02/21/2024: The Pilots of the Caribbean
A true island-hoping insider explains the ins and outs of the the best the region has to offer; and we round up the best new hotels with water views from around the globe.
On the season nine premiere, Dan speaks with British actor, Tom Hollander, who plays the infamous literary genius in the new TV series “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans.” Tom shares his memories of growing up in Oxford, getting a big break on “Absolutely Fabulous,” joining cinematic history in “Pride and Prejudice,” playing the murderous villain in smash hit “The White Lotus,” and how he explored the inner workings of a controversial figure during his epic downfall.
Tom Hollander: You can’t worry about all of it, you can only worry about the next moment. You play that moment and then you play that moment. Just concentrate on that, and then all the moments strung together will be like a string of pearls and there’ll be a necklace at the end of it, but all you ever have to worry about in conscious time is the thing that you’re doing and then the next moment will emerge.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour for the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. And welcome to the first episode of season nine. To kick things off, we have a very special guest and our first thespian to boot, Tom Hollander, who plays the infamous writer and twentieth-century cultural powerhouse Truman Capote in the new TV series “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” airing on FX here in the States. In the show, largely directed by the legendary Gus Van Sant and starring a true A-team of powerful women including Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Chloe Sevigny, Demi Moore. Calista Flockhart, and Molly Ringwald, “Capote vs. the Swans” chronicles the downfall of the most powerful writer in America and gives viewers an inside peek into the lives of his fabulous friends, the so-called Swans, and their upper-class existence of extreme privilege, glamour, and of course drama. More on that later.
Tom Hollander was raised in Oxford to a pair of teachers and got his early start as a child actor. He starred in a BBC film at age 14, later attended Cambridge, and got his start in various theater productions, which we’ll speak about. Despite his long and illustrious career, I personally first laid eyes on him in the late nineties on the TV show “Absolutely Fabulous,” where he played the somewhat slimy and chauvinistic Paolo, the doomed fiancé to the character Saffy. And in the 20 years since, he’s played a litany of fascinating roles our listeners would certainly be familiar with, such as Mr. Collins, another Ill-fated suitor in “Pride and Prejudice,” the coldly calculating Cutler Beckett in “The Pirates of the Caribbean” film series, King George III in HBO’s “John Adams,” and who could forget the murderous homosexual Quentin in the most recent season of “The White Lotus.”
I caught up with Tom from his friend’s apartment in New York to chat about his charmed upbringing in Oxford, the sex scene that caught everyone very much off guard in “The White Lotus,” why he thinks Gus Van Sant is every actor’s dream director, and how he nailed the flaming, high-pitched accent and self-destructive nature of a literary icon.
I wanted to start at the beginning, and from what I’ve read, you were raised mostly in Oxford and both of your parents were teachers, which I guess to American ears is about as enchanting and fulfilling as humanly possible. I’m wondering if you could share with me some of your earliest memories growing up in Oxford.
Oxford is a very wonderful town, and increasingly, it feels like a little island of privilege and a sort of rarefied idyll where quite a lot of interesting, clever people have been drawn to these very old, beautiful buildings, the university, and where ideas take precedence over materialism. That was kind of the vibe, and I think that’s what my parents wanted. My parents grew up in the west of England in Devon, and then as young newlyweds they lived in Somerset. Somerset has now become incredibly fashionable. In fact, your listeners will be very aware probably of Bruton, which is where Houser and Worth have ended up.
Oh yeah. Okay.
But Bruton in the late sixties when my parents lived there was very, very sleepy, smelt of farming, and they were keen to get out of it to go to what was much racier then, which would be Oxford. They never got all the way to London. London seemed a bit scary.
And what was your first nudge into acting? How did that start?
That was at school. I was at the school in Oxford. I did a lot of singing. I did a lot of music when I was a kid. My father’s father was a musicologist and music, and my mother played the piano and my mother encouraged us both. My sister is still a musician. She’s a very accomplished singer and she used to direct opera, and she teaches singing and teaches piano to little kids. And I did a lot of music when I was young and at school, and I was a chorister at school and somebody needed to play Oliver in the school production of Oliver, and someone said, “You should play Oliver.” So that’s what my first acting was because I could sing-
… and I had fun doing that. I enjoyed the attention. I think I was probably a bit of a show off. I think I was probably quite annoying. If I met my childhood self, I’d probably think he could do with dialing it down.
Oliver is a very central character where it is kind of all, “Oh, look at me.” I just saw a production of it and it’s very central on a child actor for quite a large part of it.
It sure is. Yeah. Yeah, I think it was, and like many Olivers before me, I really wanted to play the Artful Dodger because he’s more fun.
He’s the cool kid.
He’s the cool one, exactly, and Oliver’s rather earnest. And then I did school plays, and then I ended up doing a school play and being scouted by the BBC, and I did a TV show when I was 14 playing a sort of Oliver-like character, another sort of Victorian cute kid who was on a mission in a Leon Garfield adaptation, sort of Dickens for children sort of tone. And I was playing another earnest do-gooding little child, which an uncle died last year and his widow sent me a recording of that, which we watched a DVD of it. He’d actually transferred it to DVD, and my fourteen-year-old self is there on the screen in a rather slow production, little film. There used to be quite a healthy children’s television department in the BBC years ago, which has gone now, but they had some budgets and this was a little film. I got a term off school and it all went to my head. I acted with David Rappaport, who was a little person who was the star of the “Time Bandits”—
Oh gosh, yeah.
… if anyone remembers that film. And “Time Bandits” had just been on and then he was in it, and he met me before we started filming in Covent Garden and took me to a toy shop. He was so kind. He was a psychologist. He’d done the psychology degree and I think he wanted to make sure that the kid was going to be okay because the thing, I was going to be at the center of it. Anyway, he took me to a toy shop in Covent Garden and he was smaller than I was, which obviously I found quite astonishing because I was small. The reason I got the part was because I was small.
When you’re a kid, they want you to be older than you look so that the maturity of the older child is useful for the production, but they want you small because you look younger. But he was considerably smaller than I was. I was four foot 11, I can’t remember what he was. And that whole term, I was given money, I was picked up by a car. I lived in a hotel. I got to live in this fictional world, and I didn’t have to go to school. It was dreamy, and the whole experience rather went to my head and I wanted to recreate the experience. So at that point, I was done really, I think. Any imagining of doing anything else in my adult life had gone because my brain was fried by the adrenaline of filming that show.
Did your parents have to force you to go to Cambridge and continue your study?
A little bit. They didn’t force me, they very elegantly said. And also, we never got any requests, as far as I know. I wasn’t suddenly… I remember auditioning for Steven Spielberg’s “Young Sherlock”—
… but I didn’t get it. But not to be Sherlock, to be Watson. Anyway, it was too heady for a little kid and I wanted to do it again, and so I did. But mom and dad sensibly, yes, guided me, nudged me towards going to university, and my contemporaries were going to university, my sister was going there. It seemed the natural move, and you need a degree in case it doesn’t work out and so on.
And you were a member of Footlights, which was sort of a revered sketch comedy troupe.
It’s where the Monty Python people came from. That’s why—
Hugh Laurie, Eric Idle, they were all kind of—
Exactly. Those are very different generations, but exactly. Hugh Laurie was a later generation. Hugh Laurie was also from Oxford, and actually, I went to the same college as him at Cambridge. And then when we ended up doing “The Night Manager” together, I got to know him properly. I’d known him before. We did a film called “Maybe Baby” in the early nineties, which was not a huge hit, but so I’d met him then. Anyway, he was a hero to me when we were at school and at university. He’s 15 years older or a decade older or something, and then working with him was a huge thrill.
And did you enjoy the comedic sort of skit aspect of it? Do you remember any skits from that time?
No, bad ones. Busy, buzzy little fly at my table, you and I. Me who eats my humble porridge, you who likes the taste of sewage. That was one joke, not nothing. Ours was not a particularly notable generation of Footlights. I wasn’t a writer, I was a performer. My friend John, who’s gone on to be a radio producer in the UK, he makes a cult radio comedy show and has done for 30 years, he wrote it all, and a guy called Peter Bradshaw, who’s now a Guardian film critic. We had our moments, but we were no Footlights, nor were we Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. They were all brilliant, utterly brilliant.
And obviously, I would never forgive myself if I didn’t ask you about your brief but memorable role in “Absolutely Fabulous.“
“Ab Fab.” Well done!
I absolutely have to. You play Saffy’s fiancee, who I believe leaves her at the altar I think, or for a model—
For the Gucci model.
Yes, yes. Tell me, how does one go from a butterfly landing on your finger and doing serious Shakespeare to something like that? And obviously you’ve done In the Loop and all these. What can you tell me about your time on the set of “Ab Fab?“
Well, that was amazing. That was the matriarchy that people sometimes fantasize about when we’re talking about reorganizing society in a progressive way. That was a little microcosmic matriarchy of these brilliant, brilliant women. Jennifer Saunders, obviously, Joanna Lumley, Jennifer writing all of it, Ruby Wax there as well, writing it.
It’s funny because I’ve never thought about it that way. I’ve never thought about it as a women-led and created show—
Oh, it was.
… I just absorbed it normally as a young gay fan who somehow hung on every word and can still quote so many lines.
Yes, because it was astonishingly good, wasn’t it? Yeah, no, but it was. I just remember it, I remember Joanna Lumley giving me a packet of cigarettes. I was very, very nervous because they were kind of rock stars. It was huge at the time, and this was supposedly the last ever episode so I was incredibly anxious. He was quite a big part, Saffy’s boyfriend, but obviously it was a part that I had never played before and had never been in the show before so you didn’t really know if it worked, whereas they had all been doing this for ages. And it was recorded live in front of a live audience and I’d never done that before, the sort of hybrid of theater and TV. I didn’t know whether I was to act for the audience or whether I was to act for the camera.
And I was not sleeping, and I went to the doctor the day of the recording and said, “I need something to control my nerves because I’m not going to be able to act properly,” because there’s a whole lot of stuff that you do as an actor. Well, I always used to do, especially in front of cameras, which were actually a response to anxiety, physical tics. I’d move my mouth in a particular way or I’d rub my eye inadvertently, and it was all anxiety. And I knew that that was not a character, that was me being nervous, so I wanted to try and remove that.
And I went to the doctor and I said, “Can I have some beta blockers?” I’d heard about beta blockers, because beta blockers stop your heart racing. They stop the physiological reaction to anxiety. And the doctor went, “No, of course not. I can’t hand out beta blockers. They’re a serious drug. Why do you need them?” And I went, “No, you don’t understand. I’m on Absolutely Fabulous this evening,” and he went, “You are? Oh my God,” and pulled out a bit of paper and wrote me out a prescription then and there. So off I went to the pharmacy and I got the prescription, and I took them sitting in my little dressing room.
Do you think you could tell if you saw it?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. I was much, much better. I was much, much better. And also, Paolo I think he was called, Paolo was quite cool. Paolo needed to be laid back. He couldn’t be anxious. Paolo was a Euro rich kid. He needed to be. And it was on, and it was okay. I was okay. Joanna Lumley was incredibly kind to me. Jennifer, I watched someone, she was writing. It’s the pressure of writing all of it, and the pressure of making each episode as funny as the last one. That’s the first time I ever saw that, what that’s like to be one of those creators, really tough.
And then after it had been on, I walked down Oxford Street and some girls screamed. They went, “Oh my God, there he is, Saffy’s boyfriend. Ah.” And that was my first taste of the effect that TV has on people. When TV pops, it goes straight into people’s living rooms and it goes straight into their hearts. And it happened in New York. I can’t remember what the year was, but I went to New York soon afterwards and a couple of guys jumped out of a shop when they saw me walk past and said, “It’s Paolo from Ab Fab.” So I know that Ab Fab had a very, very loyal, loyal following in New York, and clearly still does. So thanks, Dan.
You’re welcome. And fast forwarding a little bit, one of the films of yours that’s had this sort of incredible longevity is, of course, Pride and Prejudice, where you work with director Joe Wright. I think you worked with him again on Hannah, there was another cult film.
For someone who read at Oxford, did you have any trepidations at the time about doing an adaptation, and there was a show that was very successful and—
Oh, yes. No, I do. I distinctly remember saying, “‘Another Pride and Prejudice?’ Do we really need another one?” After the Colin Firth, Jennifer Ely one was in the not distant past, and I didn’t understand what producers understand, what Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan understand, what Working Title, that every few years there is a new generation of people that will receive this story for the first time. And so they did. So there’s a whole generation of women who watched that, that was their first one. The previous one, the super BBC one was I can’t remember how many years before, but long enough. And also, yes, I thought why does anyone want to make this again, but I wasn’t going to turn down the part. It was an amazing part. And also, what I also didn’t understand was how brilliant Joe was, and that became very clear when we started filming. That was a wonderful job. Since you were asking, that was a magical summer. All those women were emerging in that. Keira obviously carrying it, Keira with all the pressure. Rosamund Pike was in there. Carey Mulligan—
And Keira, did you work with her on Pirates of the Caribbean?
I did, exactly. Soon afterwards for a couple of years, Carey Mulligan was in that “Pride and Prejudice” with almost no lines. Tallulah Riley was in that, who went on to marry Elon Musk twice. Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn.
It was quite the cast.
It was kind of amazing.
And of course, there’s a famous scene with you complimenting a tureen of boiled potatoes.
AUDIO: What a superbly featured room and what excellent boiled potatoes. Many years since I’ve had such an exemplary vegetable. To which of my fair cousins should I compliment the excellence of the cooking?
Mr. Collins, we are perfectly able to keep a cook.
Excellent. I’m very pleased the estate can afford such a living.
Which I don’t know where, people quote that at me and I—
Do they try to serve you boiled potatoes? For how many years after did someone say at a restaurant, “Oh, we have some boiled potatoes.”
Nobody said it in a restaurant, and I only realized how that line had popped. I don’t even remember it, I don’t remember if it was in the script or if it was improvised. I barely remember saying it. And then I met Jennifer Lawrence in someone’s house and I was too starstruck to speak, and she said, “Oh, what marvelous boiled potatoes. What wonderful boiled potatoes.” Whatever the line is, she said it to me and I was thrilled that Jennifer Lawrence, I had somehow at some stage impinged on her consciousness as an actor. But also, that was news to me that that line was a thing, but it is a thing. Do you know why? It was just so awkward, right?
The whole scene is you trying to impress a family because you’re trying to wed the daughter at some point.
Exactly, and I just don’t know how to behave. Poor chap. He just doesn’t know what to say.
And speaking about these roles where you’re kind of playing an unlikable person, the show and then the movie “The Thick of It,” which then became “In the Loop” as a movie, which also is a bunch of British political operatives go to the United States and—
James Gandolfini is a general in it was something like that.
Yes. David Rasche.
If an actor said, “Gosh, I have to play a role of the most miserable person,” what advice or what would you say about playing a role like that?
You mean to play a miserable person? To play a loser? To play a loser.
Well, not even a loser, but someone who’s not supposed to be super liked. Not that sympathetic. Not evil necessarily, just skin crawly like the reverend was in “Pride and Prejudice,” or pastor or whatever he was.
Well, I don’t have any particular advice other than that with all these characters, you have to find the vulnerable human being in them. That’s the way to make them interesting. And you have to find the relatable bit because we are all awkward, and we all are quite capable of being the person that’s making someone’s skin crawl depending on the day. We all have those moments, so I think you want to try and make them as likable as possible, but without losing the thing that makes them the difficult character. But you want to try and win people over, not charm them, but you need to let people into their predicament so that they feel compassion for them.
But before we speak about “Feud,” of course, just like Ab Fab, I have to bring up “White Lotus.“
Oh yeah, of course.
Were you able to read all of the scripts before you were offered the role or anything? Because obviously, spoiler alert, there’s a huge twist towards the end of that series. How did that come about and how you—
Which twist do you mean? Do you mean the reveal of—
The reveal, the death, the murder, the everything. Well, I think it’s been out for a while. I think everyone who—
I don’t think we should worry about the spoilers so much.
Yeah. I think everyone… before we find out that you’re banging your nephew—
Well, my nephew’s banging me.
I read up to that point. I was given the scripts up to that point, and so I was done. I read that thought, “Okay. Well, I’m doing this.”
And then of course there was the anxiety about does the part continue to be as good as this? But it had to be. You couldn’t have that reveal without going deeper.
Okay. So you didn’t know about the final scene—
I didn’t know for sure what was going to happen in episode six and seven. I think there were seven episodes of that. But Mike White assured me. I had a Zoom with him, and he seemed like such a lovely man and also such a brilliant, serious man that I believed him. I thought, “He’s not messing around. He’s writing this.” I have in the past said yes to things where you do it on the expectation that the bit that they haven’t written is as good as the bit that you’ve read, or they say, “It’s not that big in this film, but it’s going to get much bigger in the next one,” and then it doesn’t. I have had that experience, but with this, I believed him. And also, I was such a huge fan of season one that I couldn’t believe my luck that they were offering me this part.
And of course, one of the great things about it is that from an American point of view is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end and it doesn’t try to go on or on. As you say, there’s no sequel element to it—
… which I think you would get a lot more often with British TV than you would with an American one, where there’s always sort of the impulse to try to become a syndicated show—
To stretch it out.
… and to stretch it out into seven seasons. And you sort of became the poster child for the evil gay, for, “These gays are trying to kill me.” You’re the evil gay.
I know. Well, it’s funny.
Did people react to you at all after all of that?
I didn’t, not really, because when it came out I was so deep in “Feud,” in Capote, there was no time. I didn’t go to the premiere of “White Lotus.” I wasn’t part of any of the publicity, I didn’t go to the SAG Awards. I was shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting. We were doing “Capote vs. the Swans” and I was in all of it, and there was no time. And also, I looked completely different so when I was walking down the street, people weren’t really recognizing me from it. Now they are, but the white heat of it just coming out and suddenly everybody dancing to the theme tune in clubs, that’s gone. My friend Hannah sent me a little film, she was in a club about a week after the first thing dropped and somebody had already done a house version of the theme tune and I thought wow, that’s a hit. Blimey.
And when you mentioned that obviously the shocking scene of you getting… what’s the right way to say this?
Sodomized. It’s very accurate, sodomized by your nephew. What made you as an actor—
Want to do that?
… be like, “Yeah, let’s do that”?
Because it’s so unusual. The first reaction is, “Oh.” Normally people want to play, they want to be the active one. They want to be the person screwing the person.
Right. The top, as we would say.
On top, right. Pitching, not catching. And I thought, “No, you are catching. That is so much more interesting, and do it.” You don’t get asked to represent that. The cliched shot of somebody bearing down on someone else and looking all powerful, who cares? This is human experience. This is real human experience that at least 50% of the people having sex are enjoying, so represent that. And also, this is aspirational sex. This is representing this configuration in the most glamorous setting. This is wonderful stuff, so this is progressive, I thought. Let me at them.
In “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” Tom plays Truman Capote, one of the most celebrated and polarizing American literary figures of the 20th Century. The openly gay Capote rocketed to fame with short stories like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which later became the film we all know, and the book “In Cold Blood,” published in 1966, which pioneered the concept of a journalistic non-fiction novel based on the true story of a grisly murder in Kansas. Capote sold his story as true, and it was, but it also fabricated much and his predilection for the hazy territory between fact and fiction, secrets and lies is what ultimately led him to tragedy. Feud focuses on Capote’s epic falling out with his swans, a gaggle of ultra-glamorous women from New York’s upper crusts of society. Capote used these close relationships to create a tell-all novel that went unfinished called Answered Prayers. When Capote struggled to finish the novel during his bouts with alcohol and substance abuse, he published a few chapters in Esquire Magazine in 1975.
In the articles he spills all the tea, betraying his ultra-private friends, and thus his epic feud with the most powerful families of the day began. Capote aside, the series beautifully captures the lives, not to mention the wardrobes and lifestyles of society legends like Lee Radziwill, sister to Jackie Kennedy, style icon CZ Guest, and of course Babe Paley, married to the founder of CBS, William Paley. Simply put, these impeccable women make Martha Stewart look like a slouch. For Tom, the role must have been a very tall mountain to climb both physically and mentally, but it’s also something of a dream role. Fabulous settings, cutting dialogue, plenty of salacious behavior, and lots and lots of inebriated naughtiness. I wanted to ask Tom about his work with Gus Van Sant, the stellar cast playing his various muses, and how he approached the rare portrayal of physical abuse in a gay relationship.
And now with Feud, you’re taking on another more or less an evil gay, especially in the show and how he’s portrayed. How did Feud come about and Capote come about?
Well, he’s not an evil gay.
He’s not evil. I can’t see it like that. Quentin, the evil gay thing, it’s a satire.
Sure, of course.
And also, I know that Mike White was trying to make a point because he got some stick for season one, the gay character being the victim, being sacrificed. And so he went, “Okay. Well, as a gay man, I’m going to write them as the villains then, and they’re going to be having the most fabulous life and they’re going to kill her.” But, and also, were they killing her? Yeah, they probably were, but they never really killed her. But the Truman Capote story, well, I was at the center of it. I was at the emotional center of it, and Truman Capote was a very difficult man, but he’s not evil. Quentin in White Lotus is sufficiently superficially drawn, I suppose, to be able to say, “Yeah, he’s one of the evil gays,” but Quentin’s, this kind of shallow guy. Quentin’s a rich kid who doesn’t have to work, who’s just living. He’s a Sybarite or whatever the word is, a hedonist.
Truman Capote wasn’t a hedonist. He was a deeply, deeply troubled, brilliant man who was unloved as a child and at some level despised himself, and it was very difficult being him. And he wore an amazing armor and he was a warrior living like that, having that personality, that physical life. The way he moved, how extraordinary he was, how out he was at a time when you couldn’t be out without suffering consequences. And there’s a famous story of Norman Mailer taking him into a bar of stevedores or something and thinking that they were going to get the shit kicked out of them. And Truman just sort of swanned in and threw his scarf around his shoulder and lorded it, put his shoulders back and was magnificent. But you can see in the interviews, the Dick Cavett stuff, I watched them again and again and again and you can see he sometimes closes his eyes.
He closes his eyes, he looks up a lot, he looks away. He’s avoiding being where he’s all the time. And he was abused horribly at school. He went to a boarding school and was kind of passed around, I think. He was abandoned by his mother. No one was helping Truman Capote. He had to fight for everything he had, and obviously there was a big addictive void in the middle of him, which he was filling up with booze and pills or high society ladies or all sorts of things he shouldn’t have been doing. He shouldn’t have been doing the booze and he shouldn’t have been doing the high society ladies, in my opinion. He should have been at his desk because his way to escape himself was art, was work.
And clearly, he could be a mean motherfucker and he was a liar. He wasn’t a liar. He was, he lied, but more formally, he was a fictionalist. That was his job, that was his contribution to the world, was to make up stories. And he made up some incredibly beautiful stories, which are astonishingly eloquent about what it is to be alive, the human condition, the human spirit, the human heart. He was intensely conscious of what it was and wrote about it better than almost everyone. But he was also capable of writing horribly, and he did that in Answered Prayers in La Cote Basque, and he wrote mean stuff and he let himself down.
I’m curious when you were considering the role, did you watch the Philip Seymour Hoffman’s version of Capote? Which is kind of like a prequel almost in a way before he’s super famous, what he’s doing In Cold Blood and the movie’s completely about that?
Of course I watched Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I was relieved to see whether there was anything left for another actor to play. And I was relieved to see that there was, because he’s playing Truman at a very specific time and at a much more sober time and on his way up, basically, at his most disciplined when he’s writing In Cold Blood. And Ryan Murphy’s story was obviously the latter half of his life, what happened later? And also, the writing is tonally just completely different. Robbie Bates, it’s altogether different in style and feeling. Well, you’ll know this better than me because you’ve seen it. How many episodes have you seen?
Four, okay. And have you seen the episode with James Baldwin? No, I think that’s episode six.
No, I think that’s not one.
Yeah, you haven’t got to that yet. Well, you’ve already seen within the first four that it goes wildly different. There are different genres in different episodes. You see there’s a mockumentary in episode three and it’s all in black and white, and it revisits the same events again and again and again. Not in a Rochamont structure, but just a different genre of filmmaking, in an episodical episode season of television, which is just astonishingly confident and brilliant of Ryan and Robbie and Gus. They just threw everything at this show in this sort of-
If I could ask, what about the voice? Obviously it’s such a big part of it, and obviously it must be petrifying to do because it’s so accurate to what he really sounded like, but also it’s so over the top. If you just met somebody and they started speaking like that, it is the most kind of over the top-ness. If it was a created character, someone might be like, “Oh, that’s a bit much,” but he was real. That’s what really he did sound like. Tell me about that.
Well, so that’s obviously the challenge of it. It’s difficult, but I had wonderful help from Jerome Butler, who’s the most wonderful voice coach, and he helped me nail it specifically to get the individual vowel sounds correct, and the tonality of it. And we never stopped working at it. I was listening to him. Every take on my phone, I would listen to him before we started. Every day in the car on the way to work, I would get my mouth around it.
And it went from being a challenge, it went from being a very difficult sort of stiffening, awkward challenge where I couldn’t really become a human being because I was trying to do the voice and the movement to eventually it ends up in your muscles in the same way that if you were learning a dance move, you’d be all awkward and all big toes and then eventually, you don’t even have to think about it. And it became like that, and then you start to fly. Then you feel all the joy of being an actor and escaping yourself into a different part. And suddenly into a character and you feel weightless. It’s as close as you can get to flying because you are not you, you’re this person and you can do thins as this person that you can’t do as yourself. You feel a sort of superpower because you’ve escaped into Truman Capote.
Was there an accent?
Yeah. For him, his sort of particular dialect or where he was from, was that part of it?
Actually, I don’t remember.
I think his voice is a strange combination of Monroeville, Alabama where he grew up, but also Greenwich, Connecticut, where he was as a teenager, so some of the sounds are from up there and some of the sounds are from down there. So it’s quite specific. It’s his sort of southern and sort of fancy. But he said, “I’m a woman,” a couple of times. He basically said, “I’m female,” and so it’s a high voice. It’s the voice of a girl, in a way. He was such a lonely man. I know he’s dislikable in some ways. I was going to say there’s no such thing as evil. I think very few people are evil. There is such a thing as evil as an abstract thing.
I would say that if there was evil in the world, you might say what Vladimir Putin is doing is evil. That is evil. But if you were playing Vladimir Putin, or even if you were a serious historian, you would say, “Well, Vladimir Putin thinks he’s restoring the Russian empire and the body count is not evil. The body count is the natural consequence of a country having to fight for its existence.” You have to get quite good at seeing relative truth, empathizing with all the infinite different perspectives there are on a single event so that if you end up playing someone, Hitler, you empathize for Hitler because to play him well like Bruno Ganz did, you have to be inside him and think of him as a human being who has real needs and is understandable.
And one of the central themes in Feud is the special relationships forged between a gay man and a straight woman, and in this case it’s one gay guy and half a dozen women and it’s portrayed I feel in a way I haven’t really seen before in a really wonderful way, in a very raw way. It’s a kind of intimacy where sex is not part of it-
… but there’s still that-
It’s a love story.
… male-female aspect and there’s still a love story. How did you think about that when you were doing these scenes with all these various women, the swans?
Well, it’s most intense with Naomi, isn’t it?
Because that’s the love story, really. That’s the intense love story, and that’s the heartbreaking love story, and when you get to the end, that becomes more and more clear. Obviously he’s very close to CZ Guest as well, played by Chloe Sevigny, but that’s a different sort of platonic fondness. And she never abandoned him, but he never attacked her in the same way, so she didn’t have so much to forgive. But actually, Naomi helped with that. Naomi was so conscious of the need for us to be that close that she was incredibly open to me right from the start.
Long before we started filming she said, “Come over to my house. Lets get to know each other.” We knew each other a tiny bit before. We’d met before, but she was very, very sweet, and so it became very natural the way we had to behave. I was spending 90% of my energy trying to perfect the voice and the movement and trying to work out how to pretend to be him. Naomi was much more conscious of the need for us to become close, and I followed her lead and I learned it from her. So those scenes in her dressing room where we’re playing, that was all wonderful but she was leading them. She was brilliant. She was utterly brilliant.
Like your role, she kind of transforms into character.
She does transform completely, and she transforms to a character that we don’t really know. We know it’s not Naomi Watts, but we don’t really know who Babe Paley was or sounded like because she’s only in photographs. There’s no footage of her and there’s almost nothing to listen to.
So Naomi had to construct that.
And addiction is obviously a major part of the plot.
And his alcoholism is legendary. You can go online and just type in, “Truman Capote drunk,” and you’ll get videos of him, especially I think there was the film-
The seagull one.
… and it’s also kind of a super rare instance of a man being physically abused by a boyfriend.
Yes. You don’t see that, do you?
And that’s shocking.
And that seems like a really high hoop to jump through for a man, for just something that you would maybe never thought about of how to react. And how did you prepare for those scenes? Because Capote has a boyfriend who’s a little bit of a loose cannon and does beat him, basically.
Yes. Well, I didn’t prepare for them other than I knew we were going to have to do that that day, and you just do it. Russell Tovey hit me and I behaved as if I’d been hit, if that’s not too banal an answer. However, I suppose more interestingly, you could see that Truman at some level didn’t mind being hit, if that’s not too shocking a thing to say. At some level he provokes him, doesn’t he? On both occasions, he twists his words, he abuses him verbally. Truman abuses him verbally until he hits him.
And Russell plays kind of a quasi-closeted—
Yeah, he was closeted.
He says he’s bisexual, but also sexually compulsive.
And he is married and they meet in a bath house. It’s a very, very dark relationship. And he was also a drunk. They are at some level, just two drunks. I wanted to play that Truman kind of enjoyed the fact that he’d made him hit him. Maybe he feels in some deep, dark way that he deserves it, but he’s also tough so he doesn’t whine about it. He takes it. And you can see in some of the interviews, he’s missing teeth-
… towards the end, and he’s kind of defiant about that. He’s a little street fighter, Truman, as well. He’s incredibly sort of courageous and also he’s drunk, so he probably doesn’t feel it as much. Really, I haven’t seen those scenes, but I remember when we did them, they were very disturbing to do. I do remember. So when you say, “How did you prepare for them?” I didn’t really. There’s no preparation to be done other than to make sure that you know what scene’s coming. But after we did them, I felt the darkness of them. You felt the darkness of them in the moment.
Yeah. And sex is a big part of the show and there is a darkness, as you mentioned. And obviously Gus Van Sant directed most of the episodes.
Was he attached when you took it on—
… or was that a surprise afterwards?
Oh, no, no, no. It was unbelievable. I’m going to be working with Gus Van Sant. Gus Van Sant?! Gus Van Sant’s directing it?!
What was his sort of direction to you, or what were your conversations with him when you were starting this?
Well, like the greatest of directors, he doesn’t really say anything. He lets you discover it and he watches and watches and watches, and makes decisions about how to shoot it and where to put the camera. I’m putting it very simply, but that’s the art of it. He would create shots where the camera would form its own narrative of the scene and he’d say, “Do you want to rehearse?” And we’d say, “Yes,” and he’d say, “Okay, action.” So we’d then play the scene and we’d kind of block it ourselves. Occasionally he’d say, “It’s better on that side of the room because we need for whatever because of the light,” but then he and Jason, his DOP, who’s also brilliant and they worked very, very closely together, they would watch us do the scene. They were often long literary scenes. You see that there are not lots of cuts in it.
What I’ve seen, I remember them shooting it. We never went wide shot, mid shot, close up over the shoulder, wide shot, mid shot. We didn’t do that, really. They would put the camera on a crane and they’d put it somewhere. They’d locate it somewhere in the room, and then they’d spin around the room following us, and we’d play those long scenes as long scenes. Particularly in La Cote Basque, there are scenes where the camera is not on the person that’s speaking, the camera is on someone else. So there was deep thinking or instinct from him about how to portray the atmosphere of a given scene. And sometimes in La Cote Basque, it’s about the world. It’s about the world that’s in there. It’s about the other people listening. He’s an artist. He’s a painter as well, so he is sometimes like a man looking at a canvas and thinking what bits he interested in. But he trusts the actors to play the scene, and I loved working with him.
And I will say my last question, I’d love to play a little word association with this incredible cast of swans. I’ll tell you the name of the actress and you give me one word—
… the first word that comes to your mind. We’ll start with Naomi Watts.
We’ll throw in Russell Tovey. He’s not a swan, but close.
Magnificent. Funny as fuck. Am I allowed three words?
Yeah, sure. Funny as fuck, I think that’s a great way to end the interview.
Thank you to our guest, Tom Hollander, as well as to Ben Barna and everyone at ID and FX for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator, at thegrandtourist.net, and follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen, and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Til next time!
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