.
“It’s a non-linear narrative throughout and that leaves the door open for anything to happen,” adds Harries. “There’s loads of places it could still go and that’s something really exciting about it.”
Right now, there’s plenty to be getting on with watching an action-packed season one. “This show turns everything up to 11, all the time,” says Harries. “It’s breathlessly entertaining.”
As for Mays? Well, his enthusiasm for the show is obvious and he’s keen to do more, but there’s one scene he just can’t stop talking about. “My character ends up living with, well…” he trails off, realising he’s about to drop a massive spoiler. “And then there’s also the bit when the gangsters turn up looking for the banana – that’s when I end up in the pool with the dog…” Granted, it’s a funny moment in an often serious story. Let’s just hope fans enjoy it as much he does.
‘White Lines’ streams on Netflix from May 15