Since graduating from LAMDA, British actor, Tom Riley has moved between TV, film and theatre, flexing his versatile acting muscles in drama and comedy.
His recent role as Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard's celebrated Broadway play, Arcadia, won him a host of glittering reviews, awards and highlighted him as an exciting new talent. Now returning to the London stage for Stephen Poliakoff's first play for 12 years, My City. IDOL chatted to him about forgetting lines, his latest role and the best advice he's ever had.
YOU ARE STARRING IN STEPHEN POLIAKOFF’S MY CITY, CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT IT?
My City is a play about London, the power of storytelling, teachers, and the way those three things interlink to completely change and uproot people’s lives.
HOW DID YOU GET THE PART?
It was weird, it was when I was doing Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, I was told that Stephen was going to do his first play in 12 years and was I interested? I was like, “Um, yes!” But I could only meet him on Skype and Stephen would be the first to admit that he isn’t the most technologically minded, so it was quite a weird conversation.
WERE YOU INTIMIDATED WORKING WITH SOMEONE SO PROLIFIC?
I don’t know if intimidated is the right word. You want to do justice to the writing and that was intimidating, being sure that you squeeze everything out of what he’s written, because it’s so rich. Being intimidated can be quite inhibiting but it’s important not to be crippled by it.
YOU’VE BEEN IN A MIXTURE OF TV, FILM AND THEATRE, WHAT DO YOU FEEL THE MOST COMFORTABLE DOING?
Well in theatre you get to take time in rehearsals, picking the scenes and characters apart and as in this case and in Arcadia you have the writer with you in the room. This way you can get the most out of it, so you should feel more comfortable, in that you can feel like you’re covering every base. I really enjoy film and TV in the way that you only really get one go to get it right, and it’s all on your instinct. I enjoy theatre the most in the first month.
WHY DO YOU ACT?
IT CAN BE QUITE UNREWARDING AND HARD TO GET BY…
Yeah, it can! You don’t really enjoy the auditioning. You don’t enjoy waiting to hear about the audition. You don’t really enjoy the reviews…Even if they’re good because you become masochistic about it. The only real moment that you enjoy is the moment that you’re doing it, and that is the reason. It’s like a drug.
HOW DO YOU TAKE CRITICISM?
It depends what type it is really. If it’s coming from a place that you respect then you should probably listen to it, if you aren’t listening to criticism then you’re doing something wrong. If you’re getting notes from someone it’s not because they think you’re bad, but think you could do better. Criticism in the press can be hard, especially if it’s when you don’t have control over the way something is edited and you can’t really answer back to the press.
DOES IT AFFECT YOUR PERFORMANCE?
Yeah, that’s why I shouldn’t read it, it kills me. The internet is the worst, especially if you’re bored. Twitter is terrible…amazing and terrible all at the same time. Whether it’s good or bad, I just don’t like reading it. Even if it’s a director saying that I was good at something, then the next time I’m like, "Ooh it’s the bit that I’m good at coming up! Better not fuck it up!"
WHAT’S BEEN THE BEST AND WORST MOMENT OF YOU’RE CAREER SO FAR?
Best moment was the opening night of Arcadia. It’s been this year, really, I’m having a great year. The opening was great, it felt like a rock ‘n’ roll concert, the way they do it in America is astonishing. The worst was probably that same night when I forgot a line!
OH DEAR, WHAT DID YOU DO WHEN THAT HAPPENED?
Just stared into the abyss and somewhere in the distance I could hear myself as a baby, crying (laughs). It was just a moment when, not only did I not know my line, I didn’t know what the scene was, who I was, who was looking at me. Everything went and that was terrible!
WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD BE DOING IF YOUR ACTING CAREER WASN’T TAKING OFF?
I’d like to say that I’d be a chef because I really love cooking, but I probably wouldn’t be. I’d like to be a chef in a top restaurant and wouldn’t have to do all the years of training!
WHAT ROLES DO YOU LIKE PLAYING?
I like playing bad guys. I’ve been really lucky, I’ve been given a lot of shits, but redeemable ones. I got to redeem Mr Wickham! Lost In Austen is the thing that got the biggest response, I still get letters from all over the world, there was just something about that guy being an arsehole – but actually he’s not that bad.
WHAT WAS YOUR AMBITION WHEN YOU STARTED ACTING?
Just to be proud of myself, just to do work with integrity that I would want to see. I mean Hollywood is great and all the trappings that come with it, but actually none of that gives you the satisfaction. If you went in for it for fame and money then you probably shouldn’t have gone in for it. As long as it’s good and you enjoy what you’re doing, then I don’t care if it’s in Bulgaria.
WHO WOULD YOU LOVE TO WORK WITH – ALIVE OR DEAD?
Alive or dead! I’d love to work with Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon. In terms of directors, I love Lars Von Trier, but I imagine it would be a nightmare!
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE THAT YOU’VE BEEN GIVEN?
I don't know if it's the best but it's certainly one that feels the most relevant whilst in the theatre. Someone told me it was massively important to find something to love in the performing of a piece onstage. To believe in what you're doing utterly. Because even if it's reviewed horribly, or you get lambasted for choices that have been foisted upon you, you still have to get up onstage every night and give it your all. And if you have no love for it, you won't enjoy it. And if you don't enjoy it, what's the point? ...The only other invaluable piece of advice I can think of is "never eat yellow snow. “
ARE YOU QUITE CHOOSY WITH YOUR ROLES?
I would rather be stacking shelves than do an acting job that I’m not happy with. I mean, at the beginning of a career you can’t be picky, you just want to get experience, you want to get the exposure and you learn from it. Also just for my own sanity I want to make sure that I do my job and not hate myself! You just have to find a reason for why you should do it, why it works for you and whether you will get something out of it. If you’re doing it for the money, for people to recognise you in the street, or for more followers on Twitter, then you probably won’t get any joy out of it.
WHAT’S THE BEST THING ABOUT THE JOB?
The people, just meeting really cool people, constantly. Entire crews are just full of really interesting people, every department is just fascinating, they all have their own specialities and skills.
WHAT ABOUT THE WORST?
The rejection. You get used to it, but the first two years out of drama school are really hard, and it’s tough not to take it personally every time you get a "no". I’ve got to the stage where they brought six separate women in to read for a part, they were all brilliant and you realise that it’s going to come down to someone’s height, or hair colour. Seeing that is kind of a relief because you realise that it’s not that you’re shit.
ARE THERE PEOPLE WHO INSPIRE YOU AS AN ACTOR?
Yeah, I remember when I watched Sideways for the first time, I won’t ruin it for you but there’s a bit near the end when Paul Giammati is told something by his wife and his face didn’t move at all but somewhere in the back of his eyes you saw his world collapse, and I remember just being like, "Shit, that is acting, I might as well give this up, because I’m never going to be able to do that."
WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES A GOOD ACTOR GOOD?
Listening and reacting.
WHO IS YOUR IDOL?
It changes constantly, you might suddenly see a performance by someone and it might blow your mind, but then they often get pumped dry by Hollywood and you’ve seen it all. Actually if anyone is my idol it’s Björk.