Before deciding to become an actor, I read Classics at university and my favourite lyric poetic epic is still the Odyssey. Homer’s eponymous hero – the guy we’re all rooting for – is a man of many wiles: a sailor, traveller, warrior, lover, and adventurer. But perhaps the most important reason why Odysseus achieves the glory of eternal renown is simply because, after 10 years in Troy, and a further 10 at sea, he makes it back home. He returns to his family: to his wife Penelope, to his father Laertes, and to his son Telemachus. His very status as a hero depends upon the success of his return home.
I was thinking about Odysseus last weekend at Los Angeles International airport. As Colin Firth accepted his heroic, long-deserved best actor Oscar for The King’s Speech – a familial odyssey for George VI of a slightly different kind – I was on my way home. I caught the early part of the ceremony in the departure lounge, and boarded my London-bound Virgin Atlantic flight just moments after Kirk Douglas had shown us what old-fashioned-movie-star charisma used to be. So I calculate that at near enough the exact moment that Colin Firth’s feet left the ground so, too, did mine (in a more obviously practical sense). I fell asleep during take-off. I’m not sure Colin Firth has landed yet.
I had been in LA to help put the finishing touches to Marvel Studios’ next comic book super-hero adventure movie, Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins. I’m proud to say that I am continuing a long tradition of British baddies and play the film’s villain, Loki, Thor’s younger brother and the Norse god of mischief.
It is a Marvel comic/epic Norse odyssey all of its own in which Thor, the god of thunder, is cast out of Asgard and has to find a way home. As the damaged and jealous Loki, I do my best to stop him. The film is an explosion of brilliant, bright-coloured thunder and lightning, with stormy family dynamics at its centre, and, I hope, will be huge fun.
I was glad to be coming home, though, not least because I was coming back for the release of another, very different film, of which I am extremely proud. Archipelago is the new feature written and directed by Joanna Hogg. It’s her second film.
Her first, Unrelated (2007), was my first job, just two weeks out of drama school, and Joanna and I were as surprised as anyone when the film was taken up and championed by critics and audiences alike, and Joanna was hailed as a new, astonishingly confident, British auteur. I played Oakley, an arrogant, irresponsible, sexually cavalier 19-year-old, and both learned invaluable lessons about the craft of screen acting, and won some stripes on my lapel to be proud of.
In Archipelago, I play Edward, a 28-year-old who has just left a burgeoning career in an investment bank, and has committed to the beginning of his own personal odyssey: 11 months of voluntary service with Aids-suffering communities in Uganda. His mother and sister have organised a family trip to Tresco, 25 miles off the coast of Cornwall, as a send-off. They are all hoping his father will come down to the island later on, but he never materialises. As you may have guessed, the tensions created by his struggle for personal freedom and self-definition, outside of the family unit, are crushing and suffocating.
In order to define himself, Edward needs to travel, to journey, to adventure, to set sail, in order to be able to come back, to come home.
Joanna Hogg is unique, because she makes films about the people she knows – the English upper-middle-classes – and in a manner inspired by the film-makers she loves – Eric Rohmer, Michael Haneke, and Yasujiro Ozu. I don’t know anyone like her. She makes very European films about very British people. Her work is unashamedly austere, challenging, and open-ended. The camera is still, the takes are long, the pace is slow. Her characters are quiet, passive, often remote. Nothing much happens, nothing much is resolved. But beneath the surface is a quiet desperation, an undercurrent of a powerful subtext begging to be articulated. In my playing of Edward, Joanna asked me for a vulnerability, a compassion, a sensitivity, for the quiet pain of a young man who bottles up all his own emotions lest they take up space in the room. It’s very English in a very particular way. It rarely gets put at the centre of a story in cinema. Most of us understand drama as arising from conflict. Drama is extremity. That’s what the Greeks tell us. Or is it?
One week after shooting wrapped on Archipelago, I sold my flat in Kentish Town. One week after that, I moved into an architect’s studio in Venice Beach, California – my home for the six months it took to make Thor, and I’m unashamed to say they were some of the happiest of my life.
I ran along the Pacific coast every Saturday morning, with the sun on my face, in February, and never for one second took it for granted. One month into Thor and I was off again – this time for my sister’s wedding – to Chennai, in India, where she now lives with her husband Yakov, and where they hope to start a family.
Five days of blindingly bright Indian colour and non-stop Bollywood dancing accomplished, and then I was back and happily ensconced in Venice, and, like Odysseus with Calypso, I thought I’d be there forever. But home called me back, and before I knew it I was in London again, preparing for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (guess where?), and the prospect of a role in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of War Horse.
I left drama school in the summer of 2005. It has been the most amazing odyssey ever since. I’ve worked in Paris, Moscow, New York, Milan, Reykjavik, Brussels, Ystad in Sweden, Santa Fe in New Mexico, Los Angeles and, of course, London. I never know where the wind will take me next. I often miss my family when I’m away. And yet, every film, every story is about family in some way.
While we were filming Thor, Anthony Hopkins once leant over and whispered, “You know, all the great actors – James Mason, Robert Mitchum, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton – they were all such open, charming, optimistic people, but they each had a little suitcase of pain, and that’s what made them great.”
I have lived out of many suitcases, and it’s my frequent professional obligation to turn up on set and excavate some pain. Sometimes you have to go a long way round the houses to come home. I haven’t had to fight quite so many gods and monsters as Odysseus. But it’s been one hell of a journey, so far.