The Making of a Netflix #1 Hit
By Dawn Ius
When Matthew Quirk published THE NIGHT AGENT in 2018, he couldn’t have known his action-driven political thriller would later be adapted into a #1 hit show on Netflix—he couldn’t have known, but certainly, like many writers, he dreamt about it.
It wasn’t the first time his work had been optioned, so he knew not to get his hopes up—it’s rare for Hollywood projects to come to fruition—but when the book landed on producer Shawn Ryan’s desk (SWAT, The Shield), Quirk realized things were different this time.
“Sometimes authors don’t have the best experiences with adaptations,” he says. “We can be really protective of our work. But this was the total opposite of the Hollywood preconceptions one might have from films like The Player or stories about ‘development hell.’”
Quirk’s attitude about the project played a major part in that, says Ryan, noting that Quirk was happy to offer consultation if required, but “didn’t want to get in the way.”
Though Quirk’s novel certainly appealed to him, Ryan knew it didn’t have quite enough substance for a show. It did, however, pair perfectly with a Secret Service concept he’d been toying around with.
“I’ve always loved political thrillers as a genre,” he says. “I was an early adapter of the Tom Clancy novels—in fact, my father’s name was Jack Ryan. But I hadn’t tried to do anything in the genre before and then I was given this book. Before I read the book, I was working on a Secret Service show, but I didn’t have enough for a show. Then I read the book—it has an amazing hook, great characters, and I loved the aspect about a guy who wanted to know more about his father. That all coalesced together, and I realized, now we had enough for a show.”
The series introduces viewers to Peter Sutherland, played by Gabriel Basso, who is a low-level FBI agent working at the White House where he monitors a phone that never rings—until it does. On the other end of that line is Rose Larkin, played by Luciane Buchanan. Rose doesn’t know why she was supposed to call this number, but Peter does—something big is about to go down and Rose is in trouble.
A rule follower with rock-solid morals, Peter slides easily into the role of hero. But Rose doesn’t make things easy for him, and it’s this push-and-pull dynamic that sucks viewers into the series in a way other shows in this genre don’t—the emotional connection between the characters is organic, fluid. And the plot, though rife with action, is grounded.
Ultimately, that’s what drew the actors to the series.
“The big thing for me was how Shawn talked about the project in context to other shows in the genre,” Basso says. “He was very adamant that this one was grounded and realistic. I was thinking about the show the other day and I realized that every character I fight has a name. And that’s rare. In modern cinema, it’s often a bit more fantasy-esque where the heroes are fighting faceless bad guys. It feels significant every time there’s an action moment.”
And there’s no shortage of them.
As Buchanan notes, the plot is fast paced with a lot of bullet dodging and car chasing. Those beats make for fantastic viewing, but she says she was most excited about what she thought she could bring to the role of Rose, whose dry wit is a big part of the character’s charm.
“Rose is rough around the edges,” she says. “I really wanted to stay away from ‘damsel in distress’—she has her own agency.”
Buchanan certainly embraces this, but admits she was able to do so because it all comes down to the writing—both in the book and the adaptation.
“I was in New Zealand lockdown when I got the audition, so I couldn’t get to a bookstore,” she says. “I found the audiobook online, and I was hooked. I listened to it in two days. By the time I had my callback, I had an understanding of who she was.”
When she and Basso met up to start filming the project, they made a commitment early on to give their characters space to breathe and connect, staying true to both Quirk and Ryan’s intentions and visions.
Ryan says they were the perfect actors for the show, despite some early pressure to go with bigger names.
“The people that were named tended to be a bit older, and in both the Peter and Rose roles, I fought really hard to discover people rather than go with people who were older and might not have been right for the part,” he says. “Television makes stars, and Netflix gets that.”
Clearly the audience agrees. Less than a week after the show debuted, it became the streamer’s #1 show and has already been greenlit for a second season.
For Quirk, that’s the icing on the cake of an experience that’s already been surreal.
“It was such a thrill to read the script and watch the show and see scenes I imagined seven years ago come to life and even more fun to visit the set and hang out with characters I made up,” he says. “Shawn was really gracious about reaching out and giving me a chance to read the pilot, and then we had a chance to talk about it. It was a little surreal to be in a position to be giving my thoughts to this legendary showrunner whose work I love.
“On top of that, the show was full of new characters, surprises, and twists, even for me.”
Quirk continued living out his dream moment by attending the premiere in Los Angeles with his wife, Heather.
“We have a one-year-old baby and mostly just love hanging out and enjoying parenthood, so the premiere was actually our first date and couple’s night away since our daughter was born,” he says. “We really threw ourselves into the deep end with the red carpet as our first date. And all my friends and family and fans started messaging me as they watched. Writing books can be a real roller coaster, so it’s been such a joy to be able to celebrate all of this with them.”
It’s a project worth celebrating all around.