Last Christmas’s TV Great Expectations was contentious. Some complained that Pip should never be prettier than Estella. Others drew battle lines over the deep peculiarity of Gillian Anderson’s Miss Havisham. But I was transfixed by Herbert Pocket – or more precisely, Harry Lloyd, who made the most of a genial role accentuating his natural sparkle. For me, he was the outright star, though in that I was late to the party, for the young actor has a substantial, and vocal, fanbase, spreading the word via tribute websites and Twitter accounts.
Lloyd’s CV is impressive. His first professional gig was opposite Daniel Radcliffe in another BBC adaptation, David Copperfield. He had a recurring role as Will Scarlet in Robin Hood, played the young Denis Thatcher in The Iron Lady, a baddie in an episode of Dr Who, and breathed life into the disenfranchised king Viserys Targaryen, in the phenomenally successful HBO series Game of Thrones. On stage he’s tackled everything from a rent boy in The Little Dog That Laughed, to Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi.
Just 29 years old, and educated to within an inch of his life – prep school, Eton and Oxford, where he read English – Lloyd has the full tick list of attributes required to set hearts aflutter. One journalist accurately described him this way: “With androgynous high-cheekboned charm that appeals to boys and girls, there’s both a fragile, thin-lipped intensity to his performances, and an intelligent twinkly wit.”
“It’s an interesting phenomenon when you’re expected to publicise a TV show that you’re in by sitting down and talking to someone about your real life, which is weird because my job is to convince you that I’m someone else,” he notes.
The newest someone else is Matty, son of Brighton mobster Richard Beckett, played by Peter Mullan, in a drama called The Fear. Mullan is amazing, I say. “F***ing right, tell me about it!” Lloyd agrees. “Where do you begin talking about this show? In the Seventies Mullan’s character won control of gangland Brighton through dirty, violent means. He’s got comfortable, to the point where he’s vaguely unchallenged, and has gone somewhat legitimate. His two sons – my brother’s played by Paul Nicholls – run the business side of it. Paul’s character has been picking up the drugs and I’m the guy who launders the money through my nightclub, my mother’s art gallery and through the hotel dad runs. All this isn’t really discussed, but it’s the background.
“The twin threats that threaten to blow it all apart – or bring us together – are the Albanians who have moved into town and are a force to be reckoned with, and our father’s early-onset dementia. He’s losing his mind and as the story progresses, we see things through his eyes, but he can’t really distinguish between the external and the internal threat.”
There is a great deal of close camera work, and Mullan’s face tells a story. “I don’t know how he does it,” says Lloyd. “Before I got the job I watched lots of Peter Mullan things. I’d seen all these very powerful, intense performances and I was expecting this very powerful, intense man. I thought it was important, since he’s my dad, that I’m not intimidated by this guy.
“And then you meet him and straight away you just relax completely, because he is the most laid-back actor I have ever worked with. Yet when you see The Fear, you think, ‘Christ, he must have been a wound-up ball of tension the whole time.’ Not even. He anecdotes you up until ‘Action’.”
But isn’t that intimidating? Lloyd shrugs. “He has been very influenced by directors he’s worked with. He talks about Ken Loach a lot, and also about the nonsense of acting. The idea of working it all out the night before and then rehashing it the next day – it’s always going to look contrived. You see him work it out in the moment. He’s not trying to replay a thought; he’s just doing it on camera. It’s very spontaneous and natural.”
Yet a less-skilled actor could easily waste everyone’s time trying that approach. “And he doesn’t. He’s on it. I’ve never worked with anyone like him. He makes you feel like a better actor because he’s very relaxed. You get rid of all the nonsense and just have a conversation with him. We all learned, especially the younger actors. You look up to the guy and just soak up as much as possible, because he’s clearly found something that works for him.”
Whether it’s his upbeat attitude, or the jobs themselves, Lloyd’s been fortunate, for he’s really loved his characters. Herbert Pocket was a delight, he explains, because the adaptation reworked Dickens’ original premise, creating an estrangement between Pocket and his family, so that his wife became the centre of his life. “There was something about the fact that he had cut himself off so he could marry the girl he loved, but he still had this connection with Satis House and Miss Havisham, that suddenly made so much sense to me. He was the opposite to Pip. The director told me, ‘I don’t want him to be floppy and useless. He has to be a role model for Pip and he has to be a guy who’s had lots of money and realises that money doesn’t really get you anywhere,’ whereas Pip thinks money and status are everything.
“This guy’s stepping away from society, while Pip is trying to get into it, and,” Lloyd traces arcs in the air, “they’re kind of crossing each other halfway. Herbert was joyful because he was in love. All these terrible things are happening to Pip and he really cares, because when you are in love you’re sensitive to different things and you’re full of love for all kinds of human beings. So I really enjoyed playing him.”
And as for Game of Thrones, he says, “This series has spawned a huge amount of love, but guaranteed, no one loves it as much as I loved doing it. I’m really proud of it; it’s good TV. My character’s very misunderstood, he’s not completely bad. But that’s what’s interesting about the show, because everyone is nuanced. There are lots of nasty people but everyone’s doing it for a reason, and it’s interesting because it’s psychologically coherent. You don’t know who you’re rooting for necessarily.
“I remember thinking, while I was doing it, ‘I don’t know if anyone is ever going to watch this, and actually I don’t really care. I secretly think this is brilliant.’ You have those little moments, when you see someone else’s close-up or you walk past a tent and there are ten thousand swords being forged, something which pricks your imagination and lends you a thousand different thoughts, and you go, ‘Oh, I’m so glad I’m doing this.’ That is the most wonderful defence against all the nonsense of the popularity contest of acting, because if you love the actual work, it doesn’t matter.”
It’s apparently obligatory in interviews to make much of the fact that Lloyd attended Eton and that he is the great great great grandson of Charles Dickens. In the past he’s pointed out that the venerated author died some 120 years before he was even born, and had little influence on him, but these days he’s more sanguine about the connection. “I do think, wouldn’t it be great if they could skip that in an interview?
“And then I think, actually, is it possible for me to do anything in my little acting career that’s more interesting than the fact that there’s this connection to this incredible man? Not really, but that’s okay. If you’re going to be related to anyone in British history, who else would you rather? Darwin, Shakespeare, Churchill, Brunel? He’s right up there. I haven’t done anything to deserve the connection, and I’m fascinated by him as much as any reader.”
Because Lloyd knew the work, he wrote his university thesis on the relationship between text and illustration in Dickens’ books. “He started with George Cruikshank, who draws slightly grotesque characters, and then for the whole middle period he had Hablot Knight Browne – Phiz – and at the end, people like Marcus Stone, who I think are boring and make him look like a Thackery novel.
“The reason Phiz is brilliant is because Dickens will describe a person and say her skin was mottled like a coal scuttle, and she had the flightful fancy of a bird. He was constantly using moving analogies, so how do you draw someone who is fixed? Phiz referenced that in the background. He’d put little portraits on the wall, maybe showing a beautiful meadow, or a portrait of a beautiful woman, and there’s a bird in a cage on the table – all the little details referencing the fact that the whole landscape is moving, but it’s still a fixed and literal portrait of the scene.”
I’m intrigued by Lloyd’s quick, inquisitive mind, which is surely a boon for an actor. He agrees that the job’s never boring, since every role encourages him to investigate something intensively for several weeks or months, be it Thatcher’s reign or Communism in Eastern Europe during the 1950s. I wonder, if I let him loose in the Victoria and Albert Museum, with its myriad collections, what would he show me?
“Two things spring to mind: In a really dark room, they have these wonderful Raphael tapestries, which I haven’t seen for a while, and would like to see again. Also, I think that museum has some of the first folios, original bound volumes of Shakespeare.”
Yes, of course the boy who’s only ever wanted to act would bring me to see a Shakespeare folio! “If I’m honest, the reason I got into acting is not the reason I’m still doing it, and if I’m still doing it in ten years’ time, I’m sure I’ll find something else. But I remember the first time I clocked into acting. I was eight. We were doing a drama class and the teacher was auditioning us for the junior play, though I didn’t know it. He asked us, ‘Which word you would emphasise in the first line of this play?’ And the line was, ‘What did you think of that sermon, Chunter?’
“Everyone had a try. My parents both work in publishing, and I was a bright, academic kind of kid and I read a lot of books, and when you read a lot, I guess the muscle that gets exercised is where you can hear the voices in your head. You can turn words into pictures and into sounds and into colours and smells. So I could hear [that] obviously he’s talking about it as you would when you came out of church. You’d say, ‘What did you think of that sermon, Chunter?’ It was a mathematical question, really. And I ended up getting the main part and people said I was good and I quite enjoyed that.”
He had a lot of encouragement from teachers at all his schools, but kept his ambition a secret, even at university, when teachers exhorted him to act less and spend more time on his coursework.
“I did squeeze it in, and I’m sure I frustrated my teachers, who said, ‘You could do better,’ but I was bright, and I could always get by. I liked pleasing people, but more and more I realised that acting was the thing. Secretly I always thought I was going to do it, but I actually didn’t tell anyone for a long time, because – I imagine a lot of other 12-year-old kids would say, ‘I want to be an astronaut, I want to be an actor,’ and I was like, yeah, but,” he lowers his voice to a whisper, “I really want to do this!”
There was no Plan B? “No, but I kept waiting for someone to come and tell me to go away. And I would have. But no one ever did and I’m still here. I never decided to do it; I just never had to decide not to do it, if you know what I mean. I love it.”
We get talking about comfort movies that you never tire of watching. His include Jurassic Park – “a wonderful film, and structurally, way better than the book” – and Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves. “It’s about what age you are when you notice something. A lot of guys my age, we have a weird thing about that movie. I remember seeing it when I was 13. My family were all saying, ‘Wasn’t Alan Rickman amazing?’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about? He was the bad guy, Robin Hood was the hero!’”
Wait, wasn’t he impressed by Will Scarlet? He looks at for me a minute, until the penny drops. “Hahaha! No. I absolutely still watch it now, and I know every word to that film!”
He doesn’t simply watch films for their entertainment value, but as tutorials as well, studying performances as intently as when he’s on set with the likes of Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent. “You learn from them and squeeze them dry while you’re making the film, and then you do that with films you’re not even in. I saw The Master the other day, and Joaquin Phoenix – I could watch him all day.”
And that, he says, brings us back to where we started. “Peter Mullan is the least method actor around. It’s about being relaxed and free. You’re relaxed in character in front of the camera, and out of character off-screen. I believe your thoughts are your thoughts, but are you a human being in front of the camera, or an actor? They are two different things. When you’re watching those lovely big close-ups of Mullan being confused, he’s just a human being, and that’s why you follow him.
“You can take some crazy plot about a bomb going off and you saving the world, but if you can actually keep the audience with you from second to second, they’re going to have to believe something unbelievable. It’s a game. It’s profound and beautiful, but it’s a trick, and like all magic tricks, there’s no magic, it just takes a lot of time.”
The Fear is screened in four parts next week from Monday to Thursday, at 10pm on Channel 4.