A Chat with The Lady Vanishes' and Silk's Tom Hughes

By , Contributor

Phil Fisk/BBC for MASTERPIECE

Tom Hughes (as Max Hare) and Tuppence Middleton (as Iris Carr) in The Lady Vanishes

A 1930s Balkans railway journey filled with mystery and suspense, and a look at the inner sanctum of the UK legal system. British actor Tom Hughes does double duty this month and next in the States when he dips a proverbial toe in both these worlds. First off in The Lady Vanishes (airing Sunday night, August 18 on PBS’s MASTERPIECE Mystery!), his character of Max Hare befriends a young woman named Iris Carr who begins to doubt her sanity and ends up a target for murder. For Hughes, this particular role was one that came his way without any pre-booking angst.

“The audition process was a reasonably painless one,” he recalls. “Sometimes it can be quite drawn out and you wait weeks for the outcome. In this instance, I went to BBC Studios to meet with the director, Diarmuid Lawrence, the casting director, Jill Trevellick and Ann Tricklebank, the producer, at BBC Studios. I read a scene a few times, thanked them and went home to have breakfast with my girlfriend.

“About a week later I got a phone call asking if I’d mind coming back in to read with Tuppence Middleton [Iris Carr], which I did, and the following day I was told that I got the part. So it was a very quick audition process, but I think with this project they had quite a specific idea of what they wanted for the character, and purely by chance I seemed to personify that.”

Based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, The Lady Vanishes is a re-imagined telling of the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock feature film of the same name. In this 2012 version, a young English socialite, Iris Carr, is traveling back home to England via train from Croatia following a holiday with friends. On board, she meets an English governess, Miss Troy (Selina Cadell), who later mysteriously disappears. When Iris tries to alert those in charge, they dismiss her story. Convinced that the woman was abducted, Iris sets out with the help of a young engineer, Max Hare, to learn the truth. Although the piece is firmly rooted in the past, Hughes felt his character embodied a more contemporary spirit.

“What I found interesting about Max is that he feels like a very modern man,” says the actor. “I know that the story is set in the 1930s, but he has a sort of optimistic viewpoint that, again, felt quite modern to me, and Max also has a level of sensitivity that is prevalent in today’s society. You often hear the term metrosexual negatively bandied about, but I think there is a modern-day acceptance that men can be sensitive, and I believe Max possesses that quality.

“He has a wit and charm as well, and something else I liked about Max is that he transcends class. In our country, class is such a strong part of the social structure, but here’s a man who has somehow made himself classless by managing to wriggle out of that class system. As such, Max is able to almost see the truth and beyond the presentation of people as parts or cogs in a wheel, and, instead, sees them as human beings.

“So I find Max a fascinating character for those reasons, and with that comes the challenge of how to make all that entertaining and bring that charisma to the screen. I haven’t seen the original The Lady Vanishes, and I purposely didn’t watch the film when preparing for this role because ours isn’t a remake of the film. Ours is a new adaptation of the book that the original film was based on, but what I discovered is that Max is one of the most reactive characters I’ve ever played. So unlike some other roles that require a lot of research and whatnot, this was about trying to stay in the moment at all times. Because Max is so focused on others as opposed to himself, he almost lacks vanity, and it’s that lack of vanity that makes him charming.”

Looking back at the making of The Lady Vanishes, the actor has some fond, and amusing, memories about the shoot.

“We filmed in Budapest, which is the most incredible place,” he says. “I’ve spent time through work in Vienna, which I don’t think is so different from Budapest, but what Vienna has in opulence, architecture, glitz and glamour, if you will, Budapest has this really youthful energy and is an equally awe-inspiring city. I love that, so on a personal level that was incredible. Then, of course, there was the actual filming on a train. There are so many things that are tough about filming on a train that is built to 1930s specifications. I’m 6’1”, and I spent the whole time crouching and kind of squashed into corners,” says Hughes with a chuckle. “So it was a bit tricky in that respect, but when you’re doing something you truly love, you just enjoy the whole thing all the way through.”

From the clickety-clack of train travel to the hustle and bustle of present day London, Silk follows a set of barristers as they strive to attain the rank of Queen’s Council, which is known as “taking silk.” The show’s chief protagonists are Martha Costello (Maxine Peake) and her rival, Clive Reader (Rupert Penry-Jones), both of whom have an eye on the aforementioned prestigious position. Hughes’ character of Nick Slade is a pupil that shadows Martha. Unlike his role in The Lady Vanishes, this one required him to jump through one or two creative hoops prior to booking the role.

Silk differs slightly from The Lady Vanishes in that it’s an in-house BBC production, and my initial take on Nick maybe wasn’t exactly what they wanted,” muses the actor. “It’s funny, Max and Nick are probably the two characters that are most like me. I mean, they’re very different from me, but every other character I’ve played has been a million miles away from who I am and my natural temperament, whereas these two I would say are probably the closest to it.

“With Nick, I kind of understood him on a certain level because he has a very real background and comes from a very real family. He’s found a way to exist in a world that he’s not grown up in, but somehow because of that, he sees it more clearly than most. There’s a rebellious streak in Nick as well as a freedom of thought and a freedom of action. I thought that was so cool and wanted to bring that out. I felt it would be good to have a proper maverick in this story and one that people could connect with. However, Nick isn’t a maverick just for the sake of it. He’s a maverick because, again, it’s almost as if he sees this world clearer than anyone else and realizes that in some ways it needs to be shaken up.

“I think in the beginning, the BBC was, perhaps, somewhat unsure about my take on it,” continues Hughes. “I remember auditioning with the director [of the first two Silk episodes], Michael Offer, and him being quite keen on what I’d done. When I came back in a few weeks later, he explained to me, ‘We just have to clarify a few points become some people would like to know more about what you’re trying to say with Nick.’ At the time I was looking at some film scripts, but because this character was to me so well-defined, I just had to play him. Nick felt like a real human being with positive and negative qualities as well as idiosyncrasies, and I really wanted to bring him to life.

“On top of that, there was the chance to work with people like Maxine Peake and the show’s creator/writer Peter Moffat. Maxine is a fantastic actress and it was great to work with her in such close quarters. As for Peter, I’ve only seen one of his other series, Criminal Justice starring another incredible actor, Ben Whishaw. That was an amazing piece of TV, so I knew how good of a writer Peter is. When it comes to my character in Silk—and I’m sure Peter would back this up—it was in some ways semi-autobiographical. Peter was once a law student and planned to become a barrister until life took him down another path.

“When speaking with people in his chambers, it seems Peter was a bit of a maverick himself. He had fresh ideas and wasn’t afraid to share them. So I think that’s possibly why Nick had such a strong identity, because in many respects the character was reflective of Peter’s own life, and that was wonderful for me. At my age and at this stage in my career, I want to play proper characters and be challenged at every opportunity. When you have such a well-defined character that’s supported by the writing and a great actress to act opposite, it’s a dream opportunity, and that was true for me with Silk.”

The season one opener of Silk (airing Sunday, August 25th on MASTERPIECE Mystery!) introduces audiences to the ambitious barrister Martha Costello. Determined to beat out her colleague and rival Clive Reader when it comes to rising to the rank of Queen’s Council, she sets her sights on only the most challenging of cases. If, however, Martha hopes to ultimately prove herself worthy of such a title, she needs to win in the courtroom. Helping the barrister to hopefully achieve her goal is an equally ambitious pupil, Nick Slade.

“Nick turns up in this [legal] world against the grain and really having to fight for his position there while trying to revolutionize the way that people view things,” explains Hughes. “In Martha, he sees someone who has, perhaps, gone through exactly what he’s going through now, and is a bit of a trailblazer for him. Nick has an unbelievable respect for her, and that, in turn, allows him to speak his mind with Martha. He knows deep down she’ll appreciate that, because she would have done the same thing in his shoes.

“So there’s a definite respect built on understanding each other’s position and one another’s outlook. That means they become quite tight, quite quickly, and the same was true with Maxine and myself as people. She grew up not too far from where I did in the world and comes from a similar kind of background. As such, when we got on-set, the two of us seemed to hit it off straight away in terms of understanding each other in a similar way. So life sort of imitated art or vice versa, and the bond and the friendship portrayed onscreen between our characters was there off-screen as well. I think or at least hope that that resulted in a fluidity in the scenes between Martha and Nick.”

Of the six episodes of Silk that he appears in, there is one scene that sticks out in the actor’s mind as being a nerve-wracking one to have pulled off. “In one of the episodes, there’s a mock case that Natalie Dormer [Niamh Cranitch]—another pupil who shadows Clive Reader—and Nick have to prepare and present in chambers,” he says. “The shooting schedule was such that one Monday night I went home from work and had only one tiny scene the following day where Nick had to walk through the back of a shot.

“That evening I had a gig with my band, so I played the gig, had a couple of beers and got home, not at a ridiculous time, but when I walked in the door I received a text telling me that my pick-up time for the next morning was now 6:30 a.m. I thought, ‘Oh, we must be shooting that tiny scene first.’ Well, on Tuesday I arrived at work, got into wardrobe, and ten minutes before going on-set, I was handed the day’s shooting schedule.

“Apparently there had been a mistake on my phone and I never got the text telling me that the schedule had changed and, in fact, the first scene up that day was my speech. I had ten minutes to learn a page-and-a-half of monologue. I was then put on-set in front of Alex Jennings [Alan Cowdrey, QC, Head of Chambers], who’s a phenomenal actor, Maxine, Rupert, Neil Stuke [Billy Lamb, Senior Clerk], and 50 extras to shoot that entire monologue. In many ways it was more because of circumstance, but I’d say that’s one of the scariest ten minutes that I’ve ever known in my entire life. Hopefully I got away with it, but I will never look back to see whether or not that’s true,” jokes the actor.

Born and raised in Upton, Cheshire, Hughes was a member of the Cheshire Youth Theatre as well as the Jigsaw Music Theatre Company, the Liverpool Everyman Youth Theatre and the Belgium company Victoria. The actor was fortunate to have all this stage experience to refer back to after graduating from Upton high School and continuing his studies at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts). This was all the natural outcome of a decision that the actor had made at a very young age.

“I was, I think, seven when I played Mr. Fox in a production of Fantastic Mr. Fox at my primary school,” notes Hughes. “My Mum tells the story that I ran off-stage afterwards, still in costume, and said to her, ‘I never felt like that before. I want to do that [acting] forever.’ When a seven-year-old kid says that to you, you understandably think, ‘Oh, this will wane. It’ll change, and he’ll want to be an astronaut next week, and then something else a week later,’ but it didn’t.

“As a kid, I was kind of single-minded in that that was my focus throughout youth, but the thing is, I never really watched films as a kid or went to the theatre with any massive consistency. Music was my world as a youth. I started playing guitar when I was seven, and I’d indulge myself in every single album that I could find. Soccer was also a passion of mine, so I grew up playing that as well as playing the guitar, being in bands and writing songs. Acting, however, was just something I did on the side. It was just a world that existed and that I got a kick out of. It was only when I was around 17 that I decided, ‘Right, I’m going to give drama school a go.’

“I’ve always approached acting very much not as an observer or as a kind of a student of the craft, but far more as someone who just reveled in the physical action of doing it. So my focus from the age of seven, which I probably kept a secret, was always to make this my career. I was determined to find a way.”

Casualty 1999, Trinity, Marple: Endless Night, Dancing on the Edge, Page Eight (made-for-TV movie) and The Hollow Crown miniseries are among Hughes’ other small screen credits. His feature film work includes roles in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Cemetery Junction, Eight Minutes Idle, About Time and the upcoming Wild. While acting is his mainstay career-wise, he has not left music on the back burner by any means.

“I kind of loosely play in my dad’s band Safehouse,” he says. “He’s 65 and he plays in a soul band with his mates, and I sometimes perform with them because being onstage with your dad and playing music is the best thing in the world. Until about two years ago, I was actually in a band called Quaintways, which is an odd name, but it’s the name of a nightclub in the town that we all grew up in and that in the '60s had bands playing there. The drummer and I left Quaintways and the other two guys from the band formed a new band called The Broxton Hundred. We’re still all good mates, though. As for me, I’ve spent the last year-and-a-half writing my own material and, fingers crossed, I’d love to put together a group and get something recorded in the next six months.”

With many, many more acting jobs and roles ahead of him, what has made a career in this industry rewarding so far for Hughes?

“There’s an actor in England called John Simm, who when I was a kid was in a TV series called The Lakes. Up until then, I had never seen anyone on TV who had portrayed a role that I could connect with on such a level,” he says. “I think that’s what inspires you, is when you see real life portrayed and it makes you think about your own life. There are these fantastic actors like John Simm, Gary Oldman and Ed Norton who are constantly brilliant, pushing boundaries and challenging themselves. They never drop the ball and will forever be respected as actors who ask questions and give you a degree of performance that is challenging and makes you think. They have an identity, as actors and as people, and they try to say something through their work.

“That’s what it’s always been about for me. I want to say something, and I don’t mean that I want to change the world. You often hear people say that they want to change other peoples’ ideas of the world through their work, but there’s no guarantee that you’re able to do that. I just want to make sure that all the work I do has its own identity and is true to who I am. I also want to consistently challenge myself as well as just keep asking questions and learning. I’ll then let the world decide where I stop or where I end up.”

Please note, all photos from The Lady Vanishes and Silk are copyright of the BBC/MASTERPIECE.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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