I recently had the enormous pleasure of interviewing the actor Thomas Francis Murphy. Thomas has worked on movies and shows such as 12 Years a Slave, Free State of Jones, Mindhunter, The Walking Dead and American Horror Story. We talked about his unconventional path towards taking up acting in his mid 30s, Dayton, Ohio, his career, music and much more besides.
We started our conversation by talking about his recent, first time trip to London…
TFM: I got over to London for the first time about 3-4 months ago for one of the Comic Con things for The Walking Dead. It was my first time in London.
DB: How long were you in London for? Was it a flying visit?
TFM: I didn’t get to see London, at all. We were on the bus either on our way to the convention centre, which was in the downtown area, or on our way out to the hotel via the bus near Heathrow. I have a feeling I’ll be back you know. I got to drink my first Guinness near Ireland!
DB: You were born in Ohio in the mid-West.
TFM: Yes Dayton, Ohio: blue-collar, industrial town. The Wright brothers had a shop there (because they were born there) and there’s the state university which I attended, briefly. When I was born there, my father was a marketing professor (this was in the early days of advertising and stuff, nothing like today) so I got to know this: Dayton, Ohio was the most demographically average town in the United States, so if they wanted to do a trial roll-out (to see how the people would respond) they would do it in Dayton. It was almost a butt of jokes in books and novels, if you want to say, ‘anywhere America’ you would say ‘Dayton, Ohio.’
DB: What are you clearest memories of when you were growing up there?
TFM: I was a paperboy. I had a couple of routes. That was hard work, you know: you would deliver 28 papers or something and some would want it here or want it there, behind the house, or underneath a rock; you had to chase them down for your $2 and 25c a month. Then I got this job, what they called a ‘gate’. NCR (National Cash Registers) had a huge factory, several city blocks of buildings. I got a ‘gate’ there, which means I stood at the gate where the factory workers went in and they bought their newspapers, which was a whole lot easier, and I would sell a mass of papers. The paper was 10c and a lot of the guys would give me a quarter – I was suddenly living large, you know.
My clearest memories of it are that it was a legit, working class, Union, blue-collar town – there were several factories. My parents taught at the university, but my friends’ fathers worked in the factories. It’s still a big part of me, as being really kind of ‘core’, basic.
DB: Down to earth folk.
TFM: Yeah, down to earth place.
DB: Do you ever go back?
TFM: I had gone back and forth. My mother and father continued to live there, both of them passed away, and I haven’t been back since my mother passed away. But each time I would come back – by this time I was living on the East coast in Connecticut – my girlfriend would say, ‘Whenever you go home you come home angry.’ And I’m like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And it was. I mean, I don’t want to get too far down the road of politics, but it was as if the town I remembered disappeared, and it disappeared because a lot of jobs disappeared, the unions went, the whole thing and it went from a working class, Democratic town to a hard core, Republican town that had been emptied out. Just not the place I grew up in. I still remember where everything is – I’ve lived in several cities since – but the town you grew up in, you know where you are in relation to everything else, in a kind of way that you don’t have with other places.
I mean I left – this was the very early ‘70s so you could do this – with a backpack and my thumb out the day after I graduated high school; I was like, ‘Okay. Get out.’
DB: And where did you go, just anywhere?
TFM: Of course, where everybody goes: ‘Go West, young man’. My brother was out here [California] so I went out here for a while but I hitched around quite a lot in those years.
DB: So, you are of Irish descent?
TFM: I believe so.
DB: Do you know anything about the reason why they chose Francis as your middle name and Thomas as your first name?
TFM: Well my mother told me that it was so I would have the wisdom of Saint Thomas Aquinas and the gentleness of Saint Francis of Assisi – that was the cover story. The real story was, I think my father’s uncle (who was not gentle or had any of those qualities) it was his name so they had to give it to somebody. I was disappointed when I was a little kid, that my first name wasn’t Francis because I really was hung up on Saint Francis of Assisi – you’re a little kid and you know Saint Francis of Assisi is the guy with the birds that flew into his hand and had all these wonderful qualities. The magical quality about him, to be certain.
DB: Are there lots of redheads in your family?
TFM: No, they’re all on my mother’s side. None of my brothers or sisters are redheads but my mother was and they were from South Dakota, so we never saw them, and then, when we went out in one vacation when I was probably 11 or 12, it was like there they were, herds of redheads. My people!
DB: I’m surrounded by redheads. It must be fun when you’re in really hot, sunny weather, such as Georgia in The Walking Dead.
TFM: Yeah, because of fair skin and all that? Well I lived in Louisiana for years and years and years. It’s plain hot, I don’t know that it would be any less hot if my hair was a different colour, right.
DB: You did loads of jobs before you went into acting, didn’t you?
TFM: That’s a fair assessment.
DB: Are there any which stick in your mind more than any of the others?
TFM: Well it’s all a bit nostalgic, I didn’t do it for that long, but me and a couple of buddies ran a dairy farm. We sort of inherited a dairy farm when I was around 21 or 22. Everything then was about self-sufficiency and disconnecting from corporate America and that sort of thing. It just sort of fell into our laps: we went there to do improvements on the farm, fencing and stuff like this, and then all this stuff went on and all of a sudden, we were running this dairy farm which was in the mountains of Tennessee, near North Carolina, the Appalachian Mountains; it’s very gorgeous. That’s an indelible experience I would say.
DB: Hard work?
TFM: Yeah, but you’re young and you’re mobile. The biggest thing was people would visit us and what was great about it was that they had to come a long way, so they would stay a long time. And then you were also young enough that people were going abroad and would tell people they met in Germany, or wherever ‘You’ve got to go to this farm!’ I remember at the time the biggest downfall was that you’ve got to milk cows, twice a day. (Laughs) You can’t take any days off, you’ve got to milk them in the morning and it’s got to happen. And that was a good thing. We would rotate, there was always one person left, if we wanted to take off for the weekend or something; but we were locked into where we were.
DB: You said you moved around quite a lot as an adult.
TFM: As a young adult, yes – and as a not-so-young adult. Relative to most people I know, I certainly did.
DB: Was that from different jobs, or where jobs were, or wanderlust…?
TFM: There were a lot of things to it, at the time. I moved to Seattle because I was with a woman who had to take the Bar and we had to decide where to take the Bar, so we moved to Seattle. While I was there I decided to go to hard hat diving school. The relationship fell apart but now I was training in hard hat diving and I had worked on the ambulance there, because what I was trying to do was saturation dive – where they pressurise you in a bell – and I would be the medical officer, that was the game plan. From there things were happening in the oil market and overseas and that didn’t work out, so I went down to New Orleans to see if I could get work as a diver and then met someone else, moved to Arkansas… It’s just life, you know.
DB: Do you ever regret not continuing with the diving or are you quite glad you didn’t (because there are side-effects from deep diving)?
TFM: Oh yeah! I wasn’t in love with the idea of diving, really, but I wanted to travel the world – I didn’t want to do it as a tourist particularly, I wanted to live in places – and with that job I could have (I haven’t told these stories in years) … You make tremendous amounts of money when you are with them because it’s high risk work and then they don’t use you for a month or two months or three months at a time, so I thought, ‘Okay, I could do this, buy a farm in Tennessee. I can write my books. Do a little diving,’ and then plans changed… I changed, the economy changed.
DB: You’re probably healthier from not having done years of deep diving.
TFM: Yeah. A job that I had [that] I really did like [was]: I worked the ambulance, in Seattle, to get the medical training (because I was thinking of transferring it to diving). That was a great job, really. You interact with people, often at their worst moments, but you dropped them off at the hospital – so they were somebody else’s problem then – and you had done a good deed and you got paid for it. And you really didn’t take it home with you that much, you just went to work. Honourable work. We would get some really gruesome things but a lot of what I did – I think we calculated it at one time – over 70% were psych calls: people off their meds. Often after they had interacted with the police so basically all you had to do was be polite (Laughs) and they were very grateful. I never felt in any real physical jeopardy.
DB: How old were you, roughly, when you started acting? And what attracted you towards acting?
TFM: I was in my very early 30s and I always thought of myself as a writer that that was how things were going to work out. I had a play in mind, but I didn’t know what actors needed, so I took an acting class to get an idea of that. It kind of solved all my problems as a writer: I could still tell a story but I didn’t have to reinvent the world and all I had to do was be fantastically faithful to one character – good, bad, it didn’t make any difference – and I found that very liberating. You’re still asking yourself the same questions but somebody else has built the box.
DB: Had that always been in the back of your mind?
TFM: No. Even until the moment I walked into the class, it wasn’t. But also, it was making things with people, as opposed to sitting alone in a room wondering if the writing was merely symptomatic. (Laughs) Wondering if I might actually have some talent or whatever. I had no idea. What acting did really is: I began to understand what process was, and that’s what always escaped me as a writer – I didn’t know that it was all process, I thought I had to have an end already designed, rather than finding my way to it.
DB: Do you write a lot still?
TFM: Yeah, a bit here and there. I’ve got the screenplay in the corner, in a drawer, which I’m loathe to show anybody but yeah.
DB: What sort of stuff do you generally write?
TFM: Heart breaking. Heart breaking, and hilarious. (Laugh)
DB: Like Seamus Heaney.
TFM: That’s hilarious you should say that. I did something (I’d never heard of him right) I was playing this writer and he was talking about this Irish poet and I thought the poet he was talking about was a made-up character and he kept calling him Shameless Heiny (both laugh). I’m sorry, but I thought it was brilliant! Then I found out who it actually was!
DB: That is a true classic! (Laughs) Where did you actually train to act?
TFM: I bounced around a lot. Once I discovered that this was something I wanted to pursue, I began to look around for how to educate myself on it. I wanted a 4-year conservatory programme (that’s what I was thinking) and Ohio actually had one, and I could move back there and establish residency and not pay a fortune to go. I did that for a year. I was at my early 30s at that point and all the students were like 19 or 20, you know, they were going to be triple threats, they were going to sing, they were going to dance. I would be there at 7 o’clock in the morning for dance classes and stuff like that and that wasn’t where I was at the time. I was more like, ‘I want to rip the world apart. I want these 4 years to tear apart Edward Albee,’ or whatever. So, I found other places to act.
At that time, I had read about, and discovered, Shakespeare and Company in New England, Lenox, Massachusetts and I was really intrigued by it. I really didn’t think that I had a shot in hell, so I went into a dressing room (I can’t believe I’m telling this story) and literally browbeat a sonnet to within an inch of its life and sent the tape off to the artistic director because I wanted to be in their Summer programme. And they wrote me back, ‘Come on up!’ I was shocked: for one it was expensive, even at that time, $3,500, I think. It was a month-long, intensive and you may or may not stay for the summer depending on if they wanted to use you… I wrote him back and said, ‘No, I’m really broke. I’m actually broke!’ But he wrote back saying ‘We’ll work something out’ and that was my first ground breaking experience with a lot of stuff, you know: voice-work, breathing work, an intensive immersion into theatre and acting.
DB: How long were you there for?
TFM: Getting on two years.
DB: Did you put performances on while you were part of the course?
TFM: Yes, it was a summer theatre, but I ended up living there all winter, one year by myself. It was in the foothills of the Berkshires, you have Jacob’s Ladder, all sorts of dance theatre as well as Tanglewood, tourists arrive on buses. They had this big, natural amphitheatre where they would put on the major Shakespearean productions and then, inside, in this very small kind of drawing room they would stage adaptations of Edith Wharton’s short stories because it was once Edith Wharton’s house: it was falling apart; it was very English; they called it a ‘cottage’ but it was a big, sprawling, falling apart affair. I did some Shakespeare, but basically – and that sort of set the course – I ended up doing the inside stuff, pretty small audiences, adaptations of her short stories. They asked you what sort of track you wanted to go on and the track in my mind, at that time, was I had never been in what I thought of as tight-assed, British, drawing room comedies and it was such a different humour and approach. I was entering Masterpiece Theatre – that’s what I thought I was walking into. That kind of got me accommodated to small houses. I subsequently did large park Shakespeare, but I was much more comfortable with Black Box Theatre and that sort of thing, where you are very close to the audience.
DB: Those more intimate theatrical spaces.
TFM: Yeah, yeah. There were times where the audience… there would be a tiny bit of foot-room between your feet and theirs. The set design: I would have to say, ‘The cookies on this little table they’re not for you. They’re on the other side of ‘the wall’.’
DB: Then you were in New York for ages, performing?
TFM: That’s where I started connecting to drawing room theatre anyway. So, I stopped acting for many years, went back in my 40s to get my degree [in Theatre]. And that’s when I went to New York to do the Black Box Theatre stuff.
DB: Was that in Off-Broadway plays?
TFM: I would tell people, ‘One-more-Off-and-you’re-in-the-river-Broadway.’
DB: You did some Sam Shepard plays I believe.
TFM: I did a lot of Sam Shepard plays. The actor in me (after doing Shakespeare) it was like somebody had given me back my own vernacular because he [Sam Shepard] would give you these great things to say, but I wasn’t talking in language that was grounded in another time.
DB: We went to see Buried Child a couple of years nearly ago, in London with Ed Harris.
TFM: I got to do that. I never got off the couch. I smoked the entire time. I never shut up, you know!
DB: Weren’t you in The Late Henry Moss where you are a dead guy?
TFM: I am a dead guy. To my mind that was Shepard’s Lear. That was the last role I did in New York and it was a great one to cap it off with because we really kind of did the arc of Shepard’s plays to arrive at The Late Henry Moss.
DB: In that play there are a lot of flashbacks so you’re dead but then alive.
TFM: Yes, I’m alive and making people’s lives miserable for a great deal of the play. (Laughs) There is this whole conceit where, when I’m dead I’m in view of the audience and there’s my sons arguing about their experience of me, so you go back and forth with those repeating patterns, interacting. The two sons being at war with each other. The old man going, ‘What is your obsession with me? What’s the deal?’ (Laughs)
DB: You then moved down to New Orleans, again.
TFM: Yeah, I went down there because a friend I had known from the days of Shakespeare and Company, had written a screenplay. He eventually arrived at the point, doing this low-budget thing in New Orleans and at Angola Prison, we were ready to go down there to shoot. Then people encouraged me to audition because there was a very thriving television and film scene there which I knew nothing about. So, I began to do that and had some success and it made sense to move down.
DB: So, it was kind of serendipitous that a friend was doing something, and you then go down, find out there’s all this structure there that you weren’t aware of and then you’re getting offers.
TFM: Well I was getting in the room and I was getting cast and it was tremendous really because I didn’t have any ‘New York’ pressure particularly and I got to move forward to principle roles in these sci-fi movies that were made for television (you know SyFy channel) really cheesy, outrageous movies. But still they were great fun to make and you were learning on the job, rather than taking a thousand ‘on camera’ classes. That was incredible actually.
DB: Very different from stage work.
TFM: Yeah, it took me a long time to admit that, but once I admitted that, I was teachable. It’s just a whole different kind of energy. It’s a different reward system, you know, in terms of this act of communication (for what it’s worth). For better or for worse I use the crew as an audience. I know when they’re watching just like I even know when an audience is watching. It was a theatre person’s solution to doing it.
DB: Did you also carry on doing a little bit of theatre work in New Orleans as well?
TFM: I did one play there [Airline Highway] just because it had been several years since I had done one and I was like, I damn well better. Airline Highway is a real place in New Orleans, so it was a New Orleans play about New Orleans.
DB: You were in a film that George Clooney directed, Leatherheads: was that your first one?
TFM: Yeah. I still don’t know how I got the gig to be honest with you.
DB: What was that like as an experience for you?
TFM: It was actually great. In the sense that: it’s your first time in a movie and you’re there in the morning and they’re cutting your hair and it’s a 1920s style which, even before Peaky Blinders, I knew was as cool as shit, right! And then you wait around and some guy, a PA (a Production Assistant), walks around and says George Clooney’s name so many times, ‘George this and George that’, and you go, ‘Are you getting paid by how many times you say George Clooney?’(Laughs) And eventually he got there [George Clooney] and he breezed in and the first thing he said to me (somebody had told him who I was, and he just looked over at me and went), ‘It’s a piece of cake, Tommy’ And it was.
DB: I think I briefly mentioned to you that Steve McQueen is one of my favourite directors. What was your experience of working on 12 Years a Slave?
TFM: Well it was a very last-minute deal. I didn’t audition for it, I got it on Friday and shot that Monday, so I spent the weekend looking at all this horrific stuff, trying to get it all into my mind. And then we shot it. What I didn’t know – and I certainly didn’t know that it was going to be an Oscar-winning movie – I was a replacement: they didn’t like the guy they had shot before, so we were doing re-shoot. And we got an Oscar winner. Wow! Steve McQueen to boot, it was an unexpected present, so thank you.
DB: What was it like working with the rest of the cast?
TFM: Chiwetel [Ejiofor] I might have met five minutes before we did the scene – he’s very good. It was kind of a funny story. I get there, it’s on an old plantation somewhere outside of New Orleans [that] we’re shooting it, so I get my costume and they point me to where it is and start walking through these woods, I get to this clearing and there are three young black men with nooses around their neck and you’re like: ‘Holy Shit!’ But then you wait for the shot to get set up and we’re there for quite some time, and they’re kids, so they’re bullshitting, and we start shooting. Then, all of a sudden, like a bear through the woods, comes this guy talking in an almost full out Cockney accent! This huge black guy going, ‘Hey you! There’s a lot of people spending a lot of fucking money to make this fucking thing! You get me lad? You get me? Alright now. You’re getting fucking hung here, get that through your fucking head?’ They’d never seen a black man like that, right, they had not! After the scene he came up and he could not have been kinder and all that with them. That was the introduction, like this bear.
DB: They must have been quite shocked but I guess that was what was needed.
TFM: That’s exactly what he was doing, you know.
DB: You were also in the film LBJ [about Lyndon B. Johnson, with Woody Harrelson] where you play a congressman.
TFM: That was an iconic scene. There was a photograph, I think it was probably in Life magazine, of Jackie [Kennedy], LBJ in 1963, when this would have been and then this congressman holding out the Bible. It was to recreate that moment that sits in a lot of people’s minds.
DB: That’s when everybody’s been told that Kennedy is dead.
TFM: Yes, they’ve been told that and they made their way to the airplane. The whole conversation had been about not allowing there to be any gap in us having a president.
LBJ was an enormously complicated guy, a kind of fascinating guy, and by the time he was out of office he was absolutely hated but he had done… it was a study in contrasts, completely… all this civil rights legislation. And he was from the South, and that was kind of the ‘mark of Cain’ (at the time) in terms of the presidential office.
DB: Free State of Jones. How aware were you of that aspect of Civil War history before you did the film?
TFM: Yeah, I loved doing that movie. Gary Ross [the Director] does tremendous work. That particular storyline of the Free State? Not at all. But I had lived in The South, by that point, off and on for 11 or 12 years so I had a kind of natural interpretive feel for it, I think – for its contrasts.
DB: It was quite a tricky role to play.
TFM: One, to paint a broad brush of The South, but Faulkner said ‘The past is never past if it’s not even past’ to paraphrase him. All that aside, those kind of things are intensely local. I mean if you have ever lived in the country, you’re familiar with that mindset. And was exceedingly rural, at that time. So, everybody, no matter which social strata you were from, and it was essentially an internal war within social strata in the South, you were known personally, and so the Civil War came along and turned everything topsy-turvy but all these resentments, all these ambitions, remained alive within this new ‘glorious’ context.
DB: And you had to learn to ride a horse. How painful was it?
TFM: I did! Exceedingly!
DB: Had you never ridden one before?
TFM: Well I had sat on one, you know, and I had certainly bet on a lot of them! But no. When I got cast, I didn’t know I was on a horse: they didn’t ask if I could horseback ride. And not only was I horseback riding but in the original script I was on a horse the whole time! I threw my back out on the horse the first day, had to get a chiropractor but I was determined to get it done – much like the colonel was determined to get it done – and we got the footage we needed.
DB: Did you just have to pop some painkillers?
TFM: Oh no no no! I wasn’t looking for that. I was looking for the full NFL treatment, steroids whatever it took! (Both laugh) I had braces and I started doing hot yoga, which is strange but helped a lot, actually.
DB: It always reminds me of the line in Sherlock Holmes about horses being dangerous at both ends and sneaky in the middle.
TFM: I never got to spend a whole lot of time around the horses either, but you do come away with tremendous respect for them, amazing creatures. They all have their personalities, they react to you, that’s why you got a guy working with you. They are certainly schooled but they will… In fact, one of the great shots in the actual film of Free State is when the horses unexpectedly bolted a little bit, so you see me and Billy [Bill Tangradi] who played my lieutenant whipping them into shape; they cut a lot of my effort, but Billy really was good. Anyway, their unpredictability. They flat out bolted! The reason they did it was because they had done a take and they knew that the gun shot was coming (the sound effect of the gun) and were bolting because they had done it a couple of times and they knew what was coming and they were going to leave before that!
DB: What was it like, working with Matthew McConaughey, because you have some direct scenes with him?
TFM: I didn’t really interact with him too much until [the] two days we shot when the two storylines came together. He’s all about getting the job done and I can totally relate to that.
Those were authentic, pure wool, Civil War uniforms and it was probably 95 degrees and the predictable humidity of Louisiana. They were hot!
DB: You were also in season 1 of True Detective, again with Woody Harrelson, which has a tremendous cult following.
TFM: I was happy to live in Louisiana because so many films traffic in notions about New Orleans and don’t really ‘get’ Louisiana. That one, particularly visually, I thought was very good, came as close to kind of ‘getting’ Louisiana as anything I’ve seen.
DB: You were in Outsiders as well that was filmed in Pennsylvania, was that filmed up in the Appalachians?
TFM: Pittsburgh is kind of nestled in the foothills.
DB: Did that run into the filming of Mindhunter?
TFM: It did. It was great because I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, which isn’t far away and very blue-collar similar to Pittsburgh and I was interested to see Pittsburgh – I hadn’t been in Pittsburgh for 25 years. It is an interesting town. Heavily industrialised but they adapted and there’s a lot of money into public parks, making the city accessible, a kind of forward-thinking kind of city planning, it’s obvious. But it’s a city in the hills so you know, the ethnic neighbourhoods, they’re isolated enough that they continue to have their own identity and remain neighbourhoods.
DB: You were also in a couple of episodes in two seasons of American Horror Story. I loved the artist scene in ‘Coven’. What was that like?
TFM: I was painting Jessica Lange, right. It was one of those last-minute things: I’m in the casting offices for the casting director and I walk by and I say hello to another casting director and she asks, ‘Tom, can you do a British accent?’ And I was like, ‘Fuck yes’ (in English accent) and I got the job because I only had to say three or four words, right. The notion of the character was that he was not really French, that he’s pretending to be French, to be posh basically. And they gave me this floppy hat and all these terrific scarves, and I got to stare at Jessica Lange, directly, for hours at a time! What’s wrong with that day? The second season [Freak Show] was with Jessica Lange as well. That was a fantastic set, a fantastic crew and they managed to recreate the carnival circus world.
DB: You’re the character who owns the field they are staying in. And then she’s hanging out her underwear. (Both laugh)
Mindhunter, Detective McGraw, you were in the first episode which is the one that David Fincher actually directed. How did you get that role?
TFM: I taped for it when I was in Louisiana. Then I came out for the first full out LA premiere I had ever done, which was for the Free State of Jones, and then auditioned here for it, in person, with Laray Mayfield who was casting out here and from there I went to New York to audition with David [Fincher] and Julie Schubert- so there was quite a long audition process for that.
DB: What was your experience on-set of Mindhunter?
TFM: Well again, I didn’t know until we started shooting, that it was a re-shoot. They had shot that whole thing and then came back at the end of the season to re-shoot that [whole] section. The actors, by that time, had been acting together for a whole season so it was like coming into the lunch room mid-semester of the senior year.
DB: There are three big scenes: the one where Tench and Ford do that slightly disastrous presentation in front of everyone; then there’s another one in the diner where you are talking to them; and the final one where you show them the photographs. With that scene, where you are back at the station and are showing them the photos, when did you, and when did they, first see the photographs that you were using?
TFM: Then. I’m sure they saw them before, but I saw them then.
DB: So, they had already seen them because of the re-shoot, but that was the first time you had seen them, because they are pretty gruesome.
TFM: That is an interesting question. That’s really an interesting question, you know – because I had never really thought of it before, kind of shame on me, but that’s alright. Even if I had thought of it, just letting this thing come over me…
DB: Did you have to smoke on set?
TFM: Yes! And that was a bitch when it came to continuity. You do it and then the next take you get, ‘No, your hands were like this!’
DB: No one else has mentioned that and it’s really interesting because I had never thought of that.
TFM: If you are a smoker, right, you don’t do it… I mean that’s the whole point of it. If you’re a smoker it just let it flow through you and proceeds according to your internal state. So to come back on a scene and go, ‘No your hand was just like that!’ That’s what I’m hired to do. I’m not hired to think about it. I’m hired to smoke!
DB: But you wouldn’t have felt quite so ill as the ones who don’t normally smoke who said they would smoke some real cigarettes!
What was it like working with Holt and Jonathan?
TFM: Well I had a high regard for both of them, but you know David does a lot of takes, everybody knows that, right. So again, you’re the new kid, that scene in the diner… that was us meeting each other as actors. I got their attention (laughs) and then we did the scene. That’s how often actors meet each other, as actors, and then you know that you’re going to be able to do the scene.
DB: Was that the first scene then, the one in the diner?
TFM: No. The first stuff we shot was the meeting. We shot that particular thing in chronological order.
DB: So, what is David Fincher like working for when he’s directing?
TFM: Well he’s obviously a guy who knows what he wants. Clearly. So that’s always good! I guess the thing you know is that, if he didn’t get what he wanted, you’d still be shooting! (Both laugh) You take your gratification where you can. My comparison that I have in my mind is that now you’re working with an NBA coach, you were in college basketball, it just has that kind of feeling to it. I’d certainly seen his films and I had certainly paid attention.
Again, it’s another story about having lived through that time, having lived through a period of time where the political colouration of the country, the kind of cultural colouration of the country that went along with that storyline. When I went back and watched Mindhunter I was just completely amazed at how it caught the spirit of that particular, in small ways, period of time.
DB: You watched the whole of Mindhunter. Do you normally watch yourself on-screen?
TFM: There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t. Some actors do because that’s the way they’re used to working, like Matthew McConaughey: he sits frequently behind the camera because he wants to see how the thing is going, you know, and looking at that footage is useful to him. That I don’t do. It’s been an education watching myself: not really in how well I act, but how uncomfortable I am watching myself! (Both laugh)
DB: Well of course you don’t get that with stage.
TFM: And that’s just it! That’s just finished because it lives completely within that moment, then it’s gone, whatever happens on stage and also whatever your interpretation of that moment was.
DB: Moving on to The Walking Dead, where you played Brion, did you have a backstory for him?
TFM: We were given some outlines. Scott Gimple gave us some of the broader strokes and certainly I had a backstory.
DB: What did you have in your head as his motivation?
TFM: That he was the sort of guy that makes the calculation that everything’s changed, and also somebody that (like the Civil War) this may provide him an opportunity to shine. However, he has a high regard for people who he thinks has a handle on the problem, whatever that is at the moment – that was Jadis, in his mind. She saw, for whatever reason, his value and he valued her seeing that, and that was sort of their relationship, it was about loyalty and fidelity.
DB: And your costumes: what was your costume like to wear and what did it feel like, as a character, to wear it?
TFM: I immediately liked it because I felt like I was trying to get into an East Berlin bar! (Laughs) The joke was: ‘We’re the Heapsters man, the Heapsters!’ It had that kind of vibe to it. It was fun to wear. For me it was a simple thing, it wasn’t as complex Sabrina’s [Gennarino] interweaving outfit.
DB: And not as hot presumably.
TFM: Well I could take mine off – just throw that serape off. Now that you mention it, regrettably, although I like to think that I still have the hair of a 25-year-old guy, I don’t, and the sun would bake down onto your scalp! Just a reminder that this sort of thing never happened before. (Both laugh)
DB: Generally, not just in The Walking Dead, how far does costume help you with a character?
TFM: Oh tremendously, tremendously. Particularly coming from theatre, you know: you don’t know who you are until you put on the costume. Jack Nicholson had such a great line to some new actor, ‘Just play the costume kid, you’ll be fine!’ And it can be that much.
DB: I know a lot of actors start from the footwear upwards.
TFM: First of all, what I like to do is, I don’t like to spend masses of money, but I like shoes and so I’m very particular, when I audition, what shoes I’m wearing. But, as somebody said to me once, ‘Tom, when was the last time you saw somebody’s shoes on camera?’ and laughed. Unless the shoes were the point, you know. But nonetheless shoes make the man, you do build from the shoes up. I agree with that sentiment, in fashion and film as well. (Laughs)
DB: Sabrina was saying how long it took her to put her boots on because of the telephone wire, were yours the same?
TFM: No, they were, like these kind of tennis-shoe-bootie things, which I always thought were pretty dumb. Now that you mention it, I wasn’t thrilled with my footwear but the serape, the whole way the belt was rigged, the very simple dagger, all that was good.
DB: Pretty cool. When you turn into a walker you had to be made up and had to do that strange walk that they do: how long did the makeup take?
TFM: I think about an hour-and-a-half/two hours, maybe two visits. An hour and then bugger off and come back and do a bit more.
DB: What about the walk, because it’s a very distinctive, shuffling walk: did you get taught that?
TFM: Yeah, yeah. We’re taught that, and I was not a very good student. The walker wrangler taught me and apparently, he didn’t like my mojo! (Both laugh) He was just like, ‘It’s not Frankenstein!’ or something like that. Sabrina on the other hand, he was over the moon as soon as he saw her zombie walk.
DB: What was it like working with the cast and crew working on The Walking Dead because you were on it for a substantial period of time?
TFM: It was just a great set to be on, all the way across, no question about that. Andy [Lincoln] is just an absolute pleasure to work with and I mean, by the time I got there, he had been showing up to do that for what, six years? He gives it his full attention, his full energy either side of the camera.
DB: On a personal and professional level what have you taken away with you from working on the show?
TFM: Hmm. I guess the thing that astonished me the most… I’d never been involved with anything that had that level of fan response. I mean, I had no idea how big the show was when I was walking into it, not really, and how closely viewers paid attention to every little aspect of the show. So, they were often reading more into what was going on, as fans, than I as an actor was bringing to it. So that, in itself, was interesting. It was interesting to go to London and interact with people that had that level of sustained interest in this environment – not that I was creating but that I was participating in that was collectively created by the writers and producers.
DB: All that mythology where they have followed it through.
TFM: Exactly! To be honest with you my great fear was that I would be called upon to answer questions about The Walking Dead by people that knew vastly more about it than I did, and they would catch me, you know. (Both laugh)
DB: Because there’s always the assumption that you know everything that’s happening in the story because you happen to be in it, but usually you are limited to what is actually just happening to you.
TFM: Right, I mean do you know what’s going on with your neighbors right now?
DB: Accents: you have said you can do an English accent. When you are doing the accent as in Free State of Jones, is that helped by the fact that you’ve lived there for a long while? And what about the others? Is it a natural facility or do you have dialect coaching?
TFM: That particular one [Free State of Jones] it was [because I had lived there]. I wish I had dialect coaching. I did one play with a very proper British accent, a Tom Stoppard play, The Real Thing, and I got to work with a dialect coach, which was great because then I could kind of forget it. So much of the intentionality of it (I now sound accomplished) but so much of the intention is in the rhythm of an accent and that just sort of exists in you, I think. I’ve done several Irish plays but I lived in fear– I wanted to be in Irish Rep so bad when I went to New York and I finally did one particular thing – but I lived in fear that they’d spot me out and the Irish aren’t kind to imposters [in a perfect Irish accent]. But that said, those rhythms, it’s easier for me to absorb in that way than pay strict attention to some rule book of where the stress is, after you’ve listened to it for a while and get it inside, particularly if it’s genetically located in you somewhere.
DB: Also, probably, being of Irish descent, whether you’re conscious of it or not, it does run through families where the inflection is still there.
TFM: Yeah, I’m a great believer in that sort of genetic predisposition. The time that I’ve spent with Irish friends – and I’ve had a lot of Irish friends over the years – and even the short time I was over there [London] hanging out the back of the Staples Centre having a cig with the elevator guy, right, there’s just an easy rapport and a lot of that is in the language and the rhythm of the language. It’s located in your memory somewhere otherwise you wouldn’t respond to it the way you do.
DB: Also, do you think that maybe, because you’ve moved around a lot, usually people (well I do, drives my kids mad) start modifying their accent?
TFM: Now I’m told that I speak with a Southern inflection, even when that’s not my intention, so they seep in.
DB: That’s what surprised me, when they were interviewing Andy Lincoln, is that his English accent actually hasn’t modified very much.
TFM: Right. Well he’s the guy, that was what was noticeable. I certainly watched the show when I got cast and he’s like an American’s American. I mean he did American as well as I did Southern crackers, in the sense that he got the rhythms, the kind of pace. I caught him once or twice and said, ‘Andy, you goin’ full South on us man?’ (Both laugh)
DB: Which actors do you, personally, admire?
TFM: Oh, I’m such a bad keeper of lists, but I mean: Joaquin Phoenix amazes me; I love Philip Seymour Hoffman (may he rest in peace); Ed Harris (who you recently saw). The last amazing actor that I’ve seen, that’s the one. Who’s the guy from Peaky Blinders?
DB: The lead in it, Cillian Murphy?
TFM: No, not Cillian. The whole cast on that show was great. The Yiddish…
DB: Tom Hardy?
TFM: Yes, Tom Hardy is just great!
DB: Are there particular types of roles that appeal to you?
TFM: I’m drawn to morally complex characters you know, compromised characters, I think. Whether I get those roles or not is another matter but those are the characters I tend to be drawn to. Recently, a few months ago, I’m playing a second or third generation, born-again Christian – far, far from ‘me’ – in terms of not being morally conflicted, he has his answers, so that was kind of an interesting part.
DB: For somebody who is considering a career in acting what advice, if any, could you give them?
TFM: Well I know when I quit acting for a number of years after Shakespeare and Company, and the reason I went back to school was to get the rust off and see if I still cared in the sort of outsize, crazy way that you have to care – so check where you are with that because, chances are, that’s what you’re going to draw on.
DB: How do you learn lines?
TFM: I just repeat them in my head. That, knock on wood, has never been a real problem. I shudder at the idea that I might actually have to memorise an entire character in Shakespeare, again, which I did at one time.
DB: What hobbies do you have in your free time?
TFM: I read. Right now, I’m going back and reading a terrific biography of Faulkner, with the idea of going back to reading a bunch of Faulkner again; I don’t think I’ve read him since I was a kid.
DB: Do you ever sing?
TFM: Yeah, occasionally. I’ve had to sing on stage, never as a person that was good at singing, never as a person that was bad at singing, but singing on stage.
DB: Casting your mind back, what was the first single or album you ever bought?
TFM: Well I thought about this question, and it’s almost too cloying for words, but the first one I remember… Catholic schools, they have these things called ‘Mission Parties’ which are kind of like a flea market with baked goods, I think to raise money for missions abroad and you go, as a little kid. At one of those, I must have been like 6 or 7, a 45 of this French café, accordion, street music right. And I would go down to the basement – and my brothers would give me endless grief – I don’t know why I was attracted to this particular café life or whatever, but I would listen to that for hours. Then probably, when I became a teen and a consumer of music, I’d like to say “Paint It Black” by the Rolling Stones, but it was probably something by Joan Baez or maybe something like that.
DB: Is there a song, or songs, that take you back to a particular time in your life? Apart from the French café accordion music…
TFM: (Laughs) I do. I kind of stumble upon them and there is some music that you listened to long ago, that you listen to still, that is still fresh and there’s other ones that you go, ‘We can move along!’ And I do use music to settle me when I’m working, to keep me in the emotional world that I want to be in.
DB: When you’re waiting around on-set, would you listen to it then?
TFM: Certainly then. And if I’m given a part, you know. I listened to a lot of music for The Free State of Jones, just trying to live in the world of that music.
DB: What sort of music did you listen to for that?
TFM: Well there was a great album done by Ken Burns that was the soundtrack for his The Civil War [TV miniseries] and so the list grew from listening to that, basically. It was a very music-making era actually, so there was a lot of that Appalachian-derived, instrumental stuff which I think, even that kind of stuff, speaks to you on a genetic level.
DB: Is there a song, say if you’re in the car and it comes on, you have to turn it up to full volume?
TFM: Probably anything by The Who, Bryan Ferry, Jim Carroll, Pink Floyd Live At Leeds, put that on full volume.
DB: What genres of music do you like listening to?
TFM: I listened to a lot of blues at one point, I mean a lot of blues. I’ll listen to somebody like Tom Waits who’s always going to be making interesting music. I’ll listen to anything but I’ve gotten lazier about going out there and getting it, you know – like acquiring new musical experiences and the old ones can be worn out, you can still want something so… On the other hand, musical services like Rhapsody [Napster] and Spotify, I hate that but it’s seductive and you get introduced to stuff, that you are like, ‘Why haven’t I heard of this guy?’ On the other hand, the great thing about music is when you used to go into record stores it used to have that serendipitous quality about it as opposed to having your taste engineered. Which is pretty much the case now.
DB: Do you ever play vinyl or do you mostly download music?
TFM: Mostly I’ll stream music. In that peripatetic existence, that we talked about, I slugged around a lot of boxes of albums right, so when these things came along and I realised: ‘Oh man there’s this whole thing and you don’t have to…’ But if you go back and listen to vinyl, it’s still amazing.
DB: And the album covers and stuff.
TFM: Yeah, I used to love album covers. You’d see something interesting looking in the discounts bin. Buy that. That first album we bought that we were talking about I just remember this drawing of the silhouette of Donovan from “Catch The Wind”. I drew that for a girl I had a crush on. But album covers in general.
DB: Do you ever go and see live music?
TFM: I do but again, in New Orleans, it’s everywhere. I’m not 25 so I’ll catch it when friends come to town, we’ll go out for music. I don’t make too many journeys to the bar or club at midnight anymore.
DB: Is there an artist or band that you’ve never seen live that you would love to see live if you got the opportunity to?
TFM: Well shame on me for never seeing Leonard Cohen live. No one I can think off-hand.
DB: Best concert you’ve ever been to?
TFM: The Who. Their American tour of Tommy at the Cincinnati Opera House – of course we were whacked out of our minds… and they did Tommy from start to finish.
DB: Do you like to dance?
TFM: I do actually! It’s a hit or miss sort of thing. I do have a sense of rhythm when I allow myself to. One of the reasons you go out in New Orleans is they dance in New Orleans and when people dance in New Orleans at bars ‘it don’t make no difference if you 6 years old or you 60 as long as you’re moving something!’ That makes it a lot easier.
DB: What does music mean to you, generally? Is it an important thing in your life?
TFM: It’s curious, at one time it was all-consuming – I shouldn’t say ‘all-consuming’ otherwise I would be a musician – but certainly, all that dairy farming time and all that time in Seattle and then subsequently New Orleans, those were all, for me, music-rich environments. Seattle music was punk music, in Tennessee it was really raw, Appalachian music, in New Orleans it was just New Orleans’ music and it was live, so you didn’t even really have to have a stereo because you could just go out and hear amazing music. It’s interesting to observe, it’s unfortunate, and I still respond to music but it’s just not central to the way I go about my day.
Three questions we try to ask everyone:
DB: What’s your favourite word? Or one you use more than anything else?
TFM: You can probably guess what that is! Fuck me! (Both laugh)
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
TFM: Well I’d feed the chickens, get the eggs. (Laughs) Hmm. I guess, it sounds so pretentious but, any day you have spent making movies or a piece of theatre, or whatever, that goes well, is a really good day! I guess I take the day too much as it comes to have that notion. I have ample opportunity if there’s something I need to do, to do it, so… A perfect day is being engaged in something that you like to do and it helps to be engaged with other people as well. I don’t know. (Both laugh) Isn’t this just another perfect day?
DB: What could you not possibly live without?
TFM: My car. My ability to go somewhere.
You can find Thomas on IMDb:
[Update: Since our interview Thomas has appeared in the movies Darlin’ (written and directed by Pollyanna McIntosh), The Demonologist and Gothic Harvest. On TV he has been in Bull and NCIS: New Orleans]
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.