Thomas Coombes is a British actor best known for his portrayal of Goz in the RTS award-winning, and BAFTA nominated show, Save Me. He has, however, more than 50 on-screen credits including: Hatton Garden, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, Jekyll and Hyde and Knightfall. During our in-depth conversation we talked about his childhood in Essex, becoming an actor, his career and much more besides.
DB: You were born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex. Could you describe your childhood growing up there?
TC: I grew up specifically in Leigh (Leigh-on-Sea) and I miss it actually because I only actually moved to London, officially, last year. It was nice. I loved growing up by the sea and I miss it when I’m away for any period of time, really. When I go back, I get off the train… and [I can smell] the sea air, I love that difference straight away. I enjoyed school but not too much, I wasn’t massively academic. I went to school at Deanes – which is in Thundersley – and then SEEVIC (South East Essex Sixth Form College) to do my A levels. One of the subjects I was alright in was English, I got all As across the board in them [Literature and Language] and drama, but Maths wasn’t my subject… I don’t get it. Some people can ace it all, and it all comes to them easily, but I think there’s this thing, I can’t remember the name of it but it’s like dyslexia with numbers [dyscalculia], I think I’ve got that!
DB: Do you find things like phone numbers and house numbers are hard to remember?
TC: Yeah, yeah. When explaining and remembering and when you’re relaying something, like a phone number, to someone, invariably that’ll be a cock up.
DB: So a happy childhood?
TC: Yeah, definitely. Me, my mum and dad, my brother and it was just really, really nice. We didn’t have loads, it was a working class family. My parents have always been very supportive and nuts – they are definitely nuts but they’re brilliant – whatever we’ve been doing. My brother, we’re always doing completely different things and he’s more academic, he probably takes more after my mum and I take more after my dad; even though my dad doesn’t do anything creatively, in a job sense.
DB: What does your dad do as a job?
TC: He’s like a service man, he repairs windows and doors for a few companies, he’s semi-retired now but he still works freelance here and there. He’s done that all his life, he’s worked with his hands all his life. Mum’s a legal secretary, she’s worked in Leigh Broadway, since she was 18 or something, in a law firm.
She grew up ‘up North’ in Grimsby, in Yorkshire, and my dad did a job up there, they met, she came back down South with him. All my mum’s side of my family are up Cleethorpes/Grimsby way.
DB: Is your dad local, originally?
TC: Yeah, he grew up in Essex, Benfleet, but I think my grandad (his dad), they all came from West Ham way and they came out from there to Essex; a lot of people did of course. It was near West Ham, I forget the bloody name [of the place].
DB: I see you are a Hammers [West Ham Football Club] fan.
TC: Yeah, I was born into it. I think my grandad said the balls used to land in their house from the stadium, they were that close to Upton Park.
DB: Do you ever get to see them play?
TC: Yeah, yeah I go fairly regularly. My brother’s a season ticket holder and now they’re in Stratford and that’s really close to me in Bermondsey, it’s just the Jubilee Line [London Underground line]. When he’s got a spare [ticket] I’ll have his spare.
DB: Is he your older or younger brother?
TC: He’s older, three years older.
DB: That middle name of yours, Hamilton, where does that come from?
TC: How did you even know that? I’m surprised you even know that! (Laughs)
DB: I do my research… (both laugh)
TC: Blimey! I’m trying to think where that is out there. That’s fairly interesting actually, it’s on my mum’s side of the family and the first born son in every generation is supposed to have the middle name Hamilton, and it’s gone back donkey’s years, apparently, on my mum’s side, my mum’s mum, up North. Technically my brother should have had it but my dad said, ‘Hamilton, I’m not so keen on that, can we sort of leave it and negotiate?’ So they gave it to me instead, the second one. Ben got away with it (my older brother) he got Edward as a link to my dad’s family, and I got it! I didn’t like it when I was younger, but it’s become more trendy now what with the musical and Lewis Hamilton, you know…
My mum actually was saying about using it as my stage name, instead of Thomas Coombes, she said, ‘Why don’t you do Thomas Hamilton?’ When you enter drama school you pick your stage name – if no one’s got it, and no one had either of my names – but she was like, ‘It might be quite a nice, different name.’ But then the Dunblane killer [the Dunblane school massacre] was Thomas Hamilton as well, I thought that dodgy, so I thought, ‘No,’ when I looked it up, ‘Maybe not.’
DB: You quite liked school and you particularly liked English, did you do Drama at school?
TC: Yes, we did GCSE drama, and the school itself is really encouraging for performing arts. It always had, every term, or even more regularly than that, performance evenings of various sorts, and plays every term- we did Bugsy Malone. Dance was never my bag, we were a group of boys (there were 4 or 5 of us) but we would perform as Take That. We were the first boys, at Deanes, to do a dance evening because it was all girls, no boys, especially in Essex! It was a bit of a risk, but we got away with it. My mate (Mike] dressed up as Lulu, put a ginger wig on, and it could have gone down very badly but it went down alright! We could have got bullied for the rest of eternity, but it was alright. We did it in assembly, and it was actually well received! . They were always really supportive at the school.
I got into drama when I was about 6, in Westcliff (Westcliff-on-Sea). A lady called Maureen Mitchell, she ran this little drama school – she was an actress herself and went to LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) – and she did little drama classes and entered pupils into the Southend Music and Drama Festival. I went along just because my mate was like, ‘I’m doing these drama classes,’ and he was telling me about them and that was it for me. I didn’t know anything about it before then, so that’s kind of where I got the bug really.
DB: Do you find that, because you usually do quite a lot of memorising at that age, in those Speech and Drama performances, that’s been really useful since, when you’re trying to learn lines?
TC: You know, I didn’t think about it, but perhaps it has come in use in later years, learning that sort of stuff from a younger age, but I was never any good at learning the times tables or anything, so what’s that all about?
DB: But you don’t have any problem with lines normally.
TC: No, not with words. I think it is a different part of your brain that you train, and because you have to do it so regularly for meetings, and castings… I’ve got a way of doing it, going over it a few times and usually the random lines are in there relatively quickly. And there’s little tricks that scientifically have been proved, like looking at something before bed while you’re asleep your brain is actually learning it for you, actively putting it away; you wake up in the morning going, ‘I know it about ten times better than I did yesterday.’ That’s literally from having a little read of it before you go to sleep.
DB: What do you tend to do, just read it through loads of times and think about what the character’s thinking?
TC: I mean it’s kind of a balance because generally, it can vary, but on average you have maybe two/three days to prepare (sometimes one day) and the next day you’re literally in there. If I’ve got time I like to go between revising and getting the words down, and also fleshing out and working on the actual character and what they’re thinking, so I’ll come back to learning it in between. It’s not just all about learning the lines, getting them in, because that can become a little robotic or a bit ‘learned’ sounding, and it might lack the freedom or the spontaneity.
Lines should never sound like lines. Somethings it’s easier to do than others, I guess it’s so much about the writing itself. Something you read and you’re like, ‘Ah, I’m not sure…’ Out of someone else’s mouth they might fit, perfectly, but some things you think, ‘I can’t imagine any human being saying them words, for real or naturally.’ Luckily it doesn’t happen often. But it’s quite a rarity when you read something, and it’s so real, and you think, ‘Christ! This is just like it’s a dictaphone recording of a conversation in a café,’ and it’s just a dream to do because you don’t have to work on it as much, because it’s like real life. Those are the gold ones.
DB: You did Drama at SEEVIC and then which drama school did you go to?
TC: I went to Guildford (Guildford School of Acting) in Surrey, for three years. I took a year out before that to try and save some money because it is expensive, it’s not cheap, drama school. It’s joined up now with Surrey University, but when I was there it was a separate building and they had different campuses across the town, so for different classes you had to traipse across the town to get to another class. I wrote loads of begging letters before I went, to try and get some money. I was very fortunate (I wrote to loads of random people), Nigel Hawthorne was really generous and I think he gave me about £600, (once, not annually) which was lovely of him; it was so, so lovely. He wasn’t well at the time, it was very shortly before he passed away (and I didn’t know he wasn’t well) but he said, ‘I’m not working at the moment.’ My mum was like, ‘Christ! Send it back! Send it back to him. Tell him thank you so much but I can’t accept it,’ and I did. I wrote a letter but then he wrote back and said, ‘No, no, no, I’m not having that! Take it. Take it.’ He was on the board of Guildford [Director] and he said, ‘Hopefully I’ll get down there,’ and wished me all the best in my endeavours, but then he died shortly afterwards, which was really sad, and I never got to meet him, but he gave something towards the really expensive fees.
I saved up money in various ways but I still wouldn’t have been able to afford to go without a scholarship, so I auditioned for a scholarship, once I’d got my place. In the interview I think they said, ‘What would you do if you don’t get it?’ and I said, ‘Well I won’t come, because I can’t afford to come.’ I laid it on the table, and maybe that laying it on the table worked, they gave me one in the end. I honestly wouldn’t have been able to go, I would have just had to give the acting a go without going to drama school, which a lot of people do. It’s horses for courses and I don’t think it’s a necessity – especially for everyone – it might not even have been for me. I definitely learnt a lot, but I’ve learnt so much more on the job since I’ve left there. Every job I feel, as you do, you observe and you listen, whether it’s working in theatre or on-screen jobs, I think really there’s nothing that can kind of beat that for learning stuff about your craft – as much as I did learn it at Guildford.
DB: You’ve done quite a lot of theatre work from Birmingham Rep through to Shakespeare’s Globe.
TC: Yeah, I did more theatre when I came out, like I still love and I miss it, but I don’t do it as frequently anymore. When I do a few screen jobs in a row I miss the stage, there’s nothing like that, connecting with an audience, the preparation and the time you get with the other actors, rehearsing, you just don’t get that with screen stuff. Screen stuff is more instant and… There is a collaboration, of course, but it’s not that kind of weeks of rehearsal in order to get it through, everyone’s a little more separate and people come and go, that’s the nature of it. I love both crafts and both mediums, and I miss theatre when I don’t do it for a while, but I did more theatre when I left drama school.
I didn’t get my first screen job for about six and a bit years after I left drama school. I just couldn’t get seen for any, so I was just doing stage, which I loved, but I wanted the opportunity. It wasn’t until I went to a workshop with a casting director from EastEnders (Stephen Moore) and the next day he called up my agent about a meeting, and I thought, ‘That can’t be a coincidence!’ I did two episodes of EastEnders as this debt collector, David Pitt, knocking on Bianca’s [character] door because she owed some money. That opened that door, and they were like, ‘Oh you’ve got it on your CV.’
There’s no one route, talking to friends, talking to people who’ve come out of drama school. The last play I did, this year, was at the Birmingham Rep and Ivan Oyik – he’s actually still in his third year, at Guildford too, but they let him out to do this play, as part of his third year performances, which is amazing and he’s brilliant – so definitely look out for Ivan. I was talking to him a lot about what to expect but people you can give advice until the cows come home, everyone’s got their own route, and their own way – like in life – but this career… There really is no one way to get to work: people might recommend you or there’s a lot of luck involved, being in the right place at the right time; sometimes it might take someone taking a chance on you, or a risk on you; sometimes work breeds work, but if somebody doesn’t give you that opportunity, how can you get in that door? Sometimes it takes a leap of faith on the part of directors, or casting director’s point of view. It’s definitely not easy out there in a lot of fields, at the moment.
DB: When you’re working on films, how does that differ from working on TV?
TC: On the whole film’s a shorter process as well because it might be like 5 or 6 weeks and you’re done, whereas TV there’s invariably more episodes, so you don’t get a chance to maybe bond with people as much as you would do. With a TV show you can make friends for life. Like a couple of things that I’ve done, we’ve got WhatsApp groups and we’re just in touch ever since. It’s an intense time together, so you feel like it’s a squished together thing that someone normally, you might not get to know over a few years, but because you’re piled in together, and you have to share intimate stuff and open yourself up more emotionally… Film you’ve not got as much opportunity to do that.
A friend of mine who’s done a lot in theatre, he played in the West End and he hasn’t stopped working, but he was gagging to do some sort of screen work, and he literally said to his agent, ‘Whoever calls about theatre just say I’m not available.’ He said it was getting kind of scary because he didn’t have any work, didn’t have any money, and I think it was over a year or something he didn’t work, and eventually something, a little part came up – a screen job – and he did that and now it’s starting to build. He had to take a bit of risk because availability is a massive thing as well because, obviously, if you’re doing a job you’re not free for other jobs, so he could have carried on working in theatre all his life and not been available, should any screen stuff have come up.
DB: And it’s one of those jobs where there is that unknown, particularly for people who don’t get regular work, where you finish your job and then you’re often leaping into this unknown of ‘now what happens?’
TC: Absolutely! There’s a lot of that. That’s why mental health can be a bit of a strain and you have to have your head screwed on as best as possible, just because of the nature of the ups and downs, the way it is. Sometimes you know a job’s coming in a year, which is lovely, or even half a year, and you’ve got that in your diary, but a lot of the time you don’t know what’s next. You’ve got a few meetings and a few things in the air, and some might land, and some might not.
DB: Thinking about Knightfall, you play a Knight’s Templar, Brother Anthony.
TC: Yeah, it’s a small part.
DB: Yes, small part but lots of costume! Can you describe the costume you had to wear?
TC: Because they wanted to give you a real feel of the weight of stuff, it was heavy. We had real chain mail and so even getting up out of your seat was a bit of a task, because you literally weigh so much. Then on top of that there were all the robes – ten ton of robes – and beneath the robes there was a sort of bodice thing and then I had another like gown; you were so decked out with clothes it was ridiculous. I didn’t get to wear a shield, or sword, they said I (he) was more a bookkeeper, an ‘administrative knight’, so he didn’t go out a fight as much as the others, but still had all the gear on, in case.
It was nice to do and they were a lovely bunch. Tom Cullen [who plays the lead role of Landry] is a lovely guy and we’ve sort of stayed in touch.
DB: It’s a really good cast and it gets stronger and stronger as it goes along, and you can kind of feel that on screen, where everything is bonding more.
TC: I think they were also writing it as it was going along because they wanted to write it with the actors in mind, and kind of mould it to what they brought to the roles. I think Dominic [Minghella] was actually moulding it as he was going along – which is quite a brave way to work – actors bring their stuff to the words and then he’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, I didn’t think about that.’ That’s the way they kind of tailored it to take that into account. You know the character so well, especially in a returning series, they probably do that a lot in series 2 (which I’ve not seen yet) and them be able to grow up with their roles and instinctively, without even thinking about it too much, they know what they would do in certain situations, or how they would hold themselves, or what their reactions would be.
DB: What about the makeup?
TC: I had a bit of a beard, they wanted it longer, so I had to have a beard put on. The hair-wise not much, I think they just had to mess me up and make me look really kind of dirty, basically.
DB: If you did go back in time to the Middle Ages, how do you think you would cope?
TC: Ah, the Middle Ages? Probably not very well (Laughs). I was a scout, and I loved all of that, and I loved being outdoors and making things, and trying to make fires and stuff, and accommodation where you can makeshift stuff out of the wood – I loved all that – but I’m not sure how well I’d cope, to be honest.
DB: Moving on to Save Me, which I absolutely love, it was compulsive viewing: how did you get the role of Goz?
TC: I got sent the first couple of scripts, with a view to going in to meet for it with the casting director, Jill [Trevellick], and the director, Nick [Murphy], and I just loved it. When I was talking to you about scripts I read and I’m just like, ‘This is just fucking gold! This is how people speak, this is real, this is life!’ I could just see it on the page, and I kind of just ‘got’ him, I could sense him, I had met a Goz, which was in my head when I was doing it.
I went to meet them, had a really really good feel with Nick, the director, in the meeting and we played around with it a few times – it was the pub thing I think, in the first episode, where he talks about shark penises. That’s an example of the seeming ‘silliness’ of the character… But when he’s arguing about these ridiculous things, he absolutely means it. He’s well-intentioned.. (That was the first scene we filmed as well, that was a bit nerve-racking, there was Stephen Graham, Lennie James, Jason Flemyng and yeah… literally the first thing that anyone did on the show, but sometimes it’s good to dive in). I luckily got a call back and they wanted us. Lennie was in America, I think, and they were sending the tapes over to him to view, he was doing The Walking Dead and he had a few months gap, and he literally came back to London to film Save Me and now he’s doing Fear the Walking Dead. He’s coming back this summer for us to do the second series.
There’s a lot of returning characters, he wanted to keep the core of what he had built, and the remit, when they approached Lennie, was to do a story that could potentially return, so he’s had an arc in his mind for where it might go, from the get go. I’m really excited to come back and he’s sort of told us that he’s finishing writing episode 6 – the last episode – at the moment. He’s told us the basic arc of the second series, and again he’s so clever, I did not expect what he said would happen at all. Obviously it’s essentially about a missing girl (and a lot more than that, but that’s kind of what it’s about) you could think that he’s going to go, ‘Oh we’re just going to try and find this girl,’ (hopefully that’s not a spoiler for anyone who’s not seen series 1). He’s already released something in The Metro [newspaper] about there being a time jump, without saying how long that is, it’s not picking up exactly from where we left off with series 1. He created this core bunch characters around the estate, and pub, and he wants to utilise them, now we’ve got to know them and, perhaps, get to know some characters a little bit more – in amongst this story where he wants to take it, which is freaking exciting and dark and ridiculously jaw dropping in places. Just when he was telling me about it I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ The first one went to some dark places and Christ, yeah!
DB: It is a real ensemble cast isn’t it, every character does something.
TC: Credit to him, every character feels fleshed out, and they have motivations, and they have intricacies, and they have depth and shades. He’s just such a clever writer and it’s a testament. Also with the director, Nick, they didn’t want to make… See, in the pub, there are supporting artists in there but even then there’s an atmosphere that was created that it felt like they could join in, which they did a lot of the time, so it didn’t just feel like main characters and then a backdrop, it was like we were all together. For a couple of the supporting artists, they even threw a couple of lines in at the end, because they felt so right, and they were cast so well. It was a real characterful pub – it’s meant to be this pub on the estate – it’s The Palm Tree in Mile End, it looks like a bit of a time warp when you go in there, from the carpet to the pictures on the walls, they didn’t even hardly touch it in an art design way, as it’s like stepping back into another time.
DB: I also really liked the little ‘cameos’ where you have these strange snippets of odd things happening on the estate, for instance you have a clown sitting outside the pub, basically crying, drinking his pint of beer.
TC: It’s beautiful. A lot of that wasn’t even in the script, Nick, the director, just wanted to pepper the world and make it colourful with these characters, a lot of the time you don’t even meet them, like the woman in the hijab smoking a big vape, which Nick saw and remembered, and a guy with a big dinghy… it brings the world alive, and you see these random things in life and you carry on and they carry on. He just wanted to make the world colourful in that way and Lennie the same, in writing terms, big thing was life on an estate. Sometimes they can be painted as a bit grim, and working class, it’s dull, and benefits class, it’s all grim down there, and tough – which obviously it is, a lot – but there’s a lot of joy in these characters, and a lot of hope and humour and life, and they wanted to present all of that, which I think they did.
DB: Yes, even his [Lennie’s] bright yellow jacket ‘pings’ out of the screen doesn’t it, whereas if they had chosen something more mundane it could have depressed it further.
TC: Yeah, it’s true, it’s beautiful, the colour design of it is really intricate as well (without going into it too much) but they had a real colour scheme in mind. I think his jacket was red originally, they were going to go with red until somebody changed it to yellow, and it really works.
DB: You had to work with kids on that as well, what was that like, was it really like ‘Never work with children and animals’?
TC: (Laughs) They were fine, you know. It was the first time I’ve ever worked with kids but I wanted to get to know them, so they’d feel comfortable with me as well, so I visited them in their trailer with their mum, and we’d be chatting and playing little games, so when they got dumped on me in the middle of a scene they wouldn’t feel like, ‘What the eff’s going on here? Who’s this strange bloke?’ Which I think they did a couple of times, they were in the middle of a nap or something and were woken up and dumped, in a bit of a mood. I think there’s one scene in the pub where Stephen Graham walks in (as Melon) and the atmosphere’s a bit tense, and he [baby] was just kicking off and screaming and crying, it kind of added to it a bit in a way. That was an example of how he kept things ‘alive’ in a way. I say ‘he’ there were three of them, they are triplets, two of them are identical and one of them didn’t get used at all, I think, because to give one a break the other one will step in, and legally they can only be used a certain amount of time on a working day – they don’t know they’re being filmed or the process, so they keep things alive. In a fish and chip shop scene, I go in, he was just pointing at things, ‘What’s that? What’s that?’ and I would just answer him, but that kept it alive and the director was just fine with that. You just roll with what they’re doing, they keep it fresh and alive, and you react off them.
DB: You said in this particular case you were given the scripts, how would you normally get roles? Do you do self-tapes or…?
TC: It varies. Sometimes you go in for a meeting, and then sometimes you tape for it, and then they bring you in after having seen your self-tape first. On the whole, most jobs I’ve got, I’ve gone for a meeting and met the director and the casting director.
DB: That would be a major difference then between the States and here in the U.K. because they tend to mostly do self-tapes.
TC: Yeah, it has come over here more but it started out there and it’s still a much bigger thing over there. For jobs over there, for us, and vice versa, rather than flying out there sending a tape off is done. I always prefer being in the room, I don’t really… I’m not a fan of them, I just prefer meeting the people and getting a feel for the director, and them getting a feel for me, and with the tape it’s a bit harder to do that.
DB: What attracts you to certain roles, is it mostly the writing?
TC: It always comes down to that, but sometimes it might be the director whose work I’ve seen and loved and I would like to work with, or some of the cast in place and I’ve always wanted to work with them, so it varies. I met Shane Meadows this week actually – I’ve always wanted to work with him since day dot – they did a screening at BAFTA which Stephen Graham (who’s in Save Me) as the lead in this new Shane Meadows’ series, The Virtues for Channel 4, which is phenomenal! I’ve just seen the first two [episodes] they showed (there’s four in total) and it’s phenomenal – I don’t think I’m going to see a better thing this year – it’s just phenomenal film making. He and James Gandolfini are probably my favourite actors of recent years, and I don’t think I’ve seen Stephen Graham better, and that’s saying something because he’s amazing in everything. He goes to some places, plummets to some depths and reaches some highs, that we’re just like, ‘Wow! Wow! How’s he doing that?’ It’s that collaboration with Shane Meadows. It’s another thing I just love, that, where you’ve got something with a director and they’ve got that second hand and they’ve got that relationship – the way they film, a lot of improvisation, the way they make stuff. Look out for it! The whole cast, the music, the way it’s shot and the story. Fantastic!
DB: Your accent, you use your natural accent a lot of the time, or do you exaggerate it sometimes?
TC: It varies. I guess, with my dad and my grandad, there’s an East London/Essex crossover (even with Essex it varies quite a lot) but I guess my accent is East and South London, Essex, and then for specifics I exaggerate bits here and there; for the purposes of Save Me, it’s set in South London. I’ve been up for some roles that have been set up North but most of the roles I’ve played have been around my region.
DB: Are you quite good at different accents though, if you need to do them?
TC: Yeah, I’ve got a fairly good ear (without blowing my own trumpet too much) and sometimes I need just a day to go over it [an accent] just to re-attune my ear and once I hear it, then I sort of play with it. Usually, on the whole, just because of the number of actors out there now that are native to that part, and the place they’re in, they’ll do that, because it’s an added authenticity and something they don’t have to work on, or think about, it’s just there.
DB: And you don’t necessarily get a dialect coach.
TC: Yeah, they are around. I think, if you’ve got a part that calls for an accent that’s not your own they are made available. I’ve got to learn another accent for a part coming up (about which I can’t really say anything about) but I’m not sure whether I’m actually going to get any help with that, or if that’s left up to me, I’ve got to find out. Social media is a really good shout out, I’ve often asked, ‘Does anyone know anything about that?’, ‘Has anyone got any research or experience in that field?’ Teaching, or whatever profession your character might be playing, it’s handy in that way.
DB: In Stan Lee’s Lucky Man you have got a small but important part in series 3, which ends up with a night shoot on one of the bridges over the River Thames, in London. Was that a long night?
TC: It was a long night. (Laughs) There was a lot to get done and it was pissing down as well (excuse my French), so we had all that to deal with. It was not the greatest conditions, but we got it done, it was a long old night. Nice bunch of people as well – the people always make it, no matter what job you’re doing – a lovely bunch of people.
Like Save Me, going back to that, it’s going to be a dream, just because it was such a huge lovely, lovely… every part of the crew from the chefs, to the electricians, to the costume department and all the cast – not only are they brilliant but they’re also so nice.
With Lucky Man, I stepped into that, but they were welcoming, it was a family atmosphere, they’d worked together a lot already as a unit, but they were really welcoming and open for people coming in and doing bit, which was nice.
DB: You did some scenes with Amara Karan and James Nesbitt in that, including the one at the end where it all goes horribly pear-shaped for you.
TC: It doesn’t end too well for him, no. (Laughs) They were both lovely and very welcoming.
TC: I had a dodgy moustache for that. Sometimes you just have to do that. I think I had to go round for a little while with that, but there’s so much dodgy hair around London these days! For Jekyll and Hyde I was playing Mr Hyde and I had to go around with these proper lamb chops, I looked like a complete… That was the worst, to go round with these massive lamb chops for a month or two, because I think we filmed something and then we had to come back to it, so I had to walk around like an idiot for a good couple of months. People don’t know really, they might think that you’re in something, but might just think it’s a fashion choice, ‘That’s what the guy likes to go around like, perhaps.’
DB: You’ve got a couple of new shows on their way (well one’s already aired in the States) which is London Kills.
TC: Yes, it aired on Acorn (which is a platform you subscribe to) this year and it’s just been bought by the BBC to air over here.
DB: The other one is Hatton Garden: Can you tell me just a little bit about both of those? Hatton Garden got delayed from last year I think, didn’t it?
TC: Originally it was due out Christmas 2017, and they were trailing it and it was in the lead up to Christmas, and literally, I think, three days before it was about to come out, they pulled it. It was going to premiere at the BFI [British Film Institute] but the day before, that got cancelled and we were like, ‘What is going on?’ Then we got an email from the producers and basically it’s a legal thing, because the real life case, one of the guys that was in prison, a previous robbery or crime, (even though he was already in prison) he had to go back to court for this other crime, that he had done previous to the Hatton Garden robbery, if a drama comes out it could bias a jury. You have to be really careful with legal issues like that and ITV clearly thought it might be a bit dodgy, so it was pulled for that. And then I think it was going to come out in 2018, April or May, but then something else happened. I think someone found some money but then one of them died, and so they were going to release it, again, in the later part of 2018, then some thing else happened… One of the thieves got away (didn’t get imprisoned) his nickname was ‘Basil’, he was the guy who kind of knew all of the area, he gave them the layout of the place, the timings. He (or who they thought was him) got arrested and taken to court towards the latter end of 2018, so it got delayed again!
Meanwhile the film came out last year, with Michael Caine, Michael Gambon (it’s an amazing cast). We were filming alongside the film, we used the Hatton Garden premises, the film used the Hatton Garden premises, the two production teams were fighting over locations and it was a bit of a race to get it out first, and we would have been out first, originally, but obviously they didn’t care about these legal issues, so they put their film out.
Going back to that about them finding the guy that they thought was ‘Basil’, the missing last person, that was a big case, and then he was recently found guilty by the court, so then it’s got approved, again, to come out and I think, not officially, but I think it’s due to come out this spring. Who knows though? [22nd May, 2019 ITV]
DB: That’s got Nasser Memarzia in it, who’s in Knightfall as well, hasn’t it?
TC: Yeah, we met on that, so it was lovely to see him again, I think he might have been in one or two scenes I was in, but we hung out a lot. He’s a lovely guy and he’s brilliant in Hatton Garden too. He plays a guy who’s quite affected by the robbery because a lot of his jewels from a jewellery shop were in the stuff they got.
DB: That’s a really strong cast as well isn’t it with Timothy Spall, David Hayman…
TC: David Hayman and Kenneth Cranham as well, I think they’ve used up all the best old boy actors [along] with the film. It’s a good bunch, and the script – because Jeff’s [Pope] such a good writer as well – is fantastic and they’ve sort of nailed it. There’s a lot of humour in it as well, because obviously the whole situation of what these guys are doing, and who they are, doing this master heist without being at the peak age to do a massive break-in like that. But then again he doesn’t shy away from those affected and I don’t think he wrote it to condemn them or to glamourise them, he wanted to show the people that were affected, that yeah, it was a huge, impressive thing that they did, but also it had consequences on people around them that they knew, and people they didn’t know.
DB: London Kills, as well…
TC: I worked on that last year and, again, such a lovely bunch on that as well and they filmed two series back-to-back. The way they filmed it, which was quite guerilla-style, it wasn’t really lighting set ups, it was very much on to the next bit, on to the next bit, so they wanted an almost documentary feel to the proceedings, like they were almost following a police team around their investigations, and their analysis and stuff. I play a character, Sammy Garrick, he’s involved in one of the investigations in the third episode. I did some really nice stuff with Sharon Small, she’s amazing an amazing actress, and really, really generous. Lots of actors I work with are like that (which is amazing) generous, and you feel that they’re there for you, and you can take leaps, and you can be brave and take risks, and they’ll play with you and they’re are open to it, and they’re not rigid or shut off to you. Hopefully it’ll be quite an exciting series.
DB: Where did they film that?
TC: It was all over London. There was a lot near Bethnal Green way, I think the studio base was there, so the police headquarters they made up in this building in that area, so there was a lot filmed there and around there, a lot of it is in East London.
DB: Quoting Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” what has been your best experience filming anything and what has been your worst?
TC: I’ve already said how much I loved working on the first series of Save Me, and I think that leaps to mind straight away, just because of the combination of the script, the people, the character – an absolute ball! I loved every moment of filming that. It was just a joy to speak his words and to act with the calibre of people like Alec [Alexander Arnold] and Stephen and Jason and Remmie [Milner] and Lennie. Worst of times? I’ve been lucky really, I haven’t had many times where I’ve thought, ‘Oh Christ! What am I doing here?’ Maybe like in between… There’s definitely been times like, this is no fault of anyone’s, where it’s been about like -900… On the whole I’ve been very lucky, yeah, like minimum nightmares, hardly any diva behaviour (Laughs). Generally people have been really welcoming and collaborative, on the whole I think there are more people who are generous and lovely to work with, than not, in my experience, which is great.
DB: Touch wood, not that actors are superstitious or anything. (Both laugh) Do you have any advice to somebody who’s considering acting as a career?
TC: I think you’ve got to love it, and you’ve got to want to do it because, obviously, it’s not the easiest, or the most logical, job in terms of, you start here and then you just make a progression, sometimes you might not work for a little while, and the way you go from one job to another job, it can vary so much. You’ve really got to want to do it and you’ve got to have a love for it and I think, if you’ve got a love for it and a passion for it, you’ll find a way.
I think also, if you’re at drama school (or even if you’re not at drama school) you can, perhaps, have yourself a little bit chipped away in terms of, they want to sort of strip you back and make you neutral and maybe mould you a little bit more. But what I’ve learned over the years, which took me I think maybe a bit of time was, who you are and what your self-essence is, is where you will get most of your work. I think, your USP (Unique Selling Point) is who you are and your essence, what makes you you, whether that be your accent… I’m not saying, obviously everyone wants to play different characters, and I want to, and go into different shoes and empathise with different people from all walks of life but, essentially I think, it’s good to hang on to who you are. When you go in for auditions and meetings people want to see who you are, rather than trying to be someone else and be someone you’re not. That’s a huge thing, when you are approaching a role because everyone is different, and you will bring something to the role, and audition, that no one else in the whole world will because everyone is unique.
DB: Also then, if you’re not being you, then you’ll soon get found out and, from that, everything can fray pretty rapidly.
TC: Yeah. It’s easier said than done someways, just to be yourself. Sometimes you feel pressure to be someone else and you think, ‘Oh Christ, I should be more like that person,’ or ‘I don’t think I’m getting work because no one’s going to want to employ me, maybe I need to be more like that… or speak in a posher accent.’ I just think you can. It’s not easy, and you don’t have to shy away from that and keep who you are, and keep your beliefs.
I think also, in a non-technical point-of-view, just kind of basic manners and keeping yourself grounded. In this industry as well, you can get swept up with being picked up to go to bloody set and are being brought all these things, food and drink, but it’s such a collaboration – there’s a guy running, getting you a coffee but they should be kings in your eyes, and not, ‘Oh Christ, I’m better than you because you’ve just gone and brought me a coffee.’ The moment that goes to your head, or you start thinking, ‘They’re running off, I’m above them because they’re doing that,’ that’s not a good way to go. I think the more you keep your feet on the ground and remember that it’s a collaboration on that set, or on that stage, if one person’s not there, be it the runner or be it a stage manager or stage hand, then the whole thing goes to shit, and life’s too short to work with people who are like that. I think, slowly, the industry is coming around and that’s why the atmospheres, on the whole, are getting there. The producers as well are cottoning on to the fact that life’s too short to go away, spend months at a time, with someone who’s a nightmare, compared with someone who is just as talented who’s not a nightmare and is easier to work with, because they want to do the work as well as have a good time with everyone, rather than making it about themselves. Keeping your humility and being a good person counts for a lot! Obviously technique and craft, how natural an actor you are, you aren’t going to get work without that, but I think being a good person is just as important.
DB: Because people will work with you again.
TC: Yeah, it’s a small world and the word gets around if someone is a bit of a nightmare. People talk. I know that I’ve got a job, or two, from people ringing up (or got in the room) on the back of someone who is a mate of another director and they’ll go, ‘We know you’ve just worked with that guy. What’s he like?’ And they’ll either go, ‘Fucking hell, don’t even go there! He’s a nightmare,’ or, ‘He’s really cool!’ No one wants to work with people who makes everyone’s lives harder. On-set you’re in each other’s pockets, and sometimes you go that extra mile for people, and you ask people to go that extra mile, and ask actors to do things, to hang around for a bit more, or stand around in the freezing cold for a bit more and you want people who’re going to be up for that, that are in it for the collaboration and the project, and are not in it just for themselves.
DB: Do you watch yourself on screen?
TC: Yeah, here and there, sometimes and sometimes not. Sometimes I don’t get a chance to, sometimes I’ve felt, ‘Oh Christ! I don’t even know what I did there, maybe I won’t watch it.’ (Laughs) And then somethings I just know that I want to watch, for example Hatton Garden, I just want to watch Tim and Ken and all that do their thing, so I’ll have to grin and bear me and watch it. Somethings you want to see, you know, as a viewer. I’ll cover my eyes for that bit and then carry on…
DB: Which directors would you like a chance to work with?
TC: Well I mentioned Shane Meadows. I think many actors would like to work with Shane, just his process, it just sounds like a dream: to spend that long working on a character and fleshing it out before you even get a chance to go and film. He goes away with the actors, and lets them meet and live as the characters, together, before you go anywhere near the set, which is brilliant. I’ve worked with improvisation a lot, in theatre and on-screen bits, and that’s primarily how he works – it’s a sort of trust, they’ve got a script there, but they can go off it. The kind of performances he gets from some of my favourite actors, like Stephen Graham, it feels like a dream, to work in that way.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some lovely people like Nick, who was directing on Save Me – a really generous director – it felt like he really trusted you and you could take a risk; it was quite revolutionary, for me, in terms of there was a real freedom. Usually you’ve got marks to hit, and you can’t go further than ‘there’ because the camera is going to be ‘there’, but they had a real freedom with the camera (in the pub scenes for example) and so Nick allowed your impulses, so if you wanted to stand on that table, or if you felt you had to do something completely different, you could do, which was great! It allowed freedom which allowed life. It allowed us to just ‘live’ there without thinking, ‘Oh shit! I can’t go further than that.’ I think that was evident in a lot of the performances in the series.
Paul Whittington, I’ve worked with a couple of times (he directed Hatton Garden) he’s fantastic, very different from Nick but equally got a really good way of just dropping something in your ear before you’re about to do a take, which will make you think of something and you’ll think, ‘Oh shit, yeah,’ and it will open your mind just as the cameras are about to roll. He’s got a real good way with actors and knowing where to press you and where to leave you alone. I’ve worked with him twice, I worked with him in another thing, which should be out I think later this year, about the Whitehouse Farm Murders, in Essex, (Jeremy Bamber). He’s just a fantastic director and, as I say, if you’ve got that trust, you’ve built up a bit of a relationship with them and a shorthand, I already had that with Paul and coming back into that… I think that will be an exciting thing as well. Jeff Hope, again, who worked on Hatton Garden, he’s got a relationship with Paul, so they got that together. Freddie Fox is playing Jeremy Bamber and I’ve seen him in various things and he’s eerily, spookily like him – very, very good. One to watch out for.
DB: Who would you say is the most influential person, or people, in your life so far?
TC: A lot of my family. My mum and my dad, just something in their outlook on life, the way they approach things and from a moral standpoint, so definitely them. My brother as well, to be honest – although I wouldn’t like to admit it to him (Laughs). As an older brother he’s always had his head screwed on a bit more than me, ethically and morally and everything. I look to him for various things like, ‘What would he do?’ or literally ask him, ‘What would you do?’
DB: Would that apply to your mum and dad as well, would you ask them?
TC: Yeah I would. I think everyone for different things. My brother’s very forward-looking, and his blog’s all about the environment and mum and dad are slightly more… I wouldn’t say they’re not forward-looking but they’ve got their things that they believe in and that they think are right, and so slightly more, I’d say, ‘set in their ways’, whereas my brother’s always constantly looking out for new things, and it’s part of his job, learning new things.
People working on jobs that I’ve met, that I’ve looked up to and learned from an acting point of view, have been influential. Various actors but Stephen Graham was always one of my favourite actors right from This is England, from the get go, so to work with him and to watch him has been amazing, and I’ve learned loads off him and, before I even met him, he’s been very influential.
DB: How did you feel when you did actually meet him to work with him?
TC: A little bit overwhelmed. He’s the most down to earth guy, so it’s nothing to do with him, just because he’s such an acting idol and inspiration and everything he touches turns to gold, to me, he’s just a truth machine, everything he does. The first thing that we did together in Save Me was in the pub, and he was part of that, I thought, ‘Fucking hell, I’m doing this scene in front of everyone!’ That was even more nerve-racking because he was there. Our characters aren’t necessarily that close in the series, they all know each other from around the estate, but there’s a bit of a friction there, so I thought, ‘I’m not gonna tell him, he might guess from the way I was sort of slightly bashful when I first met him, but I’m not gonna tell him how much I love him! Until the end.’ So I told him, I think, on the last day in the costume truck, I said to him, ‘You might know, but you are one of my favourite, if not my favourite, actor of all time.’ And he was like, ‘Oh no, don’t fucking say that!’ (Liverpudlian accent) But I was like, ‘No, I’ve got to say it.’ And he went all embarrassed and shy, because he’s the most humble, lovely, down-to-earth guy and he went red and embarrassed. He probably knew that from the way I was picking his brains at lunchtime about this and that, and listening to any story that he had to tell with full attention, but I had to tell him. Within a day of two I was cool with him, and I was less like, ‘Oh my God, he’s a god!’ He still is a god, but I can talk to him, which is amazing, so when we go back into series two it’ll hopefully just be… I’ll still be in awe of the man – I’ll never not be in awe of him – but it’s easier to talk to him.
DB: When you aren’t working what do you do to relax?
TC: I love music, I go to the theatre a lot – whether friends are in plays or I’ve seen something I that I really fancy seeing – I really love going to see plays and I go to the gym, I exercise. Something I’ve found over the years, it takes yourself out of your head and into whatever you’re doing, and I think that is kind of improving as well. I know a lot of people say about jogging and running, it’s really good for mental health and, looking at what we do, if you’re waiting to hear, or you’ve done something and you’re just sitting around stewing or whatever, exercise is a good thing to go and do, to forget that. I love going to the cinema and I’ve been a member of the BFI (British Film Institute) for a couple of years now, so I go and see more films, and lots of different types of films and genres, and world films from different countries that I wouldn’t even have thought of going to see before that.
DB: A little bit about music: can you cast your mind back to the first single or album you ever bought?
TC: Hmmm… God knows! It might even have been something really embarrassing like a Kylie Minogue single or something like that. Hopefully my music taste has got a bit better since then. I got brought up on The Beatles, my dad was a massive Beatles fan, all the ‘60s stuff like The Stones and Led Zeppelin, but the Beatles specifically but what I bought… I can’t remember. I was a massive indie fan but that was more in the ‘90s.
DB: Is there a song, or songs, that take you back to a special time in your life?
TC: Oh yeah, yeah music always does, definitely. And I use music a lot actually for work as well, if I’ve got to get to a certain place, or emotionally or mentally with a character, that may be more outside my experience, then music can often take me there, so for work music is really handy. I’ll play a soundtrack, almost, for any character I’m playing; I’m listening to it during the day when I’m filming, and when I’m not filming or in between, just so I can keep in that mindset. I have Amazon Music so I just create a playlist, which I think I’ve still got; I don’t think I’ve deleted any of them for each character. Sometimes it’s a period thing, like something for the ‘70s, I’ll think, ‘What would that character listen to within the ‘70s, within that year? Was it more pop stuff or more edgy stuff or more underground stuff?’
DB: What genres of music are you particularly attracted to?
TC: I’m open with it but rock music, indie music, but then I love Motown and soul, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, I love Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. I’d say more, on the whole, rock music like The Beatles or The Doors, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, things like that.
DB: Do you ever go to watch live music?
TC: Yeah, when I can but I haven’t been to one for a little while. I think actually that Smashing Pumpkins might have been the last, they did like a reunion tour at the end of last year, so that might be the last gig I went to. I love bands and I love live music, sometimes, for a band I’ve not heard of it could be a little place in Camden or, for the Smashing Pumpkins, I think it was at Wembley.
DB: If there’s a party and there’s music playing, will you get up and have a dance.
TC: Yeah, it’ll take a few beers but yeah. I like to dance and I wouldn’t have to be dragged up after a little while – for live music as well.
DB: Would you ever get up and sing at something like a karaoke?
TC: I have done, again maybe I need to be a little bit oiled first, that definitely would help and usually it’s Chas and Dave. “Gertcha” I think, was the last one I did.
Final few questions:
DB: It’s your final meal on planet Earth, what would you choose to feast upon and your preferred final tipple?
TC: I would have… Christmas dinner is my favourite meal of the year – and I love a roast dinner in general – so turkey and stuffing, gravy and then I had this amazing dessert in Austria (I’ve just done a bit of travelling) and it was like a sweet cheese with these little breadcrumbs, in a little ball, and in the middle of it there was like a hot, warm, praline, chocolate centre and it was the most tasty dessert, so I’d have that for a dessert. And you say a tipple as well? Does it have to be alcoholic then, is that what you’re thinking?
DB: No, it can be non-alcoholic if you prefer a non-alcoholic drink.
TC: I love a cuppa tea, I do love a cuppa tea, but that’s not that special. For your last meal, last drink? Maybe a really nice, refreshing ale, like an IPA.
DB: Do you have a book that you would return to again and again to read?
TC: No, no, not really. I don’t tend to return, some books autobiographies and acting books, but that’s not like a fiction book.
DB: Are you reading a book currently?
TC: I just bought a book which I meant to start this week, and I’m going to try and start it tonight. The actress Zawe Ashton, Character Breaking, it’s called and it’s an autobiographical book about her life and it’s a lot to do (you can tell by the title) about being an actress and the ups and downs of it all. She’s brilliant, and I think it’s going to be a really interesting read.
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
TC: Hmm… In Essex it would involve walking down the seafront, I think, in the morning on a nice sunny day probably when the Leigh Folk Festival is on, so it’s nice, with a really good atmosphere and there’s music down there, and lots of little beer stalls, little craft stalls, and invariably – because it’s quite a small community as well – bumping into lots of friends and family, and go on into the evening doing that really, and eat ridiculous amounts of seafood and drink ridiculous amounts of different beer that they do down there. That jumped into mind. It’s always a good day down there when the Folk Festival is on.
You can find Thomas @
[Update: Since our interview Thomas has appeared in the TV miniseries A Confession and has filmed the Steve McQueen TV series Small Axe]
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.