Based on a true story, the drama Red Joan tells the story of a woman named Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) who, upon her arrest by the British Secret Service, revealed that she’d spent her life secretly changing the course of history. While she risked everything by providing classified scientific information, including details on the building of the atomic bomb, to the Soviet government for decades, she was doing so for what she felt was the pursuit of peace, England saw her as a traitor serving as a spy for the KGB.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Tom Hughes (who plays Leo, a charming young Communist that a young Joan falls madly in love with) talked about his interest in Joan’s story, why Leo was an appealing character, exploring the dynamic between Leo and Joan, working with co-star Sophie Cookson (who plays the young Joan), and having to shoot a speech for 150 extras, over and over again. He also talked about what he’s most enjoyed about playing Albert opposite Jenna Coleman, for three seasons on the TV series Victoria, and how he hopes he’ll get to finish telling his full life story, as well as whether he’d consider doing another TV series, and what he’s got coming up next.
Collider: Red Joan is such an interesting story, especially because it’s a true story. Was the appeal of playing a character with such duality like this what drew you to this project?
TOM HUGHES: Yeah, but if I’m honest, what really drew me to it was Joan’s story, actually. I thought that because obviously the book is inspired by the story of Melita Norwood, who was arrested in 1999 in England because she had been passing information to communist Russia. It’d gone undetected a long time, and she was arrested in the last few years of her life. She was quite open, once she was arrested, about the fact she had a very clear identity of her political persuasion. In Jennie Rooney’s book, which the film is based upon, Joan’s political persuasion is far more ambiguous. At the time when we meet her, she’s almost a blank canvas, in terms of politics. Therefore, the question is ultimately more of an ethical choice and a human morality choice. I found that fascinating. If you were that human, in that position and in that moment, and you were the only one that could influence things, what would you choose to do? I thought that was a really fascinating start for the film.
Then, obviously, Leo’s involvement and influence upon that decision is immense, and the importance of Leo, in that story, is that there’s not only a necessity for him, in terms of Joan’s life, but also in the story. I found Leo fascinating because there’s an enigma to him. There’s a kamikaze element to him. With that, there’s also a charm that almost comes from this addiction to the velocity of life, that he lives his life at. I feel like he’s clearly been very much shaped by his experience, being a Russian-born Jewish man, who’s had his adolescence in Germany, and has now come to England. That shaped him, dramatically. He’s thrown himself behind this political idiom, and there’s something about him that almost felt out of control. Regardless of anyone’s political persuasion, there was something quite addictive about his company. That was quite an enthralling thing to play, within the greater piece.
What was it like to explore that dynamic between Leo and Joan, and to have someone like Sophie Cookson to play that with, all while you’re acting adjacent to Judi Dench?
HUGHES: I think Sophie is quite an astounding actor. She was great to work with. (Director) Trevor Nunn has worked with Judi Dench, many, many times, and he found it quite astonishing to direct Sophie. He’d be like, “God, it’s just like directing a young Judi.” Even in their personalities, Sophie has a wicked playfulness, as a human, and she brought a real excitement to the scenes. It was rarely linear and it was rarely obvious, and that was exciting for me. When you’re playing a character like Leo, although he’s definitely had a very dark past, in terms of the pain that he’s gone through, and his anguish and all of that, that velocity has a firecracker element. You need to be with an actor that you can really bounce off, and it was great to have Sophie to work with. Someone asked me, “What’s it like to be in a film with Judi Dench, and not be in a film with her?,” but for me, it was just a real pleasure to meet her and be able to talk to her. Sophie is the one creating the character with Judi, so that pressure fell on her. From the small amount of time that I spent with Judi, she was the most incredibly gracious and kind human being. She gave Sophie that strength. It was exciting actually to know that we were sharing that story with someone like Judi.
There’s a moment in the film where you have to give a big speech to a crowd, and apparently you had to shoot that 14 times. How do you approach preparing for a moment like that, and was there any point, in those 14 times, where you wondered if you’d be able to do it again?
HUGHES: Not, not in the sense that I didn’t know if I could do it again. You’ve gotta trick yourself and remind yourself that the audience hasn’t heard it 14 times. I think it was harder for the 150 extras to act like they were hearing it, for the first time. You just find your groove. In terms of giving a speech, it goes back to the rhythm. With all great speech givers are, it’s partly to do with their ability to get a good orator, but if what they’re saying isn’t well-written and well-conceived, the speech will fall flat, so I just went back to the writing and found a rhythm with the writing. Once you build it upon that, then that sees you through. I couldn’t done 20 takes, or more, if we needed to. Also, Leo is performing, in that moment. Having to give it that extra drive is what Leo would’ve had to do. It was actually quite a really enjoyable day because there was an element of not knowing what was gonna happen. When you do a scene between two people in a room, you know what you’re working with. Whereas, with this, we were just throwing it to the wind and hoping that it would work. Hopefully, it did.
Viewers have really fallen in love with Victoria, due in large part to the work of Jenna Coleman, but also because of the relationship between your characters. What have you most enjoyed about the experience of getting to play that character, on that show, for three seasons?
HUGHES: It’s definitely a period of history that I didn’t know a hell of a lot about. I knew a lot about Queen Victoria, or at least I knew her image, if you like. I knew about the woman in mourning, post Albert’s death. But in the history prior to Albert’s death, before where we’re telling our story now, it wasn’t really a period that I dived into, so I’ve enjoyed exploring the historical element of the story. I’ve also enjoyed, purely from my own professional point of view, taking a real human being and spending time telling their story. I’ve always run away from signing up for many seasons of things just because, in my 20s, I really wanted to go in different directions. I didn’t wanna retrace my steps. I was always concerned that you could come back, after a year, and someone could go, “Oh, by the way, he’s a superhero.” And you’d be like, “Oh, my god, I didn’t know that! If only I’d known that, I would’ve played it so differently.” With Albert, because he was a real human being that existed, I know the arc of his life and I know that structure. It’s been quite a pleasure, being able to take time, knowing the structure, and be supple with things that I’m hoping will pay off, further down the line. That’s been a real pleasure. Albert is in a very, very unique position. No one else has ever experienced what that was like. It was at a time when travel abroad was not, at all, what it is today, and the world was nowhere near as cosmopolitan as it is today. He’s a foreign man in a position of extreme influence, but he’s also constrained by that because he can’t quite find how to grab ahold of that influence and use it for what he perceives to be good ends. Therefore, that psychological entrapment, while also living in a position which is wonderful, in many respects, but is also curtailing him, I found really interesting, from a psychological point of view. It’s been a real pleasure to take my time with that story.
Are you still hoping that you’ll get to play that character until the end of his lifespan?
HUGHES: Ultimately, with anything, there needs to be an appetite. If there’s an appetite, clearly with it being historical, there’s story there. Going back to what I said earlier, the real beauty for me, being someone that never wanted to retrace my steps, was that I knew where this began and I knew where this ends, in real life. I’m enjoying playing that. I’ve always have my eye on the end result because, as far as I’m concerned, even if we only made one season, I need to portray that part of the man’s whole existence. So, yeah, if there’s an appetite, then it would be really nice to finish the story. But, that isn’t down to me. That’s up to someone else.
Now that you’ve had the experience of getting to play a character over a longer period of time, and it sounds like it’s been such a positive one, do you feel like you’re more open to doing it again, in the future, or would it be very specific, depending on how appealing the project and character is?
HUGHES: It’s definitely specific, regarding the subject matter, to be honest, and the project. I really enjoy learning and trying to be as good as I can be, and I really definitely believe that I could be better. I think we can always be better, and I definitely feel that about myself. I want to keep pushing myself. I would hate to stagnate. But if the material is good enough, and the subject matter, more importantly, is good enough, and the people making the show are driving that and pushing the boundaries of what someone can achieve, then actually that’s a real pleasure to be a part of. It’s literally just judging something project by project. I think it was different in my 20s because I really felt like that was my playground. That was my chance to really, really make sure that I was never going in the same direction again. I made choices, purposefully for that, that would allow myself the space to make mistakes, to try things out, and to see what fit and what didn’t. I always believed that, of course, there are incredible parts that you can play in your 20s, but 33-year-old human beings have lived longer than 23-year-old human beings, so that’s what you get to play. You get to play the juxtapositions and the dichotomies within people, and the grey areas, a little bit more. That’s always been what’s attracted me. But in terms of medium or structure, that has to be chosen on a job by job basis.
Do you know what you’re going to do next?
HUGHES: I’ve just finished, literally about four days ago, an independent film in the UK. It’s called Shepherd, and it’s about a guy having a psychological breakdown after the death of his wife. That plays out and manifests physically, on an island where he’s gone to find himself. And then, there are two projects, coming up in the summer, which I’m really looking forward to. And then, who knows beyond that? Part of the beauty of being an actor is that, when you finish your job, anything’s possible. Good or bad, anything’s on the table, and that’s exciting.
What kind of projects are the ones that you’re looking to do in the summer?
HUGHES: I shouldn’t say. I’ve been told not to. I’d love to tell you ‘cause I’m really excited about them, but if you’ll please forgive me, I’m sorry.
Red Joan opens in theaters on April 19th.