Audiences have recognized him in such films as About Time, The Incident, and London Town, and, recently, his acclaimed portrayal of Prince Albert on the PBS series, Victoria, about the titular former Queen of England. Tom Hughes is his name, and he is singularly focused on honing his craft as an actor and pushing his boundaries by remaining a student and surrounding himself with talented voices in the film industry.
Last week, on the verge of the premiere of Realive, Hughes caught up with me via phone from London to San Francisco. After the usual brief introductory small talk, we discussed the good stuff: his excitement about the film and the universality of its messages reaching an international audience, the making of Realive, what it’s like to work with writer and director, Mateo Gil (Vanilla Sky), his co-star, Oona Chaplin, his desire to keep finding challenging roles, and how he views his rising popularity within the industry and in the eyes of the public.
Alex Arabian for Film Inquiry: Are you excited about the opening of Realive this week?
Tom Hughes: Yeah, very much so! I hope it resonates to people, you know?
Tom Hughes: It’s always nice when you – when you make a project, you hope, since you’re making it in Spain, you hope that it’s gonna travel and reach people far and wide, so hopefully people will enjoy it.
Yeah, absolutely. I certainly did. It’s such an incredible movie. What first drew you to the film?
Tom Hughes: Well, I think it’s the movie’s material, the subject matter, you know? Although there are science fiction elements to the movie, and maybe this is short-sighted of me, but I didn’t really see it as a science fiction film, per se. I saw it as a movie that was more about life, I guess…but, like, life in a sense of, ‘what is life?’ or ‘what are we striving for?’ ‘What’s the point in it?’
And then, it had a philosophical angle in it. An existential angle at times. So, I was thinking it was brave mostly, in its storytelling because it circumnavigated, at times, some of the perpetual, superfluous things around the outside of those questions, it just went there in a strong and a visceral way.
And I thought – I was really excited at Mateo [Gil]’s writing, and I saw some of the movies that he’s worked on before. It’s just that he naturally has that philosophical nature in him. But to capture that in a piece of writing that’s not in your native tongue, I thought it was pretty exquisite. And the part within that, I thought was a fascinating to me as well, because he’s likable, Marc. He has many facets to his character and he’s not perfect in any way. I think, in that sense, the story becomes a tale that’s not singularly about Marc’s existence, but it becomes about more of a broader outlook of the species as a whole in terms of what we put in the way of importance and how we should put it.
Yeah, I saw it as an intimate, precautionary tale. I think when people hear the word ‘sci-fi’ they think of space ships, and aliens, and special effects. But this was a really intimate movie. What was it like working with Mateo Gil as a director? He’s proven his strength and singular voice as a screenwriter, but with Realive, he’s proven himself more-than-adept at directing, clearly. How was your experience working with Mateo different from some of the other sets you’ve been on?
Tom Hughes: Well, I think it in terms of other films, that’s up to them – and this is crazy that this is something I can have a discussion about, but I don’t know if I’m at that degree as an actor, I’m still trying to learn and push myself, but I notice that there has been quite a few regular times that I’ve worked with writer/directors, and that’s not something I sought out, particularly, but it just seems to have happened like that. So, Mateo, in that sense, is quite similar to the people that I’ve worked with. Because I think there is a specificity that definitely comes with working with an auteur, if you like, because that person is not only is guided through it, but they’re also, they’re responsible for creating this vision for the world, whatever that may be, and whatever project that they may be on.
But I think also what comes with the territory of being a writer is an outstanding of the story, an understanding of piecing that together. And, as and as an actor, I always think it’s a bit of a gift having someone that knows it quite as well as that, being the person leading you through your own discovery, because you’re able to bring a degree of anarchy because you can’t ever rattle the foundation of that ship. And so, it allows you to maybe make choices that are less obvious and, I mean hopefully that pays off, and hopefully that’s what in there, but it definitely gives that freedom at the onset to challenge the status quo and try and bring surprises, different colors, different energies that hopefully will add to it and make it an even greater texture if that’s possible.
And so, in many ways, Mateo was great, you know, he has that storyteller’s instinct, he also has a natural philosophical energy about him. And he’s a wonderfully intelligent man, I wonderfully caring man. He’s also an incredibly thorough and detailed and smart man. To be dealing with this particular subject is – these kind of ideas and questions with a man of his gravitas – that, on a personal, human level is incredible, and then equally [as incredible] to work with someone of his adept skill at storytelling, and being able to pass that quite eloquently and effortlessly as a director was equally a thrill. So, from that angle, it was a real wonderful experience for me as a human and as an actor.
That sounds incredible. I noticed an outstanding chemistry among the cast and crew, which I imagine, Mateo contributes to that sort of welcoming atmosphere of collaboration-
Tom Hughes: Absolutely.
Were there any improvisational scenes? Did Mateo urge you to take any chances or veer away from the script at all?
Tom Hughes: Well, I think that depends the section of the movie you’re talking about, really; I think for the future section, if you like, far less so. I think that the weight the story goes is delicate. I think it needs to be finely told. And also, that vision of the future is Mateo’s vision of the future. And the story depends on us trying to capture that in all of its essence, rather than everyone throwing in their own interpretation of the tone of the piece or what would be in there; we very much needed to be guided by Mateo, there.
Then, the present day, if you like, about Marc’s – particularly a lot of Marc’s flashbacks, we definitely were told there to try those out, but that was also because we were trying to film an entire life. You know, and we needed that breadth from that depth from the changes, and different feelings and emotions and colors of the tapestry of life to be rich and vibrant so you’d believe that all that emotion that seems to be right before you, how it finds itself out, but how visceral it was. It’s tangible, not only for the audience, but also to him in a new environment. And, so yeah, absolutely, when we were there with all the other actors in that particular time in Marc’s life to take chances to play around, attempt to play around and find things that felt spontaneous. But ultimately, they always came from script and movement that could be around that, but never too far away.
But very much, and again, I think it’s because Mateo is writer and director, it’s the vision to it, totally, the angle was very much Mateo. But he’s a wonderful collaborator with that.
You’re right, the future part of the film is very very organized, structured, very minimalistic, but the flashbacks come off as flashes of feelings and raw emotion by the way Mateo constructs it; it’s incredible. Speaking of your collaboration with the other actors, Oona Chaplin [granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin] is outstanding. What was it like reuniting with her, in a sense, to be onscreen with each other for the first time. She seems like an absolute force to be reckoned with as an actor.
Tom Hughes: Well, Oona, she trained at the same drama school I had, so I’ve seen Oona’s work. She was, I think she was in a different year than me. She was the year above me. So I’d seen Oona’s work kind of as she trained, and I always found it to be so alive, visceral, in the moment, and to me that’s the most exciting thing to act opposite because, fortunately, we do all the preparation we need to. We all have our own ways of putting on a character and stepping into their shoes, but once you’re in the moment, also, acting is very much about reacting, playing, challenging one another in the best possible way, but staying alive, bouncing, throwing the ball, being in that reactive moment. Because, ultimately, that’s where life is.
And Oona’s so responsive, so alive. And as you said, I mean, in the most positive way, a force to be reckoned with because she just brings so much life with her performance. And you have to go with that because you get given all this energy, and your job in return is, you have to give it back, repackage that and give it back.
I think, particularly with the latter, but the present day section [of Realive], Marc’s memories, we’re trying to tell different emotional beats with, at times, eight seconds bodies and four seconds worth of screen time. So, it’s very important that there’s explosions, and I saw that to happen, but you have to be sort of palatable, but vital somehow. And it was great to have an actor to work alongside – as well as the other guys, but particularly to work alongside Oona, somebody who just every time brought so much energy, so much focus, so much passion.
Given the early positive reception Realive’s received thus far, and given your performance, I think it’s going to be a big hit that could potentially launch you into superstardom. What are your thoughts the idea of becoming an actor with an increasing demand and popularity? Because I feel like your performance in this is what critics love to refer to as ‘star-making.’
Tom Hughes: Thanks for that, man. I mean, I guess, ultimately, I just take it job to job to job, you know? I love challenging myself. I love trying to go against the grain of what I’ve done before. I think it’s the only way to learn, and I’m trying to learn, and I’m trying to get better, and I’m trying to do things that I maybe can’t do, and just keep pushing my own bounds; that’s what it’s always been about for me, and that’s what it will always be about. And, within that, you hope that if the story resonates with me and it’s the direction I want to go down, that you hope, by proxy, it’s gonna resonate with some people.
And if [Realive] resonates with many, that’s wonderful. Particularly with a story like this. I do think, although it’s singularly about Marc’s life, it does have a broader outlook, it does speak more about humanity, in general, I think and perhaps our zeitgeist at the moment. And I think it would nice if it could reach people and resonate, but hopefully they can ask a question or two, and I think that’s always important: you want filmmaking to challenge you; you as an audience member in some way. And I hope this does. And I hope people enjoy that challenge and enjoy the story and enjoy the philosophy that’s gone into it.
Film Inquiry would like to thank Tom Hughes for his time and insight into the making of Realive.
Realive opens theatrically in the US on September 29, 2017, and on digital streaming platforms on October 3, 2017.