"I WAS a member of Soho House for six weeks while I was in a play, and suddenly I felt implicated in the whole thing," says Tom Hollander over coffee at the London club. "I love schmoozing when I'm not a member and I can schmooze with the best of them if I'm in the right mood. I love it."
He's not as diminutive as you'd expect, as if he can exaggerate it on celluloid for maximum personality impact, but the wicked smile, cruel nose and child's eyes are there, along with perfect skin. This man is under no illusions, and he's smart too. He looks like a naughty Nicholson- esque coke-head, sex-addict type; a character actor with eccentric opinions, and this is how I approached him: armour ready for a good flirt. He hardly looked up. Serious, intelligent, quite deep (but not too much) and definitely not playing games; the only thing predictable about Tom Hollander is his natural social faculties. You can't dislike him because he's with or ahead of you every step of the way. I imagine he hasn't got a single enemy.
Britain's latest bid for the popularity of Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Full Monty is Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence and, as Daniel, Tom Hollander is easily the funniest thing in it. It's a breezy romance about three men, their comically dysfunctional friendships and their mutual passion for Martha (played by Monica Potter, an American blonde likened to Julia Roberts). Laurence, played by Joseph Fiennes (who looks like a cartoon version of his older brother Ralph), is perhaps the blandest of the three. The fun and personality are left to Frank - an ex-child actor and failure - played by Rufus Sewell, and Daniel, a pathetic, childish and witty success.
"I wanted to play Frank," says Tom. "It was the part that read well, but they wanted me to play Daniel. He was written as a tall, handsome, dashing, well-dressed stereotype. Casting somebody who wasn't made it more interesting." A short and attractive record biz twat does indeed work far better than a dislikeably perfect one. "He's stuck up, rich, arrogant, full of himself and a wanker, but loveable anyway," is Tom's observation. But how did he play the part so damn well? "Well," he replies, deadpan, "I went to Cambridge, so there's plenty of them around."
The great thing about the film is that it portrays London as colourful and lush for a change - not grim - and that the characters are taken from identifiable modern middle-class stereotypes rather than the upper-class fantasy of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Still, it has similarities to the latter, promoting quaint Britishness and focusing on a romance between a ditsy American woman and a reserved and clumsy British man. Martha - Meet is the sort of film that is huge hit here and in America and Tom might be on the verge of the big time.
"I've thought of that," he admits, "but I thought that with Mojo and I've also many times thought `this is the beginning of the end, I've finally f----- it up'. You swing between visions of world domination and nightmares of despair and being swept away." Three years ago Tom virtually created the part of Baby in Jez Butterworth's original play Mojo at the Royal Court. A lot of people were surprised when he wasn't cast in the film version. He was brilliant as the rockabilly nutter and contributing considerably to the play's success.
Thirty years old now, Tom has evidently experienced the ups and downs of being an actor, and his attitude towards world domination has matured: "I meet people who are famous and it's made me realise that fame has huge lifestyle disadvantages. I'm nervous about that. I don't want to become a celebrity. There's a little pact with the devil that you sign at some stage without even being aware of it, and you don't know where it'll end up. Things will probably be lovely and happy anyway."
Tom grew up in north Oxford with schoolteacher parents, followed his sister (who now directs opera) to Cambridge University, then came to London. "There were quite a lot of ambitious parents and kids in north Oxford. We watched Sam Mendes [another native, now a director] achieve huge success."
Not spurred by watching Olivier's Hamlet or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, he got good feedback performing in school plays and rather than "a calling" or "art form", he simply realised he was good at acting, so had better pursue it. "It's just a job really. Juliet Binoche has come to London to go to drama school, she's extremely impressive and appears to be very serious about recreating herself, learning the craft of theatre. She's clearly eschewing the glamour, which of course only makes her more glamorous. Similarly Liam Neeson doesn't have to do Oscar Wilde (in Judas Kiss, the play in which Tom currently plays Boisey).
"Every now and then I feel terribly uncomfortable with what I'm working on and then I think maybe I am an artist. I'm not very articulate about it, but I do know that you have to follow your gut. Every so often you make `pragmatic' choices and they're the ones that sometimes f--- up." he says.
Most surprisingly, he isn't at all puffed up and preoccupied with being an "actor" despite a relatively thespian-ish background in theatre. "I'm not interested in posterity, I'd like it all now, please. Acting is a general thing, it's not like being a primary artist like a painter or writer which stands the test of time. I don't think acting stands the test of time but it can capture the mood of the moment which is in itself very exciting but it rarely lasts. It's always to do with the Zeitgeist.
"It felt like that when we were making Martha - Meet. Labour had just got into power, we were making this film with lots of bright colours and happiness and it was early summer. But the time that it captured is already gone. Labour is just turning into the same old rubbish and Oasis have disappeared off the face of the map."
There's no way of explaining why Hollander is so sexy; it can only be put down to confidence and personality and something which every casting director seems to have latched on to: his naughty little boy appeal. He's not physically your typical romantic lead, but he has got charisma.
"I'm aware of the limitations of my looks, but at the moment I'm going through a phase where the possibilities seem quite plentiful. But I've spent a good few years having to sneak around looking for parts.
"That Mojo part was wonderful. I need to be cast cleverly - those decisions are the crucial ones - and if the directors and casting directors are imaginative and intelligent I can take no credit for that. There I am going `Hm, I don't want to play Daniel, that's a bit boring'. How clever is that? Not clever at all. But I was sufficiently weak-minded to do what everyone seemed to be suggesting I do. To have no conviction often pays off." His eyes twinkle more than ever.
Tom is unavoidably detained for the 8 May release of Martha - Meet. He's across the Atlantic getting his neck almost broken every night as Liam Neeson grabs him for a kiss (such is their difference in height). Judas Kiss, directed by Richard Ayre, has transferred from the Almeida to Broadway for three months and Tom Hollander is riding the crest of a wave.