Rising star Tom Bateman talks to Janet Christie about the contemporary feel to his new ITV costume drama Vanity Fair, learning from the likes of Kenneth Branagh and why he keeps his private life private Portrait by Debra Hurford Brown
A-listers, D-listers, the fashionable, the wealthy, the wannabes at the must be seen in places. Sound familiar? Today’s websites and glossies are awash with papped pics of the posh and promising, but the scene is actually London’s Vauxhall Gardens in the 1840s, a pleasure park with teeming bars and booths. The writer William Thackeray captured it all in his classic novel Vanity Fair and now it’s brought back to life with ITV’s adaptation for the big Sunday night drama slot starring Tom Bateman as Captain Rawdon Crawley. Adapted by screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes and directed by James (Liar and Broadchurch) Strong, the seven part series from ITV and Amazon Studios has Michael Palin, Suranne Jones, Frances de la Tour and Martin Clunes along with rising stars Bateman and Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp, the social climber who fast forward to today, would have social media atwitter.
“It’s not the sort of period drama you watch and go ‘oooh, back then people did this stuff,’” says Bateman down the line from London. “It’s completely relevant to today. The storytelling alone is very fresh: I don’t think we’ve ever seen a costume drama that talks to the audience so immediately, literally looking down the camera lens at the audience. Thackeray did it too when he was writing, talking directly to the reader, and people hadn’t read anything like it. It’s a classic now, but when he wrote it, it was modern, he was a bit of a rockstar, I think we’ve captured that modern spirit and energy.
“You see Twitter and Instagram and you see the vanity and narcissism of people today, and the extent to which people pretend to have this Hollywood life, it was exactly the same then. Rawdon and Becky don’t have any money, but they have all the trappings, look the part, go to the parties. It’s like those ‘Guilty Pleasures’ columns, so and so went to this party and got drunk and kissed that person, it’s timeless.”
So there’s nothing new about titillation, gossip, excess and display in the struggle to be someone and Vanity Fair has it all. There are nobodies on the make, alliances made and lost, glamour, success and failure, the powerful and the powerless. Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke, last seen in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One) is a penniless but pretty nobody determined to use her guile to make her way and from the moment she watches Rawdon Crawley, riding in uniform on his black horse towards his family’s mansion, she has him in her sights. As no doubt will everyone watching at home on the sofa. He’s a bit dashing isn’t he, Rawdon Crawley?
Bateman laughs, embarrassed. “He is a bit, yeah. I was watching with my girlfriend and the bit in Vauxhall Gardens where the fortune teller says Becky Sharp will meet “a tall, dark, handsome stranger,” she goes, ‘is that you?’ I said ‘I think it is, I think I’m being described as a dark, handsome stranger, yeah.’” He laughs.
There’s nothing like your nearest and dearest to keep your feet on the ground, is there, and is the girlfriend he was watching it with Daisy Ridley, of Star Wars fame, who he met on the set of The Orient Express?
“Aw, you see, I don’t answer questions like that,” he says, politely. “I’m very sorry. It’s going to be an asked question I know, but I’m a bit of an old-fashioned person who keeps things private, I’m afraid. With this job people want so much from you and of course I understand, but if you don’t keep that back, then what have you got left? If you auction off parts of your life you are left with nothing but a bag of money and no soul. So I don’t do things like that, or do Twitter or social media, though I don’t begrudge people who do. But if you ask me anything remotely private, I go very red and think ‘ahhhhh, this isn’t what I signed up for.’
“Daniel Day-Lewis said if an audience knows what I had for breakfast, who I’m married to, where I go on holiday, what shoes I wear and what car I drive, how can they possibly believe the characters I play? I’m guilty of it as well, you go ‘I wonder what Penelope Cruz does on her days off?’, but you’ve got to let Penelope have Penelope time, otherwise she’s not going to be Penelope, she’s just going to be a hollow shell.”
So, tall, dark, handsome and discreet. Bateman is also easy-going, friendly and convivial, with an engaging, inclusive manner. And endlessly polite, with everyone it seems, as his coffee is delivered. ‘Oooh Janet,” he says, “my coffee’s just arrived, no, that’s fine, any coffee, any caffeine, no, this is perfect, thank you, thank you very much, sorry about that, Janet. Did you like Vanity Fair?”
I tell him I enjoyed it and the agreeable Mr Bateman tells me he did too: “Even though I’ve read it and know it, there are chunks I’m not part of and when I watched it I thought ‘oooh, it’s good that’, when Simon Russell Beale breaks down when he loses his fortune, it really got me... and I thought ‘oooh, that’s good acting isn’t it, well done!’”
Unlike previous adaptations where the focus gets bogged down in historic detail resulting in a stiff-collared drama, this time round character is very much to the fore, and there is contemporary resonance in its treatment of class and race.
“I really love how Becky plays the class struggle,” says Bateman. “The idea of privilege, the desperation, the unfairness, and what Becky has to do to get ahead. There’s also the idea of the cold, ruthless bankers being bankers, screwing people over. And the racism of the time, hopefully that will shock an audience into thinking ‘god, that’s a bit crazy that that was an accepted way of thinking, and it’s good we’ve moved on.’”
And to underline the contemporaneity of the themes, the episodes are bookended with music such as Madonna’s Material Girl and Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower.
One of the reasons Bateman was so keen to do Vanity Fair, not least because “Crawley’s so wonderful as a character” and it involved riding, playing cards and billiards, was because his mum loves the book.
“As soon as I got the part I called her, and she said ‘which one are you playing? The stupid one?’” he laughs.
“At first Crawley does seem ridiculous, very cocksure and shallow, and I got to swagger around in a pretty hat on a horse and flirt with everyone, because he wants easy money and the prettiest woman in the room. But by the end, without ruining the story... he’s had such a beautiful journey, he’s met this woman, Becky, and they play with fire, and get burnt, and he’s lived through the ramifications of war, and grown up. It’s a really beautiful story that I love.”
With a prime time series about to air, at 29 Bateman is in demand and excited about how his career is going. Before Vanity Fair, he’d clocked up TV roles with ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde and Starz Da Vinci’s Demons series. As well as film roles including Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express with a host of A-listers from Dame Judi Dench to Johnny Depp, he made his name Stateside by playing the handsome stranger you don’t want to hook up with on holiday in the kidnap comedy Snatched, with Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn, followed up by Hans Petter Moland’s Hard Powder with Liam Neeson and Laura Dern, which is out next year. He’s also just been announced as the lead for ITV drama Beecham House, co-created, written and directed by filmmakers, Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, Viceroy’s House, Bhaji On The Beach) and the six part series starts filming this month in India and at Ealing Studios.
Born and raised in Oxford, one of 13 children of a primary school teacher and music teacher, he and his twin Merlin are “part of the last batch” as Bateman likes to put it, with one younger brother born after them. There wasn’t a lot of money and holidays were camping in Wales, with a lot of playing cards, something he put to good use in Vanity Fair. “It keeps kids camping entertained for hours, then I had a wonderful guy come in and teach me how to quick shuffle and cut a deck with one hand, all for just one second on the screen.”
Fascinated by words, he grew up listening to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and is the only actor, the rest of them all having “respectable jobs” as he puts it.
Bateman doesn’t know why he was drawn to acting, other than to explain that when he found himself in a play, the magic of creating something that touched both audience and actors was seductive.
“There’s a wonderful quote from CS Lewis,” he says, “that ‘we read to know we are not alone’, and I think that applies to acting and telling stories. Happy or sad, experiencing it, that elevation and entertainment, it’s an honour to be able to do it as a living.”
After school and amateur dramatics, Bateman went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and before he’d even graduated was on stage with Catherine Tate and David Tennant in much Ado About Nothing. More theatre followed and he joined Kenneth Branagh’s repertory company at the Garrick, doing The Winter’s Tale alongside fellow Murder cast member Dame Judi and appeared in Branagh’s Harlequinade, before smaller TV roles led to bigger parts in The Tunnel, Da Vinci’s Demons and the lead in ITV’s Jekyll & Hyde in 2015, which allowed him to explore the complexities of two different characters within one role.
“The emotional exploration happens with Jekyll, but Hyde is fun,” he says. “I remember one of the crew saying one day ‘I’m bored with Jekyll, I want some Hyde!’ Because there were more stunts and explosions when he was around. But it’s a wonderful exploration into what it is to be human, what people keep hidden. Obviously I have more in common with Jekyll, but there’s something about Hyde…”
Dark territory is also to be explored in Hard Powder, where Hans Petter Moland’s brooding comedy is somewhat bloodsoaked, as Bateman plays a drug dealer who has incurred the wrath of Liam Neeson, out to settle a score.
“If I do the costume dramas for my mum and dad (I’m joking, there’s something for everyone in Vanity Fair and Orient Express), then this one’s for my brothers,” he says. “In this I’m basically running around killing everyone, and Liam Neeson is hunting me down.”
Neeson made a big impact on Bateman, and in terms of inspiration is up there with the likes of Dame Judi, Goldie Hawn and Kenneth Branagh. For Bateman Dench and Hawn just light up a room with their incredible energy, while Branagh amazes him with his gobsmacking energy and a playfulness that makes it look easy. For sheer performance, Neeson nails it.
“He is one of those people who is so incredible as an actor,” he says. “There’s a scene at the end of Hard Powder where we’re nose to nose at the top of a mountain and I had this huge speech, in his face, going at him, and then he had one line, and he absolutely blew me out of the water.”
Bateman also singles out his Orient Express experience, where playing the train director Bouc, with a carriageful of suspects, saw him playing Watson to Branagh’s Holmes.
“It was Ken and me in a very small room interviewing Hollywood and British acting royalty who were giving speeches and doing amazing scenes. For a young-ish actor like me, it was a wonderful masterclass.
“Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, who I have worshipped since I was about eight, watching him was mindblowing... and they all make it look so easy and creative, they’re incredible. Seeing how they work and conduct themselves, so generous with their time and energy, but at the same time keeping something back for themselves, so they can stay wonderful.”
Having cut his comedy teeth with Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn, Bateman is keen to do more, and as well as Beecham House and another film in the pipeline, he has another TV show with a comedy touch.
“It’s the reason I said yes, I like doing comedy because you get to flex muscles you don’t usually use, to do with timing and delivery. But I don’t think I’m always that funny. It upsets me where you do a take and people go ‘that’s so funny’, and you think ‘I was being serious…’ But working with Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes, they were just incredibly funny, and Goldie Hawn too, she was so warm, much more than an actor, with the charity work she does. We used to sit smoking on our break and she’d tell me about it.”
Still based in London after ten years in the capital, has he achieved what he set out to do, like Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp who heads for London and fame and fortune?
“Yeah, I suppose I have,” he says. “I went to a masterclass with Jonathan Pryce who said that a successful actor is not a famous actor, it’s an actor who acts. And I have been incredibly fortunate to have worked constantly from the moment I left drama school, so I achieved what I set out to do. I am an actor.
“Ten years ago if you’d asked if I thought I’d be in the position I’m in now, I’d say ‘oh no, that’s far too much to hope for.’ But your goalposts move, so have I achieved what I want to achieve now?
“No, I haven’t even started!”
Vanity Fair starts on Sunday, 2 September at 9pm on STV, episode two Monday, 3 September, then Sundays at 9pm.