The British actor Tom Bateman is walking across the restaurant towards me and, with the light behind him, completely in shadow. In my mind he could be any one of his memorable roles: the tall dark stranger, the sociopathic villain, the man-about-town, or even assistant to the world’s greatest detective, the role he has recently reprised in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
Bateman trained at LAMDA in London, receiving The Leverhulme Scholarship 2009-2011. In 2018 he was awarded the Breakthrough Actor award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards. On television, Bateman has appeared in many productions, such as ITV and Amazon’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s, Vanity Fair, and Gurinder Chadha’s Beecham House, set in India at the turn of the 19th century. In 2019 Bateman played opposite Liam Neeson and Laura Dern in the Hans Petter Moland revenge thriller Cold Pursuit. In the psychological thriller Behind Her Eyes, the upcoming Neflix series, Bateman’s character David is part of an unconventional, and increasingly dark, love triangle.
It may have been partly down to relief at being able to interview face-to-face after months of screens, but I can report that Tom Bateman is in good form. Transcribing the interview after was tricky as there was a lot of laughter. I could easily imagine Bateman doing farce, which is how, he says, he probably came to be cast as Bouc in the first place, the role he originally played in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express in 2017. We begin by speaking about the upcoming film and its predecessor. But not without first clearing up one point.
Trisha D’Hoker: Was Murder on the Orient Express your first big film?
Tom Bateman: I had done a movie called Snatched (which starred Goldie Hawn and Amy Schumer).
TDH: Were Schumer and Hawn as funny to work with as they are on screen?
TB: They were so funny, but so professional. They know what they’re doing and are very hard working. The thing I learned on that film was comedy beats. It was my first big American movie. I’d done independent films and television and smaller roles in big films, but this was my first bigger role in a big film. I remember my agent saying, you’re going to Hawaii. I come from a very poor background so the idea of being paid to go to Hawaii? I remember calling my mum and telling her, they’re sending me to Hawaii to mess around on a beach with Goldie Hawn! I loved it, loved it very much. I’d never flown business class; I’d never been to a fancy hotel; I’d never ever even dreamed of going to Hawaii. And there I was, the whole time trying to play it cool, like I belonged there. Which I’m still working on.
But Murder on the Orient Express was my biggest role yet.
TDH: Tell me about working with Kenneth Branagh (who directs and plays the role of Hercule Poirot in both films). Had you worked with him in theatre?
TB: Theatre was the first thing I did with him. I was coming up to the end of filming a television series, Jekyll and Hyde, which had been my first big leading part. I remember getting an email saying Kenneth Branagh wants to meet you for his theatre season. And it was to play a smaller role than I’d been playing, because just before Jekyll and Hyde, I’d been playing the lead role in Shakespeare in Love. And my agent said, well, it’s a smaller part, but it’s working with Branagh. I said, I don’t give a shit if it’s a smaller part. Judy Dench was in it. Michael Pennington, Zoë Wanamaker – this amazing cast. And I also got to act opposite Jessie Buckley, who is now a dear friend of mine.
So that season we did Winter’s Tale, and then Harlequinade, where he (Branagh) and I had a lot of scenes just the two of us on stage, doing a kind of farce. I think that’s when he possibly had the idea of using me (for the film). He was obviously preparing to do Murder on the Orient Express and was thinking about who could play the part I played, which had to be a bit silly, a bit flamboyant, man-about-town, which was sort of in the world that I was playing there on stage with him.
TDH: Quite an impressive ensemble of actors, for both films.
TDH: I see Armie Hammer is in Death on the Nile. Is he as handsome in real life? It’s like someone was told to draw a picture …
TB: … of the perfect man, I know! But he’s lovely and really cool. When we started filming we were out in the Cotswolds, in the middle of nowhere. We had the day off so we went to this little pub, just Armie and me, and we just sat there, got a bit drunk and chatted about life!
Another time we had a off day I booked us all in to this little pub, a tiny little pub, again in the middle of nowhere, no wi-fi. We rocked up and it was so funny seeing the locals do these double-takes. Sofie Okonedo walks in, then Letitia Wright, Emma Mackie. Then Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Armie Hammer. We just sat at this table and had a big loud dinner. It was really fun. I loved it.
With the first film we did, Murder on the Orient Express, I was still suffering from crippling self-doubt, Oh, I don’t belong here. Even now I have it, sitting here, convincing you I even know what I’m talking about! Back then I was constantly having to tell myself on set, come on, you deserve to be here. But when you’re acting opposite Derek Jacobi or you turn around and there’s Penelope Cruz? I remember talking to my mum at the time and her telling me I was just name dropping. But it was weird; she would say,what are you doing today? and I would say, Oh me and Olivia Coleman and Judy Dench and Kenneth Branagh are doing this scene, and then later Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer are coming in. And Annette Benning, she’s another one. It’s so weird, so strange; I’ve been watching her all my life, and now she’s playing my mother.
TDH: I’ve been reading Behind Her Eyes, the book the new Netflix series you’re in is based on. It’s crazy! Are you David?
TB: I’m David, yeah, nice to meet you (in Scottish accent).
TDH: How was that, with the Scottish accent?
TB: Interesting! I had an amazing teacher; she was actually my dialect coach from drama school, Mary Howland. It was the first time I stayed in accent for the whole day, because I was so nervous about it. The first couple days I was slipping in and out, but after that, I thought screw it, and as soon as I had finished breakfast I switched to Scottish. Mary had told me that when I stayed in my English accent all day and then went on set, she always had a lot of notes for me. But when I stayed in Scottish for the whole day, she had only one or two tiny little tweaks. So, I just did that. And actually, people are really cool about it; they don’t think you’re being an asshole for staying in your Scottish accent. At first, I’d kind of apologise about it.
TDH: Where did you grow up?
TB: In Oxford – actually Jericho, the old factory quarter towards the canal, with all those old factory houses originally built for the iron works.
TDH: It’s an interesting part of town.
TB: And it used to be the red-light district! But it’s all really beautiful around there, around Oxford, and I love going back whenever I can. It’s one of those things, you don’t notice how beautiful it is when you’re growing up until you go away. I moved to London to go to drama school when I was nineteen and I remember coming home to Oxford for the first time thinking how beautiful the architecture was. Of course, London is beautiful, but (in Oxford) I hadn’t really looked up before.
TDH: Such history.
TB: When I was a student and home on holidays, I used to give tours for one of the tour companies, so I learned little bits and bobs that I had to reel off.
TDH: So tell me something interesting.
TB: Well, one interesting thing is that Oxford was one of the safest places to be during the war because Hitler had ideas of making it his capital; he loved the city. So, no bombs dropped there, which is why you can still find all these ancient buildings, even in the centre, like St Mary’s Church.
TDH: No horrible little sixties blocks?
TB: The sixties happened to everyone, so they’ve got those too!
TDH: So what kind of kid were you?
TB: I got kicked out of choir. My mum and dad had sent my twin and I to choir every Monday, and I got kicked out for bad behaviour. And then my twin, because he didn’t want to go without me, tried to get kicked out.
TDH: Do you come from a big family?
TB: I do come from a big family. Half-brothers-and-sisters included, there are thirteen of us.
TDH: How exciting!
TB: Well, maybe, but for me it’s the norm. Like being a twin, people ask me what’s it like being a twin, and I just say I don’t know anything else.
TDH: Where are you and your twin in the order?
TB: Oh, we’re low down in the pecking order, low-down!
TDH: Do you think that’s a good thing?
TB: Well I think so. I was talking to my mum recently and she was saying no one teaches you how to be a parent, you just suddenly are one. And maybe they had had quite a lot of practice by the time they got to us! It’s great, and when you’re younger it’s like a crazy old pack but it can be a bit difficult if you want proper one-on-one time. Especially as you get older and you really want to spend time having a conversation. I don’t get to do this (the two of us having lunch) very often.
TDH: Did you start on the stage?
TB: Completely, yes. In my gap year, and at school, I did a lot of amateur dramatics. And then I went to a classical drama school where it was predominantly theatre. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I actually left drama school early to go straight into a play in the west end. And basically, for the first couple years of my career, I only did theatre and loved it.
TDH: You were in a play just before lockdown, was that the first time in a while?
TB: I’d been doing film and television for three years when I was offered this opportunity to play Coriolanus at Sheffield Crucible. I love the director, Rob (Robert Hastie). He was the assistant director on my first ever job and since then has done amazing theatre things and has now taken over Sheffield Crucible. So I went and it was a dream working with him there, playing that role. He had such amazing ideas about it. I was having the time of my life. I had just done a whole year of filming, almost back-to-back: first the Netflix show, Behind Her Eyes, and then Death on the Nile. I’d gone straight into rehearsals from that. We rehearsed for five, six weeks. We opened and it went really, really well and everyone was really excited. Then lockdown happened!
TDH: There is something special about theatre.
TB: There’s literally nothing like it. The closest being maybe would be a live music performance. One of the first shows I saw when I moved to London was Oedipus with Ralph Fiennes and couldn’t believe how amazing it was. Even though we know the ending, you’re still going, no, no, don’t do it! It’s the power of theatre, this connection when people are invested in the story.
I remember the first night, before lockdown in Sheffield, being under the stage. The play starts with me on the stage then I run off then come back on. And when I was under the stage waiting to go back on, I remember thinking, why have I done this? Why have I chosen to do this? I’m so scared, I feel so sick.
TDH: The adrenaline must be something else.
TB: It’s like nothing else, and I hadn’t felt that for so long. I do get very nervous on film sets too but on film sets it’s a different beast, a different world. It’s more like a sprint: you’ll be relaxing all day, waiting, waiting, then you do your scene and go home. Whereas in the theatre it’s just this long, long … and I love it. When I walked off stage that first night in Sheffield I thought, that’s why I love it!
TDH: And so what now?
TB: That’s the interesting lockdown thing isn’t it. I’m reading a lot but at the bottom of everything I’m sent it says, filming dates: TBC.
While filming has remained mostly shut down, the inevitable backlog of unfinished and delayed filming means Bateman is still unsure when any of the new projects he has lined up will begin. But he has been busy at home, using foam panels to build a cell from where he has been recording audio books. It is something he has been doing for a while and his most recent, Vanity Fair, by William Thackeray for Penguin Classics, has just been released on Audible.