When A Call to Spy was released in the United Kingdom, a positive review in The Guardian praised the film’s “meticulous depiction of female wartime agents … and the considerable effort that has clearly gone into re-creating period interiors and ephemera.”
Locals know better. “Funny how they believe the interiors were re-created,” says Joanie Mackie, a family liaison for Villanova’s Ardrossan estate.
For the first time ever, the iconic home of the family that inspired 1940’s The Philadelphia Story became an actual movie set. “We used every single room on the first floor,” says Main Line native Sarah Megan Thomas of the 10-day shoot in Spring 2018. “Every room was France, London and Scotland.”
Thomas produced A Call to Spy and wrote its screenplay. She also plays a lead role in the low-budget fact-based historical drama, which took four years to complete. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher, the film has received generally favorable reviews and is now available on various streaming services. It’s based on one of the more remarkable true stories to come out of in the early stages of World War II. With Britain and the Allies becoming increasingly desperate, Winston Churchill spearheaded the Secret Operations Executive to recruit and train women as spies. Their mission: to conduct sabotage and build a resistance.
Spymistress Vera Atkins (played by Stana Katic) recruits Muslim pacifist Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte) and Virginia Hall (Thomas’ character). An ambitious American with a wooden leg, Hall became the first woman to work for the CIA after the war. Along with 36 other women, all three helped undermine the Nazi regime in France.
Thomas was drawn to the women for their strength of conviction in the face of discrimination, whether it was Hall’s disability, Khan’s Indian heritage or Atkins’ feared deportation as a Romanian Jew. “These women united to defend human dignity,” says Thomas. “I wanted to explore how individuals from different nationalities and backgrounds came together to resist evil—a theme that’s become even more relevant.”
A Call to Spy was shot internationally, but Thomas also scoured Philadelphia in search of appropriate settings (and to keep costs down). While she was searching, her mother, Regina Thomas, saw a copy of David Nelson Wren’s Ardrossan: The Last Great Estate on the Philadelphia Main Line at a Chanticleer Garden board meeting. It also helped that Mom knew Mackie. “With all the cameras, the cables and everything, only one thing was broken [at Ardrossan]—the top of a globe light. The next day, it was replaced,” Mackie says. “Everyone took such amazing care and was so respectful.”
This year, if possible, there’s talk of Ardrossan hosting a party and movie showing. “It’d be fun,” Mackie says.
But there are no plans for Ardrossan to become a regular movie set. “I don’t think it’s something we’d do often, but we felt safe doing it with Sarah,” says Mackie, who appears in the film as an extra in a London party scene. “And it was good for the house.”
The screenplay for A Call to Spy draws on government files and interviews with living relatives. Speaking with Hall’s survivors helped Thomas grasp the character’s stoic tenacity. Her favorite Hall quote: “My neck is my own. If I am willing to get a crick in it, I think that’s my prerogative.”
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A Call to Spy made its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on the 75th commemoration of D-Day. For its Canadian debut at the Whistler Film Festival, it won the Audience Choice Award and earned the EDA Award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Here in the United States, it snagged the Anti-Defamation League’s Stand Up Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Thomas’ SMT Pictures is focused on bringing to light untold stories about complex women. Her female-driven Wall Street thriller, Equity, premiered in 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival. It was purchased by Sony Pictures Classics, and the New York Times made it a critic’s pick upon its theatrical release. Four years earlier, Thomas had starred opposite James Van Der Beek (Dawson’s Creek fame) in the rowing-inspired romance Backwards.
A drama major and graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts, Thomas is a product of Gladwyne Elementary and the Shipley School. Her parents remain in Haverford, a place she calls “my Hamptons” when she commutes from New York City. Thomas and husband Jason Donehue have been searching for a home in Philadelphia—Society Hill, in particular. They want more space for Madison, who was born two months premature this past summer, and her 7-year-old brother, Christopher. Both use Dad’s last name. “My heart’s here, but my job isn’t,” says Thomas. “We’ll see where life takes us. Maybe I can become the female M. Night Shyamalan and live here.”
Growing up, Thomas had the benefit of supportive parents, both lawyers who taught her how to write. It’s also likely they thought she’d get over her arts kick. “They continued to indulge, but no one wishes this line of work on any child,” she says.
Thomas’s character in A Call to Spy was raised in a wealthy Baltimore family, losing her leg in a hunting accident at age 27. Various “contraptions” were anchored to the actress’s left leg for the role. Prior to going on set, Thomas would strap on the latest version and listen to Churchill’s wartime speeches. “It’s how I hooked in,” she says. “I practiced her limp all the time. For months, I didn’t use my left leg and didn’t know how it had atrophied.”
While flying to England for filming, Thomas developed a pulmonary blood clot in the “prosthesis” leg and spent four months recovering in a London hospital. She was in a wheelchair for the film’s premiere. “Everyone was looking down at me,” she says. “Virginia Hall dealt with that kind of everyday discrimination in the 1940s, overcame it, and became what the Nazis called one of the most powerful women of all time. Things happen for a reason, and it’s all given me even more respect for her.”
As for Ardrossan, Thomas knew nothing about it until her mother shared Wren’s book. “I said, ‘Mom, make it happen,’” she recalls. “If not for Ardrossan, we couldn’t have made the film. There was such generosity on such a large scale.”