From the tragic Pontmercy in the BBC’s Les Miserables adaptation to the bullying Donovan in The Inbetweeners, Henry Lloyd-Hughes has played so many different character types that you may not recognise him at first. When we meet, I find it hard to reconcile this bright, handsome, funny young man with the glasses and the old-fashioned moustache to the smooth, twisted villain he’s currently playing in the BAFTA-winning
Next up, fittingly, is someone completely different again; Alfred Lyttelton, a Victorian politician and sportsman, in The English Game — a six-part Netflix series about the invention of football, which explores how it became the world’s greatest game by crossing class divides.
Trisha D'Hoker: So, I finished watching Killing Eve last night – you were absolutely evil!
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: Thank you! I think what it is, in part, is Villanelle coming up against someone, and being genuinely intrigued by them. The relationship she has with Eve is, of course, much more longstanding, but with a different flavour. Because they have this almost-infatuation with each other — professionally, personally. But Eve is much more emotional. The slightly intriguing thing here is that Villanelle meets someone more like herself.
TDH: And it looks like she’s really taken aback by this.
HLH: And as a viewer, you have to believe this, that she is intrigued; that’s the game. I didn’t want to be hard on myself, trying to match their level. But of course, I had seen the first series and thought, wow, these guys are great. It could have been very daunting: it’s not like before a show goes out for the first time, you have no idea how it’s going to turn out. But when you watch something you are about to join, and it’s that good, it could be like the first day of school! But luckily, my first day turned out to be with Fiona Shaw and Sandra Oh. And within about 30 seconds I was like, OK. This is going to be OK.
TDH: What about your next project, The English Game?
HLH: It’s about the birth of professional football. When everyone hears football, they think about the Premier League. And this is so far removed from that. It’s almost about the concept of football, and the concept of what it means to be a professional, what it means to play sport for money or not. So it’s fascinating; it’s about sport, but it’s also about the history of that time.
TDH: With Julian Fellowes writing and producing, you’re going to have that element.
HLH: For sure. And it’s an interesting hybrid of drama and sport. It’s going to come out in 2020. So by then, I’ll be very interested to see whether it’s the Downton Abbey audience that flocks to it, quite logically. Or if it will be a new audience, where they may be interested in football because they’ve just watched the World Cup and want to know more about how it started.
TDH: Is there a film or series you’ve done that stands out as memorable?
HLH: When I was around 19, 20 years old, I did a film with Joanna Hogg, where it was just totally immersive. I mean, to begin with, we shot chronologically — which never happens! Then the place where we filmed, we actually lived there. So during the shoot, my character’s bedroom was also my bedroom. We shot breakfast when we were actually eating our breakfast. I suppose if you were being cynical, you could say it was almost primitive. But for me, at that stage in my career, at that age, it was the perfect job. It made me feel that I could actually contribute to the process. It would be harder to do now, with the experience and expectations. But I learned a lot at the time, by being able to trust and just completely surrender. I think it brought me closer to seeing or feeling what being an actor could be.
TDH: I know you didn’t have a big part in it, but I have to ask you about your experience in one of my favourite films, Anna Karenina.
HLH: I’m not a production designer — and I certainly hadn’t been told the concept behind what they were doing. And I only had a small role. But I turn up, and I’m like, this is weird. I thought we were going to be shooting on location or something. Me, with these expectations of halls and halls of Russian grandeur! I mean, the set was riveting; every part of it was so carefully thought out. From using all reclaimed materials, constructing things as they would have been at the time — it was like stepping into a time capsule. But I was just confused, wondering why my character was having this conversation in this place, and why is he coming around from that corridor. And none of this makes sense at all. I think it was about 2/3 of the way through the day when someone said, ‘Oh, by the way, did we mention the whole thing is set in the theatre?’ And I was finally like, ‘Oh……’ It’s been a while since I’ve seen that film, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my character has a very puzzled look on his face.
TDH: I thought it was very clever the way it was done. You didn’t need all those locations to tell the story in the end.
HLH: The other amazing thing, apart from the set, is the cast of actors assembled: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander. I was only there a week — but of those who were there working that week, all have gone on to become stars. That’s another of the great things about being around as long as I have. Chances are, you will have had crossed paths with most actors at some point. You start to be able to tick names off, like a bingo set.
I was at the National Theatre last week to see a good friend who was in a play there, Anna. And I realised that I hadn’t been there in a long time; the first West End play I was ever in was here. But I was suddenly hit with the memory that the last time I had been in the canteen, I was having a baked potato with beans, sitting next to Harold Pinter! That’s how long I’ve been around!
I feel I am lucky to have memories now that go back and scoop up the different generations. It’s really, really lovely for me when I get the chance to work with people of older generations. I can then just feed off all their wisdom, and try to understand the best temperament to have to remain sane. I did a TV show a couple of years ago with Nicholas Woodeson, a luminary of the theatre. And even more enjoyable than doing the show was being able to spend time with him — and getting all that wisdom and experience.
TDH: Do you find they like talking with you, and sharing this?
HLH: Yes! And especially someone like me, all ears. I am genuinely interested. I have a little, I guess, motto; “Never take advice from someone you wouldn’t change places with.” So if someone has built an amazing body of work, I will listen. I am there to shut up and listen! I’m not there to tell them anything!
TDH: So, how did you get into acting? Was it something you’d always wanted to do?
HLH: I went to a very academic school, and drama was one of the things I found I was really good at. Wasn’t a great sportsman, academically I underperformed. I remember one year I came bottom of the year in all three sciences, topping out at 12, 13%. It just wasn’t happening. So drama; when someone supports you, you suddenly think, really? I didn’t know I was good, but when someone says you can do something, you’re good at — whatever it is, ping pong, whatever — you start to think, maybe I should do this a bit more. So that’s what really fostered it, and I really enjoyed it. But then I tried in a very old-fashioned, new-fashioned way to just transfer that straight into a career.
TDH: No drama school then?
HLH: No drama school. I was starting to send out letters to agents when I was still in school, before my A levels, sending out letters to agents, saying ‘You’ve got to represent me.’
TDH: That’s very proactive at such a young age. Or were you just desperate not to have to do something else?
HLH: Both of those, 100%. And one fed the other. So when everyone started to talk about UCAS forms, going to open days, I was looking at the finish line and I was like, I don’t want any part of this. I mean, what kind of flipping UCAS form am I going to fill in, with the bottom 3 Science grades? And all the time thinking, this is not going to end well for me.
So it became my exit strategy. And of course, it wasn’t linear; it was incredibly audacious, trying to forge ahead with a career in acting like this. I remember going to my first casting. I was 17 and my agent — a lovely lady, who I’d been with for about five minutes — said “OK, they’re looking for a 17-year-old.” And I’d go to the casting, and everyone else would be 26 or something like that. They’d all had been to RADA, done 3 shows in the West End, full CV. Then I’d come in and they’d be like, “So, what school did you go to?” And I’d say, “Actually I haven’t been.” And they’d be like, “So why do you think you will be good for this role?” And I would say, “This character is 17; I’m 17. This could be good for us.” And on more than one occasion, they’d be “Right, go home, not interested.”
At the time I was quite shocked and upset by it. But I think maybe now, in an era when people have become more open to different, less traditional approaches, this doesn’t happen so much. In the past, it was very much, you have to do this amount of drama school, this amount of plays. Then when you’re done that, we might allow you to audition for a small role in a TV show. And only then we might let you audition for a film. It felt like a pyramid of things you had to do, like getting boxes ticked. I experienced that, but now I think that is gone to a degree.
TDH: Not so many gatekeepers, maybe?
HLH: Yes I think you’re right. And weirdly, now, to get a huge movie role, they will either give it to someone who’s really, really famous or to a complete unknown. It’s almost the opposite — like you’d have a better chance to walk in off the street, a 16-year-old who’s never done anything. [It’s] like ‘Look, we’ve got this guy, he’s ours.’ This sense of discovery; he’s never done anything, but he’s the one. Whereas when I was that age, I was one of those going around and they would be [saying], ‘I don’t understand, how arrogant of you to even presume you could do this!’
TDH: But how good you were to keep going. Were you just really driven?
HLH: Pure fear! Fear, because I just didn’t have any other options; there was no fallback. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I worked the whole time — in a shoe shop, as a landscape gardener, then I worked selling suits. And the people in those jobs were incredibly supportive of me as well. But I just didn’t have a Plan B! No UCAS, no place at Bristol to study English waiting for me. All of my contemporaries were going off getting degrees. So that was really the fuel in the tank. It was very tough, as it always is — the level of rejection you have to deal with.
TDH: And in your case, you really had put it all on the line.
HLH: Exactly! Against all better judgement. And out of my large family, I am the oldest, and the one who has taken the least traditional path. I mean, my father was like, “I don’t understand. If you want to be an actor, why the hell aren’t you going to drama school? Surely that is what you do?”
TDH: What is it that makes some actors successful?
HLH: A psychotic ability to get back on the horse, to not take it personally. Because it’s not a linear progression. It’s a very cliched thing to say, but I know dozens of actors who are so talented, they could make you cry for a thousand years. But they are not known. Trying to learn how to navigate this, that it is not logical, you don’t put in x and get out y — that is the whole thing. Or to use a Star Wars analogy, that is what being a Jedi is all about. Your mindset — trying to be ok with someone saying ‘no’ a thousand times in a row, but believing that the thousand-and-first time, they will say ‘yes’. Before you get that first job, it is terrifying; you have no idea whether it will work.
That’s why I mentioned the Joanna Hogg film I did all those years ago, and why it has stuck with me. It was the first time I wasn’t just an unwitting passenger; the first time I felt I actually had some control over my performance, the process. Those moments in life are fleeting, rare, but they stick with you.
TDH: What would you have done if you hadn’t become an actor?
HLH: Do you want to know what I would have done with my skill set? Or, are you saying if I could wave a magic wand and have any career? Because I would have loved to have been a professional cricketer — and I have none of those skills, I play at a very low level. When I see incredibly successful actors, I have admiration for their talent, but I also know quite a lot about what they do.
TDH: So a bit of the magic has gone.
HLH: Exactly. When I watch Jimmy Anderson swing the ball both ways, that to me is mind-blowing Albert Einstein stuff. So if I was able to have a super-skill, or wave that magic wand, I would certainly pick something in that sphere. But I do have other passions, and I’m lucky enough to be able to pursue them. I have been running a cricket team, the Bloody Lads Cricket Club, for about 10 years. It started as a group of mates just playing in East London and now it’s grown to a 100 strong group of players who come from all over the world, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand … it’s a great way of meeting new people and socialising in London. And this summer I started selling vintage sportswear. It was my great-grandfather’s company, N.E. Blake & Co — it’s the family business, really. And it’s a way of combining two of my passions. Having sold suits when I left school, as I said before, I had all this experience of being involved in that side of the business. And I was always trying to get kit for my teammates. It also happened to be what my great-grandfather did as a business, which was passed on to my grandmother when he died. When she died, in 2017, I inherited the company, and it was at that point that I had kind of a eureka moment. Like, wow, this is my passion, vintage sportswear. And it’s mine now.
TDH: Great timing, with Britain hosting the Cricket World Cup this year.
TDH: And where are you selling these now?
HLH: All online. And look — at the moment, it’s a one-man band. I’ve got a few people who help me do a few specific jobs, but most of my spare time goes into running the company now, which is great.
TDH: Very exciting. And it’s a family thing.
HLH: Yes, it is and it’s got nothing to do with my day job. I feel like there’s a road map, to keep folding in the history of the company. And my grandfather was an amazing man, a genius at everything. He played so many sports, and had such a big fraternity — because not only was he in the trenches in WWI, he was also involved in the D-Day landing in WWII.
And because of that, he was hugely influential in the Old Boys associations, with both of those sets of men that served. So he had a network — not of just tens of men, but hundreds and hundreds. But he was also a fantastic boxer, a fantastic runner, he was incredibly gifted at golf, he played tennis, he played cricket, he played hockey. He was the classic example of what we were talking about earlier, in terms of sport, and using that to build a community of people together.
TDH: So how did he take all that and go into sportswear?
HLH: He was like, if I’m on the running team, and golf team, and I’ve also got the Old Boys hockey team, then we’re going to need some kit and I’m going to be the guy to do it. So in a weird way, I’m mirroring that — on a much, much smaller scale.
TDH: It’s clothes you can also wear on the street?
HLH: Exactly. And this is what I brought from my time working in fashion. I worked at Liberty selling suits, then I worked at Dover Street Market. So between those two places, I sold everything from Paul Smith to Margiela to Dries Van Noten, McQueen, Valentino. You name it, I would have sold it over the years. The products I want to make are faithful replicas of classic sportswear styles that you can’t get anymore, but are also made in a way that you can also throw them on under a blazer and they still look good.
Afterwards, I go online, and see Lloyd-Hughes modelling the crisp, well-crafted clothes he spoke about, and making good use of those dashing good looks that seem to look right in any time period he’s cast in — and that moustache! It’s a thing of beauty, with ends that he absent-mindedly twirls as we discuss it. And it’s currently in full flower, for his upcoming role as a Victorian footballer in The English Game.