Tom Hughes: The Game Miniseries, and Music as a Tool for Character Rhythm

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Last week, BBC America premiered the first installment of a six-part miniseries series titled The Game. Set in England during the height of The Cold War, the story centers on a secret committee put together by the head of M15 (played by Brian Cox) to investigate a secret KGB operation, and the possible reactivation of sleeper agents. The lone wild card of the group is the mysterious Joe Lambe, an interrogator whose loyalties and true motivations remain a guarded secret.

Lambe is played by up-and-coming British thespian Tom Hughes. While not yet a huge name in the States, Hughes has had an eventful few years as an actor. Last year alone, the Chester native scored a supporting role in Richard Curtis’ About Time, received rave reviews for the Golden Globe-nominated Dancing on the Edge, and acted as The Duke of Aumerle in the BBC Two’s all-star production of Richard II.

In anticipation of tonight’s second installment Paste caught up with Hughes to discuss the challenges of playing an enigmatic character, his love of music, and how an Internet café changed the course of his life.

Paste Magazine: Congrats, you’re visiting Los Angeles on one of the four days of the year it might actually rain!
Tom Hughes:Yeah, it’s bizarre! I went to an award show last night for BBC America, and I was driving towards the awards, clouds appeared. It was like the bad weather came in for the Brits. We bring it with us wherever we go!

Paste: It seemed like 2013 was a really big year for you—you got to do a re-imagining of a Hitchcock film [The Lady Vanishes], you worked with Richard Curtis, you were in a ridiculously amazing cast for Richard II. Did you have time to really enjoy all that, or was it kind of overwhelming?
Hughes: No, it was amazing. I’ve been acting only a few years really, and I’m still learning so much. I feel really lucky that, in all those casts, I got to work with such amazing actors and such amazing directors. Ben Whishaw—to work with him on Richard II was just an absolute dream. He’s an incredible actor and we went to the same drama school. He left a few years before I started there, and he was always someone I kind of looked to, and followed his career. He played Hamlet at the Old Vic. Working with people like him, and Richard Curtis was amazing. It was like a great fairground ride. You don’t really have time to catch your breath. You’re kind of living on adrenaline, but it’s amazing.

Paste: How did The Game first come to you. Did you need to audition, or were you recommended to [writer] Toby Whithouse?
Hughes: I had to audition. I auditioned for months for this role. Toby and the director Niall MacCormick had a very clear idea of what they wanted. I don’t think I was even one of the first people they met. They had a different idea of who it was. My agent had seen the script and thought I would like it, and it would tie in with the kind of stuff I wanted to do. The part was incredible, so I was desperate to do it. I went and met Niall and the producer, and we had a couple of meetings. Those roles come along very rarely in your 20s—to have such contradictions within them. It’s always those characters I’m attracted to. In life, real people have such big contradictions, and we’re always fighting with ourselves. To get a part like that in your 20s was great.

Paste: Because Joe’s such a layered character with lots of contradictions, were you given all the scripts up front, or an idea of where his arc would lead?
Hughes: Not really. We were writing it as we went along. I had the first two episodes and half of episode three, so I knew where we were starting off. I had conversations with Toby where I said, ‘I don’t really want to know where the character ends up. I want to experience it as he experiences it.’ The only conversations we had were about backstory— if there was anything in his life I needed to know about that was going to play out later on. But in terms of the arc of the story, I trusted that it would take care of itself, and I could just focus on doing the scenes at hand.

Paste: From what I’ve seen of the show so far, Joe’s a very steely, more reserved character and you don’t always know what’s going on in his head. As an actor, how do you perform those nuances and emotions without overplaying it?
Hughes: Yeah, it’s similar to the trap when people say a character is “charming.” Because most charming people I’ve met in my life have no idea they’re charming. So you can’t really play being charming. Similarly, you can’t really play the enigma of Joe, otherwise it’s not enigmatic. So the challenge for me was, you know, we all have a million thoughts going on in our heads, so what is it that’s forcing him to not communicate? Perhaps in his childhood there had been some kind of trauma that made him mistrust everyone. He has an ability to read people because, for a long period in Joe’s life, he’s been lying emotionally to himself and lying to everyone he meets. So, he has this uncanny ability to see if other people are doing the same. On the surface, he seems to be this guy with a rock and roll lifestyle. He’s a spy, and he’s young, and he’s living on the edge of life, but actually he’s just running away from himself. I think it’s that contradiction and that battle that hopefully is what we’re making enigmatic.

Paste: The show is set in a very specific time in the Cold War. As someone born in the mid-80s, how much did you know about the period?
Hughes: I did a show that was set in 1973. That was my first job. It was called Cemetery Junction, and it was directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. So I had an idea of the fashions of the time, and knew a bit about the political landscape. And I know a lot about the music, so that’s always a way in for me. There are always songs that kind of organically set the scene into motion. I did a lot of research about that, but in terms of the political landscape of the Cold War, I knew a bit from school but it wasn’t something I was clued in on. Toby’s written a very character-driven piece, so for me I trust the work is there, and it seems to be in the writing. So my job is more about bringing the complexities of this character to life. In certain jobs, you need to research around the character to inform it, and work on that. I think Joe is so disconnected from any political ideal, or ideal of nationality that he’s always in his own head. The war is more the war he has inside himself, rather than the political landscape.

Paste: The series is definitely more John Le Carre than Ian Fleming. In getting into the mind of the character, did you look into any of those British espionage movies from the ‘60s and ‘70s—The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, or either version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?
Hughes: I’d seen the new Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy so that was in my mind. But when I was growing up, the truth is, I didn’t really watch movies. I was a guitarist, so my whole youth was playing in bands and playing soccer. So I never really made the connection when I was young between films and being an actor. Although I enjoyed films—obviously, since I went to drama school I’ve become a fan—my angle for getting into character has never really been watching old movies. It’s far more about rhythm for me. So I took a different angle. It was all about the music. It was all about finding the songs that brought out the rhythm of Joe. I know it’s not the case for every actor but, for me, if I was to study other people’s style or performances, I’d lose my own instinct.

Paste: How did you originally become interested in acting?
Hughes: I did a school play, Fantastic Mr. Fox based on the Roald Dahl book. I was seven or eight, and I was the only one stupid enough to put his hand up and play the lead. I did the play, and apparently I ran up to my parents with my papier mâché nose and said, ‘I want to do that forever.’ I think, understandably, when you’re a child and you say you want to be an actor, parents think you’ll eventually change your mind. But it never went away. Since then, I’ve had this dogged obsession with making this job my job, and making it a reality. I’d never met an actor or met a director. I didn’t know any drama schools. We didn’t have the Internet.

When I was coming towards the end of school and making decisions about A-levels, my mom and dad went up to our local town, and went into an Internet café, and did research into drama schools. They came back and they were like, ‘These are the good ones—this is RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]; you may not get in there,’ etc. I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘I’ve got to go there…’ It’s always been this obsessive battle to make it happen. I don’t think it could have happened if I didn’t have that focus. Luckily, I found that focus when I was young. If it had come later, when I was 18, it would have made it more difficult to happen.

Paste: So, your parents seemed really supportive of your decision. That’s not always the case considering the arts can often be an unstable area.
Hughes: I’m always grateful for their support. I think all they wanted was for me to be happy. You need stability in life, of course. But, while you’re young, you should go for it, because you’ll never get that chance again.

Paste: As a guitarist, what kind of music were you into, or what did you tend to gravitate towards?
Hughes: Oh, a whole variety. I can play the most random of stuff. There’s a scene in The Game where the song I was playing was “Take the Power Back” by Rage Against the Machine. There’s another scene where it was The Beatles. It’s just random stuff. I never really plan it. Something will kick in on shuffle while I’m reading a scene, and it colors the scene. I listen to soul music, rock and roll. When I’m on my own, I play blues. I love Stone Roses, and Oasis, and The Verve because they’re bands from my geographical area. I like dance music, reggae.

Paste: You were in a band [Quaintways] at one point, correct?
Hughes: I was.
Paste: What kind of music were you playing then?
Hughes: That was me and three guys from school. They were good mates of mine, and are still really good mates of mine. Two of them have gone on to make a new band called The Broxton Hundred. But we all kind of liked the same stuff—The Kinks, The Beatles. Our drummer was playing jazz music, so we had different influences, but it was bands like Oasis, and Stone Roses, and The Beatles. There’s also an amazing band from England called The Music. They never quite made it over here. Their first album is one of the best albums I heard when I was a kid. Playing in a band was good fun. I miss it.

Paste: When you started becoming serious about acting, who were the people you looked up to in thinking, ‘That’s the kind of career I want?’
Hughes: Pete Postlethwaite always comes to mind. Not only the raw talent, but all the choices he made. For me, it’s always about what actors are trying to say. I’ve never really wanted to just be an actor for being an actor’s sake. It’s always been that I wanted to tell stories that I find interesting. There’s also an actor named John Simm. He did a TV show called The Lakes. It was the first time I saw anything from TV or cinema that I felt I could connect to my own life. It wasn’t just the quality that rang true, but I felt like he was talking about a life I understood. People like that, who tell stories that are relevant to real people and real passions, have always inspired me. And people like Gary Oldman. Every time he’s done anything, he’s a different animal. That’s what acting should be.

Mark Ruffalo was given an honorary award last night, and I think it’s a similar thing. They were listing the different types of characters he’s played. Great actors always find the human being in the part. They find the complexity about the person. They’re not just a policeman, they’re a human being. I think that’s what Mark Ruffalo and Gary Oldman do so well. Gary Oldman has always been that for me, ever since I saw Leon. That was one of the first movies that really grabbed me, and stopped me in my tracks, and made me pay attention.

Paste: How was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art experience in terms of your development as an actor?
Hughes: It was amazing. It was like The Holy Grail for me. My only way to get into this industry was through a drama school letting me in. Ever since my parents went to that Internet café, I’ve had this burning desire to go to that place. If you look at the list of actors that have gone there, it’s quite humbling. Every minute of it was valuable.

Paste: What’s next on the agenda for you?
Hughes: I’ve got a couple of films coming out. They’re in post-production right now. One is called Dare to be Wild and the other one is called The Incident. I just wrapped on The Incident about a month ago. I don’t know when they’ll be out.

Paste: Can you let me know what they’re about?
Hughes: The Incident is a three-hander about a married couple who go up to a country retreat, and a girl who lives in a village where they go. It’s about these three different incidents that send their lives spiraling. As much as being a thriller, it’s far more a psychological analysis of human beings and the human psyche, and why we behave the way we do—and the lies we tell ourselves and each other. It’s directed by filmmaker Jane Linfoot. She’s made four short films before. The last one was nominated for a BAFTA. She was just incredible.

Dare to Be Wild is a true story about Mary Reynolds—she won the Chelsea Flower Show about ten years ago. It’s her story if you like, but it’s about far more than about a flower show. It’s about her growing up in Ireland, and her romance with a guy named Christy Collard. His family was very much at the forefront of a movement to affect deforestation by building microclimates. He was just an amazing man, Christy, and Mary’s story is a real rags-to-riches story.

Paste: Finally, between The Lady Vanishes, Cemetery Junction, Richard II, Dancing on the Edge and The Game, you tend to get cast in a lot of period stories. What do you think it is about you that makes casting agents go, ‘Yeah, he’d be good for a period piece…’?
Hughes: I’ve no idea. I mean, The Incident is modern, so it was nice to do something that was different. I’ve no idea—maybe I grow good sideburns?

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.