Tom Hughes discusses Shepherd, The Laureate, finding the rhythm of his characters, being a Ben Whishaw fan, and his fascination with the human condition.
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If presented with the IMDb credits of Tom Hughes, chances are, you’ll go, “Oh, I loved him in that!” in response to at least one of his roles. Recognizing him from part to part — despite his coverboy good looks — may be a challenge because he’s a real character actor who changes his physicality and movements, and his accent, too. This year, Hughes has headlined two films which had their world premiere in the fall: Shepherd (at the London Film Festival, now in UK cinemas), in which he plays a man alone on an eerie Irish island, slowly going mad with grief; and The Laureate (at the Mallorca Film Festival, still seeking distribution), in which he plays WWI poet Robert Graves (friend to Siegfried Sassoon, who appears in the film) in the PTSD-ridden years after the war.
Hughes first burst onto the film scene in 2010 with a supporting turn as Bruce in Cemetery Junction — alongside Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, and Emily Watson — in which he regularly stole the show. As played by Hughes, Bruce is a suave womanizer with a penchant for picking bar fights; he steadfastly avoids dealing with the trauma of being abandoned by his mother as a child, after which he was cared for by his now disabled father. It’s a role that lets Hughes do what he does best: find a rhythm for a character, offer enormous charisma, and pepper in moments of great vulnerability and insecurity. After spending the film moving quickly, fluidly, and confidently in his stride, he gets a bit of news that completely transforms his worldview, and we see him physically stumble — his movements are jerky, less smooth, like he has to force himself to keep moving forward. The scene that follows will break your heart.
Cemetery Junction should have been the role that launched him into stardom; the always prescient British Independent Film Awards nominated him as “Most Promising Performer” that year. It didn’t translate into instant stardom, but it did lead to a series of complex supporting roles, mostly on television. I first took notice of his work in 2012 as the Duke of Aumerle — one of the beautiful boys in Richard II’s harem — in Rupert Goold’s Richard II. It’s a part that, most of the time, would go unnoticed, even though he’s key to the plot and Richard’s character: he goes from Richard’s innermost circle to being pushed into betraying him.
At this point, Hughes is probably most famous for playing Prince Albert, husband to England’s Queen Victoria, in Victoria (2016–2019). Unlike the forever punchable Prince Phillip on The Crown, Albert is the perpetually supportive husband, who learns to live in his wife’s shadow but also to prop her up without throwing a temper tantrum every five minutes. Much like Bruce in Cemetery Junction, Hughes’s Albert is charming if somewhat awkward; his movements often seem to mirror the billowing, long blazers of the day. A big part of what Hughes brings to the role are quiet moments of uncertainty, in which he reveals himself to the camera if not yet the other characters. You might assume he’s posh based on his famous princely role and RADA education, but he’s one of the few British actors who can legitimately claim to not be posh.
Hughes is a shapeshifter and hard to pin down: his abusive boyfriends are never just abusive boyfriends, and his romantic leads are never just swoon-worthy blank slates. In About Time (2013), he played the abusive boyfriend that Domnhall Gleeson’s character wishes his little sister had never met. A few years later, in Paula (2017), he’s another abusive husband (and father), who can be charming, but is prone to anger and sympathetic bouts of insecurity, partly to do with his social class. You get why Paula immediately sleeps with him when he shows up at her home as a builder, and you’re genuinely shocked, if not that shocked, to discover how sinister his behaviour can get. In a small part in Dancing on the Edge (2013), he seems like the sweetest, if posh, young man, but he can’t control his anger and is easily seduced by the promise of power.
Likewise, Hughes’s more romantic leads have never been easily pinned down. Even the “romantic adventure” Dare to Be Wild (2015), in which he shows up primarily to entice the lead with his beauty, take off his shirt, make a lot of clinking noises with all of the necklaces he wears, and say vague things about gardens. The film is structured like their romance is going to be the centrepiece, but he neither plays a great seducer nor a great lover: he keeps his distance, waiting for her to make the first move. Similarly, Prince Albert is, by nature, a romantic character: his entire role in the British royal family is because he married the Queen, and in a time when all other wives were meant to defer to their husbands, he defers to his wife.
In The Laureate, Hughes stars as WWII poet Robert Graves, a man also in a seemingly modern marriage — for the 1910s, at least — whose marriage opens up to involve a third person because caring for him in his PTSD state (in addition to their child) proves too much for his wife. Much like Vita & Virginia, the film depicts several surprisingly romantic relationships, but at the centre is Graves, a smart and articulate man who is unable to express his own feelings of trauma, which creates fissures in his marriage. Much like in Hughes’s previous roles, there are moments when Graves seems to revert to his childhood self: scared, shivering, traumatised, uncertain how to find comfort.
In Shepherd, Hughes’s Eric is dealing with a different kind of grief: his pregnant wife has died, and he feels he’s to blame. In an act of both self-flagellation and escape, he takes a job on a remote island in Ireland, where he has nobody but his dog — and occasional creepy appearances by Kate Dickie for supplies — for company, and his sanity starts to unwind. It’s a physically demanding part, in which Hughes, once again, goes to scary, vulnerable emotional places that many actors never quite reach — this time, in a genre film context.
After the world premiere of The Laureate at the Mallorca Film Festival, I sat down with Hughes to talk about his two recent films, his approach to acting, his Ben Whishaw fandom, and how he’s constantly working to learn and improve as an actor.
Seventh Row (7R): What got you interested in the part of Robert Graves and the story of The Laureate?
Tom Hughes: I met William Nunes, the writer and director, a long time ago. I was not long starting out in my career, and I went to meet him about another part. I just always remembered the project [The Laureate]. There was a fascinating exploration of what it is to be an artist, but also to meet this man at a point where he’s kind of lost himself and is trying to reach for himself.
I was aware of the project for a long time, and then, William reached back out a few years later, and asked, would I maybe think about playing Robert? At that point, I was excited to delve into that character, because he was the thing within the story that I was most drawn to. Robert Graves, as a person, was fascinating. There’s no denying the impact that he’s had with his literature and its influence on so many people. Spike Milligan, for example, that acerbic wit, the Mercurial geniuses. John Lennon, even, was so inspired by Spike Milligan. I felt like a lot of that spark was in Robert. I was drawn to trying to find that.
But most importantly, [I was drawn to] finding that within him a moment where he’s lost that spark. That felt like an interesting challenge as an actor. I was attracted to the idea of playing such an interesting bloke, a conflicted bloke, a guy who not only has this very important place in artistic history, but also is a fascinating walking contradiction of many incredible parts.
7R: What was your process for figuring that out?
Tom Hughes: Initially, to delve into his work, to try and find out who he is, what he is with his wings the most expanded, to try and really draw down on that and see where that came from. I thought it was really important to place him in a very human context outside of the artistry within him. [I wanted to explore] the significance of the impact of the war on him and how that affected the animal that he was.
I spoke to some guys that have struggled with PTSD, which I think Robert most definitely did. I tried to really listen to that, and in turn, understand how that can impact the body, to try to find how that would inform and hinder and reflect and be part of the whole that is him.
7R: You were saying that you were thinking about how the PTSD would affect his body. How did you work out how that would be embodied through his physicality?
Tom Hughes: One has to remember that he is a product of his time. The gentlemen that I was looking at, who gave me their time, who have struggled with [PTSD], and who were ex-servicemen themselves — [they now] live in a different time in terms of communication and the ability to talk about what one is going through.
That was quite informative. I took what they saw, and how it would impact them on a daily basis, in [the present day], and how that would manifest itself within them, physically and emotionally. But I also felt that it was also necessary to show that Robert wouldn’t have necessarily been able to talk about what he was going through. There was a degree of stiff upper lip around that time.
But also, I’m not sure that he would have had the vocabulary to share that. And that in itself, is a very important thing to note for someone like Robert, who has such freedom of vocabulary. I felt that kind of chain he would have felt, it was like he was locked [up] within. For someone who finds communication so easy, to perhaps not be able to communicate what he’s going through is a contradiction.
It was [about] trying to take the things that the guys shared with me, which they were very vulnerable, kind, and trusting to do so, and then put that within the period and the time and the outer constricts and effect of society, at that time.
This guy [Robert Graves], who has a flamboyance within him, a freedom, a wit, fervor, an extreme humour — when we meet him, he is kind of locked up and trapped for a multitude of reasons. I was trying to make that feel like it was rooted in something that would have been honest, on some level, to what someone may have gone through at that time.
7R: You’re talking about how we can look at these characters from a modern perspective and then how you translate that into a period performance. That seems of a piece with what you’ve done as Prince Albert on Victoria. The show has these modern ideas about marriage and his character, but of course, he’s also constrained by the time.
Tom Hughes: Exactly, and I actually think that great stories — and please don’t for one second think I’m necessarily comparing Victoria or The Laureate to Shakespeare here, because that would be ridiculous. But like Shakespeare, the reason why it’s still relevant, and it still resonates, and it still matters to people, is because the human condition doesn’t really change. What changes is the surroundings that we find ourselves in and how that is reflected back to us by society and what society allows. Society should constantly be shifting and evolving and trying to get better.
Therefore, there are things that are incredibly relevant, incredibly connected, between a nineteen-year-old man’s, like Albert’s, experience in the 1800s, or Robert’s experience post-war as a mid-twenties man, or equally, perhaps, Hamlet’s experience or Romeo’s experience, or whatever it may be. The human condition is the thing that links them all. I’m often drawn to that element in characters.
When I was growing up, I didn’t necessarily watch a ton of movies. I didn’t come to acting necessarily wishing to be in movies. I came to acting [through] finding people inherently fascinating, and trying to take the opportunity that films allow to shine a light on those elements of our nature, elements of life, that life kind of dictates that we have to just sweep under the carpet. Those questions, those battles, those wins, those joys, those incredible emotions, they’re transient. They’re in everything. I don’t think they’ve necessarily shifted.
7R: There’s been a lot of stories told recently about World War I (e.g., 1917, Journey’s End) and WWI poets (Benediction, The Laureate) . You’ve done quite a lot of period drama, from Richard II to Victoria to Red Joan to The Laureate. Is there something, to you, that’s interesting about looking to the past in order to reflect on it?
Tom Hughes: Definitely, but also to project the future, as well. It’s a fine balance, isn’t it, between thinking and analysing and questioning and learning from what we’ve done, as individuals, and trying to improve and get better. But also, as a society, you equally have to keep looking to the future. Otherwise, all you’re doing is focusing on the negative things.
I’m interested in human beings, in the animals that we are, in the human condition. And it’s just as informative and illuminating to me to look at a nineteen-year-old man, to use the example [of Prince Albert that] you mentioned, where he’s the only man in the world that knows what that felt like, at that time. He was nineteen years old when he arrived in England. Victoria herself is going through something that she’s the only one who knows what it feels like. Their experiences are very, very singular. And his is very different to hers. And hers is very different to his. And yet they’re the only two that have each other.
It’s a bit like being in the Beatles: the only people who know what it was like to be in The Beatles are The Beatles. The only one who knows what it was like to be Elvis Presley is Elvis Presley. And I think that’s why John Lennon had such a desire to meet Elvis Presley, to tell him how he feels.
You can get enamoured or drawn to the special element of being in The Beatles. But what is fascinating is going, what does that feel like, as a human? It’s almost like you take a microscope to the human condition. And yes, that’s John Lennon’s version of that experience, or whoever it may be — Albert’s version, Robert Graves’s version. But actually, there’s an animal in there, just trying to do their best. In those high stakes, that very extreme circumstance, you learn a lot. If you get it right, if you get the story right, anyone can find something in that.
The thing about the war poets is, I think it was an incredibly unique moment. These were the guys who were perhaps the most equipped — in terms of their personality, who they were, what they were drawn to, what their experiences were — to try and express and vocalise and communicate something that was just beyond anyone’s comprehension. Because of the industrial revolution, because of where things were at, there was a direct impact on warfare and weaponry. It was the war to end all wars. It was a war like no other war had been.
I think the war poets were kind of the only guys equipped to try and find a way to express what, broadly, people were feeling at a time when perhaps society wasn’t ready to hear that. There’s a degree of extreme bravery in actually trying to put pen to paper and express those feelings. Even if it’s abstract, it gives a voice to it, which I’m not sure society was actively looking to hear.
7R: Since you did bring up Shakespeare, I wanted to ask you about your experience in Richard II because you played Aumerle in the Hollow Crown film of Richard II, directed by Rupert Goold, very early in your career. I really loved your performance in that. Aumerle is an important character who can get sidelined in so many productions.
Tom Hughes: I do think Shakespeare’s got so much to say about life. I think that’s why it’s lasted the test of time, like, great poetry does, as well. If it’s got honesty, it’s gonna last; it’s still relevant. Like you said, Aumerle is a character that can get overlooked. I think there is a real significance to him. I liked Rupert’s take on it. I liked Rupert’s take on what Aumerle meant to Richard and vice versa.
I think if I’m really honest, fundamentally, I’m the biggest Ben Whishaw fan. So for me, it was like, I get to watch him act. It was early in my career, and just to be in that room… I remember there was a day where we were filming in a church somewhere in South Wales. It was the scene with the crown where the crown gets passed between Bolingbroke and Richard. [It was] Rory Kinnear and Ben Whishaw, with myself, Dave Morrissey, Patrick Stewart, and David Suchet. There’s all these actors sitting around watching the scene play out. It was a masterclass between two of the very best stage actors of their generation. They’re only a few years older than me, Rory and Ben. As an experience to learn, it was quite incredible. And being the fan of Ben Whishaw that I am, getting to act with him and bounce off him and learn from him was incredible.
I felt that there was a real sensitivity, and Rupert’s understanding of Aumerle gave me a freedom to reach out into that. So that job was a gift early on. I feel very fortunate to have gone through that experience.
7R: What did you get from Rupert?
Tom Hughes: It wasn’t really an active choice, but I seem to have worked with a lot of writer-directors. That’s not something I’ve necessarily set out to do. One of my very first film roles, which was massive for me, Cemetery Junction, was written and directed by Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais. David Hare, not long after that, wrote and directed the first independent film I did [Page Eight].
Rupert being a fantastic theatre director, it was quite incredible to see the forensic detail with which he was able to dissect Shakespeare, with that not being his script. That level of detail was fascinating. If someone’s written it, you get this forensic detail, because they’ve created it. But actually, for him to be able to take Shakespeare and understand it in that way and dissect it in that way and guide the actors in the way that he did… I just got so much from him. He could see layers in the story.
7R: What are your thoughts about costume and how important that is for getting into character?
Tom Hughes: Have you asked many actors that question?
7R: Yes, I have.
Tom Hughes: What do they usually say? I’m genuinely intrigued. It’s not going to shape my answer. I know what my answer is.
7R: A lot of people say the shoes are important because it affects entirely how you walk and the body. Most people say the character doesn’t totally click with them until they get the costume. Occasionally, some are more like, yes, the costume is important, but I’ve already figured out the character by then.
Tom Hughes: Yeah, yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? When I was growing up, if I was a fanatical fan of anything, it was music. I’ve played music since a very young age, and so the rhythm of characters is very important to me. And it’s not necessarily something that I actively know — what a character’s rhythm is. I wouldn’t say that I’m a method [actor]: you don’t have to call me ‘Robert’ when I’m on set playing Robert Graves. I’ll be fine.
But there’s definitely an element of that moment of shifting. I like to have a line between work and life. I [like] driving to work in the morning, [because] it creates a bit of a distance, and I think it allows you to go to the place that the character is in and then leave that at work, and not take it home with you. That’s important, particularly if you’re playing the more conflicted characters.
When putting on the costume, there’s a degree of stepping into a different kind of rhythm, if nothing else. After that, I’m kind of in the rhythm of the character. I’ve been lucky that I think everyone I’ve worked with has never not been good at their job in costumes. A good costume absolutely helps with all of that.
But for me, it’s just the whole process: you go into a trailer, and I leave everything in there. I don’t want to have loads of things on me — I don’t want my keys in my back pocket when I’m playing the character. I try and leave me in the trailer, and take as much of the other person’s rhythm with me. So I do walk differently, and the costume definitely plays a part in that.
7R: How do you figure out the rhythm for a character? What does that mean to you?
Tom Hughes: Usually, it kind of happens without me really knowing. I don’t have a technique that is prescribed; I think it can change for different parts. But I’m definitely more of the Michael Chekhov school of acting than the Stanislavski school of acting. I’m not really one that searches for the moment that I felt pain in my life, remember that, and that will inform it. That works for some. Michael Chekhov, who was a contemporary of Stanislavski, spoke about the physical gesture being a gateway to a character, and to me, that definitely exists.
I’m not a smoker. But on Cemetery Junction, for example, the character was a smoker. I don’t think I’d realised that that physical gesture was my route into playing that character, to a certain degree. When I came to do the additional dialogue recording for it, I couldn’t get my voice there. I was in there for about an hour and a half. It was four months later. The accent was right, but it didn’t sound right. It didn’t sound like the guy.
It was only then that I realised that I don’t have that thing. I went and bought a pack of fags and put one in my mouth, and did it with a cigarette — it’s not lit, I’m in a studio. But just that physical thing, that was a part of it. You find those things. Once it feels right, you trust that rhythm. It’s not necessarily a case of going, this guy walks in a certain way. It’s not necessarily as prescribed as that. But the rhythm of those characters, you find it subconsciously, or find it instinctively.
7R: What is your relationship like with the cinematographer? Some actors really perform for the camera, and others try and pretend it isn’t there. I imagine with something like Shepherd, where it’s mostly you alone on an island, the camera is the other actor.
Tom Hughes: Shepherd is a very unique case, because aside from Shuggy, the dog, Baxter in the story, and the few days when Kate Dickie or Greta [Scacchi] or Gaia [Weiss] was on set, there was no one to bounce stuff off of in that respect. There was myself and Russell [Owen[, the director, and Stoddy, Richard Stoddard, the DoP. It was always about finding that relationship between us. And it was tricky. That was a particularly hard shoot. We’re on the side of a mountain in February, on an island with the wind bashing against you all day. It was a tough shoot. That shorthand that you need to build, we had to build quickly. And also, I was trying to immerse myself in it.
Stoddy and Stoddy’s team were fantastic with me. They trusted me from day one. When you find a way of working where you realize that you know the other person is going to be where you’re expecting them, the communication between the actor and the camera becomes kind of a subconscious. You know that those moments of vulnerability are going to be caught, if you can find them. That’s really important; that’s important in all performances.
But I would say that I think I do my best work if I’m not aware of that. It’s not my job to be aware of the camera. I’m not someone who’s trying to think too much about how something’s been caught. As long as you’re working with people you trust, my job is to get us there, and just try to live in my own world. With Stoddy, I was able to get there very quickly. I think that the best cinematographers always make you feel like they’re going to catch you. They’ll do that for you. You don’t have to worry about it.
When I started acting, I didn’t know what I was doing. It was all very new, but you get used to a camera being there. For a little period, very early in my career, I kind of over-thought it. You become aware of that camera, and you learn how to do certain things technically, and realise that perhaps that’s that’s slightly taking your performance down a route that is no longer surprising. It’s not always easy to achieve. It’s not always possible to get. But for me, the best things that you can capture in a performance and on screen are the things you can’t possibly have predicted. They just happen. And that’s where the magic is.
7R: A lot of my favourite moments in your performances are often these quiet moments where either other people don’t see how you’re reacting, or you’re alone, and there’s this moment of vulnerability. Do you need to feel safe in the hands of the cinematographer to achieve that? Or is there something else?
Tom Hughes: It’s an interesting question. I don’t think it’s necessarily to feel emotionally safe. Fundamentally, I guess, if one overthought acting, one could see it might be an emotionally vulnerable position to be in. But I don’t see it like that because it’s not really about me at that moment. I’m fascinated by Eric’s situation, but I’m on the Isle of Mull having a great time. After work, it’s fine. Mull is lovely. So I leave me at the door and get into Eric’s rhythm, Eric’s vibe, and try to be honest and portray where I instinctively feel Eric could be.
So therefore, Eric’s vulnerability that I’m trying to communicate in that moment is less about feeling safe in that environment with those people. Obviously, that matters. But I’ve always been lucky to work with people who are just professional and great at their job, and really respectful and so, therefore, it’s never really been part of it. I guess it’s more to do with knowing that you have a kind of artistic dialogue between you, even if that doesn’t need to be vocalised.You know that the instant there’s a change of breath, or if there’s a thought that happens, or you discover something, then that person’s with you, and your communication is shared. There’s no point in me realising the key to this character in a corner with the camera facing the other way.
7R: What do you look for in a director, as an actor? What kind of direction do you find helpful?
Tom Hughes: Someone who’s gonna challenge me. I’ve got so much still to learn. I want to get better at this. I want to keep pushing myself. By getting better, you’re able to tell stories in a way that can resonate more. You can take audiences down routes that can be more challenging, but also more fulfilling.
I want to improve. The way that you improve and you get better and you learn, is to put yourself alongside people who are going to push you, be that [directors, or] other actors that are going to challenge you. Being in a room looking at Ben Whishaw, or whomever it may be, that’s how you learn.
And so for directors, I want people that are going to push me and take me to places I’ve not been. In order to do that, you need honesty, brutal honesty, from directors. I think that’s where great art lies anyway. That’s the way to it. We’re all mining for that, ultimately, in storytelling.
There’s also an element that I’ve noticed, through working with a lot of writer-directors: they’ve created this world, this character. So you kind of get given a pen which you can’t break out of, because if you break out of it, you can affect the structure of the overall piece. But within that pen, you’re free to do whatever you want. There’s a freedom to trust that if something goes against the grain, if something is surprising and if something is maladroit, even, as long as it’s within the structure of the piece — I find that I’ve been lucky enough to work with directors where that’s often celebrated.
7R: How important is the accent to you for finding the character’s rhythm? Is it useful? Or is it just sort of a technical thing?
Tom Hughes: It’s no more important than anything else. I know, some people say it’s useful for them; and it’s not not useful. My accent, naturally, where I’m from, in the UK, is slightly nonspecific. I’m close to Liverpool, but I’m not a Scouser. I’m close to Manchester, but I’m not Mancunian. I’m close to North Wales, but I’m not from North Wales. So it’s going to be very, very rare that I get someone who desires that I use my actual accent. There’s always been a degree, professionally, as an actor, of necessity to be specific with my accent. It’s had to shift. Even if it’s an imperceptible shift, it’s had to shift for every character I’ve played. I guess it’s a bit like puting the costume on, in a way. It’s another part of getting into that rhythm. It’s not 100% of it, but it helps with it.
I think the danger of anything more than that, for me, would be that, perhaps then it becomes about the accent. And actually, that would mean I wasn’t doing my job. I try to get it as subconscious and as effortless as I can so that it just becomes part of that foundation, part of that structure [of the] character. And then, my job is to just be in the moment. I’m flesh on that skeleton.
7R: What are you looking for in parts going forward?
Tom Hughes: I don’t really have a preference in terms of any medium, if I’m honest. I want to work with directors that are going to push me. I want to work alongside actors that are better than me, that are going to challenge me and make me a better actor. And then, I want to choose scripts that resonate, and that I think, hopefully, will resonate with other people. All of those things are obvious.
I was drawn to this [profession] because I’m drawn to humans. I find us eternally fascinating. And the more skill [I possess], the better I can get at expressing that and conveying that, and the more interesting material I get to work on. [I want] to shine a light on the things we don’t always get a chance to talk about in normal life. That’s what drew me to The Laureate in many ways. It’s the same with Shepherd. Yes, it’s within that broad genre of horror, but [it’s also] delving into the human condition. It’s about understanding what it means to be human. I think that’s always what draws me to a project.
I just want to keep trying to find stories that resonate with me and then work with people that are going to make me better and challenge me. Got a lot to learn, for sure.
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