Tom Hollander on 'The Night Manager', 'Doctor Thorne', heightism and atheism

From a BBC thriller to an ITV period piece, Tom Hollander is taking over Sunday nights. He talks to Gerard Gilbert

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The Independent Culture

Are you asking me whether I am gay or not?”, inquires Tom Hollander midway though our interview. “Because no, I’m not, but I play a lot of gay parts.” I wasn’t asking and I had assumed he isn’t, having read of the currently single actor’s various girlfriends over the years.

What I was asking him about was a recent article he wrote for The Spectator about the expectation on Eddie Redmayne to speak on behalf of transgender people as a result of his role in the film The Danish Girl. 

Hollander went on to discuss being “accommodating when it came to my sexuality” early on in his career.

“I was half-pretty and boyish, and a lot of gay people seemed to have influential positions in the theatre,” he wrote. “So I went along with it, up to a point,” he explains, when we meet in Notting Hill, west London, “I wasn’t trying to suggest that I slept my way to the lower-middle, no.”

“Young people are variously desired by older people, whether they’re trying to have sex with them or not. And actors are in the market for selling their appearance. So, you’re very aware if somebody fancies you so you play up to it so that they have a nice time and you get the job. Nothing more than that.”

As it happens his latest character on television, Corcoran, in the BBC’s new adaptation of John Le Carre’s 1993 novel The Night Manager is the gay associate of an arms dealer played by Hugh Laurie.

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Tom Hollander in Doctor Thorne

The lavish and rather excellent series also stars Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Colman, who was Hollander’s wife, Alex, in the sitcom Rev. “I just have to say that I’m not a John le Carré expert by any means,” declares Hollander on arrival, flushed from cycling across town. “Nor am I an enthusiast ... I didn’t go ‘Oh I’ve wanted to do it all my life’, like Hugh Laurie did ... just in case that ticks off any questions”.

If that last remark makes him sound snarky, I should say he’s highly intelligent yet understated and I find myself liking him a lot. He could conduct a very entertaining interview with himself.

Hollander’s range is also pretty impressive, from comedy (minister Simon Foster from In the Loop and, of course, Rev’s Adam Smallbone) through to costume drama (a repressed George V in Stephen Poliakoff’s The Lost Prince, John Ruskin in BBC2 series Desperate Romantics, and Mr Collins in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice) by way of Guy Burgess, David Cameron and a dying Dylan Thomas. “This pint-sized virtuoso has an absolute protean talent,” declared one critic after seeing an early turn of his, as Baby in Jez Butterworth’s 1995 play Mojo.

Not that the 5ft 4in Hollander grew up with the sense of being “pint-sized”. “Funnily enough I never thought of myself as being short,” he says. “Being an actor has made me much more conscious of it than I would have been otherwise.”

Is there such a thing as “heightism” in the industry? “They haven’t said it, but let’s be clear I would never have been on the list for James Bond, so I’m not labouring under that misapprehension.”

But what about Tom Cruise, his co-star in 2008 Second World War drama Valkyrie and last year’s Mission: Impossible instalment, who comes in under 5ft 6in and gets to play the originally 6ft 4in Jack Reacher? The question has Hollander reaching for his phone. 

“It’s a private photo” he says, changing his mind. “We’re standing next to each other and he’s a good two or three inches taller. With Valkyrie, I was excited at meeting this short superstar and was horribly disappointed to discover he was perfectly average.”

If there has been a change in perception about Hollander it’s largely thanks to three series of Rev, which won him a Royal Television Award in 2011, and which still has people stopping him in the street. “If I wear my hi-vis cycling jacket they do,” he says, referring to his character’s signature look. “So I wear a dark one. Not that I mind it. The fact that people love that show is a truly marvellous thing.”

Hollander seems to have swayed between declaring himself an atheist and saying that he believes in some greater power – did the show change his attitude to religion? “Well, yes, sure. And it opened a whole world of possibility ... not one that I’ve embraced particularly. I can now see why other people have faith, that’s for sure.

“We have a very disabled person in our family who is cared for by someone who lives a life most other people would find impossible, and her faith is making it a joy for her. And you can’t argue with that. I mean you can, but it’s fruitless.”

Drama wasn’t Hollander’s first vocation: born to teacher parents, he won a music scholarship to Cambridge while his sister, Julia, went on to become English National Opera’s youngest ever female director. He joined the Footlights club at Cambridge and caught the acting bug; his friend, Sam Mendes, directed him in several productions, including a Cyrano de Bergerac that co-starred Nick Clegg.

His career got going in the Nineties with a run of theatre successes and he has the most nominations (four times, winning once) for the Ian Charleson Award for best classical stage performance by an actor under 30.

His big screen breakthrough came in 2001 with Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, scripted by Julian Fellowes of later Downton Abbey glory, and Hollander has been reunited with Fellowes in the writer’s first post-Downton project, a three-part adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, in which Hollander takes the title role of the country physician who tries to do right by his niece.

“I loved playing it because I have not been asked to just be straight like that,” he says. “Corcoran in The Night Manager is more familiar ... a quirky character part. Rev is the lead but he’s not a straight lead because it’s a comedy, so for me Thorne was as exciting as other actors would feel about being cast as Mad Max.”

Hollander also plays a doctor in the a long-in-the-works film adaptation of Tulip Fever, Deborah Moggach’s novel set in 17th-century Holland (“A dodgy doctor, unlike Doctor Thorne, who is very undodgy.”)

And, in the midst of all this, he has also found time to set up a production company, Bandstand, with Hannah Pescod, one of the producers from Rev. “I enjoyed the process of creating Rev and I wanted to keep doing it – the process of ideas and turning them into scripts,” he says. “At the moment we’re a piece of headed notepaper.”

Working more behind the camera would also mean avoiding a direction that he doesn’t believe would be very congenial – following his The Night Manager co-star, Hugh Laurie, into a long-running American TV show like House. “I’ve avoided it because I would feel very lonely and far away from my family, just being stuck in LA for that long.”

He does feel a touch rueful about turning down a part in Game of Thrones though, that of Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, who was subsequently played by Aidan Gillen.

“We were doing Rev at the time and I didn’t want to. But had I been told that Game of Thrones would become the biggest show in the world ... funnily enough, somebody did say ‘you should think seriously about that’ and I was ‘No, no, no’. I wasn’t particularly drawn to the wolf pelt thing. I was thinking ‘six years of wolf pelt in Belfast?’.”  

The Night Manager begins on BBC1 tonight and Doctor Thorne begins on ITV on 6 March

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