Sunday Times, 01 May 2016
Tom Sturridge has a dual public identity — as an actor, a very serious one, and as Sienna Miller’s former boyfriend. The acting is going well, thanks to his appearance in the West End last year with Damian Lewis and John Goodman in American Buffalo and now to his appearance as Henry VI in The Hollow Crown. This is the second instalment of the BBC’s blockbuster adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays and will begin on Saturday on BBC2. Sturridge the actor is starting to be considered superb, potentially one of our best.
During the four years he was with Miller their every move was papped, printed, webbed and broadcast. They had a daughter, Marlowe, in 2012. Since they broke up last year there have been stories about them reuniting, but Sturridge is not going to confirm or deny any of this: “I feel I am being led into a conversation about my family and I do feel very protective about both those girls.”
He does say everything is amicable and that both are involved with their daughter’s upbringing. He also says he is looking for an apartment in New York because Miller is thinking of moving there and Marlowe is booked to go to school there in September. Meanwhile, he lives, well, nowhere. “I caught a train at 5am this morning from Dorset, where I’d been with my daughter. I’ll be sleeping at a place just behind Bayswater tonight. Because the move to New York is imminent, it doesn’t make any sense to get a place,” he says.
“You sound gypsyish.”
“That’s too romantic a word, I think.”
He denies he is romantic several times. He’s also single — “definitely”, he insists. Does he want to be single? “No, I’d love to be hanging out with some girl tonight, but I’m not.”
Sitting outside my favourite pub, the Uxbridge Arms in Notting Hill Gate, I see the first sign of his arrival — a trilby hat bobbing along behind parked cars. He’s slender despite drinking Guinness — three pints talking with me — but that may be offset by the Camel cigarettes he smokes. His face is extraordinary, a shifting combination of cold and vulnerable. Evidently he was born to play Henry VI who is also, with bloody consequences, alternately cold and vulnerable.
He is largely an autodidact, having left school before A-levels. His parents are the director Charles Sturridge and the actress Phoebe Nicholls, who met when he was directing and she was acting in the television series Brideshead Revisited. He evidently adores them and they him, but that wasn’t enough to stop him dropping out of school (Winchester College and the Harrodian School) in what seems to have been a fit of absent-mindedness: “I was lazy, I didn’t turn up quite a lot. My parents were deeply concerned. They’re incredibly emotionally intelligent people and they went through the experience with me.”
To ensure that he didn’t stop learning he was sent to a strange but evidently life-saving meeting with a smart lady whose name he forgets. It worked. He reads all the time, spinning off a list of names — mainly early 20th-century European writers — and is eager to get a list of recommendations from me. That’s the point about intelligent autodidacts: they’re not jaded learners, they stay humble and retain a sense of wonder.
This separates Sturridge from the feted list of public school actors: Cumberbatch, Lewis, Redmayne. He is always starting anew, it will never be just a job, he won’t feel that a part is his by right.
He wasn’t pushed into acting and never thought about it. He didn’t see his mother on stage until his twenties and “she was incredible”. As a boy he appeared in his father’s Gulliver’s Travels on television, but all he remembers of it is talking to his dad “and there must have been a camera somewhere”. Then, during a summer holiday before he left school, he found himself having what he describes as “an incredibly romantic experience”. The great Hungarian director Istvan Szabo was looking for a boy to play Jeremy Irons’s son in his film Being Julia. Sturridge ended up spending the summer living alone in Budapest.
“I was allowed into an adult world in which the interrogation of my thought was part of creating what they were creating. It was sexy, interesting and without doubt it made me think this was a world I wanted to explore.”
What then ensued was an odd sort of stop-start career. He was cast as the young hero in the Hollywood sci-fi flick Jumper, but was dumped in favour of Hayden Christensen. It was thought that betting $100m on a pale, thin and slightly disturbing looking English kid was not such a great idea. Soon after that he was cast in Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked and last year he played Sergeant Troy in Far from the Madding Crowd. He has just shot A Storm in the Stars in which he plays Lord Byron, with Elle Fanning playing Mary Shelley.
In his own, odd, zigzagging way that all means he has pretty much arrived. Even his dad — who never says he likes anything unless he really likes it — has said that he likes Henry VI.
“Difficult part,” I say, “playing a weak and mad man.”
“Well, yes, unless you are mad and weak yourself,” he says, before settling down to dissect the word “weak”.
“He’s a boy. In the first film he is 17 and I think equating weakness with him is a dangerous direction to go in. He is the son of Henry V, the most heroic and powerful figure in the Shakespearean universe. I saw him as someone who was very young, investigating that position of power during his formative years. That doesn’t mean he was weak.”
As politics, The Hollow Crown makes The Thick of It look like starry-eyed idealism; as television it is a stunning, blood-soaked piece of drama. It’s Sturridge’s first Shakespeare part; he hopes it won’t be his last.
Given his thoughtful, impressionable and sensitive personality, it is astonishing that he survived mentally intact after the brain-curdlingly banal coverage of his relationship with Miller: endless online reports of him having a beard, not having a beard, wearing this, wearing that, having lunch, pushing a buggy, hanging out, hiding away. He was in danger of just becoming Miller’s bloke.
He looks wary when I bring it up, he suspects it is another raid on the Sienna mystery. “If you go on those websites I’m sure you can upset yourself, but it’s quite easy not to go on and I’m not really a well-known figure so I wasn’t really exposed to it.”
All of this, as he says himself, may be a performance. But, reviewing that performance, I’d say Sturridge, in spite of his years of relentless coverage, is an other-worldly figure. Many of his thoughts seem to revolve around a point he never quite reaches. His apparent uncertainty about himself — he never watches his own performances for fear of destroying his confidence — is, of course, an ideal condition for an actor who must, at work, always be somebody else. But, like “those girls”, it needs protecting. The last I see of him is his trilby hat bobbing along behind the cars.