Antonia Thomas is back! Back in the UK after a five-year stint in Vancouver filming American medical drama The Good Doctor. And back on stage after more than a decade starring in TV shows such as E4 superhero comedy Misfits, soulful Netflix rom-com Lovesick and – who can forget – American medical drama The Good Doctor.
Soon Thomas can be seen in the original play Shooting Hedda Gabler by Nina Segal. Described as a “radical and affectionate adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler” the play runs from 29 September to 21 October at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.
We meet in Peckham as the rehearsal period is just getting underway. A little under five years ago, I interviewed Thomas on the very same road (but not the same café – it’s shut so we decamp for lime and sodas at the pub next door). Much has occurred in that period – four Prime Ministers, two monarchs, a global pandemic, a slightly chubbier interviewer – but Thomas hasn’t aged a day. Hell, she barely looks older than the first season of Misfits back in 2009. Maybe there’s a portrait in the attic.
Like the world, Thomas has kept busy. While locked down in the mountains of British Columbia, she created an independent horror film called Anacoreta with her partner, the actor and director Jeremy Schuetze. Featuring a plot as meta as Shooting Hedda Gabler – Thomas is amused by the similarities – the film picked up several awards on the festival circuit. Impressive stuff – but for the next few weeks, the play’s the thing…
Square Mile: You studied at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the National Youth Theatre before landing Misfits immediately after graduation. Does this play feel like a homecoming?
Antonia Thomas: Yeah, it does. I always wanted to do more theatre in my career and it just so happened that I Ianded Misfits straight out the gate and that took me down the screen route.
I’d done three years of Shakespeare and thought that stage was going to be my way in. I really wanted to do classical theatre. There’s this idea that being a proper actor means you cut your teeth on theatre and then you get to do a bit of screen. There’s a kind of snobbery from both worlds, which is interesting.
If you do something on screen that gives you a profile then you might be allowed to do theatre. But it’s like, ‘When was the last time you did theatre? Can you project your voice? Do you have any technique? Do you know what you’re doing?’ A lot of that goes on.
SM: Tell us about this play…
AT: It’s an updated version, basically – the character of Hedda Gabler set within a modern-day setting. She’s a young woman who feels trapped in her circumstances, trapped in her marriage, trapped just generally by being a woman in a man’s world.
Here, the character of Hedda is a well-known actress. A child star who’s grown up within the showbiz system and fallen off the rails in order to cope with constantly being seen and observed and criticised. She self-medicates with prescription drugs and alcohol. And then she gets an offer from a Norwegian director called Henrik to come to Norway to shoot the film version of Hedda Gabler.
SM: It sounds quite meta…
AT: The whole piece is the most meta thing I’ve ever read. The director doesn’t want her to act. He wants her to be. He views her as a woman trapped within her circumstances and starts manipulating the situation, creating an environment where he basically just wants her to self-destruct.
The lines start to blur. Paranoia sets in. She doesn’t know when he’s filming and when he’s not filming. She’s desperate to be taken seriously as an actress. She thinks this is going to be her chance to tell people that she can act and she deserves to be here.
It very much mirrors the original play but it’s such a clever piece of writing. It’s one of the best things I have read in a really long time. I went to see my friend Johnny Flynn in The Motive and the Cue and it made me really want to do some theatre. Then this came in!
SM: Any unexpected challenges?
AT: It’s all a challenge. But I’m very much at the beginning of this process, feeling a bit excited and daunted. Scared and thrilled. It really is an incredible script and I really want to do it and this character justice. I feel like I have lot of work to do and that’s a good thing.
SM: What have you missed about theatre?
AT: Just the luxury to be in the rehearsal room and really have the time to explore these characters and really get it right. That is just such a luxury. In TV and film you have maybe a day to go through a scene, and in TV you maybe don’t have that. We have four weeks to really get to grips with these people and put on the best piece that we can.
Also, the community feel of it. On TV and film, you can be on a huge production with so many people and you maybe only meet a couple of the cast because your scenes are only with them. Here we’re all together, doing warm up games together in the morning, getting to know and learn to trust one another. To play together and create together is really, really thrilling.
SM: Was it theatre that made you want to be an actor?
AT: Yeah, theatre and musicals. I did a bunch of musicals at school. When I was 14, I did National Youth Music Theatre. I did a musical called Pendragon with them and we travelled around Japan with it. I played the young Morgan le Fay. After that I did a musical called The Dreaming, which was a musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
NYMT felt like the training ground for young people that were going to go into it. So I did Pendragon with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is still a good friend of mine. Lily James was in The Dreaming. Ben Barnes, Sophie Cookson, all of these people. After that I did my GCSEs. I was going to go to art school for a bit. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I liked painting.
SM: What was the last thing you painted?
AT: A lake cabin in Canada. That was in lockdown. So a long time ago!
SM: Well we last spoke in 2018. How would you say the Antonia of today is different from the Antonia of five years ago?
AT: I feel quite different. I would say that that has come from living in Canada for basically the last five years. When I got the job that I was doing there, I tried for a long while to convince myself that I wasn’t living in another country. Initially it was really difficult. The job was one thing, but you leave your life behind. That’s the thing about being an actor, this nomadic lifestyle.
Things are so different in Canada. There’s a sort of Britishness – everyone’s polite – but having to forge new friendship groups and having to constantly be outside of your comfort zone… The work that I was doing was on a different scale to anything that I’d experienced here. It’s given me a lot of insight into the type of work that I want to be doing as an actor now. Living away from home for so long, I had to forge an independence within myself that I didn’t know I had.
SM: What type of work did it make you want to do?
AT: Well, we are really lucky with the system that we have here – often the shows are shorter and the writing’s wonderful. The writing’s great over in the US too, but when something is made here, normally it’s being made because it’s really, really smart. You film for two and a half, three months and a series is six or eight episodes. And then you get to move on and do something else. For me, that variety of creativity was really exciting.
The Good Doctor was great for so many things. I learned so much but I did really miss being able to do lots of different things. Doing the one thing for nine months of the year, for four years. I was lucky enough that I managed to squeeze in a couple of other things in the hiatus; I managed to do Small Axe with Steve McQueen, which was really amazing.
SM: I wanted to ask you about that! How was it working with McQueen?
AT: One of my most treasured creative experiences and I really wasn’t in it that much. Steve McQueen has always been top of the list of people that I want to work with. And he was incredible. There was so much respect for the actors and the creativity. ‘This is going to take the time that it takes for these actors to get here.’ He would clear the set completely. No crew were allowed on it – just the actors and him and we’d figure it out.
SM: And you worked with John Boyega, too. Another Peckham person…
AT: John was so nice. Such a generous acting partner. Had so much time – very, very present. I had a great time working with him. I loved that job so much. It was like a gem. Even being a supporting role – I would’ve literally just stood in the background to soak up the creative environment that Steve created. It was real bucket-list stuff.
SM: What else is on the bucket list?
AT: I’d love to work with Barry Jenkins. I’m currently hatching a plan to work with a dear friend of mine, the director Jeymes Samuel. But I am very much moving into the space where I want to be much more part of the creative conversation. I’m doing quite a bit of writing and I would like to produce and tell stories that haven’t been told. I very much look up to the Michaela Coels, the Phoebe Waller-Bridges, the people making their own stuff and telling their stories.
I made a film in lockdown with my partner called Anacoreta. It’s a feature which has been doing festivals – we are currently in the process of securing distribution for it so we haven’t done a big publicity push. It’s about a group of friends who go out to a cabin in the woods to film a horror film. But the making of the film becomes a horror film. It’s very meta again, it very much mirrors Shooting Hedda Gabler now I think about it!
SM: It won a few awards, right?
AT: Yes, it won Best Horror Film at the Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis and Best International Feature at Manchester Film Festival.
SM: Where did you film it?
AT: We filmed it in British Columbia just outside of Vancouver in the mountains. We found this really amazing location that was like six locations in one. It had this cabin, which had an incredible view. There were woods and a huge lake and dirt roads and it was sort of perfect to get a pod of people up there. There were 11 of us, and we were all doubling. So I was acting in it and producing and also did the catering.
The next film is going to be much more of a formal thing, formal filmmaking. But it was really amazingly freeing to creatively do what we want and make the film that we can make without money people and producers breathing down our necks. It was like film camp. It was amazing.
SM: Have you started your production company yet?
AT: I have registered a production company called Hyde Vale Pictures, which is the name of the road in Greenwich that I grew up on. My plan is to have a production company and to have things on the slate and people that I want to work with and create. That’s what I want to be doing.
SM: You interviewed Nathan Stewart-Jarrett for us a couple of years ago…
AT: I literally just saw him! He’s doing a photoshoot up the road. He’s one of my best mates. We don’t see each other nearly as much as I would like to but Nathan and I have always been really close. He is one of those friends that I’ll just call up; I feel like I can ask him to be really honest with me about things. Nathan is that person in my life who just shoots straight with me.
SM: You guys talked about moving to America owing to the lack of roles for black British actors. Is that something that’s moving in the right direction would you say?
AT: Definitely. I’ve massively noticed progress since coming back from Canada. In TV, the diversity is really starting to look good over here. Film, not so much. It’s so hard to get films made here and the stories that they are making are still not that inclusive – so there’s still a long way to go, but it is looking much more positive. It’s really heartening.
SM: You also spoke with Nathan about attending Black Lives Matter marches in Vancouver. On a broader societal level would you say stuff has progressed forward?
AT: It’s a really hard one. I don’t know. It was really heartening that everybody decided to get behind the movement and definitely felt like a step forward. But then there was the cynical view that the corporate world jumped on it because it was a thing to jump on and capitalise from.
SM: I remember that Pepsi advert with Kendall Jenner…
AT: Exactly. I can’t really speak to how much I think that things have progressed or changed because I feel if you step forward and a few steps back, this stuff is still happening. But it was a positive moment.
Things such as protests and riots, all this stuff historically has happened again and again and again. So it’s a case of taking incremental steps forward.
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Shooting Hedda Gabler runs at the Rose Theatre from 29 September - 21 October 2023.