The investment banking graduate scheme: for some, the stuff of dreams – for others, the stuff of nightmares.
As maligned as it is coveted, it’s a job with highs and lows that echo the financial boom and bust of 2008. And it’s now the subject of a new HBO series, Industry, which airs on BBC 2 in November.
“Sometimes it’s a little... unsavoury,” says Harry Lawtey, his considered choice of word to describe some of the antics in his new series, duly prompting my curiosity when we meet on a wet September day. The young British actor continues: “The show doesn’t shy away from either side, is what’s fair to say. It certainly doesn’t necessarily glamorise the lifestyle.”
“Either side” is a nod to the two prevailing conceptions of the investment banking graduate internship: one that’s extremely competitive and stressful, but one that opens doors to a world of money and glamour. The “unsavoury” parts? Well, we’ll get to that later.
“Industry follows four uni grads going into this hostile, sometimes scary, sometimes fun and exciting environment and looks at the way they deal with each other and deal with that. They’re working out who they want to be in this changing landscape.”
It is, essentially, a modern take on the classic coming-of-age story. We all remember our first job out of uni, whether it was in banking or not – it’s a difficult time that’s equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, and you haven’t quite worked out how to balance it all yet. You’re still very much trying to find your place in the world, and you’re carving out your life, often in a new city.
And, for the characters in Industry, they’re thrown into a particularly intense environment and, for many of them, are earning their own money for the first time. It’s a story that will seem all too familiar to many of our readers.
“My character is called Robert. He’s interesting. He’s very confident, he’s kind of brash and a little bit cocky, or you might think he is at first. Really at heart, I suppose, he’s a lost boy and he wants to impress people and wants to be liked,” Lawtey muses.
“I think Robert makes a few poor choices here and there, he maybe looks for validation in the wrong people. And he’s got a bit of chequered past, which I think might come to life at different points. He’s a fairly down to earth guy who wants to get along and wants to have fun and really live his life. Which can lend itself well to a job in investment banking as long as you find that line – and I think he struggles to find it.”
In the trailer, we see Robert on both the trading floor and the dancefloor, his hair coiffed, his smile self-assured. “He’s a real hell-raiser and will never say no to anything,” is Lawtey’s description of him.
When Lawtey and I meet, he’s fresh from our photoshoot on the grassy expanse of Clapham Common. He tells me how the photographer asked him to roll around in the leaves and play with passing dogs – miles away from Lawtey’s Instagram, which is heavy on the pouts and stylised shots. My initial conclusion is he seems cut from an entirely different cloth to Robert.
“When I told some of my mates about the things I get up to in the show, they thought it was hilarious. I mean, I’m not dull! But I’m reasonably straight-laced in comparison to Robert so they thought it was hilarious that I was getting up to some of these shenanigans.” Unfortunately Lawtey doesn’t share any specifics – all I can draw out of him is a coy “I think some of these things are best left unsaid.”
This is among Lawtey’s first major lead roles. Only two years out of acting school, he’s been in ITV’s Marcella; crime drama City of Tiny Lights; and if you look closely you’ll even spot him in Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows. It strikes me that there is a similarity between Lawtey and Robert after all: both are incredibly driven.
Lawtey tells me about his time at a notoriously rigorous acting school Drama Centre – “it’s also called Trauma Centre; it’s where Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender went” – where lessons were 12 hours a day, six days a week. “I imagine people think, “How hard can it be, pretending to be a tree?” but you know, it was tiring. A good 70% of that time was spent being a tree, but you should see my tree now, it’s unbelievable.”
Lawtey points out the parallels between acting and banking. “It was rigorous and exhausting, and I imagine in terms of what’s required of you by superiors or by teachers, it’s not a million miles away. If anything, it reminds you that if there’s something you really want, you’ll put yourself through it and hope that there’s something at the end to make it worthwhile.”
“They’re both high competition, high risk and high reward. If you make it through that crowd of people, hopefully there’s something there for you. I know I’m doing something that makes me really happy. And we’re all doing something fun that hopefully other people will enjoy.”
The other similarity he mentions is people’s perceptions of both professions, saying “there are plenty of people who think actors are wankers as well. Most of my friends are actors and like any job you’ve got to judge them on face value when you meet them and not judge a book by its cover.”
Lawtey clearly has a huge amount of respect for the banking world. “Banking keeps our society ticking along ; they’re furtively always doing that into the early hours of the morning. You’ve got to take your hat off to them to an extent because it’s a real lifestyle choice. Certainly for the people in the industry that I met, we had a few talks when we were doing research – HBO rearranged some chats with people who worked for Bloomberg and within banking to give us a bit of a rundown – I am yet to meet somebody I didn’t like.”
Lawtey based a large part of his character on stories he’s heard from a friend who’s on a banking graduate scheme. But even then, it seems some aspects of this role pushed him a little bit further out of his comfort zone than he initially thought. “There were one or two scenes or scenarios that I found myself in and I took one of the writers aside and said, ‘Did this actually happen?’ and they were like... ‘Yeah, it did.’”
Industry’s plot is entirely based on personal experience. The show was written by Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, two former investment bankers themselves. “We were super lucky. They worked in this field and that’s their entire inspiration for this project, from their own lived experience. Whenever there was some jargon that we struggled with, or understanding the context or the stakes of something, they were always there on set and we could go and work it out with them and they could tell us.”
“They’re probably early thirties, late twenties and so it’s not even in the too distant past for them; it’s all very real to them. They’ve written a show as close as they feel as possible that reflects the industry as it stands today.”
At a time when the banking industry is increasingly coming under scrutiny, a series like this certainly makes for interesting viewing. The death in 2013 of 21-year-old Moritz Erhardt while completing an internship at Bank of America Merrill Lynch highlighted the exhausting hours (although Erhardt also had underlying health issues) and taxing lifestyle, yet it’s still considered one of the most highly sought-after graduate jobs out there. Not to mention that the series is set in 2018, a decade after the financial crash, and shows an industry that’s still trying to reshape itself.
Does it make the banking graduate programme look appealing? “I think it depends who’s watching it,” says Lawtey. “It shows in many ways that it’s unhealthy and can be abusive and can be…” He pauses. “Not good for you. But it also doesn’t shy away from showing that it can be a bit of fun and it can be exhilarating and addictive. And so it depends what you find appealing. I think there are some people who’ll be watching and think, ‘God, that’s not for me’, and some people who will think, ‘Yeah, I can see myself doing that’. So a bit of both.”
It strikes me that two ex-bankers who left the banking industry to then write a show about banking feels strange. While it’s not unusual for bankers to tap out at some stage in their career and take their experience to set up their own business – just look at the Escape Artist column in this magazine – I wonder about their intentions, and whether they want to encourage or dissuade young people from following this career path.
So far, so intriguing. Adding to Industry’s cool factor is the addition of Lena Dunham as an executive producer. It makes for an unusual choice for Dunham, who shot to fame for her acclaimed show Girls, which she both wrote and starred in, about a group of female friends in New York. Much like Industry, it’s about coming of age in a big city, but after that the similarities seem minor.
“Lena directed our first episode. It was fantastic, really great. And as far as I know she played a fairly big role in terms of casting, so I’ve got a lot to be grateful for to her,” Lawtey says.
“In terms of working with her, she’s fantastic. She’s a real life force and she really reaches every corner of a set. And we had really big sets. One of the sets of the show was a big trading floor that was built for the show [pictured]. It’s a huge space. If you were plonked in the middle you’d have no idea that you were on a set.
“She’s an actor herself so she really understands how actors work. And a writer as well and so she believes in giving actors a lot of freedom to be flexible around the writing, around the work. And gives them a lot of licence to be creative, which as an actor is just gold dust.”
And how does Lawtey feel about a job in banking? “I don’t think anyone who ends up becoming an actor ever envisages themselves in an office. I wouldn’t know where to start. I’m fascinated by it, and even more so by doing the show. It’s a high-stakes job and these people live a different life to us in terms of the hours, the rigour and the high-octane lifestyle. You’ve got to love it and you’ve got to thrive off it.”
He might not be as hell-raising as Robert, but with drive and dedication, I suspect Lawtey would make a decent banker after all.
'Industry' airs from 10 November on BBC 2 at 9.30pm.