Tom Mothersdale has played ‘lots of villains, lots of creeps’ and now he’s taking on the granddaddy of stage villainy: Richard III. He tells Matt Trueman why he undertakes ‘heavy prep’ for his roles and how he handles hecklers
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. Like Richard III, Tom Mothersdale had a bad night’s sleep. Playing the Machiavellian king the night before, he found himself wrestling with a heckler who baited him throughout the show. This wasn’t an actor’s anxiety dream. Mothersdale hopped offstage and popped his crown on his adversary’s head – “as if to say: ‘Well, why don’t you have a go?’”
“The anarchist in me was like: ‘This is fucking great,’” he says, over a bleary-eyed coffee in Soho the next day. “You were laughing at me earlier and now you hate me. But it was quite a vulnerable, scary moment. I can’t work out if I loved it or hated it.”
You’d think Mothersdale might be used to antagonising audiences. He has, by his own admission, played “lots of villains, lots of creeps”. There was his big, bad wolf in The Woods at London’s Royal Court last year – a manifestation of predatory masculinity in a canary tracksuit. He was a slimy yuppie in Dealing With Clair and a sour, sullen Yasha in The Cherry Orchard – and, of course, Tinker in Katie Mitchell’s Cleansed, a sterile sadist with a civil side-parting, dispatching amputations, electrolysis and eyeball injections with unblinking detachment. “Sometimes I ask myself why,” he says. “It’s just the way that dice has rolled.”
He certainly has the looks for it: a tangle of lank black hair, intense chestnut eyes and thin lips that form a slight downturned smile. It gives him an arsenal of withering looks: sneers, smirks and scowls are his stock in trade. In person, however, he has a dishevelled, laissez-faire attitude. Stood on a Soho pavement, roll-up on the go, he slots right in: denim jacket, black hoodie, vintage silk shirt. He is at once dashing and foreboding. I remember something Richard Twyman, who directed Dealing With Clair, said about him: “There’s a fascinating ambiguity about him; something shimmering, dangerous and charming, high status and low.”
Little wonder, then, he’s playing Richard III – the granddaddy of stage villainy. It is, arguably, the biggest gig of his career, leading a three-month Headlong tour. People had mentioned the part before, but he’d never coveted it. Indeed, when director John Haidar offered it, he initially turned it down. “It was just a bit frightening,” Mothersdale says. “I’m not a massive fan of Shakespeare. I only like it when it’s really radical, not when it’s revered.” That was daunting. Haidar, he says, put him at ease.
There is, perhaps, a reason the part kept popping into people’s minds. When Richard III was exhumed from his final resting place under a Leicester car park in 2012, his skeleton revealed severe scoliosis – curvature of the spine. Mothersdale happens to have the same condition – not that anyone really knew. Neither he nor Headlong have mentioned the fact. Haidar only found out when they first met. “There’s no prosthetics. That’s my actual shoulder. All I’m doing is accentuating that.” Though he wears a leg brace and a cloudy contact lens for the role, Mothersdale’s never considered Richard disabled. “He’s just won a battle. He’s a fucking good warrior. I wanted him to be quick and sharp, really able if anything.”
It’s why critics have reached for the “bottled spider” analogy. Mothersdale’s Richard scuttles speedily across the stone slabs of Chiara Stevenson’s dark, dank design to spring on stunned prey. One review described him devouring a piece of paper “like he’s introducing a juicy bluebottle into his mouthparts”.
But his physicality isn’t so easily reduced. Mothersdale makes himself resemble a Picasso portrait, every limb out of joint, every angle askew. It’s like he’s a conglomeration of body parts badly stitched together. Haidar calls him “chameleonic”, but he’s more of a chimera. “We wanted to make him a shapeshifter,” Mothersdale says with a smile. “We looked at all the animals he’s called in the play and asked: ‘What would a cross between a boar, a spider, a slug and a hedgehog be like? What would those creatures look like if you put them into one.’”
More than a menagerie, though, he’s a freakshow. Today’s theatre can be a bit squeamish, wary of representing violence responsibly, but Mothersdale makes a great case for villainy.
His Richard’s a showman, who juggles knives and makes jokes out of death. After wooing Queen Anne over her husband’s corpse, he throws up his arms as if to say: ‘Ta-da!’ “You have to have that glee in there. You have to say: ‘That was fucking amazing. Can you believe I just did that?’” When I ask why, he cites a Michael Haneke film, Funny Games – two hours of violence in which a family is held hostage, tortured and killed. “Halfway through, the main guy looks down the barrel of the camera and goes: ‘Should I continue?’ And as an audience, you’re like: ‘Yeah, I think I do want you to continue.’ That’s really fucked up. I think Shakespeare’s asking you to do that with Richard.”
The point, Mothersdale says, is to see “how far you can push it; the juxtaposition of dastardliness and glee. You’re asking the audience: ‘Well you were laughing at me earlier. Why is this now too far? Why were the two kids too much, but not the king?’”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Selling hot dogs at White Hart Lane. I took the job because I thought you’ve got to watch football. You don’t.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Pride and Prejudice at Theatre Royal Bath.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
There’s more to life than acting. Enjoy your life as well as your job.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Two teachers: Jonathan Goodwin and Thomasina Unsworth.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
If anyone wants to tell me, I’m all ears. I hate them.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I always listen to music as I get ready to go on stage.
Even so, he’s loath to call Richard a villain. Villainous, yes, but not a villain per se. “You can’t play ‘villain’,” he says. “That’s not a thing. You have to excavate why he’s like that.” It chimes with Haidar’s sense of his star: “He feels like he has to know that person, love that person, in spite of themselves.” Mothersdale’s Richard is, he reckons, “defined by a refusal to judge or shame him”.
“He’s really tough himself,” Twyman echoes. “You’ll often see him in a corner having words with himself if he’s not quite getting what he wants.”
For Mothersdale, it’s a matter of ‘serious play’. He combines a wild, daredevil streak with a rigorous process. Acting’s always a job, never a jolly. “I was really badly behaved at school,” he says, adding that drama class alone caught his attention. A teacher pushed him towards drama school, twice, where the need for “heavy prep” was drilled into him. He talks of finding an “obsession with each character: How does he or she shower? How do they get to work? I almost feel like I’m cheating if I don’t find those things out.”
He worked a week in a shoe factory to play Tom in The Glass Menagerie and, ahead of Annie Baker’s John, took a Gettysburg trip of his own. “I stayed in a similar B&B,” he remembers. “I walked the battlefields. I went on a ghost tour.”
It’s why he works well with Katie Mitchell – famously fastidious with her actors. “I love all that,” Mothersdale says, recalling days of table reads and research on The Cherry Orchard.
“The first time we got up in the space, I came in with some suitcases and she said: ‘Okay, stop. What’s the temperature?’ ‘Er, minus two.’ She said: ‘You were on about three degrees, let’s drop it down.’ I was like: ‘Wow, this is fun. This is right up my street.’”
I suspect it’s why Mothersdale fretted so much about that heckle. In that moment, he – the actor – was exposed.
“I was worried I didn’t handle it well.” When I ask whether he feels like himself on stage, he remembers giving a best man speech: “The most terrifying thing ever – but give me a character and I can stand up in front of a thousand people no problem. That’s totally fine.”
Born: 1986, Shoreham on Sea
Training: Rose Bruford
• The Cherry Orchard, Young Vic (2014)
• Cleansed, National Theatre (2017)
• John, National Theatre (2018)
Runner-up for Ian Charleson Award for The Cherry Orchard (2014)
Agent: Molly Wansell, 42 Management
Richard III is touring the UK until May 25, 2019