Antonia Thomas interview: the Good Doctor star talks Sunshine on Leith, Misfits and telling her own stories

Antonia Thomas stars in The Good Doctor on Sky. Picture: Michael Shelford.
Antonia Thomas stars in The Good Doctor on Sky. Picture: Michael Shelford.
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With a starring role in hit US medical drama The Good Doctor, Antonia Thomas juggles life in Vancouver and London

After a lifetime working in the NHS, Antonia Thomas’s mother always wanted her daughter to be a doctor and now she’s got her wish as she’s starring in the hit US series The Good Doctor. Thomas plays Dr Claire Browne, who befriends newbie doctor and autistic savant Shaun Murphy, becoming his ally in the medical world. With the second season airing to 16 million audiences, it’s the number one drama on US network ABC and airing in the UK on Sky.

The Good Doctor is the number one drama on US network ABC

The Good Doctor is the number one drama on US network ABC

“Yeah, it’s the one my mum loves and really enjoys because she wanted us to do medicine and have stable careers. So me just pretending to be a doctor…” She laughs. The 32-year-old actor is a familiar face in Scotland thanks to her role in the 2013 film version of Proclaimers’ jukebox musical Sunshine on Leith and the Glasgow-filmed Channel 4/Netflix series Lovesick after her breakout role in the cult British sci-fi series Misfits.

“Medical dramas are really fun, but they definitely have their challenges with all the medical jargon to learn. The operation scenes are fun and also tricky because it’s about the angles and can take time and be pernickety to get right. But I haven’t picked up any knowledge that would be useful to me in the real world, putting up my hand anytime and shouting ‘I’m a doctor’”. She leaves that to her mum. She laughs.

Thomas is happy to be home in London for a week’s break in the middle of filming this season after spending four months in Vancouver. She loves the Canadian city, especially in summer when she went exploring the Rockies and road tripping from Jasper to Banff – “it’s the Scottish Highlands on acid,” she says. “We went whale and grizzly bear watching, it was incredible.” But now that the city is hunkering down for the winter, a week back in London appealed.

“I had an unexpected little bit of time off so I thought I’d come home and just get some … British-ness,” she says. “I’ve been in Vancouver for quite a long time and it’s been a while since I’ve had any decent time home. Vancouver is stunning, especially in summer, it’s all mountains and sea and outdoor life, hiking and stuff, but it’s a bit more sleepy and slower paced as the winter sets in. And the thing I REALLY, REALLY miss is the buzz and cultural side of London where you can just step out of the door and there’s anything and everything; theatre, gigs, whatever your mood, you can find whatever you want.”

at the premiere of Sunshine on Leith in Edinburgh with Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks and Proclaimers Charlie and Craig Reid

at the premiere of Sunshine on Leith in Edinburgh with Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks and Proclaimers Charlie and Craig Reid

After this break it’s back to Canada for more filming, then another week off for Thanksgiving when she plans to come home again before heading back to shoot the final episodes of The Good Doctor. With a partner who is also an actor and photographer and able to travel between the US and UK too, Thomas enjoys working on both sides of the Atlantic. “At the moment I get more work over there but I want to be able to come home and do plays and TV and film. It’s just that the industry here is smaller.”

Part of the popularity of the drama is down to its ability to combine medical procedures with human stories grounded in contemporary social and ethical issues. Autism, gender equality, sexual harassment, gender dysphoria and racism have all been woven into the plots and last season saw Thomas’s storyline chime with the beginning of the #MeToo movement.

“We started filming it as #MeToo broke in the press but they had written it before the Harvey Weinstein stuff came out. I felt the added pressure and a massive sense of responsibility to get it right, make sure that the tone was right and we were supporting the dialogue people were having, so that it was clear and not muddy. I felt really lucky to be part of that conversation as an actress.”

Fortunate enough not to have experienced harassment herself, Thomas has friends in the industry who have. “Nothing on the scale of the Weinstein thing, but instances that feel borderline and make you uncomfortable. I think The Good Doctor storyline was good because it tackled the subtleties of how sexual harassment can manifest in the workplace, where it’s not really obvious. That’s where the conversation is at the moment. It’s obvious if someone is flagrantly propositioning you, but it’s important to tackle those moments where you’re feeling uncomfortable but aren’t sure. There’s a lot of confusion about where the line is, and a dialogue about that is really important.”

Thomas and George MacKay in Sunshine On Leith. Picture: PA Photo/DNA Films/Entertainment Films Distributors

Thomas and George MacKay in Sunshine On Leith. Picture: PA Photo/DNA Films/Entertainment Films Distributors

Another area the series highlighted, along with the best way to DIY restart someone’s heart using a tube and a jar of liquid, is gender equality. Told she needs to be more assertive, Dr Browne faces a backlash from colleagues.

“She’s told to be more confident but when she is, she’s told to step back, by men. It’s this thing of when a woman is assertive she’s a problem, being a bitch or whatever, so it’s interesting to delve into the subtleties of workplace dynamics between men and women.”

As Dr Shaun Murphy, played by Freddie Highmore, is autistic with savant syndrome, much of the show’s dynamic centres on that. As Thomas points out, very few of us aren’t touched by autism one way or another.

“I think the fact the central hero is a doctor with autism is fantastic and it’s really representing it in a positive light. The show is about Shaun learning to navigate a professional working environment, but it also celebrates his brilliance and that is such a hopeful, positive thing. Autism isn’t talked about enough.”

Acting opposite an actor playing an autist also requires adjustment, as Thomas explains.

“Normally the main thing to go off is eye communication. But if you’re communicating with somebody with autism, or Shaun’s version of autism because it’s a spectrum, you have to learn to react differently. They have to learn to communicate with each other. Shaun is learning social clues, what it means if somebody says this or does that. And she’s learning from him, because often autism presents as a beautiful honesty, and if you’re a neurotypical [used in the autistic community to describe those not on the spectrum] person who shields feelings like Claire, Shaun is able to cut through that. He’ll say you were lying one minute, now you’re not, why’s that? So she learns from his honesty and learns about herself too.”

Thomas’s mother spent a lifetime in the NHS and she was keen for her daughters to follow her but when they chose a more precarious living as actors, she and her husband were behind that too. And as it turned out, it wasn’t so precarious as Thomas has been working consistently since the day she left Bristol Old Vic and immediately landed the part of Alisha Bailey in Misfits, the E4 show that ran from 2009-13.

“It was British drama at its best, a very British take on an American genre; basically, s**t superheroes,” says Thomas.

The superheroes are five outsiders on community service who develop superpowers after being caught in a freak storm. Alisha’s power was an uncontrollable sexual urge on being touched, probably not as useful as immortality or telepathy, but it allowed an exploration of how to handle burgeoning sexuality.

“There was also a lot of emotion and darkness to Misfits, as well as the comedy that they couldn’t get their superpowers acts together,” says Thomas. “The powers actually enhanced the insecurities of the misfit teenagers and it was a look into the psychology of that. Alisha had a particularly in-your-face power that came out of her feeling as a 16-year-old, that her only currency was to be attractive to boys. It was a massive learning curve for her to realise that’s actually a horrible position to be in.”

Misfits led straight on to Sunshine on Leith, for which Thomas was nominated for the Best Female Newcomer at the Empire Awards. With the film and musical still going strong, Thomas puts its success down to the “amazing music of The Proclaimers” and the sheer feel-good nature of the film.

“It was a joyous experience; we had such a wonderful time, so I think it’s popular because it’s so positive. It’s a look at a very ordinary story, ordinary lives, has heartbreak and change and you come away feeling uplifted.”

With a father who is a classical singer, Thomas grew up with an example of making a living through performance, but she laughs when I ask if he helped with her singing.

“No, we have such different voices and he was a specialist in classical and early music. He was really supportive and loved the film, but no tips, no.”

Another big screen hit followed with the cult Northern Soul, about the movement that emerged from the northern dance scene of the 1960s.

“I loved learning about a whole club culture I didn’t know anything about,” says Thomas. “The writer Elaine Constantine had been working on that script for ten years and there was a huge passion for that era. There were dancers learning all the specific moves for four years and the two leads (Josh Whitehouse and Elliot Langridge) for two, then I joined and had two weeks. That was really stressful!”

Thomas did have basic dance training but it was ballet, tap and jazz and she had to learn a new style fast.

“Northern Soul is like the top half of your body has to be really loose, doing something completely different to the bottom half. And they wanted authenticity, so all the REAL Northern Soulers were there watching and it was nerve wracking. But that’s also what’s brilliant about the film, to be part of something so authentic you just lose yourself in it, chameleon yourself. There was the Bury accent too, so I had a coach – and watched a lot of Peter Kay.”

Music crops up again offscreen for Thomas who is feature vocalist with Caribbean/samba band Sugarcane, lending a sultry edge to their single, One Specific Thing. She also jumped at the chance to dance on the video of Coldplay’s single Charlie Brown and starred in the video for Stereophonics’ C’est La Vie.

“When I got the request to be in the Coldplay video I jumped at it. For me and Elliott Tittensor [Shameless], who’s become a mate, it was like being at a private Coldplay gig. It was incredible, so cool.”

As well as a host of other TV roles, from The Musketeers, and Fleming opposite Dominic Cooper, to ITV’s military wife miniseries Homefront, and The Deep with James Nesbitt and Minnie Driver, and voicing the reboot of Teletubbies, Thomas hasn’t stopped since graduating.

For three seasons she was Evie in Lovesick, the Channel 4/Netflix romcom about unrequited love among friends caught in a post-education responsibility-free limbo, and originally called Scrotal Recall.

“I am over the moon about the name change!” says Thomas. “Scrotal Recall, it’s like…” she laughs, embarrassed. “It grabbed people’s attention and it was fun and a pun, but it cut out a lot of people who would have watched it had it not been called that, so that was frustrating.”

Frustrating because the series was heartfelt and sweet, more Richard Curtis romcom than lads’ American Pie, and since the name change, the response, especially in North America where it’s still airing, has been warmer.

“When I got the script through I adored it and my agent said, they’ll probably change the title, ignore it. But they didn’t and people would ask me, ‘what are you up to at the moment? I found myself trying to avoid the title, saying ‘yeah I’m just doing this show about three friends’, then eventually you have to say Scrotal Recall and I got the ‘oh god, things have gone a bit downhill’ looks. It was awful, when I was so proud of everything else about that show – beautiful writing and the best time doing it.”

Thomas enjoyed filming in Glasgow for three years, a city she loves, having Scottish links through her paternal grandmother.

“Glasgow is one of my favourite cities and everything about that show was great. Apart from the name.”

Unlike her character Evie, Thomas always knew what she wanted to do, and it was always acting. She did school plays and took any opportunity to perform. When a teacher suggested the National Youth Music Theatre, already attended by elder sister Emma, also now an actor, she auditioned, aged 12. By 13 she was touring Japan in the musical Pendragon with them, alongside Connie Fisher.

“From then on, I knew I just wanted to do it. I went to the Edinburgh Festival with a musical version of Midsummer Night’s Dream called Dreaming, that had Lily James and Ben Barnes (Westworld) in it, and from then on I just had the bug.”

With a string of credits to her name, but determined to have a long career, Thomas has plans to branch out into writing and producing too.

“I want to develop some of my own stuff. I’ve got to the age where I want to be part of the creative conversation… because actors are always the last person in the conversation, and I want to be creating too.”

That’s why Thomas has been collaborating with Good Doctor co-star Chuku Modu on a drama set in Canadian gold rush of 1890, producing a short called Freedom’s Name is Mighty Sweet.

“We wanted to do period drama, and while that’s becoming more inclusive in terms of casting, up till now it’s been frustrating. So we found a true Canadian story about two young African Americans, Lucille and Charles Hunter, and their journey to the Yukon. It’s the story of incredible survival.

“We’d like to make it a longform film, but producing is really hard! That was an eye opening experience,” she says. “But it’s something I want to do more of.”

Another story Thomas has thought of developing is that of her mother, Veronica, who arrived in Yorkshire from Jamaica at 11, became a nurse and worked her way up to head of psychology at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.

“She was raised by her grandma in Jamaica while her mother was over in England, then she joined her. When she left school, her mother went back, so she’s had an interesting life. It’s a little bit later than the Windrush, but it’s a similar story.”

“It’s a story of perseverance and belief in oneself in the face of a lot of prejudice and people closing doors. It’s inspiring and I think it needs to be told.”

The Good Doctor, Tuesday 9pm, Sky