It’s never ideal to begin a profile with a spoiler warning, even if as spoilers go this one is hardly up there with the identity of Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects or revealing what time Godot turns up. Indeed, I’m unsure if the following scene description counts as spoiler but best to err on the side of caution: so if you’re yet to watch the eighth episode of Ted Lasso’s second season, and you wish to do so with zero foreknowledge of its events, then skip the next two paragraphs.
Here’s the scene: in the dressing room of AFC Richmond, star striker Jamie Tartt is visited by his abusive father before a match. Tartt Senior is a nasty piece of work: he berates and mocks his son in front of his teammates, ultimately causing Jamie to punch him to the floor. As his father is bundled from the dressing room, a distraught Jamie stands in silent shock. Then Roy Kent, Jamie’s former rival and current coach, a man so tough he probably wrestles grizzly bears in his downtime, steps forward to seize his friend in a tight embrace and Jamie breaks down sobbing on his shoulder.
YouTube channel My Little Thought Tree, in which a professional counsellor analyses films and TV series, cites this scene in their video essay The Healthy Masculinity of Ted Lasso. “Punching his dad isn’t played as some triumphant, one-upping moment… We don’t hail Jamie for this great show of strength. Much more realistically, and very maturely of the writers, it’s both a positive to stand up to him, but also very tragic and sad to be in a position where you are punching your dad. Of course Jamie cries; of course he needs to be hugged…”
We’ll return to Ted Lasso later, but for the uninitiated who chose to read them, hopefully those two paragraphs gave you a sense of the show and its success – psychoanalytical video essays are rarely made about stuff that nobody has watched. What words can’t covey, however, is Phil Dunster’s heartbreaking performance as Jamie in this scene: the optical turmoil in his otherwise masklike face, the tension in his body so great it looks like it might shatter.
Happily the interview with Dunster passed more agreeably than Jamie’s encounter with his father – he was tense, sure, but not that tense, and while he threatened to punch me a couple of times, the coward never dared to follow through. I jest, of course: Dunster was charm personified, a gentleman so agreeable you suspect he could make friends in a snake pit. When I arrive at the Clapton pub that serves as our meeting point, he greets me by name and apologises for not having a drink waiting for me. His is a Coke, possibly Diet: I imagine Dunster has a fairly stringent fitness regime and besides, it’s a Monday.
Mondays are never ideal for interviews but Monday is the only space in the Dunster diary; the man has a lot going on, most notably the filming of Ted Lasso season three to finish. But there’s also his prominent role as Mike Stephens in Stephen Moffat’s recent thriller The Devil’s Hour, itself renewed for a further two seasons. And the recently completed short film Pragma, directed by his partner Ellie Heydon, which Dunster both starred in and co-produced. Oh, and earlier this year Dunster walked 108 miles for the Red Cross to raise money for refugees. (Technically ‘cycling, jogging, walking, crawling’ according to his fundraising page.)
All of the above were promoted heavily on Dunster’s Instagram. Obviously you should never read too much into social media, but there’s an amiable chaos to Dunster’s Instagram that I suspect does a decent job of conveying the life of its owner: red carpets interspersed with charitable causes interspersed with magazine shoots (hi!) interspersed with festival weekends interspersed with stills or clips from upcoming projects interspersed with general depictions of friends, frivolity and fun. His captions are witty, invariably generous to others and deprecating himself. A typical effort, accompanying a cast photo from The Devil’s Hour premiere in which Dunster is giving his best Blue Steel pout:
IG: Enjoy last night, did you Phil?
Me: Very much! It was a great evening – @thedevilshourofficial is a cracking show – would defo recommend to a friend. Great cast: Jessica Raine, Peter Capaldi @inikeshpatel etc. Great creatives: @hartswoodfilms , @primevideouk Great story – all that jazz. Yeah loved it…
IG: Sure sure tell your face, man.
[Then a list of credits thanking his stylist, groomer and the many brands he’s wearing – all tagged, naturally.]
Regardless of his facial expressions, there’s no denying the man takes a good photo – as you can see from our shoot, which took place at The Dorchester. He was off to film Ted Lasso immediately after its completion. Another busy Dunster day. What of the life leading up to it?
He grew up in Reading, attending Leighton Park School, one of seven Quaker schools in England. As Dunster explains: “Quaker school is a denomination of Christianity but it’s not that strongly religious. You call a teacher by their first name; rather than having prayer, you sit around and have what’s called a meeting for worship – so sit and sort of meditate… I say meditate, but you just think or sleep, as most people probably did. And try not to laugh on the odd occasion someone farted. There was a lot of art, a lot of drama and music and dicking about. I loved it. It was a great school to go to.”
Having interviewed a fair number of actors over the years, it’s striking how many of their stories start with an inspirational teacher. Dunster is no different: enter Mr Geraint Thomas, a Welshman as you may have already guessed. He introduced young Phil to theatre via the Dylan Thomas play Under Milk Wood.
“He had a really beautiful way with words,” recalls Dunster. “I loved that, and I loved watching this play – which was frankly a pretty boring play because it’s a radio play. It’s not exactly the most dynamic of viewing experiences but it was beautiful. So powerful, lyrical. Loved it. Suddenly, I was like, ‘Oh right, you can do this as a job. I didn’t realise that.’”
Mr Thomas (Geraint, not Dylan) encouraged his student to audition for Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. “Had no idea what I was doing,” says Dunster, cheerfully. “I genuinely don’t know how I got in because I was unprepared.”
He moved to Bristol and fell in love with the place: “I think it’s the best city in the world. I really do.” Drama school wasn’t bad, either. “There were a bunch of idiots there as well. I sort of found my people there.” After graduation, “I moved to London and have been knocking on doors since then, really. Acting-wise knocking on doors, not literally knocking on people’s houses for some money.”
This journey wasn’t quite as frictionless as it might read on the page. The teenage Dunster was an avid rugby player and seriously considered joining the military – his father served, as does his brother now. Dunster had interviews for the Junior Officers Corps but he admits his attention span was “too wayward” for the order and discipline of army life, where “the obsession with keeping your room in tiptop shape is just insane.”
Did he keep his room in tiptop shape? “Absolutely not.”
Despite his messy room, the military wasn’t quite finished with Dunster yet. In 2016, he starred in Pink Mist, a play about three friends from Bristol who join the army and are deployed to Afghanistan. (Its writer, Owen Sheers, is Welsh – another symbolic flourish after the two Thomases of Dunster’s schooldays.)
“It wasn’t just doing a job,” says Dunster of Pink Mist. “It was a really powerful form of collective expression and I loved that. And also getting paid to do it was incredible. That was a really exciting time.”
Times would get more exciting still: the success of Pink Mist led to a role in Kenneth Branagh’s production of The Entertainer. “I loved being part of a company. This weird sort of incubation place where you can dick about, and get things wrong, and fuck around quite a lot, and it’d be called work, and you’d be praised for it.”
Of course, the play was also an education – how could it not be? Every night, Dunster would watch as Branagh performed Archie Rice’s climatic speech, lamenting that “I’m dead behind these eyes. I’m dead, just like the whole, dumb, shoddy lot out there….” Branagh, says Dunster, “did it differently every single night. In some way, shape or form, he did it differently.”
Did Dunster ask why? “No, I never did. He would just be like, ‘I’m vibing,’ probably.” Dunster smiles, deadpan. “That’s such a Ken thing to say. Going with the flow, baby.” He must have made a decent enough impression on Branagh, who later cast him in his 2017 film Murder on the Orient Express.
A few years before The Entertainer, Dunster did another, smaller play called Love Remains. “Two people meet in a bar and talk about their previous relationship and all that.” It was performed in the studio at Leicester Square Theatre. Its writer also acted; his name was Brett Goldstein. A decade later, Goldstein would join Dunster in the cast of Ted Lasso, playing the veteran hardman Roy Kent.
What can Dunster share of his initial encounter with Goldstein? “Obviously, the main thing I remembered was his eyebrows.” Eyebrows aside, there wasn’t much to report: it was a brief encounter between two temporary collaborators. Their second joint venture would prove somewhat more sustainable, and reach a considerably larger audience.
Quiz time. Name the TV comedy, first broadcast in 2020, that focuses on a fictional Premier League football team, their hardman captain, and their eccentric foreign manager? It starred a relatively unknown cast but its creators had impeccable credentials and episodes often featured notable cameos from the world of football. One of the aforementioned creators – whose credentials, I must stress, were impeccable – described the show as “exploring these fault lines where masculinity and insecurity collide.”
If you correctly named The First Team, created by Iain Morris and Damon Beesley of Inbetweeners fame, then three points to you. Hell, if you remember The First Team, then have a point anyway. I didn’t, and I watched several episodes of the first – and to date only – season. Dunster brought it up, when I asked what were his initial impressions when he received the script for Ted Lasso.
“It was a great script. It was a really great script, and I remember thinking it’s going to be really hard to do this show when this other one’s about to come out.”
The First Team premiered on 28 May, two and a half months before Ted Lasso. Critics were unimpressed and so were viewers, judging by the lack of a second season. (Can’t win ’em all.) For the record, Dunster says he enjoyed the show but notes the inherent difficulty of fictionalising a world that’s almost operatic in excess; would any screenwriter be able to invent the likes of David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo without being laughed out of the room?
“Footballers’ lives are so dramatic and ridiculous anyway,” says Dunster. “They are all such characters – well, the ones that we hear about. Writing a show that’s purely about them being footballers, and what the life of football is like, I don’t think it’s that interesting.”
Here’s a confession: a fortnight ago, I was among what feels like a very small number of people who hadn’t seen even one episode of Ted Lasso. Perhaps you are also among that number; perhaps you are one of that even smaller number who hasn’t ever heard of Ted Lasso, or at the very least has no idea of what the show entails. So, in brief…
Ted Lasso depicts the exploits of an American coach who becomes manager of the fictional London football – or soccer, if you must – team AFC Richmond. Faced with a hostile owner, a sceptical fanbase and a fractured squad, Lasso sets about winning hearts, minds and matches with his homespun brand of relentless positivity and deceptively simple wisdom. (Sample quote: “Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.”)
But of course Ted Lasso isn’t really about football. It’s about love and friendship and self-betterment and the difficulties of self-betterment and, well, lots of stuff, human stuff, with football happening to be the industry in which most of the show’s humans operate.
“It’s kind of not about football,” agrees Dunster. “It’s about kindness and it’s about understanding. It’s about humility and that sort of thing – but also football. Football is the most important of the least important things in the show, but it is not the most important thing.”
Over two seasons, Ted Lasso has become something of a phenomenon. When a series is the subject of New York Times articles – ‘Ted Lasso Can’t Save Us Now’ – and YouTube deep dives, then it’s fair to say a moment has been captured. The series has received 121 award nominations, winning 32 – including seven Emmys. AFC Richmond has even been added as a playable option on Fifa 23.
Dunster grins when I bring this up. “It’s not something you would ever think of as an actor. Oh, my dream is to one day be in Fifa.” But there he is; or rather, there is his character, Jamie Tartt. (Whose stats, Dunster assures me, are suitably impressive.)
For most of season one, Jamie is the epitome of what people who don’t like football assume all footballers are like: ignorant, shallow, narcissistic. He’s a brilliant player but a fairly obnoxious human being. For Jamie and the people around Jamie, the former matters much more than the latter. As Dunster puts it: “At the end of the day, he doesn’t know that he’s a dickhead, I guess.”
Gradually, a more nuanced and sympathetic version of Jamie has been teased out by Dunster and the writers. “Why is he doing these things?” was the question the series posed about its most enigmatic character. “Everyone has a story as to why they’re dicks or mad or stupid,” notes Dunster. Season three, he says, will continue to explore and evolve a character he describes as a “total gift” to portray.
Favourite scene to date? “Any scene with Brett really is a joy. I love to work with him.” (He also mentions the confrontation with Jamie’s father, played with such hateful brilliance by Kieran O’Brien.)
Favourite memory of filming? The final week of season one, shooting the football scenes. “We finished at like four am for a whole week. We called it ‘hell week’ because even though we were all fucking pumped, it was a really tough week.” A wet and cold November didn’t help. “It was bleak,” says Dunster. But once hell week was over, everyone could celebrate. “It was the last time it was our show before it became the audience’s. It was just a really special communal moment. I didn’t know what the hell we just made!”
Ted Lasso’s co-creator Jason Sudeikis – who portrays the titular coach – famously devised the show as a three-season arc. If the upcoming third season is indeed the last, Dunster will not lack for job offers. He might even create some of his own, having recently co-produced the short film Pragma, in which he also starred. The film depicts a world of algorithmically matched ‘life partners’, “sort of Tinder in the flesh but teaching you how to love and how to be loved, and how to have more meaningful personal relationships.”
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Pragma was itself a labour of love for Dunster. His school friend Lucy Heath wrote the script and his partner Ellie Heydon directed. “Ellie pitched on it,” says Dunster. “And it was just brilliant. I’m sure that some people would say it’s nepotism, but it turns out that she was perfect for it. She’s such a talented director.”
The pair recently celebrated their fifth anniversary. Dunster posted a photo of Heydon on Instagram, captioned ‘Totally obsessed. 5 years of love. You’re my fucking favourite thing.’ (Her Instagram post described him as ‘The kindest, cleverest, silliest, most genuine, loving, big-butted human on the planet.’) Unsurprisingly, Pragma sounds like a delightful project to work on.
“It was simultaneously the most stressful but most rewarding, joyous thing I’ve ever done. And working with those two women was just incredible. It was super, super good. Producing is the hardest thing. It’s the hardest thing in the world, and I don’t understand how anybody does it for a living.”
There are plans to develop Pragma into a TV series. More roles to play, more life to enjoy. What does Dunster hope for from the next ten years? “Season ticket to the Dons,” he replies instantly. He is a passionate AFC Wimbledon fan, having discovered the club via the YouTube channel of YA author John Green. (The author of The Fault in Our Stars vlogged his Fifa career with the Dons, donating the advertising revenue to the club itself.)
OK, so AFC Wimbledon season ticket – hopefully in the Premier League by then. Anything else? “A dog and a cat. And probably live in Bristol because it’s the best city in the world.” Sounds like a rather lovely life – but then Phil Dunster is rather a lovely man.
Watch Ted Lasso on Apple TV+.