When I was at school the idea of chatting to an intellectual senior for pleasure was somewhat of an absurd doing. You’d either very quickly be labelled a geek, or worse, a student that had a crush on their teacher; it just wasn’t the thing to do. So when I was asked to speak to Tom Riley about his acting career earlier this week, I felt a little nervous. Not only had Riley just starred as tutor Septimus Hodge in the production ‘Arcadia’, he had also taken on the teacher role of Gavin Sorensen in a ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’. I felt like I was about to interview one of my high school lecturers….
“Your roles seem very education orientated,” I nervously put to him, the fact that he was an actor half dissolving into nothing. “Oh yeah!” he blurted back, genuinely sounding totally shocked by my innocent observations. “No one’s ever made that link!” Suddenly my anxieties towards him dissolved away and I finally got to appreciate the person that was behind the performance (the fact that he’d just played a medical professional in ‘Monroe’ we’ll bypass for the time being for the sake of my nerves).
Riley has had an impressive career to date, although he spoke about getting to the stage of having his “foot well in the door” as “tough”. He’s currently starring in the Stephen Poliakoff theatre production ‘My City’ at the Almeida Theatre (which sees Poliakoff returning to directing after a serious 12 year break).
I asked Riley what it was like reading the script for that production. “The way Stephen Poliakoff works is that he trades in mood, atmosphere and intensity. Reading the script, especially the first act, there’s a real feel of dread. I read an interview with Stephen where he actually said if it all works then he wants it to come across like a vivid dream. That’s something you get from us. That’s where a lot of the intensity comes from; everything in the play seems normal but like in a dream it’s a little bit off, things just aren’t quite right, but it carries on anyway.” It all sounded brilliantly abstruse.
I then asked which of the cast he preferred working with. He chortled, “Oh no! You can’t ask me that!” but I’m pleased I did; he began to explore a personal memory of when he visited the theatre with his family to see the ‘Venetian Twins’. He explained that David Troughton was the lead and as he watched him, aged about 9, he went “I want to be like that guy”. Then almost star struck he added, “and now I’m sharing a dressing room with him!” to which the reality was somewhat heart warming, almost comparative to the inspired relationship between his and Tracey Ullman’s character’s in ‘My City’.
“So, the teacher role…” I put to him, this time focusing my attention onto his character as 19th century tutor Septimus Hodge in ‘Arcadia’. “It’s so different to the role I play now,” he said. “Septimus was quite a sexy driven character, it was fun to play that confidence!” He went on describe the six-month run as “hardcore” for it was “easily” the longest performance he had been part of, and in turn it became a show that he took a lot from. “For me it was a real career high,” he told me. He even went as far as describing that period as a time in which he evolved, then instantly regretted sounding so retrospective and added “I can’t believe that that just came out of my mouth!” Together we laughed.
We spoke about his education and of course his time at LAMDA. Having an interest in drama at an all boys school was something that had been frowned upon so I almost wanted to hi five him when he began to talk about his experiences with Trevor Eve in the ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’ (whom he admiringly described as being an “incredibly intense and disciplined actor”). The drama had been based on Andrea Newman’s novel, so I asked which he preferred: contemporary projects or re-enacting the old. “To take a fresh look at an old character is a real privilege to do, but with something fresh and new you get the chance to completely create someone and be the first person to grip hold of it.”
He told me he’d just finished reading Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, although conversation quickly led onto his own writing and directing work. Although nothing has been confirmed it would seem this is an avenue Riley is exploring, and one I cannot wait to explore with him as a viewer.
As for now it’s back to the stage, and for 2012, Series 2 of Monroe, a medical drama that’s “fresh and character driven”, also inspired by the personal experience writer Peter Bowker had with surgeons that had cared for his daughter. Riley referred to ‘Jimmy’ (James Nesbitt) as being particularly dedicated to the show, especially the last episode that ran parallel to Bowker’s experiences.
Towards the end of our conversation (which had been just as intellectual as I had imagined) I had a real sense that Riley was more than just an actor, that he actually appreciated every level of emotion and creativity that his co-workers had put into their work, and that I greatly respected. So when I finally asked, “Tom Riley, what is your FAULT?” I was surprised at his blatant release of insecurity. He shot back at me “self critical,” which I accepted as an answer… but couldn’t help but wonder why.