The Cut: Tom Hughes talks cinematic icons and musical expression

We meet and shoot the British actor in the HUNGER studio...

Born and bred in Cheshire, Tom Hughes had a classic British acting baptism after graduating RADA in 2008, but, the leading man didn’t in fact take to the screen until the late noughties. When he did, though, the young actor delved in head first, and has taken on a multitude of roles in a multitude of worlds. From the smash hit show Victoria where he plays the namesakes husband, Prince Albert, to the mysterious Leo in Red Joan, Hughes immerses himself into his roles with the upmost integrity and understanding. A quality, it seems, he admires wholeheartedly in the industry icons he’s looked up to: from the presence of Gary Oldman to the intensity of Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Hughes’ cinematic role models are undoubtedly character actors who can command the audience with one look. Tom too, can command his viewers, from the small screen to the silver one, his performances are enticing, his roles varied. Playing the guitar from the age of five onwards, Tom Hughes the musician is not just another part to play, it’s an integral part of his identity and one we learnt all about when we met him at the HUNGER studio. We caught up with the vibrant actor to know about his latest endeavours, his cinematic memories and where he’s off to next…

Where did you grow up? What was your upbringing like?

I grew up in Chester, in Cheshire – it was alright. Nice and normal.

Were you surrounded by much creativity?

Yeah I was, yeah. There was a lot of music. My dad plays music, he’s in a soul band – not professionally though! Which I also did with my dad, my cousins a session guitarist and my other cousin is a photographer. Creativity was there, but it wasn’t like it was peoples jobs. Creativity was a big part of my youth though definitely.

What were your earliest memories of film?

That’s a funny question that one. I didn’t choose to watch a film in my own company until I was 21. Which is really odd, especially doing the job that I do. You cant go through life and not see film. There were films at birthday parties and all of that. The first film I can remember watching was The Yellow Submarine.

How funny, me too!

There you go! Just because it was on for what ever reason and I knew The Beatles – that’s the first memory though. I remember being completely fascinated by The Nowhere Man. Obviously, I knew the song and was trying to compute how he could be nowhere, and having an existential crisis as a 5 year old: what is life then? Is there going to be a point when there is nothingness? I remember it sticking with me. The first time I put a film on was Glengarry Glenn Ross because I was doing a Mamet play and I was a rider so. I never really made the transition from falling into acting and getting enthralled by that drug and being a student of film – I never really connected those dot. It is what it is.

What about when you actually realised that acting was something that feasible as a career?

Is it?! I still haven’t realised that! It’s a modern day of living isn’t it? There wasn’t really a moment. Honestly, because I started playing guitar when I was 6 – guitar took me out of – I’m certainly not someone who doesn’t celebrate life – I love life man. I was aware of the finite nature of life, and when I was playing guitar: time kind of stood still. When I was 10, id play guitar for about 9 hours on until you stopped me – I kind of went into a different realm. It was only when I stopped playing for a year or two, a teacher asked me to play Dracula and take a week off school, and after I came off I couldn’t remember a thing that had happened – it was like I went to a different realm again – it was purifying. Way more truthful somehow, but familiar to how guitar felt. After that I knew one of these was how I was gonna spend my time. This new thing someone had ot give me permission to do – I was determined to find who the hell these people were that could let me do this – so I became like a dog with a bone because I wasn’t in control of that outlet. That by proxy become my profession, whereas music became my private escapism. I never had a eureka moment.

It’s more natural to be a progression really.

Yeah exactly, it’s rarely a bolt of lightning.

How about picking roles now that you can be more selective? What draws you to roles?

A multitude of things!

How about Red Joan?

Well with all of them I ask if it’s different to what I’ve done before. Are they gonna challenge me in a way I haven’t been challenged before. I was really conscious of that in my twenties, I was really keen to not go down certain avenues. I needed to feel like I was going against the grain. That kind of dictated that it was always a different challenge. I was excited about my thirties because I felt I’d lived a bit longer and met more characters and had a greater understanding about the dichotomy of people: no one fits into one box, no ones an archetype. It’s tricky in your early twenties because characters have to fit in a box to fit into a structure of a piece. That was the main draw of Red Joan. The main fascination came through Joan’s eyes: the author wanted Joan’s decision, which all boils down to one choice, to be less political and more ethical but have a bit more of a selfless idea. That drew me in because there’s a human in a unique position of extreme tension and very few of us will have to experience that. Leo becomes a very important part but I wanted to show her story more. Leo is an enigma in may ways but a believable one I felt. One that I recognised: there’s a purity and boyishness to him. But, I was most excited about playing this incredible charm, but a reckless charm. Charming people are charming because they don’t know they are charming. There’s a challenge to play someone like that who had this magic, but you knew it was going to end in darkness.

Also quite socially relevant too, were you using the current climate to aid that?

It is tumultuous nowadays in how things are shifting, but obviously it’s a different era. There is a similarity of course because in times of any political unrest the peoples psyche is affected similarly History is cyclical as well, but it’s important to remember context. The human condition never changes, but the story has to be constrained and be told through the prism of that time otherwise the relevance today doesn’t stand up. We have to see a reflection, but not one that is crystal clear to ourselves.

After you’ve finished a role, how does it feel to leave them behind?

Fine, actually! One of the choices I made was not to take a role with options. Like y’know getting to the end of season one and someone being like oh he’s a superhero. I’d be like fuck! I should have played him completely different. I wanted to finish something and know the beginning and end of what I’m doing and be subtle about it. Then leave it completely be, the feeling of finish something is cathartic. As long as it gets to a a natural conclusion, it’s all good.

How do you think you’ve evolved?

Jesus Christ man! I genuinely don’t know.

Any changes over the past few years?

Not really. Like, I’ve just got my head down doing my job. I feel like I’ve been doing that for quite a while. The only seismic shift for me was when I stopped being in my band – but that was like 8 years ago now. There was a weird wobble of only having one outlet after having two for so long. That year was tricky, how do I exist with only one outlet? We all have that moment of questioning your route – but I’ve had my head down since. I watch myself and I’m like jJesus Thomas, there’s so many things you could have done better there lad. I think that’s good – I’d hate for it to be any other way. If I get to appoint where I can stand back and reflect, I don’t think I can do my job anymore.

Life’s what happens when you’re making other plans!

Hello, John Lennon!

Have you noticed much change in the film industry over the last few years?

I don’t know really. Any change at all that ends with equality is necessary and justifiable and needed. Whatever that may be ad however that may impact things. Art should be a representation of life and should be as true and honest as it can be. It should give everyone a voice and particularly those who aren’t given one normally in real life. The practical day-to-day feeling of that shift is real, and there has been a change in ideology and I hope it’s seen in this industry and all industries really. It’s broader than one industry.

Does it feel like it’s a positive time to be creating?

I don’t know, every time is a positive time to be creating I guess. It feels like we’re in an unprecedented time, so maybe the reaction will be positive and will hopefully allow for a freedom of expression  but  don’t think we’re quite there yet. I think for everyone with this technological revolution, everyone’s kind of unsure where we actually are. It’s definitely an interesting time to be creating though.

What are your desert island artists then?

Blood on the tracks. Have to say Oasis: Definitely, Maybe changed my life at that time. Revolver. A lot of Reggae a lot of soul. Ray Charles. The Stones. The Kinks. Paul Kossoff. Terry Kath, Jimmy Hendrix. Stone Roses. Early dance music. Fucking anything man. I’m drawn to the way people communicate through music, the beauty of simple poetry. I’m drawn to a fucking great beat and I cant seem to escape it.

What’s coming up next for you?

I’ve just finished Shephard – about a guy going through a breakdown and it kind of gets paranormal. His lines between reality blurs and the island becomes a manifestation of his psyche – a nice light hearted one. [laughs]

What films have stood out in terms of how they’ve shaped you?

My exposure to films has always been second hand, it’s hard for it to be utterly escapism because I started after I’ve already looked behind the curtain if y’know what I mean. Although I learn a lot, I think it’s different I imagine. Different to someone who viewed it as a thing that was far from them. I’m a fucking enormous Gary Oldman fan, like the first 20 minutes of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy where he holds you for that long without talking – how does he do that? That shot of Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, when he’s goes to England: how can you imbue yourself with that much feeling without even moving? Im blown away by it. There’s always a technical element where I’m trying to piece together how they do it. In terms of shaping me: I don’t know man. Space Jam! The first performance that grabbed me was Leon. That introduced me to Gary Oldman, the whole thing had such a choice aesthetic. I was shook by it, then True Romance. I’m a big fan of Pete Postlethwaite and Ed Norton.

I was gonna ask you about your cinematic icon, but it sounds like Gary Oldman

Haha, I don’t know! That’s more of an acting icon, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to answer that. Other people have more a photographic eye than me, I’m drawn to the humanity more. I’m fascinated by people and shining the light on the things we think we can’t talk about and fascinated by the lies people tell themselves. The way we interact, the way we are all animals and trapped into this experience we’ve made for ourselves, but still have our base emotions. I’m still blown away by how people see things physically, I see things more rhythmically. My colours are dancing man, they’re not pictures. People who can draw and take a good photograph – I’m always blown away: they have a superpower I don’t possess.

You have other superpowers though?

I don’t! I can make a great omelette and that’s about it.

2 May 2019