From Cemetery Junction to The Game, Tom Hughes is on the rise. He tells Jimi Famurewa about leg-shaving and rock star roles
There’s a certain type of hat – woolly, outsized, showily ‘anonymous’ – that only the conspicuously famous wear. So when Tom Hughes walks into a vast west London pub with one of these things pulled low over his head a) I immediately spot him, and b) I wonder if I've wildly underestimated his fame. Has this up-and-coming actor already, well, up and come? Can he not leave the house without a swarm of fans rending his clothing? Is there a neckless security operative stationed outside, discreetly keeping a mob of screaming girls at bay? Yeah, not quite.
“Check this out,” he says, whipping off the hat to reveal a recently shaved head. Two weeks ago he finished a film which, for reasons we’ll come to, required him to take a disposable razor to his back, chest, legs (“Me with my foot on the bath; not a pretty sight”) and scalp. So that headgear is less about throwing off paparazzi and more about being uncomfortable with a new look and, perhaps, keeping out the deceptively chilly spring air.
Well, for now at least. With a lead role in one of the year’s most impressive new shows and some eye-catching smaller films in the pipeline, relative anonymity may not be available for much longer. And that’s before we get to his dream to play a certain rock star doppelgänger.
“I got to drive about nine different cars from the Seventies,” says Hughes, taking a tentative sip of his ale as we settle in a sunny corner of the beer garden. “That was just wicked.” He’s describing just one of the many pleasures of filming The Game – the BBC’s thrilling new Cold War drama and his first major lead role since, fresh from Rada, he got his career break in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s understated 2010 suburban elegy, Cemetery Junction.
The Game, to recap, is set amid the beige rooms and plentiful power cuts of Britain in 1971, following Hughes’ inscrutable spy Joe Lambe as he heads up a mismatched team of spooks trying to thwart a mysterious Soviet threat known as Operation Glass. There’s Le Carré-indebted intrigue, dark humour, grisly violence and lots of smoking.
“That was the only downside,” he laughs. “I’m not a smoker and there was a lot of chain-smoking round a table. The fake cigarettes have marshmallow in instead of tobacco, but they still have tar. It gave me something to hide behind for the character, because he’s a sly fox, but I’d go and play football with the crew after puffing away for nine scenes and think, “I’m sure I’m faster than this?” I don’t know why people always cast me as a smoker."
It’s a fair complaint. In person, the 29-year-old Chester native is smiley and chirpy, with a light Liverpudlian tinge to his voice and a nice line in laidback p*sstaking. On screen, however – from Fonzie-ish Cemetery Junction bad boy Bruce to Dancing On The Edge’s disturbing villain Julian – he’s most often a smouldering pair of sentient cheekbones, adding rogueish cool to a cast, while, as he jokingly puts it, “wearing a rollneck and skinny jeans, backlit in a cloud of smoke”.
Lazarus is risen
On the face of it Joe Lambe – fond of a rollneck and, as we’ve established, the odd Woodbine – is another one of these snarling pretty boys. After all, in America, where US-co-production The Game premiered last year, this role made him the subject of breathless Benedict Cumberbatch comparisons and a Buzzfeed list entitled “9 Reasons Actor Tom Hughes Is Your New British Obsession”. He shrugs off any burgeoning Hughesmania (“I’m not on Twitter or Facebook, so it’s the first I’ve heard of it”) and is adamant there’s depth and texture to onetime honeytrapper and possible traitor Lambe.
“He’s not cartoony like James Bond,” says Hughes. “And it’s very rare, in your twenties, to get a character with this depth and a magnitude of emotion that’s all contained and below the surface. That’s the beautiful thing about Joe. I get itchy feet as an actor, so I’ve shied away from TV shows in the past. I always want to keep trying new things, tasting new flavours.”
Which brings us to his skinhead (“I always get a seat on the Tube now,” he smiles) and a role with a very distinct flavour. Project Lazarus, directed by Mateo Gil, who wrote Oscar-winner The Sea Inside, sees Hughes play the world’s first successfully cryonised man (hence the shaving) who is successfully thawed out 60 years after illness sends him to the freezer.
“It’s got sci-fi elements and it’s futuristic, but mainly it’s a drama about death and existence,” says Hughes as we make light work of two burgers. “It’s deep and philosophical, lyrical and poetic; about a man who’s been chasing the wrong dream all his life.”
The nine-week shoot in Tenerife and Barcelona seems to have been a transformative experience. Not least because, as well as sacrificing his back hair, losing weight and quitting booze, it was one of the first times Hughes – a lifelong musician who was in jangly indie band Quaintways until 2011 – didn’t take
his guitar on a job.
“The first time I played a guitar was 10 days ago,” he admits, “and that’s probably the longest I've gone without playing since I started when I was five.” For Hughes, who still regularly plays and records, music – particularly Oasis, old blues records and an Epiphone Sheraton he talks about with the gurgling affection people normally reserve for their children – is everything. In fact, his bloody-fingered devotion to doing nothing but practise chords as a boy has led to a sizeable gap in his knowledge of other things.
“I never watched films or TV when I was a kid because I was never at home,” he says. “I was playing in bands or playing football, so there’s lots I don’t know about.” This proved particularly problematic on the set of Cemetery Junction where Gervais and Merchant would rattle off references to The Breakfast Club and Saturday Night Fever. In the end, Hughes had to quietly confess his cluelessness. “I basically went, ‘Look, unless you need me to know about
The Mighty Ducks, you’re going to have to give me something else to go on.’”
Perhaps inevitably, Hughes is hoping to marry his passions by playing a musician on screen one day. As our stray chips go cold and time runs out (Hughes is off to play five-a-side), I ask him what his dream role would be. He doesn’t miss a beat. “Mick Jagger, David Bowie; I’d love to play John Lennon,” he says, beaming at the thought. “I heard Liam Gallagher is making a Beatles film, and I got someone who knows him to tell him I’m his John Lennon.”
The plausible accent, the looks, the swagger; you can see it. But, as Aaron Taylor-Johnson would attest, playing a Beatle brings its own whirlwind of press and attention. Is a Twitter-averse actor like Hughes (“I’m not great at the internet beyond the BBC Sport homepage”) ready for that? What would he have done if he was offered, say, Fifty Shades Of Grey?
“Waxed my back,” he jokes, before pointing out that success as an actor doesn’t always mean being devoured by the Hollywood machine. “I remember going to the local pub at Rada and seeing John Hurt sitting at a table with his dinner and a pint,” says Hughes. “No one batted an eye. He’s one of the best actors around and there he is, able to have a quiet pint. I think that’s really important.” He thinks about it, puts the hat back on. “What I’m trying to do is show real life. And how can you do that if you’re not living it?”
The Game continues Thursdays at 9pm on BBC Two
[Images: Rex Features, BBC]