Lights, camera, attitude: The barefaced cheek of Thomas Turgoose, British cinema's hottest teen star

Ever wonder why Thomas Turgoose was such an affecting little hooligan in 'This Is England'? Because he was one. With his second starring role about to hit the big screen, the 16-year-old tells Luiza Sauma how Shane Meadows saved his bacon
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

On a sunny day in the old Viking port of Grimsby, I'm being led around a shopping centre by the town's most famous son (celebrities are thin on the ground in this neck of Lincolnshire). People double-take when Thomas "Tomo" Turgoose saunters past, even though – with his fair skin and casual clothes – he looks almost exactly like them. Not that Turgoose takes any notice. "My girlfriend works at Greggs," he says. "Let's go say hi to her." So we walk over to the local branch of Britain's favourite high-street bakery, where he points out an embarrassed-looking brunette, standing behind a counter. "That's her!" We wave through the window; she cringes. "It's great that she works there, because I get a discount."

As a teenage actor, Turgoose is one of a kind – untrained, unpretentious and unimpressed by the fuss that surrounded his fierce, funny debut performance in Shane Meadows' Bafta-winning 2006 drama This is England. Much of the critical praise for the film was directed towards Turgoose himself, who fired up the screen as the film's protagonist, Shaun, a mouthy teenage outcast taken in by a gang of local skinheads.

As an ordinary British 16-year-old, though, Turgoose is ten-a-penny. He loves football, ice-skating, riding his moped and going to the cinema with his girlfriend – whom he's been with for over a year and talks about constantly. He's a few growth spurts away from being a man. He admits that he eats too much McDonald's, and when he was younger, dreamt of being a football player. "But I wasn't good enough," he says, over a plate of fish and chips in a chintzy local restaurant, where all the waitresses know him by name. "I was in a team once, but I ended up getting kicked out after one training session." Right now, Turgoose is worried – but not too worried – about his GCSE results. In particular, he's concerned about Drama. "My coursework was quite bad," he admits sheepishly. "I didn't take notes, so everything went wrong. It was really difficult because I missed a few sessions, because I was away."

By "away", Turgoose means that he messed up his Drama GCSE coursework because he was acting in Shane Meadows' new film, Somers Town, which is set on a housing estate in the titular north London neighbourhood just north of Kings Cross. Filmed in stark black-and-white digital video, with a tiny cast and a tight budget, the film is a modest affair compared with the high-profile ensemble piece that was This is England. Nevertheless, it is one of Meadows' warmest films to date, allowing Turgoose to shine as a mischievous runaway – also called Tomo – from the Midlands who befriends Marek, a Polish boy played by newcomer Piotr Jagiello. "Piotr was really nice," says Turgoose. "We've got a lot in common – we were born on the same day. It's quite weird. I don't think he tries to be funny, but he is."

Watch a trailer for 'Somers Town'

Somers Town barely has a storyline to speak of: boy meets boy, boy and boy become fast friends, run riot, fight for the affections of a pretty French waitress, get drunk and get in trouble – the stuff of ordinary adolescent life. But it's the fizzing chemistry between the British motor-mouth and the shy Pole that makes it a joy to watch. It was also – for Turgoose, at least – much easier to shoot than This is England. The latter was the first acting he had ever done. "I can remember doing a school play when I didn't have any lines," he ponders. "And there was one we did about a king and baby Jesus..." A nativity play? "Yeah, and I got told I could play the king, but because I was naughty, they told me I couldn't do it. That's probably the only experience I had ever had. But I've always been loud. I like doing silly accents, laughing with my mates, mocking people. But I had never done anything major."

Even so, when Meadows's team were scouring British towns for the right boy to play Shaun in This is England, Turgoose stood out from the crowd. You can watch his original audition on YouTube, in which he talks about his hatred of school and love of football (he supports Grimsby Town and Manchester United). Famously, he agreed to audition only if he was given a fiver. "I thought to myself, 'I'm never getting the job, so I'm going to get some money out of it,'" he says. "The first audition I got a fiver, the second one a tenner and the third one 20 quid – and I also got a PlayStation game and a mobile phone!" Turgoose, it seems, has a knack for getting money out of his adult colleagues – recently, Meadows offered him £200 to eat a vindaloo (it made him throw up); he also accepted a dare to wear his original, pre-skinhead costume from This is England, which consisted of dowdy denim flares and nasty, patterned jumpers. "I had a tantrum about wearing it. But then Stephen [Graham, who plays the psychotic skinhead Combo] offered me 20 quid if I walked down the street in it. And I did."

Famously, it was the sheer cheek of Turgoose that won him the role. "I think Shane just saw himself in me," says Turgoose. "He says to me now that that's exactly what he would have been like – asking for money." Mark Herbert, who produced This is England, says, "There was an essence in the script that this was a character that could get away with not having a fight – just through being smart, by just being streetwise and savvy, a bit like Shane was. What made him stand out from the rest was that every kid that went to the audition was desperate for the role, whereas Tomo wasn't."

The shoot, however, was fraught with problems. Turgoose was just 13, away from home on location in Nottingham, suffering from attention deficit disorder, living on terrible food and fizzy drinks, and threatening to quit. Moreover, his mother – who brought him up in the grittiest part of Grimsby after divorcing his father – was seriously ill with cancer. She died a few months after production finished, and didn't see the final cut – nor how her difficult teenage son, who was excluded from school, had grown into a polite, self-assured young man and an acclaimed, award-winning actor. Indeed, it is difficult to equate the softly spoken teenager sitting in front of me with the stories from his naughtier days. Success is the ruin of many a child star; for Turgoose, it appears to have been the making of him. "I used to be a tearaway," he admits. "I got excluded for swearing and wrecking the classroom. I just never had anything in life, really. I must have thought, I've got nothing in life so there's no point in being good. I was a show-off."

Now Turgoose has a channel for his exuberance, he is evidently calmer – although he's polite in the manner of a teenager meeting a friend's mum, and gives the impression that as soon as I'm out of earshot, he'll be running riot again. Even so, these days, acting is a pleasure rather than an endurance test. "I love being on set more and more. I look forward to it," he says. "Somers Town was different to This is England, because it was my second job with Shane. I knew how he worked and I was used to being on set. It was really good fun. And it's winning big awards, which is good." (The film netted the top prize at this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.)

It's perhaps not surprising that Turgoose and Meadows get along so well. The director was a bit of a larrikin in his ' teenage days, leaving school before he had any qualifications, hustling the resources to make the dozens of short films he completed before his breakthrough feature, Twenty Four Seven (1998). "Shane is like your best mate on set," he enthuses. "It's all about freedom and friendship. When he wants something done, he'll tell you, and if it doesn't happen, he'll shout, but that hardly ever happens. I don't know what it is about him. He's good to be around." Will they work together again? "I don't know for definite, but I hope so."

Somers Town is the first feature film that Meadows – who was raised in Uttoxeter, but is based in Nottingham – has set outside the Midlands. In his best films, the director has a knack for creating disturbing, unusual drama out of the relationships between men, often of varying ages: 1999's Romeo Brass is a buddy movie that turns menacing; the semi-autobiographical This is England is about friendship as much as it is about racism in the 1980s. (The 2004 violent revenge movie Dead Man's Shoes is a far bleaker take on the same theme – and the Meadows film that has most divided audiences.) Somers Town, meanwhile, takes the grey, concrete tower blocks of north London and two lonely, neglected boys, and spins a light-hearted comedy out of a grim situation.

Meadows is known for encouraging his actors to improvise, but Somers Town feels even looser and more unscripted than his previous work – quite possibly because it was shot in a mere two weeks. "Yes, it was quick. It was pretty rushed," says Turgoose. "On This is England, Shane took his time. That shoot was five or six weeks. And most of Somers Town was improvised. It was Piotr's first British film, so it was really different for him." Was it stressful coming up with the scenes? "Not really," he says. "Shane always helps. He gives us the outline of the scene and Piotr had a translator, so he could understand." Rushed doesn't even cover it – one of the funniest scenes, in which the boys get rip-roaringly drunk and trash Marek's father's council flat, was shot in minutes. "I got a nice scar there from that scene," says Turgoose, pointing at a faint line on his forehead. "Shane just said, 'We've got 10 minutes on this reel, just be drunk!' We went mad. I was pulling this bottle towards me, and Piotr was pulling it back and he let go and it whacked me on the face and I fell on the floor. I could see Shane looking at me going, 'Carry on, carry on!'"

Turgoose seems torn between two identities. He is an articulate young man and a talented actor. His mentor is arguably the most accomplished British director of his generation; he goes to festivals all over the world and rubs shoulders with the biggest names in British film. But it's easy to forget that he's also a regular teenager. His taste in films, for example, is unapologetically juvenile: he enjoyed Mike Myers's The Love Guru and is looking forward to the new Adam Sandler vehicle, You Don't Mess with the Zohan. When a woman at the restaurant coos, "Alright love, are you still doing movies?", he comes over all coy, forgetting the title and release date of Somers Town. "When I'm with my girlfriend or my mates, it can be a bit embarrassing when I'm recognised. People also come up and say I'm crap. I ignore them." Later on, Turgoose causes a stir when a photographer shows up to take pictures of him in the street. Most passers-by are curious and stare; others openly make fun.

It might not be easy being the most famous person in Grimsby, but Turgoose loves his home town. He lives with his father, stepmother and one of his three older brothers and, for now, has no plans to leave – though that might have more to do with his girlfriend than anything else. "Sometimes she comes to London with me and says it's too busy and it smells. There aren't any stabbings in Grimsby or things like that. But I like London." What does she think of his success? "Erm, I don't know," he admits. "She says she enjoys the films, but she won't talk about them. I suppose she doesn't want people to think that's the only reason she's with me. But she's different, my girlfriend. She doesn't like me spending money on her. She never wants to come to the set – she just gets bored. But imagine if I went to Greggs for the day – I'd get bored too." Turgoose tells me that his dad – who works at an oil refinery – is equally relaxed about his success. "He likes coming away with me to London and film festivals and things like that, and he's really proud of me – but he doesn't go on about it."

In the autumn, Turgoose plans to study photography at a local college and his schedule is packed with film commitments. He'll be filming "a sort of love story" called The Scouting Book for Boys in September and appears in the forthcoming Brit-horror flick Eden Lake, which he describes as "really, really wrong", in the best possible sense. Until then, it's back to normal life. Turgoose plans to spend the rest of the summer like any other 16-year-old boy: staying up all night playing computer games, messing around with his friends, going to the cinema, holidaying at Butlins and keeping his fingers crossed for his GCSE results, which are released on Thursday. Oh, and he's appearing in one of the best British films of the year. One thing's for sure: being the most famous person in Grimsby is going to get a whole lot harder.

Somers Town (12A) is out on 22 August

Once upon a time in the Midlands: the Shane Meadows gang

Shane Meadows

A school dropout from a working-class Uttoxeter family, the 35-year-old director is known for his naturalistic, improvisational style and for setting five of his six full-length features in the Midlands. He made his debut feature, Twenty Four Seven (1997), in his mid-twenties; his fifth, This Is England (2006), won the Best British Film Bafta. Throughout an increasingly impressive career, Meadows has consistently worked with the same troupe of actors and writers. Here are a few of them:

Paddy Considine

The 34-year-old became friends with Meadows while they were studying performing arts. The director tempted him away from a fledgling photography career to play a love-struck sociopath in A Room for Romeo Brass (1999). Considine went on to co-write and star in Dead Man's Shoes (2004); further afield, he appeared last year in The Bourne Ultimatum, and won a Bafta for his short film Dog Altogether (2007). He is working now with Meadows on a new screenplay.

Paul Fraser

The 35-year-old is one of Meadows's closest collaborators and friends. He grew up in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, with the director – their friendship inspired the central characters of A Room for Romeo Brass, which Fraser co-wrote, as well as Somers Town, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) and Twenty Four Seven.

Andrew Shim

The 24-year-old Nottingham-born actor first worked with Meadows as a teenager, when he starred in A Room for Romeo Brass. Since then, he has appeared in Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Dead Man's Shoes and This is England. He rarely works with other directors, and is in a relationship with Meadows favourite Vicky McClure.

Vicky McClure

Another actor who has very little experience outside Meadowsworld, the 25-year-old McClure hails from Nottingham and made her film debut in A Room for Romeo Brass as Shim's older sister. She also played skinhead girl Lol in This is England and appeared in short film The Stairwell (2005).

Jo Hartley

The 36-year-old from Lancashire was an air hostess for several years before turning to drama and being discovered by Meadows. Her breakout role was in Dead Man's Shoes – she has since appeared as Shaun's mother in This is England, as well as various short films. LS