Tom Hollander Doesn’t Shirk From A Less Than Likeable Lead Role

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Douglas Petersen is prickly. The biochemist and father of one is picky, nervous and reluctant to change his mind. Tom Hollander sees his job as the actor playing a character like Douglas is, in part, to make him relatable — which he does, of course, in spades. Hollander talks Douglas, Us and how to find the humanity and the humor in a difficult role.

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

And after all of that — the tour, the trains, the jellyfish stings — Connie and Douglas really have called it quits.

CLIP

Connie Got the corduroy out, I see.

Douglas Lasts a lifetime.

Connie Is that a good thing?

Douglas I think so. Back in fashion apparently.

Connie Is it now. And who told you that?

Douglas I’m pleased to see you.

Connie You too.

Jace It’s not for lack of trying — Douglas didn’t pursue his son, Albie, across Europe for nothing.

CLIP

Douglas Hola. Como estas? Hello Albie, it’s me.

Albie I can see that!

Douglas What are the chances …

Jace But this delicate, deliberate portrait of a marriage moved to friendship was just as intentional as the work of the couple at its core, played by Saskia Reeves and Tom Hollander.

CLIP

Douglas I understand why you wanted to go but, I don’t think you  you should, not now. I know it’s frightening, it just being the two of us again, it frightens me too, but I know that we can make it feel more like it did when we began.

Connie A long time ago, Douglas –

Douglas I know –

Connie It can’t ever be like that again. I’m not even sure I’d want it to be.

Jace Hollander has a deft appreciation for the virtues and faults of Douglas, the uptight biochemist, and he joins us to explain why likeability isn’t always at the forefront of his process as an actor.

And this week, we are joined by Us star Tom Hollander. Welcome.

Tom Hollander Hello, hello. Hi!

Jace You not only star in Us, the adaptation of David Nichols’ novel of the same name, but you’re also a producer alongside David on the project. What attracted you to this project initially?

Tom Well, working with David, in the adaptation of his book — he’s a great screenwriter and also a novelist, obviously. And the scripts were still at a stage of development, he’d written, I think the first two, and when we came on board, we got to finish adapting the book with him, which was fascinating and rewarding.

Jace In a piece you wrote about Us for The Evening Standard, you described it as, quote, “A sort of reverse rom-com. Instead of watching people who love each other try to get together, we watch people who love each other try to break up.” Was that part of the appeal then, a falling out of love story that ultimately is a testament to both love and family?

Tom Well, yeah, I mean, I thought that was a smart way of describing the structure. What I really liked about it was that it makes the idea of breaking up not the end of the world. It’s such a common thing, it made it seem that though it was tragic in some ways, it wasn’t a tragedy, it wasn’t a disaster in their lives, and it meant that the breakup of a relationship could be encompassed within a life in a way that didn’t have to be the end of everything and in a way, the most important speech, I think, in the story is Connie’s speech to him at the end.

CLIP

Connie I never thought it was a mistake. I’ve never regretted it, never will. Listen to me! Meeting you, marrying you, it was the best thing I ever did. And when our daughter died, I wanted to die too and the only reason I didn’t was because you were always there. You’re a fine, brilliant man, Douglas. And you’ve no idea how much I’ve loved being married to you and now you can be my fine, brilliant ex-husband. And we’ve a son who is exactly as maddening as he should be and he’s ours, he’s mine and yours and he’s part of both of us. And the fact that you and I didn’t last forever, well you’ve got to stop thinking of it as a failure or defeat. Because we were good, the two of us together and it’s not the end of the world. It’s not. And I swear, Douglas, life will go on and it will be good. It will.

Tom And it is so common that people break up these days, statistically, we we all know that, that it was, I thought, wonderful to see a story that was compassionate and humorous about that. And not couched in failure and depression and all about endings, so I think that’s really what I liked about it. And that’s what people I know in the UK who watched it found moving and relatable.

Jace Connie is an artist. Douglas provides a sort of staid comfort. He’s sort of the human equivalent of an itchy wool jumper at times. It’s difficult at times to like Douglas. Did you struggle at all with Douglas’s perception of victimhood, or his likability here?

Tom My answer would change, I suppose, at different points. But at the moment, I think that your job is to make a character relatable, whether that’s the same as likable. I don’t know. But I think we are all dislikable at times. And so to represent sort of, I suppose, a fully rounded human being that has to include the bits that are not attractive. That’s not the case, obviously, if you’re playing a sort of conventional hero, but in my experience of real life as it is lived, there is no such thing, so it’s interesting to play somebody who is is difficult. And in a drama like Us, he’s not a comic monster, he’s a real person who has foibles and faults, as we all do. Nobody’s wholly likable and nobody’s wholly dislikable. So real people are somewhere in the middle and a mixture of all those things.

Jace I mean, he’s a well-made wool jumper, I grant you that, he just happens to be incredibly itchy at times, he’s keeping you warm, but he’s you know, he’s driving you nuts at the same time. Douglas and Connie feel like opposites who have managed to make it work for as long as they did. But they’ve reached the end of the road together. How shaken is Douglas by Connie’s desire to split from him at this point in their lives?

Tom It seems like the end of the world, the end of their world, the end of his world, and then the story shows us that it isn’t. And that’s what’s interesting about it, but it’s a story about someone trying to control everything, trying to avoid what they think is the worst thing that could be happening to them at that particular moment and having to accept that they can’t. And that they have to let it happen. And then the story allows him to have a future without her, which is a compassionate thing, but to answer your question head on, very.

Jace We learn in the back half of the series that Douglas and Connie lost a child before Albie came along. When I spoke to Saskia last week, she said that she felt it was Jane’s death that kept Douglas and Connie together. Do you feel that that incident fused them together in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had she lived? Is that the thing that is sort of bound them for this for this long?.

Tom Well, I don’t know, um, that’s interesting, Saskia says that I don’t I don’t know. I mean, we are making this up, aren’t we? What he’s written is, is that it’s something that they’ve shared, clearly, that’s kept them together, but it’s also something that is a shadow over them. It’s a scar, it’s a pain, isn’t it? So, I mean, I think people that lose children, it’s often sometimes it’s a source of people breaking up, just as often as it is a reason for people to stay together, so I think it’s a it’s a double-edged sword.

Jace We mentioned Saskia  Reeves, who plays Connie. Your scenes with her are full of such tension and passion and frustration. What is Saskia like as a scene partner here?

Tom Oh, wonderful. We met several people to play the part, and she claimed it immediately by being so open and so readable. Her face is a wonderful combination of beauty and pain and experience all there. I loved acting with Saskia. It was a privilege and it was very moving, I found it very moving, acting with her. And there were difficult scenes to play, sad scenes to play, but I don’t think the story is sad. But there was a lot of sadness in i.   I am in Croatia at the moment and there is in Zagreb, there’s the most wonderful museum called the Museum of Broken Relationships, which is a peculiar, funny, quirky notion but it’s a museum full of people’s mementos. People have essentially sent in all the objects in it or objects that people have sent in. Anyone can do it, by the way, find the website and you can send in something. People have sent in Post-it notes of uncompleted things that they sent to each other, or old jumpers or pairs of shoes that remind them of people that have been in their lives and gone. And Douglas and Connie really should be in there. In fact, I could send them a box set of the series, that would be a good exhibit. But that museum, it’s very moving. It’s very consoling to see how commonplace it is, that it’s part of normal life, that those feelings that you have, which you think you’re going to die, you don’t you don’t, from that, you die from some annoying medical condition or some accident, you don’t die from a broken heart. And I suppose Us the series is, in a way, it’s the same thing. It’s like an exhibit in that museum. It’s it’s poignant and sad and touching and moving. But it’s also okay, it’s compassionate and yeah, forgiving.

Jace I asked Saskia about this, and I’d love to get your perspective, because this is a show, again about looking backwards and sort of long relationships. How and when exactly did you first meet Saskia and what role did feature Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville play in your connecting?

Tom My memory of meeting Saskia is is I know the one you’re referring to because we were driving her furniture down to Stratford. So Hugh and I were doing that, but I had met her before that in in clubs. We were we were with this did not involve Hugh Bonneville, but we all went to the same nightclubs for a bit in the early ‘90s, um, very much as Connie and Douglas do. So that world that you see represented where they got together in the ‘90s, we met each other then. So we did have, we do have the same passage of time in our history. We’ve both become middle-aged in the same city, over the same sort of time spectrum. I don’t think I was quite as uncool as Douglas. I wasn’t cool as her. She was the one living in a loft apartments and was very, very hip. I was not living in a loft, but I was doing my best to be part of the rave culture of the early ‘90s in London. So that was that, in my mind. That’s when we met. But I know that we did also drive down to Stratford with Lord Grantham. That’s true.

Jace The flashback scenes between Douglas and Albie showcase their inability to understand one another, whether that’s Albi and the LEGO, or his ‘compelling’ photographs. Was it important, do you feel, to see these flashbacks to better understand the context of the complicated relationship between father and son?

Tom Well, yes, and I think the function of them is that you meet a sort of grumpy teenager and an exasperated father. And then because you see these flashbacks later on, you discover that actually Douglas has not been great, and that the grumpy teenager has quite a lot to feel angry about, and so I suppose there’s a sort of revealing of the onion skins with flashbacks, which don’t show Douglas off in a very flattering way. More than being an itchy jumper, he’s actually been quite a difficult father. And so they are very important. And then they fuel that whole sequence in Barcelona, well, the whole journey of Douglas trying to make or sort of repair his broken relationship with his son, that’s very important, isn’t it? So, um, my my almost favorite scene in it is. The thing the scene at the top of the steps in Barcelona, where the son and father finally come together, and they have to stay, he’s able to say that he loves him. And Tom Taylor, who played Albie, is such a lovely chap that I found it, I don’t have any children myself, I found it very enjoyable to act with him and he was very raw and very authentic and sincere and, yeah, I enjoyed it. We assumed a sort of — actually we got some rather too well, off screen, we were, Tom and I, got on really well, as a sort of two kids, really, I assumed the role of a child as well, which comes all too easily to me. Though we learned from Saskia what it was like to be a parent because Saskia is a parent with a child of the appropriate age. So she knew what she was doing there, I was pretending to be a dad.

Jace Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…

Douglas heads off on a fool’s errand, one might say, to try and find Albie, he ends up crossing paths with divorced dentist Freya, played by Sophie Grabble of The Killing fame. There’s an immediate sense that somehow these two are better suited for each other. What does Douglas make of Freya, and how much more open he seems to be with her?

Tom Well, Freya is, yeah, I mean, they’re better suited to each other at this moment, aren’t they? I mean, who knows if they’d met at a different time in their lives, they might not have related to each other in the same way, but, yeah, Freya is already broken up with her husband, and when she talks about it, Douglas sees his own future. So they have a lot in common. Douglas doesn’t mention initially that he’s breaking up, too. He talks to her as if he’s still in a functioning relationship. So it’s when he hears Freya talking about her own breakup, he realizes that’s what he’s going through himself and. So and they don’t they don’t get together in the story as we see it, they’re going to get together, which is slightly different, isn’t it? So they have a moment where they become they get very, I mean, they obviously get very close to each other, but nothing happens. And. Douglas doesn’t want to be unfaithful. He gets distracted at a moment and feels terrible about it. And at the end of the story, as you know, we see them then relaxed together. A little bit of time has passed and we see that they have become a couple.

Jace Which I love it to me, that ending shows that Douglas has moved on, that he has begun a new life, that one that feels perhaps more spontaneous and worldly, which I love to see. It’s Freya who sort of gives Douglas this advice in a sort of very matter of factly Danish way.

CLIP

Freya It’s undignified to hold onto the sleeve of someone who wants to leave.

Jace Which I think is such a beautiful line. Do you see in that respect, then, that Us is ultimately a story about learning to be able to to let go with everything?.

Tom Exactly. I mean, it’s, as I was trying to say earlier, in a very waffly way, it’s about someone trying to avoid something, trying to control the something that they can’t control and discovering that it’s okay. I mean, it is undignified to hold onto, to try and cling onto the sleeve of someone who wants to go, but how many people are able to recognize that at the time? I mean, anyone who’s ever been left by anyone, there’s always, however efficient you are about recognizing, everyone clings onto that sleeve, at least for a few moments, if not months, if not years, and it’s hard. And also, yeah, so yes, in her sort of brilliantly down to earth, I mean, it’s a yes, it’s telling it as it is. But she you sense that she has held on and is still mourning it. Anyway, she rescues him.

Jace They all rescue each other, in their own ways, I suppose, which is what I love most. I want to talk about the jellyfish scene. It is a pretty horrific and intense scene. Douglas swims into a smack of jellyfish on the beach in Spain. You’ve been stung by a jellyfish in real life. Did you draw upon your own experiences here to shoot this intense scene?

Tom Well, I suppose so. I mean, I know because I wasn’t really I wasn’t stung or anything like as badly as Douglas is stung. I was stung enough to know I mean, my mom and I certainly didn’t go to hospital. I did have someone pee on me, so I knew I knew from experience that it didn’t work. And I think there’s a line in Us where I say, that’s a myth. So that is a myth that I’ve learned in real time. But I hope that I wouldn’t have a heart attack if I got stung that badly, though I suppose it’s a possibility. No, that’s all that’s comic scary, it’s not it’s not funny, that. Yes, I’ve got to the age where heart attacks are a possibility and I have friends who’ve had heart attacks. So it’s something, so I didn’t I wasn’t drawing on my own experience as having a heart attack, but I was certainly drawing on my own sense of foreboding and fear and imagining about what it’s like to have a heart attack. and also then to recover and survive one, I suppose.

Jace We mentioned the scene between Douglas and  Albie as they lie on the floor of the hotel room between the two beds waiting for the ambulance. And I personally, I didn’t find it cringeworthy. I have a son myself. He’s seven, so he’s much younger than Albie. But I loved this scene so much because there was so much sort of unspoken between them that he just says, ‘Can we just lie here quietly?’ And they just sort of hold hands. And it is the closest they’ve ever been to each other over the course of this or indeed over these characters’ lives. It is such a touching, beautiful scene, I think, because of the quietness of it and the stillness of it, for a character who is sort of all about order and control, to see him basically acquiesce and just say, I just want to lie here.

CLIP

Douglas I’m very frightened, Albie.

Albie They’re on their way. You’re going to be fine.

Douglas Hope so. If I’m not, tell your mother…Oh, she knows. Let’s just lie here, shall we? Lie quietly. And wait.

Jace It’s just a beautiful scene to me. I mean, has he been humbled by these experiences, by his brush with death, his search for his son, the sort of odessyian quest that he’s been on? Does he ultimately come out of this a better, more complete person, Douglas?

Tom Well, goodness, what a question. Life has taught him that he can’t control it, but I don’t know that he needed to be humbled. In a way, he’d already become humbled. I mean, I don’t think he’s a man that thinks he’s exceptional or that the rules are different for him. If anything, he’s sort of. I mean, when he’s telling Albie that he can’t be an artist because it’s too difficult, in a way, Douglas is already cowed by life. He’s made all these kind of rather limiting decisions, he’s living in a sort of with short horizons, isn’t he? So in a way, I don’t think I don’t think he’s arrogant. I think he’s just living a small, controlled life, which I think he needs to, he’s too anxious to live in a freer, more expansive way, I see it like that. So he pays the price for that. Perhaps he was lucky to marry Connie. I mean, he got to marry someone that he really loved. She, in a way, was perhaps making more compromises, wasn’t she? So. In fact, I noticed that in the Museum of Broken Relationships, the people who had loved who adored someone and been left in a way had they had the feeling of being adoring all that time, which they still remembered very fondly, they didn’t, the experience of being completely in love with someone is not entirely unrewarding for its own sake. So Douglas has kind of has had this time with this woman that he adored, but couldn’t hold on to because he wasn’t right for her, and I hope in time that he will be grateful for that and not see it only as a loss. And then he gets to meet someone else marvelous and go off with them. So it’s actually he’s actually rather lucky.

Jace You recovered from COVID last year, and wrote a beautiful piece for Selwyn, which was reprinted in the New Statesman about the healing power of gardening, about learning the names of the wildflowers taught to you by your housebound father via text. What prompted you to write that piece? And how has the last year shifted your view of the world?

Tom Oh, goodness. Well, I mean, my view of the world has shifted, as everyone else’s is, is that we’re not we’re still finding out the consequences to it only. I am I mean, one very simple one is. The inability to travel, which were all certainly in the U.K. at the moment, he’s very much on everyone’s minds as the country tries to unlock We’re still living in a world of masks and fear and I had quite a nasty version of COVID, it was nasty enough. It felt like a little tap on the shoulder about mortality. And I so I feel everything is more fragile, I feel the world that I took for granted has gone actually, and that that coincides with all sorts of things, that coincides with the Western world giving way to the Asian superpower. Our assumption of kind of, the U.K.-American and Germany, that seemed to hold sway in the 60s and 70s and 80s, that’s that’s gone and going. And that coincides with this feeling of this pandemic coming to change, shake us all up and threaten us. And also for me, it coincides with age, a certain aging, and that my those prime years, my 20s, 30s, 40s, they were spent in a different world from the one that we’re entering now. I there will be great rewards for this. I’m sure there will be beautiful things that come out of it. I’m not quite sure what they are yet, it’s hard not to just think of it in terms of losses, but there have to be gains and obviously the gain that we hope for as there’s a social revolution going on. Maybe there will be an outbreak of a new modesty or something, a general a general modesty about the way that we consume everything. A modesty revolution would be helpful, but I don’t really know what that means. And that means self-sacrifice, which, uh, few of us are really used to, or we all talk about it and how many of us are doing it. So that’s all a bit gloomy. I don’t know. I felt that things that were local, things that were right next to you, people that were right next to you and always had been, they suddenly all became and have become much more valuable in the COVID time. It’s made you appreciate the village that is immediately around you, whether that’s a real village or a, you know, local community.

Jace What is the role that people on the street most consistently recognize you for? Is it Rev? Is it The Night Manager, Pirates, Pride and Prejudice, Bird Box, In The Loop. I mean, your CV is enormous. What is the one role?

Tom There isn’t one. I mean, honestly, it depends. It depends on the demographic. There are women British women of a certain age, it’s Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence. There’s a sort of international audience for Pride and Prejudice. There’s a obviously there’s an international audience for Pirates, but that tends to be people who were kids around 2007 and 2008. In The Loop tends to be a male audience that tends to be men in their 30s and 40s who love that voice, that Jesse Armstrong voice. There are different cohorts for different shows, but and there’s also just a whole bunch of people who who recognize me, but they’re not quite sure what from that’s really the largest one. The largest one is a, ‘I know you don’t I?’ There’s that. And then and then I and then I get grumpily have to list my TV to wait until they’re, ‘No, it’s not that. No, no, no it’s not that.’ ‘Well you might have seen me in Pr…’ ‘No, no, no, no. What is it. What is it. It’s no I dunno…;’ it is a great privilege to be recognized for being for the work that you do. It’s an unusual benefit of being doing something that’s by definition in the public eye. And it is not at a level that is irritating. I find it I enjoy it very much and feel very grateful for it. I wouldn’t want to be yeah, I mean, there are some people who are so famous that their life becomes really difficult and that’s not the case with me. And yeah, I feel quite lucky.

Jace You’re starring in The Ipcress File as Major Dahlby, the role played by Nigel Green in the 1965 Michael Caine led adaptation.

Tom Brilliant research for this. I’m very impressed.

Jace Thank you. What can you tell us about the production?

Tom Well, I can tell you that it is being shot visually in a very similar style to the original film. So it will be a very stylish. The clothes are amazing and it will it’s it’s a gritty thriller, but it’ll be snappily paced, I think. And it will be a kind of love letter to the ‘60s in terms of the cars and the clothes and the color. I mean that by which I mean the the tint of the of the sort of film is digital. But the way it looks and it’s got very well-written scripts by John Hodge, who wrote the screenplay of Trainspotting. This is his first TV writing, and we’re all very lucky to be surfing on his on his scripts. It’s got much more contemporary writing. So there’s the Jean, the female character who’s sort of opposite Harry Palmer is played by Lucy Boynton. And that’s a brilliant character in a way that she was much more of a sort of objectified, two-dimensional dolly bird in the original film. In this, she is a ‘60s woman, but seen through the lens of 2021. And Lucy will be brilliant in it. And Joe Cole, who’s playing Harry Palmer, is also wonderful. He has a lot of the wit and the attitude of Michael Caine. But there is it doesn’t have the kind of sheer chauvinism of the ‘60s version, basically. It’s got a contemporary sensibility in it, but it’s got the wit and the edge of the original. I need to say, something pithy, like it’s Mad Men meets The Night Manager or something like that.

Jace I was going to say Mad Men meets John Le Carre..

Tom Yeah. Mad Men meets John Le Carre. That’s better. Yeah.

Jace I can’t wait. Tom Hollander, thank you so very much.

Tom Well, thanks for having me. Thank you.

Jace There’s another season of Unforgotten on the horizon, and the case is just as twisted and twisty as ever.

CLIP

Sunny Fiver if you know when Marathon changed to Snickers.

Cassie 2000?

Sunny Way out, 1990.

Cassie Oh wow. Where did my life go?

Sunny Yeah the victim erm had a Marathon wrapper in his pocket which we’re checking for DNA.

Cassie And Jake said you think he’d been kept in a freezer?

Sunny Pretty sure now, the lab’s confirmed traces of blood in a freezer found near the body.

Cassie What, and you’re thinking he’s been in there since the nineties?

Sunny Dunno.

Cassie Ah, weird, why would someone keep a body for thirty years?

Jace We’ll leave the crime solving to Cass and Sunny, but we’ll unpack the messy, meaty season with series creator and writer Chris Lang at the end of it all on August 15.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.

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