Tom Sturridge: ‘If I’d been a parent to myself, I would have been scared’

The actor on rebellion, the power of fear, why Damian Lewis would never offer advice, and the irrelevance of awards

Tom Sturridge, 30, is the son of the actor Phoebe Nicholls and the director Charles Sturridge, who cast him, aged eight, in the TV series Gulliver’s Travels. After abandoning his A-levels, Sturridge starred in the films Being Julia, The Boat That Rocked and On the Road, and the plays Punk Rock (winning the Critics’ Circle theatre award for most outstanding newcomer), American Buffalo and Orphans on Broadway, for which he was nominated for a Tony. Sturridge has a three-year-old daughter from a previous relationship with the actor Sienna Miller. His latest film, Remainder, adapted from the Tom McCarthy novel, is directed by the visual artist Omer Fast.

As an artist, did Fast have a different approach to film-making?
I suppose that someone who began in car commercials is going to have a different approach to someone who started in art school. I definitely felt Omer had the confidence that his own expressionism was more valuable than a simple translation of reality. There’s always a responsibility to tell a story but what I liked about this film was this responsibility for people to engage and decide for themselves.

You left education during A-levels. That seems a very bold decision, free-thinking, rebellious...
That would be far too romantic – I believe in rebellion so passionately, I don’t want it to be diluted in its association with me. I just worked out that if you walked out of school, ultimately nobody would stop you. It’s a dangerous thing to discover but it’s not rebellious. It was just, “If I go left and keep walking, I’m not part of this any more.”

What made you turn to acting properly?
My first film job was Being Julia, and the director [István Szabó] was extraordinary. After that it was impossible to get an audition for a play: back then, the theatre world seemed snobbish towards a 17-year-old who’d done one film – maybe justifiably. Then the director Sarah Frankcom, who runs the Royal Exchange in Manchester, took a risk on me to do Punk Rock.

You won an award for that role – what did that mean to you?
Awards are irrelevant. They’re nice if you have an ego – and I’ve yet to meet someone without an ego – but I knew from the first day of rehearsing Punk Rock that something awesome was happening, and that feeling was all about what we were doing.

Did being a child actor inspire you to act as an adult?
I wasn’t a child actor. It was just three weeks of my life when I was eight. To call me a child actor would mean that you’d also have to call me a child masturbator, because I did that for 10 years! [laughs]. My dad just needed a child actor, and it’s a scary responsibility to bring a child into the film world where they might potentially be lionised, adored and abandoned to it by their families. My dad knew he would still be my dad when the filming stopped.

What kind of child were you?
If I’d been a parent to myself, I would have been scared because I was only ever interested in my own thoughts. As my parent, I would also have wanted me to read in a serious, personal way – as a grownup, I know it’s the quickest way to realise that the world is far bigger than your dick. At least now I’m aware of how thoughtless I am.

Watch the trailer for Remainder

You had a high-profile relationship [Sienna Miller]. Was it hard to encounter this idea of celebrity as a commodity?
It’s more about the notion of equating people’s lives with how they’re recorded, when it’s not how they’re experiencing them. If you’re actually living that life, it’s just as a normal person and you don’t think of a photographer being yards away.

How has fatherhood changed you?
I’m not going to answer that question, simply because it deserves so much more than thought-up soundbites. It’s my responsibility to be protective. It’s not that anyone particularly wants anything from me, but there are people in my life who they do want things from.

When you were in American Buffalo you said, “Scary things are good.” What did you mean?
That intensity of feeling is exciting and perhaps fear is easier to achieve than, say, love or ecstasy. If I climb to the top of a building and see over the edge, I will feel something very powerful. I think I can achieve similar things in work.

American Buffalo also starred Damian Lewis – did he give you any acting or other kind of advice? Have you ever received advice that you’ve reflected upon as wise later?
I’d like to say I had a Yoda figure but I didn’t. I loved working with Damian, he’s a good man, very talented. But the idea of him or anyone sitting around talking about what it’s like to be an actor is absurd. People would just say, “Shut the fuck up.”

Conversations about “the craft” don’t actually happen among actors?
No, do you really think that people like Michael Gambon stand around saying (pompous): “My son, let me tell you how you do it?”

Fair enough. How do you choose projects?
I’m drawn to people rather than mediums – directors, writers, actors. My career may look bizarre to some but I have very strong reasons for doing every single job I’ve done.

What about being a sex symbol – the actor specifically cast to attract?
I’d say that equating being in a film with being a sex symbol is dangerous. I’m often most attracted to people whom I don’t want to have sex with. Equally, if I spent two hours in a cinema and the only value a person gave the actor was wanting to fuck them, that would probably devalue their credibility.

How do you switch off from work?
Obvious things really – spending time with people I love, the kind of people who make you realise the futility of all other things.

Finally, what do you think about Brexit? What’s terrifying is that after such decisions, you’d usually say, ‘Fine, I’ll live in Berlin, or Paris’, but now they’ve made it that nowhere is our home.

Remainder is on general release


Interview by Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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