We talk to Nottingham-born, New York-based actor Tom Blyth about his journey from the TV Workshop to The Juilliard School, working with Terence Davies on Benediction, and his upcoming HBO series The Gilded Age...
Can you tell us a bit about your new film, Benediction, and the role you play in it?
It’s written and directed by Terence Davies. Set in the jazz era of England in the twenties and thirties, it represents a very ‘classic’ lens of Britain, but from a perspective we’ve not seen before. I play a character called Glen Byam Shaw who is credited for forming what we now know as the RSC Theatre and was known as one of the fathers of British theatre. He is believed to be a lover of Siegfried Sassoon – both men were presented publicly as straight, but definitely had male lovers and were probably in a relationship. So the film is really about Siegfried Sassoon, who is played by Jack Lowden, and later by Peter Capaldi as the older Siegfried. I’m essentially Siegfried’s confidant and lover – it’s never been completely proven that they were romantically linked, but their personal letters suggest otherwise. They had this really beautiful relationship that was very much based on mutual support and respect for each other’s art and craft.
How much research did you do for the role?
I reached out to this graduate student, Julian from the University of Warwick, who was incredibly helpful. He’s written a thesis paper on Sassoon, and he pointed me in the direction of some incredible source material including the letters between him and Byam Shaw. But mainly, to be honest, Terence’s script was the most fuelling for me. He writes beautiful, poetic prose – his dialogue, while naturalistic, is slightly heightened, but his direction requires a lot of grit and truth. There’s a love triangle between Glen, Siegfried and Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Irvine) and I came to my research for the part from that point – looking at the human relationship between the three of them, the envy and also the joy that fuelled them.
This is my first time playing a real person which is definitely a different kind of beast because you can easily get in your head and feel like you’ve got to do an impersonation of someone. But I think the beautiful thing about this is that there actually isn’t that much about Glen out in the world – there aren’t interviews out there with him. There’s one tape on YouTube of him delivering a speech to the theatre he was running and you can hear his voice – it’s a tape recording that has been uploaded on YouTube. I listened to that over and over again to try and infuse myself with his cadence and rhythm. I think you find out a lot about someone from how they speak.
What was it like working with one of Britain’s greatest ever filmmakers in Terence Davies?
Terence is lovely. He’s a typical artist in that you can see his cogs working all the time. He’s very much in his world of creation when he’s directing. I found him to be really sensitive – if there’s anything you want to be on a film set, it’s sensitive to your environment and your surroundings. He’s a joy to work with and very tuned in to what is happening right in front of us.
What was behind the decision to relocate to New York?
Well, everyone calls New York ‘The Nottingham of America’ (I’m kidding!). I actually came here to go to drama school. When I was 21, I decided that I needed to go and do some training – I did a play at the TV Workshop in Nottingham and it was very wordy, very verbose and I felt at the end of this one week run that my voice was short, my energy was low and I thought, if I had to do this professionally for however long if you were doing a West End or Broadway show, I didn’t have the ability to do that. So I looked around, applied to UK schools like RADA and all the usual ones. I got into a couple of those UK schools, but, while I was doing that, I also couldn’t get my mind off Juilliard which is the school I’d read about when I was a kid and I knew that some of my favourite actors like Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver went there.
Cinema is so immersive and I think, more than ever, we’re craving those tangible, communal, human experiences
I was turning 21 and I got a little bit of money for my birthday and I thought ‘you know what? I’m going to put it towards a flight and audition and go and try my luck.’ I went out in September 2016 and have been here since. I graduated from Julliard back in May. There’s no other reason I’d have been in New York if it wasn’t for Julliard, but I’m staying here for now because of ongoing work. But also the culture of the arts is very interesting to me, especially with the way the country has been recently with all the division. There has been so much injustice and the politics here have been violent and fiery, but, out of that, comes really good art – really meaningful art.
How has COVID affected the filmmaking process?
To credit the producers and the team and the crew, they handled it really well. When you’re acting, you’re not always aware – sometimes you get lost in your subconscious and you’re not always thinking as much about the real world because you’re playing make-believe – you’re being paid to show up and go into that child-like zone where everything is imaginary. And that’s where you get the best work, but it’s not always the best place to be in terms of safety and surroundings.
The producers always had masks in place so, the minute we finished a scene, they would come throw a fresh mask on us because obviously you can’t be wearing a mask when you’re filming a scene. Every day we had to fill out a questionnaire with all the usual questions like “have you come into contact with people?”, “have you suffered any symptoms?”. We were lucky that no one got sick while shooting and there was a checkpoint at the set before you entered where there was a paramedic who would check your temperature with one of those foreboding, scary gun things.
How do you think cinema will survive in the age of streaming and downloads?
One of the reasons I became an actor is because I love going to the cinema. I think the experience of going to the cinema is always going to be a thing we want to do. Some cinemas are probably going to go under and there will probably be less of them which will be very sad. However, people have been saying theatre is going to die for years and that it’s a redundant art form and it hasn’t. It’s not gone anywhere. If anything, it just makes people double down and work really hard to make it relevant. For me, what cinemas have to do is to try to become more accessible because, for years, they’ve been getting more and more expensive and people haven’t been able to afford tickets. That’s why more people have been illegally pirating films. But cinema is so immersive and I think, more than ever, we’re craving those tangible, communal, human experiences.
What are your plans post-Benediction and what can we expect to see you in next?
I’m about to start on a HBO show called The Gilded Age which I begin shooting three weeks from now and will be coming out maybe the end of this year or next year. It’s a look at turn of the 19th century New York. It’s another period piece – an examination of the rise of capitalism in America. I would also really love to do more independent films in the US and really want to do some theatre as I was due to do some this year, but that was put on hold. I would love to get back on a stage and do some live performances.
Benediction is scheduled for release later this year.
This article also appears in Issue 133 of LeftLion.