S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.
S2: Sometimes when you read parts, you’re reading it and you know that there’s a lot of work to be done to find it. And then there are others that just from the first reading it, it fits. And this part was one that just fit. You could almost see him in front of you. And then all I had to do was step into it. He was a very pretentious to
S3: welcome back to working. I’m your host, Isaac Butler,
S1: and I’m your other host. June Thomas
S3: June. So nice to hear your voice. Who is that other voice that we heard at the top of the show?
S1: That was British actor Tom Mison.
S3: Ah, yes, I remember him fondly as Ichabod Crane on Sleepy Hollow. But what are some other TV shows our listeners might know Mison from?
S1: You’re right. He was indeed Ichabod Crane, and he’s currently on the Apple TV+ show. See, but you may also know him from HBO’s Watchmen, where he played Mr. Phillips. Or to put it another way, the male servants of Jeremy Irons his character, Adrian White.
S3: And I believe our slate plus listeners get a little something extra this week.
S1: They do. I asked Tom for his thoughts on the way that British actors all seem to get slotted into either posh parts or common parts and how he finds himself in posh parts. We also talked about the pluses and minuses of writers rooms.
S3: Well, that sounds fascinating. And fortunately, if you don’t have Slate Plus and you want to hear that, it’s really easy to subscribe. You’ll get exclusive members only Content Zero ads on any Sleepy podcast, full access to articles on Slate.com without hitting that pesky paywall. Bonus episodes of shows like How to Do It and Big Mood, Little Mood and You’ll Be Supporting the work we do right here. I’m working. It’s only $1 for the first month. To sign up, go to Slate.com. Working Plus. All right, now, let’s take a listen to June’s conversation with Tom Mison.
S1: Who are you and what do you do?
S2: The simple answer is I’m Tom Mison and I’m an actor.
S1: Well, we might be calling you Lord Harlan if we are watching the Apple TV+ show. See, which is my excuse for talking to you today because you recently joined the cast of that show in its second season. I’m really curious, is it tricky joining a show that’s already in progress? I mean, a lot of the actors have worked together for however many months, and they’re kind of in their own rhythms. Maybe.
S2: No, it was easy. I can imagine a world where it would be difficult with a different cast, but the cast of very welcoming and excited to see new people and also in a show like this when the world is already created, it’s nice to just be able to dive into it. It’s already there. There’s none of that often with genre and you’re creating a new universe. You find your feet for a little while, but they’ve found their feet and they’re already running and I just, you know, slip in alongside them.
S1: What do you say when people ask you what sea is and what kind of person you’re playing on the show,
S2: how to describe it?
S1: It’s a bit and it’s hard. It’s hard.
S2: OK, I’ll give you the the basic premise that it’s set in the distant future. In the near future. From now, a virus wipes out all but two million of the population, and pretty much everyone who’s left is without sight. And so then the show picks up several hundred years after that, where the world has been a safe place for all of that time and people have grown to live with it and build communities around that. And we join a small group who live in the mountains, which in the community there are two sighted children and site has become the sighted heretics and so are chased by witch hunters. And that’s the world. It’s surprisingly violent. Yes, imaginatively violent. It’s a pretty cruel world, which is why it was so interesting when I watched the first season that within this cruel, brutal world, it was surprisingly tender. And it was so nice, particularly to see Jason Momoa play a really loving, doting husband and father in that warmth really came through. And seeing that balance, so it’s not just a show about how to a group of people who can’t see beat the crap out of each other. There was a lot more to it, which made it a lot more appealing.
S1: I have to say I did not watch the first season, but I’ve watched several of the second season, and it’s my understanding from kind of watching the, you know, previously on type of montage that this season is quite different in the sense that we’re in a kind of an interior and a kind of castle setting, which is Lord Haaland’s castle, your castle rather than what feels like was effectively kind of a tundra situation, very much outdoors, snowy outdoor battles. We’ve kind of moved toward indoors and palace intrigues. Is that accurate? Yes. And how does your character fit in?
S2: Well, that’s another thing that was interesting about joining an already established show is although the world had been established, it’s now about building on that world. So the first season, which was shot over in Vancouver, largely on Vancouver Island, so I mean, the scenery is incredible and they were living up there and living a rough life and are forced to leave rough but also idyllic. They did. It was beautiful. They’re forced to leave there into these cities that they’ve never experienced before. And so I was able to bring a new shade to the show they hadn’t seen in the first season with, like you say, it’s more about the political intrigue of these new warring lords.
S1: As a sighted person, did you have any concerns about playing a blind character?
S2: Yes, yes. It means how did you deal with that by talking to the creators about it being treated respectfully? I mean, I didn’t want to come on and do a caricature of people who are blind. It’s a section of the community that is underrepresented on screen. We think of screen work as being an entirely visual medium, but it isn’t. There’s a large audience who it’s very clever. You can have the audio commentary as you’re going along. So that was my main worry about playing someone without their sight. But after talking to them, just one conversation and talking to a guy called Joe Stretch, who’s one of our producers and he’s the blankness coordinator, and he lost his sight when he was quite old and so has experienced both viewpoints of the world. And he worked with Charlie Cox on Daredevil when he was playing a character who is blind and has worked with many other actors and talking to him about it. He is one of the most important people on set. He’s there all the time with a team of movement people. They’re always behind the monitor, checking up on us to make sure that we don’t nod when someone when we’re affirming something or shake our heads or Tom with his stupid hands pointing at things. And you know, so I thought, not only is that great because it’s a respectful representation, but also I’ve never done it before, and that’s all I want for my career is to do things that I’ve never done before.
S1: So you mentioned a few things nodding, shaking their head hand gestures. What else was involved in kind of preparing for this role, which I realized isn’t just about it being a sightless person? Just how did you go about preparing?
S2: Well, I came in a few weeks early so that I could have a lot of sessions with Joe and his team. And it wasn’t just about, you know, how I get around and find doors and find things on a table, although there was obviously a lot of that. It was more just being comfortable losing one of your senses. I think that’s often the problem. When you see sighted actors playing this part is there’s some element of it’s almost surprise to them because suddenly they’re suddenly they’ve they’ve lost one of their senses, whereas people who are blind don’t have that surprise because it’s their world. So we we spent a long time settling in so that it’s not an intimidating experience or a new experience. It’s one that you can just wear like your costume.
S1: You’ve mentioned that it was a very welcoming set, but how was this set in this filming experience? Different because almost all the characters are supposed to be blind. That must change a lot of the kind of shorthand ways, the quick ways you indicate things.
S2: Well, it’s exactly that. We’re so used to finding quick ways to shout out thoughts, and you have to find a new vocabulary both with your hands. For me and also just how you look at people and how you look away from people, you know, and we like to look people in the eye or we look away, or we can give someone a furtive look that can mean anything you want it to mean. But that language is gone. So we have to find different ways, and it seems largely to do with it, then becomes much more physical. It’s about contact with each other and proximity to each other. For example, the queen who is a psychopath and no one can come near her unless they want to be killed. That was a way in to Holland’s thoughts about her was pushing the boundaries. The Queen, no one can get near her. So what am I going to do? I’m going to go right up next to her and I’m going to give her a punch in the arm because that’s testing the water. I know she can’t slit my throat.
S1: Yeah, we actually have a clip of your character getting a little too close to the Queen. Let’s listen. Hmm.
S2: Oh yeah, I love the smell of Lavender Milk Bath Harlem.
S1: You have a dangerous tendency toward the informal. Some might mistake it for disrespect.
S2: On the contrary, I relish our history together. So that’s part of the power games between us. And it’s also for Sylvia, who plays the Queen. It’s something that the currency has never experienced before. No one’s ever gone up to her and given her a little jostle or got too close or turned away from her to speak. So that was particularly exciting to find a new language.
S1: Are there any things that other again other than these, these ones that you already mentioned, any things that people said, don’t get into this, you know, one that I know one of the tropes of the way that many blind characters are introduced in the movies is like, you know, a blind person falls in love with someone because, you know, they’re not hung up on appearance. Are there any were there any sort of things like that that were just like, it’s too cliche? We’re not doing that. That’s off the table for the show.
S2: Face touching was one. One of the tropes is that, you know, people who are blind go and yet touched faces so that they get to, well, know. That was one of the first things Joe said. No. Yeah, what else? Oh, just that what your eyes do. So it’s not about just glazing over and looking into the middle distance. There has to be a fire behind them. There has to be a brain behind them. And so there are different techniques to although you’re not using your eyes, you’re showing that they’re not switched off.
S1: I’d like to talk about a couple of other roles you’ve done in recent years, if that’s OK. Please. You played Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, a show that I think I watched every episode. I think it was great fun. Did you? Oh, good. Yes. Your performance was extraordinary. Very charismatic. Great chemistry with your co-lead, Nicole Beharie, who’s a wonderful actress, and he was a great character because he was a know-it-all, but also somehow very likable. What do you remember about that role and that experience?
S2: I love that you say he was a know-it-all, but very likable. I think the likability comes from. Yes, he’s a know it all, but he knows he doesn’t know it all in in the modern
S1: world, right? Phyllis. For listeners who didn’t watch the show, he was out of time. He was somebody from a different century, Ichabod Crane, who was actually transported to a contemporary period
S2: and building used to be a livery stables.
S1: Well, now as a Starbucks. Where they make coffee.
S2: That building is also a Starbucks.
S4: Yup. How many other car block?
S2: Is there a law? So, yes, that the fish out of water trope and again, you want to avoid troops? Yeah, that was one of those parts. There are sometimes when you read parts, you you’re reading it and you know that there’s a lot of work to be done to find it and to be imaginative and clear with it. And then there are others that just from the first reading it, it fits. And this part was one that just fit. You could kind of picture him who he is and how he thinks you could almost see him in front of you. And then all I had to do was step into it. He was a very pretentious term. Yes. So that came relatively easily to begin with. And then, as you say, Nicole Beharie, who I don’t know how it happened, it just worked. We are both from very different schools of acting. But. Desperately wanted out seems to be good. Mm hmm. Particularly, it seems that on the page weren’t quite so good. We then wanted to work extra hard together and it was always about being together. These two characters were a team rather than one of us trying to one up the other, which can often happen
S1: since you mentioned know your school of acting. What kind of actor do you consider yourself to be?
S2: Oh God. How many one? I can’t really talk about this without falling into generalizations, but people often ask about the difference between American and English actors. Yeah, and I suppose it all comes down to. It starts in the 50s, I think, where the American school. Focused on the actor. And that’s where the method arose, and it was about the actor bringing themselves to the role, and it gave us the best people we’ve ever seen on stage or screen, whereas the English school did exactly the same time became very focused on the writer. And so the role of the actor wasn’t to bring themselves to the role, but to bring the role to them again. I only speak in generalizations and incredibly pretentiously, but it’s all about the writing that seems to me. And I’m sure people who get very angry and shout at me for saying it to be the two. That’s where there was a fork in the road. But when I was at drama school many years ago, that was still very much the focus. You focus on the the play and Rep Theatre. You know, I went back in the days of rep when you’re doing a new play every two weeks. Yes, to the same audience in the same town. If you would playing the same character, if you were bringing yourself and being the same character every fortnight, there’d be mutiny and you’d be chased out of the both not taken before you could say, Hey, you know? And that’s why we created a very different style, but also very brilliant type of actor who are now all knights and dames because they can change because for the first of many years of their careers, they had to change every two weeks. Yeah. Whereas now my generation, we we cut our teeth on, you know, episodes of Lewis and Midsomer Murders. And you don’t really get much of that opportunity.
S1: It’s very interesting that you your your thoughts on the method. It’s making me think of an interview I did with Alison Wright, who’s a British actress but who came to America in the Americans. Yeah, exactly. She came to America to study the method, and she’s really mostly worked in America. I don’t think she’s really done anything much in Britain, but she in fact, used a very similar term, she said. When you can’t find the character on the page, when the writing’s just not there, then you go into your, as she put it, you know, you’ve got all this, all these things in a shoebox and you go to your shoe box. So you actually kind of made a very similar kind of similar image.
S2: Well, they both lead to the same yeah. Point, really? Yeah. An old teacher of mine used to say there’s more than one way to get to Leicester Square, and we all come at it from different routes, but we all get to the same point. I think even Stanislavski, I think and again, I’m probably wrong and I’ll be shouted out. But even he said, the method is kind of a last resort if you can’t find it with your imagination.
S3: We’ll be back with more of June’s conversation with Tom Mison after this. Hey, their listeners, we want to hear from you. Are there guests you want us to feature? Do you need some advice on a creative problem? Like maybe you have a question about research or negotiating a tough collaboration or really anything at all? Let us know what you’re thinking, what questions you have. Shoot us an email at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at three zero four nine three three W O R K O. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. All right, enough out of me. Now back to John’s conversation with Tom Mison.
S1: Let’s talk about your role in Watchmen, one of the best shows of the last few years. And you played I don’t even know what to call it a clone. Is that right?
S2: Many clones.
S1: Yeah, right. So basically a character who was immortal whenever he was killed, he would reappear shortly afterward. How do you approach a character who’s very convincingly human but isn’t quite human?
S2: It was one of the most satisfying and fun jobs that I’ve ever done. I remember having a very, very long conversation with Damon Lindelof when it was offered, and I was on holiday. I was in the south of France, sitting under a tree, chatting to Damon about Watchmen and comics generally. And he is such a precise writer. I think the reason he’s one of the best on telly is because his precision and his world building and his character building is it is unique. And yet these parts because of the nature of who they are. The dialogue is sparse and when he does speak, it’s very simple. Oh, so forgive me, I shall require the Watchmen gifted you as a prop or. I did it ever occur to you, Mr Phillips? You are the prompt. Which actually just meant there was a blank canvas to do whatever I wanted, and luckily, Damon, you know, is very trusting of actors and said, just go for it. So when I read for it, I put myself on tape back in London. And he said afterwards, the reason I liked your tape was because you did lots of different things. And that’s what we need. So just go and find out the differences. Find out how these 30 35 clones have exactly the same person. How can you make them different? So it was just thinking about because Jeremy Irons character clones all of them to be servants around the house. So that’s a good starting point. There are servants around the house, so there’s one who spends all of his days retiring the stable roof. There’s another one on his hands and knees, probably clipping the grass with scissors. And there’s another one who’s there to be quiet but present to serve him as a butler. So all of them have different roles, and each of those different roles will have a different effect on them physically. The one on his hands and knees, maybe he’s got a bad back. The one who toes the stable roof. Maybe last week he fell off the roof and is on the guy who serves him as a butler. He knows that he has to be very still. Or else Jeremy’s character is going to kill him. That’s on the larger scale of who they are. Then you can start playing around with. Well, there’s one who may be he was raking the gravel of the driveway, and the last time he saw Jeremy’s character was a few days ago and Jeremy’s character kicked him in the balls. So now he scours every time he sees him, or there’s one who just absolutely hero worships him and thinks Jeremy’s character is like Justin Bieber and he’s obsessed or someone from K-pop, and he’s obsessed with him and has never had a bad experience. And maybe Jeremy once stroked his head. And so that’s what’s brilliant about. It’s not that there’s nothing in the writing, it’s that there’s every opportunity in the writing, and part of Damon’s precision is knowing when to be ambiguous. And that ambiguity meant that we could just play around a lot and then I would have costume fittings and the costume designer, and I would then discuss each of these parts and what the job is. And she said, OK, and then she go off and find a piece that suited the stable boy or suited the cook, and then we’d play around with with that and everything kind of fell together from nothing. Yeah. Quite often the holes in the script are actually the real gifts. You don’t have to fill in it on the page. It doesn’t have to be entirely backstory. And the motivation that’s kind of the actor’s homework is to bring that.
S1: I have to say that despite having watched, you know, as I said, every episode of Sleepy Hollow and really being into Watchmen, it was several episodes before I kind of connected Mr. Phillips and Ichabod because, well, maybe it’s as basic as he didn’t have a beard. And I know you’re an actor. I know that and I know that you take on different roles, but the beard is so significant. So weird question, maybe. But if you weren’t an actor, would you always have a beard? And do you have a preference for a role that lets you keep the beard? Or do you prefer having to transform yourself? What’s your preference, beard wise?
S2: I would always have a beard. These are the deep questions and heavy hitting ones. What’s your philosophy of beard? I always have a beard, and my wife would insist on it and she hates my face. And she she said, Please, no more parts where you shave. I didn’t. I didn’t marry someone with no beard. And when she very. Now that we’re in the days of of self taping at home, she is a very good sport and puts me on tape, often begrudgingly. And she’ll read it and she’ll say, this is a period piece you’ll have to shave. No, you’re not. You’re not doing this. And she joined, you know, sabotage the audition. Yeah, no, I wrote it. But also, it’s one of the lucky things for actors, for men is that we can change a bit of our beard. Shave it in a different way. And then you go, Boom, we’ve got a character and we look like we’re brilliant actors when actually it’s just all thanks to the Philips one played.
S1: We talked about the different acting schools between the US and the UK. What’s the difference? Between working on a TV show in the US and the UK, apart from the acting that just being on set that whole world of of making a show.
S2: I can tell the difference between a network TV show and a cable TV show. Definitely. And it’s all really down to time. Sleepy Hollywood. We didn’t really have a great deal of time to shoot the episodes. So especially early on, they would, you know, for Nicole and I, 16 hour days, six days a week, for eight months, and when each episode when we finished filming, there’d be a week to edit it and then it would go in air. So we’d still be shooting the next episode when the previous one was aired, which in many ways is a is a good thing because you always know what show you’re on. When you watch it, you get a sense of what the finished product, what they they in inverted commas want. I don’t think it’s a healthy thing for writers. I remember saying to I’ve stayed really good friends with a lot of the writers on Sleepy Hollow, and I’ve said no writers should be on Twitter because you get audience feedback. And I don’t think a writer should pay attention to audience feedback. I think if you keep writing true to the characters into the essence of the show, then an audience will enjoy it. But if you start trying to cater to certain pockets of the audience, then another pocket will be unhappy. And then it all just goes to Tom. Yeah, yeah. With with cable shows like Watchmen and see, there’s a lot more time and there’s a lot more money. I mean, budget, not me. I’m British went very cheap, and that allows a lot more chance to explore. I think for the actors and the directors.
S1: Now, this is one of those terrible things that you should never do, but this information I got from Wikipedia and it says that you have written some, I think they describe them as staged monologues, which I don’t know if that’s accurate. I don’t know what that means.
S2: They were basically one one man shows and my wife produced them. It was some of the most exciting theatrical experiences of my life because we wouldn’t put them on in theaters. We’d put them on. There’d be one underneath the railway arches in South London, one we managed to get hold of. She managed to get hold of a cricket in Winston Cemetery and it was put on there. And just anywhere where there was a space that isn’t traditionally theatrical, we’d go in and she’d go put these on and they would really, really exciting because also they were it had to be one night only. What is so exciting about theatre is that even if it’s a long running show, you watch an evening of it and no one else will ever see that before or since. That’s for you and the community of people around you. And that’s why it’s so thrilling. So to get that in a little secret location for a few hundred people for one night only. It was then I’ve not seen anything else like it, really. I always think that theatre should feel a bit like you’re going into a dogfight. You shouldn’t really know what you’re going to get when you go to the West End and you sit in your in your seats and you’ve got a velvet curtain and a gilded proscenium arch your safe.
S2: Whereas. Some of my favorite theaters are, you know, that they’re dingy and they’re down a back alley and you don’t know who’s there or what you’re going to do. And you walk into an empty room. The for me, the sparser, the better. Anything could happen in there. And that’s why it’s magic and special. And, you know, I don’t want to get too into it, but that government at the moment in the U.K. with its abysmal handling of the arts. And in fact, waging its culture war on the arts. It would be such a shame to lose that. But that type of theater where you can just find a shed in a field and get a load of people in is the probably the most engaging experience you can have. For me, both as an actor and as an audience member, I miss it and I I can’t wait to get back.
S1: Tom Mison. Thank you so much for your time and for a lovely conversation.
S2: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
S3: June, what a delightful and very charming interview. I particularly appreciated the work, the Tom and the cast of C put in to make sure that blindness on the show is correctly represented. It’s not as simple as just, you know, not looking at someone when you talk to them. It’s a completely different way of being in the world as a physical creature, right?
S1: Absolutely. And it presents some fun, I guess challenges for the people who are designing a show with that premise. For example, they can’t show any lights on the exteriors or interiors of buildings. This simply wouldn’t be any. But we viewers still have to be able to see what’s going on. And if you’re wondering, because a lot of people have complained in recent years that TV interiors are often really dark. I guess to make them seem moody, see, really isn’t any darker than, say, Game of Thrones. Hmm.
S3: Tom said this thing in the interview that I thought was really wise. He said something like the holes in the script are the real gift to actors because it’s where they have the room to really bring their art and their craft and their self to the work. When everything is all laid out and explained, there actually isn’t that much work left to do. And that work is where your creativity comes from. And so I was thinking, is this actually a larger lesson about collaboration, like to get the best out of the people you’re working with? You know, you have to give them real, impactful work to do. So, even if you like might have an idea for how to fill this gap. Maybe you need to leave that gap unfilled so that they can come up with their own approach.
S1: Yeah. And as with all collaborations, it can happen in lots of different ways. You can indeed get really interesting, deeply felt performances or writing or music out of people when you put them in a position where they have to go on, you know, journeys of intense inner exploration to figure out what’s needed at the same time. I also know that I have really enjoyed shows and movies where it’s clear that everything was on the page. And you can tell because there are so many words that it would be literally impossible to shoehorn anything unscripted or that wasn’t provided by the writer into the work. I guess another way of saying this is that some writers, including good ones, are control freaks. I’m not much of an Aaron Sorkin fan overall, but there are some episodes of the West Wing where I really have that sense. Or even Amy Sherman-Palladino overstuffed scripts. There’s just no room. And that’s no diss on the actors, just to say that there are lots of ways to generate great performances. And as Tom said, sometimes actors just connect with the role, and they don’t really have to do much to fit into it.
S3: Right now, you will probably guess, and listeners will probably guess that because I have a book on the method coming out. The parts of your interview about the method and the difference between American and British actors were really fascinating to me, and I really loved his description of British versus American actors and that mid-century split between whether the acting is serving the writing or what. You know, there’s a quote in my book from Michael Kahn, who used to run Juilliard, who I interviewed for the book, and he said something to the effect of when Juilliard was founded, which is in the late 60s. The world of acting was divided, roughly speaking into Americans who could be but didn’t know how to speak, and Europeans, particularly English actors, who knew how to speak but didn’t know how to be, and that a lot of the work of the rest of the 20th century was about squaring that circle, synthesizing those two things. You watch a lot of British television things that are aimed actually at British audiences starring British actors. Do you think there’s still a stylistic difference or have we come to resemble each other on both sides of the pond?
S1: I would say on TV, at least, I think Khan’s Square has indeed been circled because I think British actors are better these days at presentations of what you might call ultra realism, which I suppose is being, if you will, in my head. When I’m watching British television, I call this ugly coat acting. You’ll see actors who in America would have been glammed up and gorgeous, even if they were playing people of modest means and modest, gorgeous city. So, you know, they’d live in really quite large homes with no piles of crap all over them. But in Britain, they’re stuck in ugly clothes and pokey little houses. And so they have to stay humble. And I do think that that genuinely has an effect on their acting. But I’m also wondering if there’s any way of testing that theory these days when actors work on both sides of the Atlantic, or at least a lot of Brit’s work over here and tons of Australians, many of whom I’m not sure people who see them on television even know that they are. Australian. So this really is your area of expertise. Do you think that training still shapes actually approaches?
S3: I mean, I think there’s a place where training and style intersect. You know what I mean? Or training ends and style begins. I don’t think that you can always know from watching a performance. What the training the actress. Sometimes I feel like I can tell because I’ve just studied this stuff so deeply. But but most of the time, I actually don’t think that I can or that that that people can. But I also think that, you know, part of what happened if you look at movies in the mid 20th century or read about theatre in the mid 20th century is that it’s on some level the American style, regardless of how you get to that style, what approach or training gets you that style like the American style one for the most part in that, if you look at like a British film in the 1950s, if you look at Laurence Olivier, for example, in the 1950s and you look at a British actor today, the British actor today much more resembles an American actor today than they do a British actor of the 1950s. Do you know what I mean? I do like the emphasis on erudition and musicality and precision, which is what a lot of what was going on at that time and what American actors were derided for not being interested in, right? I think a lot of that has faded for better or for worse. I mean, just speaking descriptively here. And so I do think that the styles of performance between America and Great Britain have gotten a lot closer to one another. I also think that, you know, you can’t talk about this stuff without mentioning things like microphone technology has gotten a lot better. Post-production mixing has gotten a lot better. So to some extent, even if as an American, you have completely foregone training your vocal instrument, you know, even if erudition isn’t your thing, you’re actually going to sound a lot similar to a more erudite actor of an earlier year because there’s just so much we can do with your voice now.
S1: Wow, that’s so interesting.
S3: But to bring us back to Tom Mison, you know, I couldn’t, as a theater buff, help but get a bit sentimental at his sincere pay to the power of live theater, right? That there is nothing like being in the audience of the group of people seeing a show that even if that actor does the exact same script the next night, it’s not going to be the same, right? Because they’re not the same person, the audience won’t be the same. You can’t step in the same river twice, and that’s where theatres power comes from. I know that you have enjoyed going to the theater many times to over the years. In fact, I think our our friendship began talking about theater on Twitter. And so are you missing it these days? Are you going to go back any time soon? What do you think of the live artistic experience in this very strange moment we’re in?
S1: Well, you know, I had really fallen out of the habit of attending live theater, you know, for the usual reasons laziness, tiredness, becoming a person who goes to bed absurdly early. But after this forced withdrawal, I am experiencing like what I really recognize as craving, like I’m having hunger pangs for the theater. I still haven’t been to the theater, but that’s more about other stuff that’s going on in my life. And I was particularly convinced by Tom Mason’s case for site specific weirdness. I mean, he really made that seem appealing. So, no, I just want to go and seek out some crazy shit. You know, the New York equivalent of a crypt in Willesden Cemetery, which was a beautiful image that he presented.
S3: Someone should do a piece with the parents in Greenwood Cemetery, right? Oh yeah. Get going. Someone do that.
S1: Isaac, before we go, I would love to ask you for some advice. Oh my god. Well, I have spent most of the last two weeks working on my book. Where are all the lesbians? A cultural history in six places. And I have been in research mode for a while, but I finally got down to writing just one chapter. But it’s a start, and I’m really experiencing this weird feeling, which is like the quality of that. Writing is not currently up to the standard of the books that I’ve been listening to for inspiration to kind of learn about writing contemporary history. I’m talking about people like David Halberstam, Robert Caro, Barbara Tuchman, who wasn’t writing contemporary history but is an amazing writer of history. Rick Perlstein Now, rationally, I know that first of all, these are some of the greatest nonfiction writers of all time. And B that I’m comparing my rough draft with their highly polished work. But nevertheless, I’m going through this, this torture, and I suspect I’m not the first person to deal with this problem of comparison. I’m not worried about influence. I would love to be influenced by them. I’m worried that I’m just not up to the proper level. So your book The Method How the 20th Century Learned to Act will be out in February 2022, and it’s already available for pre-order. So I have to ask, do you have any tips for how I can avoid this? Or maybe can I get Robert Caro to pay rent on the space he’s taken up in my head?
S3: Well, yeah, I mean, I think serve him with papers. That’s the first thing, you know, for back rent, that’s definitely your first move. No, I mean, this is what I would say. My number one piece of advice to you is to stop listening to those books and to just just not not have anything to do with them. And I’m not saying that because I think all writers should avoid influence. I’m actually, you know, you know me, I’m team influence. Exactly right. So it has nothing to do with that. It’s just that it’s fucking with your head, you know? And so for your own health, just stop listening to them. I bet you know what good nonfiction cultural history writing it’s supposed to sound like. Do you know what I mean? Like, I think you know that already, and you don’t actually need to be listening to those things to figure that out. I did not other than for research, for my own book. I did not do a lot of reading of cultural history while I was working on the method. Actually, most of the reading I was doing outside of research, I was reading novels, and part of the reason is that I find reading fiction more pleasurable. But another reason was that what I really wanted to figure out how to do in my book was keep the structure organized in such a way, and the narrative tension managed in such a way that once the reader was reading it, they wouldn’t want to stop because it covers a whole century. It’s 400 pages long plus and notes, you know, like, it’s a big book on a big subject and heady stuff. And I just wanted it to be compelling enough that people would keep reading it and actually reading cultural history was not going to teach me how to do that. Reading novels was going to teach me how to, you know? And so the tools you need might have nothing to do with what Robert Caro would do. I would also say that, you know, like if I close my eyes and I imagine a non-fiction book by you and I’m reading it. Well, first of all, of course, I am loving it because I love your writing and I want to read whatever you have to write. But also, I don’t think it would sound like any of those people. I don’t think your writing voice sounds anything like David Halberstam or Rick Perlstein, and that’s no knock on them. They’re great writers. It’s just that they can’t write the book the June Thomas would write. And your job is to write the book that June Thomas would write. That’s what you were hired to do. And so I wouldn’t worry about making it some abstract received idea of what good writing is. I would pay more attention. The question to ask is less about how do I make this good and more? What does this book actually need? Like, what does the book need from me to be its best self and keep faith with the book and the artistic project you have? And the good writing will come out of that because you are already a good writer. The last piece of advice is just something you already know. You even said it, but I’m just going to repeat it so that someone other than you is saying it. You have to write it badly in order to write it well. All writing is rewriting my rough drafts were disasters. All of those writers go through draft after draft, or they have assistants who do some of the drafting for them and then they’re rewriting it after that. You know, the method. Each of the three parts of the method went through many drafts, and then as a full book, it went through several drafts. You know, it went through more than one before my editor saw it. He gave me big notes on it. I rewrote it. He then did a line at it. I rewrote it. There was a copy edit. I rewrote it. You know what I mean? Like, like, you know, it’s got so far to go before people are going to expect it, or you should expect it to be a professional finished quality. So stop listening to those books. Be kind to yourself, but rigorous about your work, and just do what the book demands of you. That’s my advice.
S1: Wow, Isaac, that is amazing advice. And I already see the wisdom of it. So thank you very much and I appreciate it. Listeners, if you want to ask Isaac and even me a question I don’t have, I can’t guarantee that I will offer that quality of advice. But please send us your questions. We love to answer them. Send us an email at working at Slate.com. Or you can also leave a message. Give us a ring at three or four 933 W o r k, and we’d love to try and help.
S3: Thank you for your kind words, June, and for those of you out there, we hope that you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have, please remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And now let me tell you about how awesome a Slate Plus membership is. One last time. Slate Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast. Full access to all the articles on Slate.com. Bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Big News Little Mood. But I also hope you would like to support the work we do right here on working. It’s only $1 for the first month, and to learn more, go to Slate.com.
S1: Working plus, thank you to Tom Mison for being our guest this week and thank you to our wondrous producer Cameron Drews. We’ll be back next week for Isaac’s conversation with veteran actor Alessandra Nivola, who is currently playing Dickie Moltisanti on The Many Saints of Newark. Until then, get back to work. Hey, sleepless listeners, thank you so much for your membership. Now here’s a little conversation we had just for you. In Britain, actors tend to get slotted either into posh parts or common parts. You have mostly gotten posh parts when you’ve done lectures, television. First of all, do you agree with that kind of dichotomy and like, are you conscious of that? Like, you know, if they’re, you know, know that you’re going to get a certain kind of part because this is the way you’re seen. Yeah. In terms of class, yeah.
S2: Yeah, I mean, class is a very different thing and in Britain to America, and it’s a shame that it’s unavoidable, seemingly for actors, because we, most of us just like to think we can do anything. Yes, I’ve mainly been lumbered with the posh part. When I was at drama school, my speech teacher said, Tom, you have a period face. You don’t have a Ken Loach face. So work on, you know, you showed up, you received pronunciation because that’s chances are that’s the direction your career will. You’ll have a better chance going in that direction. So I’d work to getting rid of my Woking estuary slur and became more. Well, this for better or worse.
S1: Yeah, that seems like really practical, actionable advice from that drama school teacher.
S2: Yes, it was. It was very smart of her. Yeah, I think it’s it’s interesting. I’m just thinking about the north south divide. And I think a really big turning point recently was Jodie Whittaker being cast as Doctor Who because suddenly you had a Yorkshire woman playing a part that had. It’s not only the fact that she’s a woman, but also you have a regional accent playing a character that has forever been a southern white man. Yeah. You know, even even Tennant, who you know is Scottish and has a beautiful, natural accent. But she she was allowed to be a Yorkshire girl, and I love that. And she always said that, you know, it’s an alien with to hearts. Why does it have to be, you know, why does it have to be a speak up? Yeah, really. And I and it would be nice to think that that’s a turning point, particularly for genre, because genre has always been split up by both class and by race. You look at the Lord of the Rings, which you know it’s the best trilogy of films ever made, but you have white R.P. and all of the dwarves are Scottish and all of The Hobbit West Country because they’re the simple folk and the dwarves moody and aggressive. And yeah, yeah. Whereas I would have liked to have seen Ian McKellen with his original accent. Yes, he’s from Brentford. Exactly. That would have been interesting.
S1: One of the differences from that, very much from the outside between the U.S. and the U.K., is the much more tendency to have a writer’s room in the US. There are a few exceptions. We just saw the white lotus. I know Mike White.
S2: Oh yes, I loved white lotus so much.
S1: He works alone, but he’s very much the exception. You know, it’s always the writer’s room, whereas in the UK, it seems like there’s much more likelihood of there being basically one writer. You know, maybe doing six episodes of, you know, which is all you get if that show that year for the actors, does that make a difference? Can you tell if you’re working with the writers room or sort of auteur one guy, one woman?
S2: Well, then that’s all done to the showrunner. If you have a really good, strong showrunner who can get the writers room to speak with one voice, then I mean, it’s it’s brilliant because 10 heads better than one in many cases, and they can throw ideas around and you go into a writer’s room in their notes scribbled all around the walls, and everyone’s very generous with each other and sharing ideas and helping each other. And I think that’s really valuable. But you need to have a strong showrunner, Damon Lindelof. Another brilliant example. He could have written Watchmen on his own and it would be brilliant, but he had a smaller group of writers and they all work together. And he said, you know, they gave some of the best ideas in in the show. He would never take full credit for it. And then you get, you know, you get superstars. Showrunners like him and David Simon and Vince Gilligan. And it works brilliantly. I think also it’s very helpful because a showrunner can be the buffer between the writers and studio owners, which we don’t really seem to have as much of in in the UK. Mm-Hmm. Which is why you could have one writer write all of them because they don’t have to spend half of their days talking to execs with that note. A writer I worked with a while ago who I love, Jose Molina, said. I write for fun. I’m paid to take notes. And I think that’s a perfect description of a an American TV writer.
S1: That social for this week, thanks again for your Slate Plus membership.