Actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster on staying grounded

EVEN at 24, Thomas Brodie-Sangster still looks like a teenager, but he’s always been wise beyond his years, writes Claire Black

Young actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster attends the Jameson Empire Awards 2015 in London, England. Picture: Getty
Young actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster attends the Jameson Empire Awards 2015 in London, England. Picture: Getty

It’s what you might call a delightful irony that although Thomas Brodie-Sangster started acting at the age of ten, made the decision to pursue it as a career at 16 and has often played characters younger than he is, he is an old soul really. He likes nothing better than hanging out at home in South London (he lives with his mum), tinkering with his motorbikes – no newfangled superbikes for him, he’s just rebuilt the engine of his 1978 Yamaha. The band in which he plays bass (“it’s my mum’s band”) plays “old fashioned-y stuff, chanson and a bit of jazz”.

And he’s not that great with his mobile phone either. His publicist tells me it’s not that he doesn’t have one, he just doesn’t always switch it on.

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So why would such an old fogey enjoy a key role in the latest teen movie phenomenon?

Brodie-Sangster stars as Ellie Kendrick in Game Of Thrones. Picture: Contributed

“It’s not a problem looking young or playing younger parts, just as long as they are interesting roles and I feel like I can play with them and do something with them, that’s what I’m looking for,” Brodie-Sangster says. “I want to play a person convincingly and do a good job. I’m not so bothered about the age. There are some child characters who are incredibly wise and interesting and fascinating to play, some teenagers are and some aren’t.”

He’s right with that last assertion, the only thing I’d add is that the same is true for adults and often they’re to blame for the stuff that’s aimed at teens – that lucrative Young Adult market – so I kind of lay the blame at their door.

Happily, Newt, the part Brodie-Sangster plays in his new film, The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, the second instalment in the series based on James Dashner’s fantasy novels, is an interesting character – indeed, to judge by its predecessor the movie itself should be a cut above. The Maze Runner was a critical and commercial hit because it managed to be more engaging than much YA fare. Reminiscent of Lord Of The Flies, it focused on a group of boys (there was one girl) with no memory of their previous lives, who find themselves in a mysterious place called “the Glade”, and since it appears there’s no way through the ever-changing labyrinth which surrounds them, learn to live together, creating a society out of nothing. Where it diverges from William Golding’s more fatalistic view is through the power of the courageous individual who is brave enough to fight his way to freedom – this is an American movie after all. This second instalment is about what happens once the group escape their confinement.

After filming it in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Brodie-Sangster is about to start the international press push for the movie. He flies to Los Angeles the day after we speak. It’s not his favourite aspect of the job. “It can get a bit repetitive, but if you’re passionate about anything it’s easy to talk about it.” The plane-to-car-to-hotel over and over can give him a “numb brain”, but he’s resolutely not moaning. “It can be fun. I do like it. In small doses.”

What he’s less equivocal about is catching up with the rest of the cast from the original movie for this second part. “It was lovely. We all get on well as a cast and everyone involved in it really. To be honest I was mainly just looking forward to seeing everyone again and hanging out again.”

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Brodie-Sangster is 24, but can still easily pass for a teen. If I was to choose a word to describe him, I’d go for elfin. His features are fine, his eyes dart and are wide set and he does an anxious, watchful expression better than anyone I can think of. It’s no surprise that when it came to Game Of Thrones, which he was in for two seasons, no-one handed him a broad sword and blood-spattered helmet. Instead, he was Jojen Reed, the mysterious boy from Greywater Watch. Even in his breakout role in Richard Curtis’s Love Actually, he was a little boy who was both grieving and lovelorn. There’s always been something serious about Brodie-Sangster. He was like a grown up person in a little body.

“Yeah, I always saw it as that,” he says. “I always hated being spoken to like a child or talked down to in any way. I just felt like a person, not a child. I played, I still play now – to me acting is playing – so I’m still a kid in that way. But I enjoyed working, the responsibility of work. I enjoyed being in a working environment with people who were a lot older than me, professionals. I enjoyed that atmosphere.”

Brodie-Sangster never considered going to drama school. “I enjoyed learning on the job and I’ve always done that. I’m not saying drama school is a bad thing, I think it can teach you a lot of great technique of film and theatre. But I think I was put off it as a kid because I’d go to auditions and I’d have to wait in the waiting room. I’d be surrounded by loads of kids who were all at drama school. To me they just all seemed exactly the same. They all spoke in the same way, their mums seemed exactly the same, I couldn’t stand them and I desperately didn’t want to be one of them.”

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When he overheard them auditioning, he found their acting very predictable. “It was horrible,” he says. “They’d all do it in exactly the same way, every single one of them. That just didn’t seem like the right way, so I’d go in and do it how I thought it should be. I suppose it was a more natural take on it.”

Love Actually (2003) brought Brodie-Sangster to public attention and Nanny McPhee with Emma Thompson and Colin Firth as his dad came a couple of years later. With Bright Star (2009), the Jane Campion film about John Keats and Fanny Brawne with Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish he expanded his range further. And in Sam Taylor-Wood’s John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy (2009) he played Paul McCartney. With that portfolio, it’s clear Brodie-Sangster is an actor with rather fine taste. No blockbusters, no flashy franchises. And he’s pulled off the same trick on telly too. He played a key role in a Doctor Who two-parter as well as those two seasons on Game Of Thrones. It’s impressive for someone who didn’t even want to be an actor.

“When I was a kid, it was more about just playing around. I still do that but I enjoy trying to get into the psyche of a different person, imagining myself as them and tapping into that part of me that helps me to relate to them. I was immediately fascinated by all the cameras and everyone doing their jobs – there are so many people around and they’re all working together for one common goal. It’s so much work and so much effort from so many people. I found that fascinating and inspiring. I still love that. But I have become more interested in the acting side of things. It’s about grounding the performance in reality.

“I had no ambition to be an actor. I just thought I’d give it a go because it looked like fun. And it was. And then that became a career that’s lasted up until now and that’s just fantastic because it became something that I really want to do.”

If you’re going to learn on the job you could do worse than land the part of Thomas Cromwell’s 15-year-old protégé, Rafe Sadler, in Peter Kosminsky’s magnificent adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. An assistant and general dogsbody, Sadler was always in the background watching and learning. Brodie-Sangster utilised that aura of preternatural nous he has to pull off the fact that this boy was Cromwell’s confidant. And working closely with Mark Rylance, who portrayed the Machiavellian statesman, must have been a masterclass. “That was a big part of the reason that I wanted to get that job,” he says. “I had seen him in quite a few things and he was always so effortlessly real and rooted in reality which makes it instantly buyable. He told me one thing on set which was that all acting is is being in the moment and reacting accordingly. That’s it. The rest just follows. He’s a lovely, lovely man. And very talented.”

It was Rylance who suggested that Brodie-Sangster should get some experience on stage. Taking his advice, earlier this summer the seasoned film actor appeared in his first stage play. He did one week in a play written by an old family friend and he knew lots of the people in it. “It was a safe environment for me to try out the stage for the first time.” So, did he like it? “It was great. Similar to playing in a band, it changes every night. It’s alive, you get instant feedback from an audience, they’re kind of part of the play. They change the pace and flow of it depending on their reactions.

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“It’s very easy to get complacent because I’ve been doing it for a while. I know a film set really well, but not the stage. You’re doing the same job but in a world that you’re completely unfamiliar with. It’s scary and challenging and exciting. It really stimulates you.”

But it isn’t just advice about acting that Brodie-Sangster has taken from Rylance, he’s sees the way he manages to attract critical plaudits while somehow flying under the radar as a role model for his own career.

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“His main thing seems to be that he wants to do what he wants to do,” Brodie-Sangster says. “He’s not really interested in any other aspect of the job, the fame or anything like that. It’s hugely commendable. In the States when I’ve gone into meetings and said that I’ve worked with Mark Rylance they go nuts.”

Is he an inspiration? “Yeah. Someone who is doing their own thing but also happens to do it really, really well. It stems from a place of absolute honesty.”

Honesty and integrity are serious matters to someone who, although they have been making films for more than a decade, has become famous so young – and the child of actors (Mark Sangster and Tasha Bertram) to boot. Thoughtful, quiet, it’s clear Brodie-Sangster knows which parts of the job he is interested in and which he isn’t.

“It’s an odd position to be in when people are always telling you ‘Oh wow you’re great’ and putting you on a pedestal – even if that’s just wanting to have their photograph taken with you, especially now with social media. I can see how easy it would be for it to taint your perspective on things and for you to get carried away. You want to be able to appreciate it when people tell you that they thought you did a great job. It’s a very nice thing. But it is strange.”

There’s also the fact that clearly he can see the absurdity of some of the trappings of his job. “You can live a kind of jet-set lifestyle. I’m going to LA tomorrow. And then off to Korea. I’m sure I’ll be staying in a very nice hotel and I’ll have a nice flight. It is ridiculous. But I’m constantly aware that as well as seeing it like that I also want to enjoy it and see it as a bit of a novelty. You can enjoy it and still keep a grip on things.”

One of the best ways to stay grounded, Brodie-Sangster has found, is messing around with his motorbikes.

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“I’ve got a 1978 Yamaha that I’ve rebuilt. I redid the engine. I’ve got a Ducati as well. I like engines and I like the way it gets my mind working in a different way. It’s a bit of an escape. Before you know it hours and hours have gone by.”

Up until this point, Brodie-Sangster hasn’t really planned his career. He has just let it happen. “Parts have come up and although I might not have said I really want to play that role, I’ve really enjoyed it. But I’m starting to think that maybe now I should start trying to guide it and direct it towards a particular vein – but I don’t really know what that would be. I’m fascinated by people and the little quirks that make people who they are. So variety, playing lots of different kinds of people, works for me.

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“There are a few things on the horizon. Nothing is set in stone but it’s looking good, looking nice. I’ve been able to enjoy quite a bit of time off. I’ve just been enjoying being in London and hanging out with my friends. But I do get to the stage where I think, right I’d like to be back on a film set again.”

• The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials is in cinemas from 18 September