Tom Hooper: the man who doesn't need Oscar

Tom Hooper may not pick up the award for best director but Academy Awards matter less to such a high achiever, says Catherine Shoard

The odds are that Tom Hooper won't be named best director this Sunday. What that will make him, by default, is the year's most discreet. For although the cast, composer and writer of The King's Speech seem shoo-ins – and the film itself may well win best picture – Hooper himself looks likely to lose out.

An insult? Was he really the one thing that let the side down? No: it's a compliment. Hooper has helmed an awards-gorger of a movie, an underdog the size of a bus that's steamrollered the competition into submission, and no one really noticed there was a driver. A story in last week's Evening Standard said that "Peter Hooper" was irked by accusations of historical inaccuracy. This is the man behind the biggest Britflick in years.

In the flesh, he's hard to miss. At 6ft 3in, he strides and looms, suit pressed, top two buttons undone. Confidence drops off him, natural as his flop of hair. If you had a wedding or a war to plan, you'd kill to secure his services – not that you could afford him, or have the guts to ask. For Hooper's key USP – a personality of almost alarming command – also makes him formidable company.

The success of the film, he says firmly, is due to the democracy of its reach. "What's extraordinary is how consistently people feel included by it rather than excluded. Some films clearly seem to divide people. And I do think there's something incredibly exciting about the commonality of us as human beings, which some films are lucky enough to tap into."

He fixes a stare. At 38, he has the skin of an infant and the features of a Jacobean count. "Often it's with blockbusters. Avatar clearly taps something deep to be that successful. American movies are often very good at mining those great underlying myths that make films robustly travel across class, age, gender, culture."

Not that it's quite the same. Yes, The King's Speech's reception in the UK – tears, applause, ovations – has been uncharacteristically emotional. "There is an articulation of some sort of national pride at the end of the film. But I'm the first person to say I'm deeply uneasy about any sort of patriotism, because I think it's often a way of creating coherence to troubling ends. American cinema tends to express a patriotic relationship to national identity on a regular basis. We as a country are, thank God, uneasy about this, and very few British films ever tap into it. But in The King's Speech, that feeling is so specifically linked to that day on September 3 1939 when we had to be united in an incredibly justified cause against an incredibly clear aggressor. And unlike the first world war, where you look back and think, actually that's messy, there's blood on our hands, with the second world war it's more clear cut.

"And there are still so many points of connection. My grandfather was a bomber navigator who was killed in 1942 at the age of 30. I made my first film at 14 about my brother finding our grandfather's old flying jacket. My father grew up without a father because of it."

Hooper was born in London in 1972, the middle son (his sister presents Today in Parliament on Radio 4, his brother practises law) of Richard, former deputy chair of Ofcom, and Meredith, an author and Antarctic expert who came from Australia to study at Oxford. Tom is another graduate, reading English while directing plays starring contemporaries Emily Mortimer and Kate Beckinsale. He broke off from his finals to shoot a Sonic the Hedgehog ad with Right Said Fred.

So, a man born with safe hands, but who wasn't afraid to get them dirty. After college, he knuckled down and worked on TV soaps, from Byker Grove to EastEnders and Cold Feet, then hacked his way up through prime-time period dramas such as Love in a Cold Climate and Daniel Deronda. All this before he was 30.

A Prime Suspect special led Helen Mirren to request him to direct the lavish HBO mini-series Elizabeth I, which he followed with Longford, the Peter Morgan-scripted BBC drama about attempts to secure the release of Myra Hindley. HBO then nabbed Hooper back and entrusted him with a $100m (£62m) budget and a 16-month production schedule for their seven-hour mini-series about the revolutionary war. He repaid them: John Adams took 13 Emmys from a record 23 nominations.

Discounting 2004's Red Dust, a little-seen Hilary Swank apartheid drama, The Damned United (2008) was Hooper's film debut proper – a movie that, at the time, seemed mostly a vehicle for Michael Sheen (giving us his best Brian Clough) and for screenwriter Morgan. But on second viewing, it's clearly a precursor to The King's Speech: the framing, the obsessive period detail ("The more uncompromisingly specific you are," he insists, "the more you end up touching the bigger universal truths") and, most notably, the bromance. Just as The King's Speech can only come to a happy climax after Bertie and Lionel have made up, so The Damned United ends with Sheen on his knees, vowing fidelity to Timothy Spall: "Please, please, baby, take me back."

"I seem to be persistently interested in making films about the power of collaboration," says Hooper. "You can be great only by opening yourself to the greatness of others. The Damned United is a hubristic narrative about Cloughie realising he's not great without Peter Taylor. In The King's Speech, it's about opening himself to the friendship of Lionel. In John Adams, it's about the friendship with his wife, Abigail. I think it's possibly articulating something I feel about film-making. I'm only good through my actors and with my heads of department. In some ways, The King's Speech is a film about direction – it's about what's involved in getting someone to give a great performance."

Hooper is a man it would be hard to argue with, tricky not to respect. Despite his relative youth, he's seriously adult and unabashed; incredibly definite, in conversation, at least. When he talks about how The King's Speech taps into universal nightmares of paralysis or of muteness, he does so in language so poised ("We all have blocks between us and our best selves, which is a problem in a culture about self-optimisation"), it makes you doubt he's suffered such bad dreams for some considerable time.

He smiles: kind eyes, dinky lips. The steam from his coffee billows about his neck, suggesting a man at considerable altitude. And, to some extent, he really is above all this. Oscars matter, yes, but less to such a high-achiever as Hooper. The world was already his oyster; his future projects (a biopic either of explorer Hester Stanhope or of Nelson Mandela) slam-dunk successes, even at this distance. No one's future is written. But it's hard to imagine anyone whose career is more likely to stay on-script.

Tom Hooper is the head judge for the Done in 60 Seconds competition at the Jameson Empire awards on 27 March. More info on

• This article was amended on 25 February. The original stated in the last line that Hooper's career was unlikely to stay on script.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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