How does one meet the moment? For an actor, the brief is fairly simple, so simple it can be distilled into three short words: audition, nail it.
Tom Ellis: Devil on the side of the angels
How does a child of the church end up playing the Devil? And can he help us escape the hell of 2020? Tom Ellis speaks to Max Williams about the war for the world’s soul
Photographer: Allegra Messina | Styling: Warren Alfie Baker | Make-up: Lilly Keys
Ah, but there are auditions and there are auditions. Reading for a walk-on role in, say, Midsomer Murders – nice work if you can get it, but if you can’t, hey, you’ll still sleep at night – reading for such a role, with all due respect to Midsomer Murders, is significantly lower stakes, more mundane and altogether less Moment-y than shooting your shot for the titular protagonist in a major American TV show, an absolute gift of a character with the potential to change the trajectory of your career from ‘oh, yeah – that dude’ to a Star with a capital S.
And let’s be clear: ‘oh, yeah – that dude’ is a perfectly respectable space for an actor to inhabit. Any performer with the talent and luck to attain the status of ‘oh, yeah – that dude’ can reasonably deem themselves a success story. Given the choice between ‘oh, yeah – that dude’ and ‘do you want fries with that?’, I suspect the majority of drama students would opt for the former. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘do you want fries with that?’ – there’s nothing wrong with ‘oh, yeah – that dude’. But still. Your average RADA graduate doesn’t dream of playing Fortinbras, and nor do the beautiful people flock to LA with aspirations of Third Corpse In The Morgue.
So that’s one moment – a moment it’s fair to say Tom Ellis, star – or should that be ‘Star’ – of the dizzyingly popular Lucifer for the past half decade has spectacularly managed to meet. He plays Lucifer, if you weren’t aware, and if you somehow couldn’t tell from the photoshoot (we all know the Devil scrubs up well, but come on).
Having just released the supposedly final season five on Netflix, the series has been renewed for an actually final, for realsies this time season six – the final chapter of a quite remarkable journey that saw Lucifer famously cancelled by Fox after three seasons, picked up by Netflix and emerge triumphant as the most streamed TV show of 2019. Bad guys always win, right?
And we’ll come to Lucifer. But first, let us examine another moment in Ellis’s life. A moment that required him to step back and fall silent. No easy thing for an actor, especially one who cut his teeth doing panto, but for Tom Ellis the man? He could think of no better use of his platform than offering it to someone else.
Brandon Kyle Goodman is an actor and writer, most notably on the acclaimed Netflix show Big Mouth. He attended New York University with Meaghan Oppenheimer, another writer and close friend who happens to be married to Tom Ellis. After the killing of George Floyd sparked protests around the world, Goodman logged onto Instagram and delivered a video monologue of incredible eloquence and power, one that was aimed at his white friends and followers.
Over seven and a half minutes, the 35-year-old articulated the experience of being black in America – “Every time I learn about a black person being murdered, there are no words to describe the depth of pain that I experience… I break. I shatter. And I’m not allowed to shatter…” – and his hopes for white allyship moving forward.
“We fear for our lives. I hope you understand that. And I hope you understand that even though you’re a good person and you mean well, you have racist tendencies. How could you not?”
“When everything first started going down, I was making videos,” Goodman tells me over Zoom. “Obviously Meaghan and I are friends so we had conversations. Tom was passionate about using his platform and his reach to participate in the conversation. To not just participate but to help move the conversation, but without centring himself in it.”
Ellis had shared his own perspective with me the week before. “Brandon was doing stuff on his own Instagram; talking about it; almost doing video diaries of what he was feeling. And then he started talking to people. I’d said to him during that time, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ Any white person at the moment, it’s like, ‘what do I do? What do I do? White panic! White panic! White guilt!’ But that’s not constructive. Finding something constructive to do was the key.”
I’m just happy that I’m able to help in any way I can
Something constructive took the form of ‘Black Folx’, a series of weekly conversations between Goodman and other black people, hosted on Ellis’s Instagram and broadcast to his 7.3m followers. (Participants have included transgender singer Mila Jam and Ellis’s Lucifer co-star DB Woodside.) “I felt like I was talking to a lot to white people,” says Goodman. “There’s something beneficial, one for me to talk to black people and have that conversation, but also for his followers to watch black people talk without the influence or participation of white people in the conversations about our lives.”
“I’ve got quite a big social media following now,” says Ellis. “Let’s use the biggest platform we’ve got and just keep doing it. Keep doing it and keep encouraging people to listen. Which I’m glad we did, because honestly? If it hadn’t been on my social media, I don’t think I would have watched it… Now I’m like, ‘oh my god, these conversations need to be heard by people.’ Especially by white people who wouldn’t have bothered to listen to them, for whatever reason.”
The plan was for Ellis to host the series for a month, but such was the power of the conversations, its residency on his Instagram has been extended indefinitely. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done with my social media. I want to encourage and invite more conversation like that. Brandon is so brilliantly articulate and just generally compassionate as a person. In a difficult time to talk about difficult things, he’s a great person to be doing it. I’m just happy that I’m able to help in any way I can.”
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Coming To America
Nearly two decades earlier, long before anybody knew what an Instagram was, let alone that you could have 7.3m followers on it, Tom Ellis took a friend to Leicester Square Odeon to watch Buffalo Soldiers. The 2001 black comedy starred Joaquin Phoenix, Ed Harris, Anna Pacquin – and a fresh-faced Ellis in what was basically his first cinematic role. A small role, sure, but a role nonetheless, with a name and actual dialogue.
I’ll let Ellis take up the story. “It was one of the most humbling experiences of my early career,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “I had about four or five lines in the whole thing… We were sitting there, enjoying the movie. ‘Oh, this is me! This is my first scene!’ And when it came up, it wasn’t my voice! It was some weird voice that they’d dubbed over it.”
He can afford to laugh now – not only owing to the success of Lucifer but also as season five sees Ellis adopt an American accent to play Lucifer’s identical twin brother Michael. Although Ellis is Welsh, he plays Lucifer as English – “My kids hate it” – and so pitching Michael in LA seemed an obvious way to distinguish the two characters. “I felt like a fraud,” said Ellis, possibly not joking. “‘Oh, I’m gonna get busted here.’ The actor’s paranoia that happens in every actor. They
just don’t want to be found out.”
→ At least the accent won’t betray him: Ellis had what he describes as “a revelatory experience” when doing a play called The Lyons at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2013. The cast all had to speak American. During rehearsal, the (American) director Mark Brokaw offered some salient advice: “You’ve got to stop being British people with American accents, and start being American.” Says Ellis: “That really struck a chord with me. It’s not just about the way you talk. It’s about the way you associate, articulate. It’s about lots of different things other than talking. That was a eureka moment.”
I might have talked myself out of Lucifer had I read the comics
It was more than that. In the final week of the play, Ellis taped an audition for the US medical drama Rush. “I was so locked in to being American by this point that I didn’t even think about it like I had done in the past. And I got the job! I was playing an American as the lead role in an American show. Evolution!”
Rush wasn’t given a second season, but it gave Ellis a profile in the US – as an actor, until you’ve starred on US television, you do not have a profile in the US – and when Lucifer came up the following year, Ellis was ready. He loved the script, he craved the part. The Devil takes a holiday from Hell to run a nightclub in the City of Angels and becomes a consultant for the LAPD? Yes please.
Audition? Nailed it. Ellis only found out later that the show is based on Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, an ignorance he admits was beneficial.
“I might have talked myself out of that job had I read the comics before I went into the audition. Oh, he’s blond! I’m never going to get it!”
The brunette got it. Whereas Gaiman based the character’s look on David Bowie, Ellis’s Lucifer is a combination of “Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde and Mick Jagger. The lovechild of those people.” His performance was lauded. Happily ever after? Not quite.
“It’s had a very unique journey for lots of reasons,” Ellis muses of the show. We’re speaking, inevitably, over Zoom (fuck you, Covid) – Ellis is quarantining in the Cotswolds after flying over from LA to see his family. (He has three daughters from his first marriage to British actress Tamsin Outhwaite.) It’s late afternoon and he’s on the beers, and over the course of our conversation there are moments when it almost feels like we’re sat around the pub table rather than in separate rooms, some 90-odd miles apart.
Credit must go to Ellis for this – a charming and witty raconteur in whose company you could easily imagine a swift pint turning into several without anyone really noticing – although I should also give a shoutout to my father. Dad, you see, plays the trombone, and it was going to watch his jazz band as a kid that for some reason instilled in me the desire to learn the French Horn – a deeply unfashionably instrument, one whose past practitioners under the age of 60 are limited to me, basically, and as it happens, Tom Ellis.
We’re a rare breed, we veterans of the French Horn – God love you if you’re among us – and should one ex-Horner meet another of our clan an instant and unbreakable bond is formed, similar to army veterans or people who shared the same acid trip. (There’s, like, a secret handshake, but we won’t go into that.)
I wish I’d stuck with the trumpet because it’s much sexier
So Ellis punches the air when I out myself, and we find ourselves swapping the standard war stories – “You know how sexy an instrument it is then?” It got you laid as well? “It was a real calling card, yes” – and as we talk our eyes are filled with muted pain, stung once more by the memories of those long-ago band rehearsals, hours of stoic endurance as the goddamn trumpets, be their torment eternal, merrily blasted out the melody to Jingle Bells while we pom, pom, pommed impotently in the background.
At least I chose my fate; Ellis had his thrust upon him. “My mum was a music teacher so we all got given an instrument when we were around five or six. I started on the trumpet, and my parents made an executive decision on my behalf when I was around eight or nine that should then become the French Horn. Because it would give me more options when I grew up!” He laughs, surely so he does not cry. “I can’t really work that one out, but I wish I’d stuck with the trumpet because it’s much sexier. And you can foray into jazz without looking weird.”
He’s managed to rebound from this setback, even being named as one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive in 2018 – a rarity for French Horn players, it must be said. Still, if my man had been allowed to persist with the trumpet, he’d have doubtless topped the list. (Here I should add the disclaimer that I quit after grade 4, whereas Ellis was a member of the City of Sheffield Youth Orchestra, and so me playing the French Horn and Tom Ellis playing the French Horn really has two very different connotations. Nonetheless, it’s the camaraderie that counts. Tom, if you’re reading, the support group has been moved to Tuesdays.)
Doing the Devil’s Work
Oh yeah, Lucifer. Lucifer and its unique journey – but first, the photoshoot! Our photoshoot took place in LA, as you can probably tell from the sun. “It was weird,” says Ellis. “It was my first socially distant shoot. I didn’t have a team like you normally have.” He doesn’t sound particularly distressed by the absence of a team – and nor should he because, well, check out the photos. (Although shooting a good photo of Tom Ellis cannot be the industry’s hardest gig: the man could make a Teletubby costume look debonair.)
The shoot takes place a couple of weeks before our interview, and so checking the photos is an option for him, but he declines my offer to get them up on my phone. “Don’t show me; I’ll get all self-conscious. I’m terrible, I can’t watch myself.”
He’s in the minority in that regard: as I mentioned earlier, Lucifer has become very popular indeed. And yet, perhaps appropriately considering its subject, its very existence has been one of perpetual strife and jeopardy.
The setbacks began before the pilot had even been filmed, when original writer Tom Kapinos dropped out to pursue another show. “We were left holding this baby, not knowing what to do with it,” says Ellis. “There was no one there with a fixed idea of what this was.” This initial lack of creative direction turned the show into a collaborative effort, allowing everybody involved to have an input. “There’s not a lot of egos around. It always has been ‘best idea wins.’”
The pilot was filmed and the show commissioned – except the powers that be decided to move filming from Los Angeles to *checks notes* Vancouver. On-screen, Vancouver does a perfectly passable LA, but you could understand how the cast members – having signed up to a project that was supposedly taking place on the majority of their doorsteps – might have been a tad miffed on being told that, no, actually we’re heading 1,275 miles north – you might want to pack an umbrella.
Why the relocation? “Financial reasons,” sighs Ellis. “You get a lot more for your money in Vancouver than you do in LA.” As a result of the move, the cast and crew were even more driven to succeed. Not for fame and fortune, you understand. They just wanted to get back to California. “We spent the first couple of years trying to make the show a hit so we could get it moved back to LA. And then we finally got it moved back – and then it got cancelled.”
The cancellation came after three seasons. Fox chairman Gary Newman described the decision as ‘ratings-based’, just in case there was any doubt that the chairmen of major TV networks are not creatures of romance and moonbeams. “I was gutted,” says Ellis. “I’ve been on record saying I was gutted before, but I was. I was absolutely gutted. It was almost like we were doing a play and they decided to end it during the interval.”
Any other era and that would have been that – so long, farewell, and thanks for all the fish. But Lucifer was lucky enough to exist, and briefly not exist, in the Age Of Netflix, the saviour of several cancelled TV shows – provided there was an appetite for their resurrection. And boy, was there an appetite. A petition was started. #SaveLucifer trended on Twitter. Netflix obliged. (Although ultimate credit goes to the fans for proving the show had an audience; despite their oft-publicised munificence, multi-billion dollar streaming services aren’t run on good vibez.)
The move has given Lucifer a new lease of life, allowing for more creative risk than Fox could ever sign off. As Ellis notes, “We’ve been able to explore areas that we may have shied away from in the past. We’ve been given a lot more licence by Netflix to go to those places and not be stuck in a mould.” Season five includes a black-white noir homage, and a musical episode, the latter highlighted by Ellis as perhaps his favourite of the entire series: “I can’t wait for people to see that one.”
He references Once More, With Feeling, the legendary episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in which a demon causes the inhabitants of Sunnydale to randomly burst into song. “A lot of our writers are big Buffy fans, and when this show was taking shape there were a lot of references back to Buffy. It sits in that world a little bit.
“The musical episode came out of the fact that everyone thought Lucifer season five was indeed the final season. So we had a kind of bucket list of things that we hadn’t done that we wanted to do.”
The team must update that list ahead of season six. Considering their previous, it’s probably a good problem to have.
Church and Stage
Three-thousand words into this profile and I’ve yet to drop the most amazing Tom Ellis fact of the lot, a real doozy of a You Couldn’t Make It Up. Hardcore Ellis fans (hi guys!) can probably guess what I’m referring to, for the rest of you, here goes… the Devil’s dad is a Pastor! A bonafide Baptist minister. Young Tom attended church every Sunday until the age of 17.
“That’s not to say that I had a deep-set faith because of that,” clarifies Ellis when I mention his religious upbringing. “It was just what I did. In the pastor’s family, that’s just part of the job.”
OK, obvious question first: was Pastor Ellis OK with his son playing the Devil? Yes, actually. “My dad was cool with it. I don’t think my dad watches the show, I was going to say ‘religiously’…” He grins. “I don’t think my dad is an avid viewer of my show. But that’s not because it’s about the Devil; it’s just not his cup of tea. He’d rather watch reruns of Inspector Morse.”
The church is a big part of the Ellis family: his sister is also a pastor, and his uncle is principal of Regent’s Park College in Oxford, which specialises in theology. (Ellis’s father and his uncle both studied there.) Yet his childhood was notably lacking in fire and brimstone. In an age where all faiths are too readily defined by their extremist minorities – the Westboro Baptist Church and all that – it’s refreshing to be reminded that religion functions primarily as a form of communal inclusion, and a simple moral framework to distinguish right from wrong.
Religion for me was about love, acceptance, peace, tolerance
“Tolerant is the operative word,” says Ellis. “When I grew up in the church, for example, we never talked about Hell. Hell was never something we discussed. And we never really discussed the Devil. It obviously came up in vocabulary when I was in services and stuff like that, but it wasn’t something we talked about in our house. Religion for me, or growing up in the church for me, was about love, acceptance, peace, tolerance: all the good things about Christianity, but not about the judgement and fear that seems to be the operative for some Christians. It just wasn’t my experience.”
Indeed, apart from some “pretty right-wing American Christians” who protested the show before it had even aired, Lucifer has quite the religious fanbase. “My most satisfying moments of feedback on this show have been people of faith, and essentially Christians, who have contacted me to tell me how much they enjoy the show and what they get from it. They don’t view it through kind of blasphemous goggles. They take it as entertainment, but there are bigger things you can draw from it if you want to.”
Some fans even discuss the show in their bible groups. Such interactions nourish not only Ellis The Actor but also Ellis The Child of the Church, a man who believes in that church, provided it is one of inclusivity. “That suggests those people are a lot more progressive in their faith,” he says of the Lucifer Christian fandom. “That’s what the world needs if the world is going to have faith.”
Suffice to say, Ellis was not one of those prodigal infant performers who first staged Hamlet aged five and a half. He only took theatre studies as an A-Level at the suggestion of his old English teacher, Claire Pender. The class had 12 girls and only one boy: a bad ratio for Ms Pender, a very good ratio for Tom… “I was a horny 17-year-old, basically.”
The catalyst for many artistic careers…
He doesn’t make the link explicitly, but I notice the regular church visits stop at the same age the acting starts. I’m not sure this is a case of innocence corrupted so much as there being only limited hours in a weekend
Ellis got the bug. He studied Drama at the Royal Scottish Academy, alongside James McAvoy and Sam Heughan. Ellis and Heughan are good friends – “I’m so thrilled for him that things have gone the way they have. He’s such a lovely man” – but McAvoy is a true BFF. “We’re always in touch. James and I have been mates for such a long time, if we don’t speak to each other for six months we pick up exactly where we left off. He is, and always has been, a lifer.”
The pair took two months off college to do panto together. “That was my first ever professional job. We did Beauty and the Beast at the Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy in Fife. I was the Beast and the Prince, and he was Bobby Buckfast, which was their version of the Buttons character.” Scottish pantos, says Ellis, are not for the fainthearted. The dame was a man with “very heavy stubble.”
Panto was an amazing time with loads of perks
Sounds like a fun gig…
“Oh my god, it was amazing!”
His wages helped fund the move from Glasgow to London. “Suddenly I had money in my bank account… It was an amazing time with loads of perks.” He speaks of the experience with such affection that I find myself asking whether he’d ever return to panto one day – which is a bit like asking a Premier League football whether his heart ever yearns for the rugged charms of the Isthmian League North Division.
“Cor, that’s a tough one,” says the star of one of the world’s biggest TV shows. (Tom – The Second Ugly Sister at Ally Pally. Fancy it?) “I probably wouldn’t, at the moment, but I’ve also learnt to never say never. I have much more fun at the moment trying to explain to Americans what pantomime is. They think it’s literally miming.”
Do you say, ‘oh no it isn’t…’?
I think his amusement at this quip is genuine but it should be noted that Tom Ellis is both an exceptionally good actor and a very polite man.
Too Hot To Handle
The first decade out of drama school, Ellis didn’t exactly struggle for work: his CV reads like a list of British TV Staples In The Early 21st Century. Tick ’em off: Holby City, Midsomer Murders, Waking the Dead, the inevitable stint in Eastenders, Doctor Who, The Catherine Tate Show, Merlin, Poirot… Our boy got around. I wonder: when a young actor is moving between multiple minor roles in a string of established shows, is that a sign that the career is going well or badly?
“It depends what your personalised approach is, I suppose. For me, when I left drama school, I probably harboured a quiet ambition about wanting to be successful. Obviously people talk about Hollywood, but for me, being successful was only acting. So to go from job to job to job, and not have to subsidise my income with anything else, that felt like a massive achievement. There was a time in my career when I didn’t think that I should be doing better, because I thought that I was doing really well, but as I went on and started to establish myself more I felt like I wasn’t…” He pauses.
“It’s opportunities that we crave. I just wanted the opportunity to be seen in a certain way, or be seen in a different way. And that’s part of why I started going to the States.”
Ironically, the move was fuelled not by failure but success. In 2009, Ellis landed the part of the love interest Gary on the hugely popular BBC sitcom Miranda. The show made his name but also calcified it. “It was really tough for me not to be seen as Gary from Miranda. I knew what I was capable of, but it’s about what other people think. I often say this but I strongly believe that if the character of Rush or the character of Lucifer had happened in this country, I don’t think people would have thought of me.”
A rueful chuckle. “Apart from Miranda, the thing that I got courted the most heavily about was doing Strictly Come Dancing.”
I remember, the first time I saw Ellis on a Miranda Christmas special, exclaiming words along the lines of “God, that man’s handsome, isn’t he?” He laughs when I tell him this, but there’s no questioning his handsomeness – and at 6’3, Ellis is not a lowkey handsome; it will literally be the first thing you notice about him – proved detrimental to securing the complex roles he so craved. (Can you imagine him in a Jimmy McGovern drama?) In America, looking like a movie star isn’t a distraction, because everyone looks like a movie star – at least on telly.
“It’s a weird thing to talk about,” says Ellis, doubtless aware that ‘I was just too goddamn attractive for this country’ is a tricky look to pull off. “There’s a different kind of approach in the States. They come from a very aesthetic point of view to start with… In the UK, there’s just a lot more realism behind casting. And if you’re perceived as a handsome person, or a good looking actor, there are many jobs you wouldn’t be seen for because that’s the way people’s heads work. So it works for you in some regards and it doesn’t work for you in other regards.”
He might resemble James Bond – I don’t bother asking the question because the answer is invariably, “yes, of course I would” – but the thought strikes me that Ellis would make a brilliant Doctor Who, and a casting choice that would doubtless delight the fanbase – you imagine LuciFans and Whovians share a fair amount of overlap. (Plus Neil Gaiman has written two Doctor Who episodes, so there’s your in.)
Ellis chuckles at the suggestion. “Back in the day, I would have loved to have had an opportunity to play Doctor Who. I just never think that ever would have happened. Partly because I’d have done this show [SM: so had Peter Capaldi before he was cast], and I just don’t think people thought of me like that. Weirdly, the part of Lucifer, in my own head I’m like, ‘this is my Doctor Who.’ That’s what it felt like. It’s the character traits, isn’t it? Having the luxury to play such a fulfilling character.”
He doubts he will ever play the Doctor but far stranger things have happened, not least to him.
(Post) 2020 Vision
Throughout our conversation, one subject recurs again and again: the upcoming US Election and the defenestration of Donald Trump. After articulating the perilous state of theatre, Ellis notes, “The only tonic to this year will be if Trump gets voted out.” Later, I ask what would be his personal hell loop, a concept from Lucifer that’s essentially Groundhog Day for the damned. He doesn’t even think. “If Trump gets reelected in November it would be that. Honestly.”
Tom Ellis: Political Activist is a new look for him, but such is the grotesquery of the current President, silence is no longer an option.
“I’ve always tried to distance myself from politics on social media. I’ve been guilty in the past of taking onboard people saying, ‘you’re just an actor, you shouldn’t talk about these things.’ But I’m just so utterly fed up with people in power who have no sense of dignity, no sense of shame, no sense of empathy. Everything you need to be a leader is not on display at the moment. I can’t stay quiet about it.
“People are often told that you don’t want to ostracise people. But my feeling at the moment is that the President of America is ostracising people. We need to bring people back together.”
Would he consider leaving America were Trump reelected? “I would think heavily about it, for sure. My wife is American and that would be tougher for her than it would for me. But I think at the same time she feels exactly the same.”
My friend was like, ‘oh look, that girl I’ve been trying to set you up with
He met Meaghan Oppenheimer while shooting the pilot of Lucifer (big year for Tom). A mutual friend had been trying to set the pair up, but neither of them could ever quite find the time for a date. Fortunately, fate intervened.
“I had one day off on the pilot of Lucifer, and I went out for dinner that night with my friend. He was like, ‘oh look, that girl I’ve been trying to set you up with – she’s sitting over there on the opposite side of the room.”
Working with Oppenheimer is one of the boxes on Ellis’s post-Lucifer checklist. There are a lot of boxes, still so much to do! Play Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing like his idol Kenneth Branagh. Shoot that project with Jason Bateman’s production company about the Israeli Mafia in 1980s New York. Meet Tiger Woods. (He’s an avid golf fan. “Golf is like my yoga. It’s where I go to escape from the world.”) Have a crack at Broadway. Perfect his Widow Twanky. Reinvent himself all over again.
“I am going to find myself in that similar territory in that people are going to expect one thing from me now. And I would like to surprise them and do something completely different. That’s always been my thought process.”
Expect plenty of surprises from Tom Ellis in the coming years. He’s an actor in perpetual search of the new, a man of multitudes, a devil on the side of the angels.
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Lucifer Season 5 is available to watch on Netflix now.