Harlan Coben’s Stay Close: From bestselling book to Netflix must-watch

Stay Close is the latest Netflix adaptation from bestselling crime author Harlan Coben. We chat to the man himself and the show’s stellar cast to uncover how the show was made.

By James Descombes Published: 27 December 2021 - 1.00am
Netflix Harlan Coben

Following in the footsteps of previous Harlan Coben adaptations for Netflix, such as The Stranger, The Innocent and Safe, comes Stay Close – a classic twist-laden crime-thriller that will keep you guessing right up to the final episode, even if you’ve already read the book.

The show tells the story of three central characters: Megan (Cush Jumbo), a working mother of three who’s soon to be married to her new partner when her past resurfaces and forces her into action; Ray (Richard Armitage), a once promising photographer, turned paparazzi for hire; and Broome (James Nesbitt), who along with his partner Erin (Jo Joyner) tries to get to the bottom of a missing person case that could be tied to another one 17 years prior… one that Broome couldn’t solve.

The trio are tied together by Lorraine (Sarah Parish), an old friend from Megan’s past and former love interest of Detective Broome. She has some news that threatens to put all their lives in danger.

Meanwhile, Eddie Izzard plays Harry Sutton, an old friend of Megan’s and a local lawyer who’s a father-figure to some of the girls from local club Vipers. Oh, and he’s also a heroin addict.

We talk to Harlan Coben and the key cast members about taking the story from book to screen. 

Changing the book’s US location to the UK

In the novel, the action takes place in Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA. But for the show, a lot of the filming happened in Manchester and Blackpool. Harlan explains:

Blackpool really looks a lot like Atlantic City. It’s always a challenge to move things around. In the book we have this thing called Lucy the Elephant and here we’re using The Dream head sculpture (in Sutton Manor Woods, St Helens).

“I know some people are like ‘you’re not keeping true to the book’, but I love that hybrid of what British crime does so well and what I do in novels.

“I love making changes. A book is a book and a TV series is a TV series. They are not the same thing and they shouldn’t be. Both should be compelling stories, but the worst adaptations are the ones that are slavishly devoted to the text.”

Cush Jumbo in Stay Close Netflix

Juggling multiple characters and story threads 

Coben’s novels are known for keeping you guessing right to the final pages, with a wide web of intriguing characters and interwoven stories. This gives actors new and interesting challenges to get their teeth into.

Nesbitt says: “I didn’t know what to expect with this job to tell you the truth, because there are at least three stories going on…. three, four, five stories. I didn’t know what to expect as I dipped into Broome. With interwoven stories they obviously need to work with so many different characters, which was really interesting.”

Perhaps the challenge was most evident in Megan’s storyline, as we get a glimpse into her past life as Cassie, when she worked at the club Vipers.

Jumbo explains: “Well actors love getting cast as one person, so when you get cast as two we get especially excited.

“It proved to be harder than I assumed it would be. I always find it really interesting to play a person in the past and in the present, especially when you keep jumping between the two when you’re shooting, because you get to not just bring a back story but live a backstory – and have the past affect the present and the present affect the past.

“It was just really fun and it meant I probably got to work with more of the actors because you feel like you’re spread out across the whole universe of the story.

“It means you’re there a lot of the time, but it was nothing but fun. I got to learn a few new skills and see what it’s like to have teenagers and then dump my teenagers and be teenage again. I got to jump in and out of my Tardis as it were.”

Eddie Izzard in Stay Close Netflix

Netflix is now included in our Entertainment TV packs

You can now enjoy films and shows such as Ozark, Stay Close, After Life, The Crown, Red Notice and more when you take a flexible BT TV package.

Assembling the perfect cast

Moving the story from the novel’s setting of Atlantic City to the UK was made much easier for Coben by the stellar cast of British actors. The director enthuses: “If I can work with this cast of characters, who wouldn’t move the story?”

Most of the cast are new to a Harlan Coben adaptation, but Richard Armitage returns, having previously appeared in The Stranger.

Coben explains: “I don’t like to work with the same actors for obvious reasons, but this character (Ray) was so different from what Richard played in The Stranger that I thought he’d really enjoy that kind of test of being able to defy a lot of the expectations.”

And talking about his reasons for returning, Armitage adds: “I just find the stories really rattle along and there’s always a surprise. The way that Harlan unpacks a story in the book and seeing how that translates into a screenplay when everyone gets involved and you realise it really has to come away from the book and be tailored to the characters… I find that a really exciting process.”

People may be surprised to see Eddie Izzard in the role of Harry Sutton, a high-functioning heroin addict who was close to Cassie and goes to great lengths to support Megan.

On getting him to join the cast, Coben comments: “The last show we said 'there’s no way Jennifer Saunders will do it' and she did. This time it was ‘there’s no way Eddie Izzard will do it’ and I’m like ‘well we can just ask’.

“In the book Eddie Izzard’s character and Cush’s character are quite close. It’s easy for me as a writer of a novel to make that happen in one paragraph, but to have it on screen is really hard. So I wanted an actor that people would instantly love and want to be best friends with, and Eddie’s that. Everyone loves Eddie right away.

“You get that great screen chemistry between Eddie and Cush and it happens in shorthand almost. You see them together and you right away get it.”

Richard Armitage in Stay Close Netflix

Bringing new elements to the book’s characters 

Adapting a novel brings its own challenges. Some viewers would’ve already read the book, while others will be entering this world completely fresh. And the actors need to bring personality to characters that already have an identity from the book. So what extra ingredients did the actors bring to their characters?

Richard Armitage explains how he adapted his character Ray: “There was an effort on all our parts to make the character look as different as possible, so I found some cool photographs of various photographers with tattoo sleeves, which was also a way of showing the difference between 17 years ago and the present day.

“I thought wouldn’t it be interesting that because of the lack of memory that he has, he was sort of putting pieces of the jigsaw physically on his body. We looked at some pictures of locations, maps and coordinates, and various things connected to his life and his past that we could decorate his arms with, and because he works with cameras and you see his hands a lot, I thought that would be quite an interesting thing to do. That wasn’t something that was necessarily explored in the book.”

Sarah Parish in Stay Close Netflix

For the character of Lorraine, Sarah Parish wanted to really make her stand out. She explains:  

“With Lorraine we wanted to go big and colourful. Lorraine has a huge heart, she’s the person that brings all of these characters together. We wanted her to have a very specific look. We wanted her to look theatrical and colourful and fun.”

And the hair helped portray her personality: “(laughs) Yeah, my Brian May hair. It was my own hair with extensions and then we’d curl it every morning. It would take a good two hours to curl it all. It just gave her this kind of big, big look. You just wanted people to go ‘woah! Who is this person?”

Jo Joyner in Stay Close Netflix

Balancing suspense and humour within the story

Stay Close is a crime-thriller at its core, but it’s also punctuated with wonderful moments of humour between characters. Police partners (and ex-couple) Broome and Cartwright brilliantly bounce off each other with some comedic quips. But how difficult is it walk that line between serious suspense and light-hearted moments?

Jo Joyner, who plays Erin Cartwright, explains: “She needs to ground him (Broome) and be more logical and practical, and that’s the dynamic and it works for them as detectives.

“But if you just play that as a character there’s a danger of her just being a nag and you don’t want to hear that. So the humour and finding those elements and that sarcasm is really important.”

Barbie (Poppy Gilbert) and Ken (Hyoie O’Grady) also add a huge slice of leftfield quirkiness to the narrative too, characters that Izzard describes as bringing a “wonderfully otherworldly childlike violence” to the show. Adding “I love those characters, they’re completely scary.”

James Nesbitt in Stay Close Netflix

Harlan on seeing the book brought to life on screen

So with a great cast and location, was the final production of the series what was envisioned when Coben wrote the book?

He explains: “No, it never is and it shouldn’t be. I’m fairly collaborative, maybe because I can be a dictator with my novels. Then when I’m working with actors I really enjoy the collaborative experience.

“When Richard calls, or Cush or Sarah, or Jimmy or anybody… if they said 'can we bring this in' or 'can we do that…', if I don’t like an idea I’ll tell them, but most of the ideas were like ‘damn, I wish I’d thought of that for the book’.

“That’s the beauty of the collaborative relationship between the writer and the actor and the director. In some ways it comes out better than I anticipated, but never exactly as I see it.

"There’s a lot of moments that even I got really emotional, especially in the final episode. Probably as emotional that I’ve got in any show I’ve ever done."

Watch Stay Close on Netflix from 31 December 2021