INTERVIEW: Tom Hollander on his role in ITV period drama Doctor Thorne
Following our interview with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes about his latest output for ITV, the three-part adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, we had the pleasure of catching up with the new mini-series’ leading man Tom Hollander to speak about his titular role. We’d give you a brief introduction to the character of Doctor Thomas Thorne and the gist of the show’s plot, but Hollander was pretty keen to do this himself. And who better to do so?
“He’s a decent sort”, the Rev actor explains. “He’s a doctor who’s, in a way, got too many friends, and he has to keep them all happy. But chiefly he’s got a niece whom he lives with and whom he loves very much. Her birth was in those times unstable, and in some ways uncreditable, because she was a ‘bastard’, and because her father died. She is, by the standards of the day, unsuitable to marry the man that she loves. I’m just telling you the plot, aren’t I? Anyway, Doctor Thorne is a quiet chap, but he’s roused to anger every so often. And he’s morally courageous – he tends to do the right by people – sometimes to his own detriment. That’s the way I’d describe him”.
Julian Fellowes had said to me that Thorne is quite a complex hero to play, as the other characters around him are the ones pushing the narrative; he merely responds. What does Tom think about this?
“Well, he’s a still centre, around which some quite colourful characters circulate”, he argues. “I loved playing him, because it was a part I hadn’t played before; he’s a listener, but also a hero. He’s not selfish, and its not his own agenda that he’s servicing. So that’s actually quite unusual to play. One seems to play characters that are more concerned with getting something, but his concern is for everyone else, and chiefly for Mary”.
As an actor who’s been picking up some pretty high profile roles of late (in titles such as The Night Manager, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, to name a couple), I ask Hollander was attracted him to this particular project:
“Well, it was everything that I’ve described”, he tells me. “It was because this seemed to be a straight, heroic, leading man type, which I hadn’t done before. I’ve played the lead, but often in a comically undercut way, or something quirky – I’m thinking of In the Loop, or Rev. And in In The Night Manager I’m kind of Odd Job. So this is a Victorian, virtuous hero. That for me was a departure”.
Speaking of departures, it’s nice seeing an adaptation of nineteenth century writing that isn’t as well known as Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Hollander agrees:
“I think that it’ll be good for the audience”, he says. “Trollope is not like Dickens, and he’s not like Austen. He’s his own thing, and it’s more nuanced than those [writers]. Dickensian characters are all quite extreme. There’s always a good young person and then lots of broadly drawn, brilliant character parts around them. This has an element of that, but really it’s a more middle class story. People seem to be held in whatever bit of the class structure they’ve been born into, and they’re negotiating their way through it, and Doctor Thorne is managing everybody’s fate somehow”.
I ask Tom what it was like working with veteran actor Ian McShane:
“It was fun”, he replies. “He’s a very powerful personality. And he’s brilliant in it, isn’t he? It was exciting, we were very lucky that he was in it”.
And he was also in Pirates of the Caribbean, if not the same one as Hollander…
“And he was a pirate, and I was a sort of policeman!” he laughs. “We did talk about it on set, though. Funny!”
The conversation turns to the fresh new faces on the cast. Was it nice for Tom to watch the young talent of Stefanie Martini and Harry Richardson, who play Mary Thorne and Frank Gresham, blossoming on set, I ask?
“Yes, what was fun for me was the fact that there were so many young actors in it who are just starting out”, he tells me. “I got to see the sheer fun of it from their point of view; of the costumes, the locations, and the romance of all of that. For Harry Richardson and Stefanie Martini, it was practically their first job. It wasn’t actually, but it almost their first job. So they were in a state of wonderment about it all, which made me realise quite what a privilege it is to be doing those things”.
Speaking of the costumes, the locations and the romance… Does Tom like watching period dramas in his downtime? What does he think of their resurgence in popularity over the past decade or so?
“I don’t watch that much of anything, but yeah, I like watching them, if it’s a good story”, he explains. “I did actually really enjoy Downton. But I feel like period drama’s always been popular. When I was a kid, Poldark was on, and now it’s on again. Pride and Prejudice was on in the ‘80s, then it was on again, and then I was in another version. They’re lovely, they’re popular, people like them”.
Did Hollander read Trollope’s book of Doctor Thorne in preparation for the role?
“I didn’t, no”, he says without hesitation, before following up with: “Well, I’d read the stuff about Doctor Thorne’s character, but I didn’t read the whole book, no”.
Because it’s about 700 pages?
“It’s not that long!” he protests. “It’s just that sometimes if you read the book you find that the person who’s adapted it has done something completely different from what’s in the original, which is confusing. I always think my job is to inhabit the character that’s been written in the script, but I did look at the book just to check I wasn’t going wildly off piece”.
Speaking of the writer’s interpretation, I ask whether there was much flexibility for Tom as an actor to improvise on Fellowes’s writing.
“Well he’s certainly up for a chat”, he explains. “Gosford Park [which Hollander and Fellowes worked together on] we improvised some of, but that’s because it was Robert Altman, and that’s what he does. With this one, if you had a notion about it, then Julian was very collaborative. But it was a more formal thing; you wouldn’t want to change it on the day. But in advance, there were a couple of moments where I suggested things weeks before and he was amenable. You need to say ‘what if I…’, ‘can I do this?’, and he’ll either say no or yes”.
And is that process of contribution important to Tom as an actor?
“It’s certainly more enjoyable if it’s collaborative, but I think that’s true for every profession in the industry”, he elaborates. “It needs to be give and take. It’s much more fun if you get to express your ideas, but you also have to allow yourself to be discreet”.
So, what’s next on the agenda for Tom Hollander?
“I’m doing something called Taboo with Tom Hardy”, he teases. “That’s actually the same period as this, and could not be more different. Dark and broody and spooky and frightening. And there’s a film of Tulip Fever which is coming out any minute now. Have you seen any adverts for that on the side of a bus? I certainly haven’t. Oh, and Jungle Book: Origins. That was great fun. I should imagine that will be out in a year or something. I was a hyena in that. Also it’s motion capture, which is then animated by CGI, so you’re very free. You can really just do anything you want, and they’ll use it if they want to, or otherwise they won’t”.
Until then, watch Tom Hollander in ITV’s Doctor Thorne, which premieres at 9pm this Sunday, March 6th.