Most widely known as the treacherous trading-company head in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, Tom Hollander plays the tormentor and the put-upon with equal conviction. In the British series "Rev.," whose second season is now rolling out on Hulu and whose third season was just greenlit by BBC2, he performs as the latter as the Reverend Adam Smallbone, the vicar of a run-down, poorly attended church in one of London’s less glamorous quarters.
Although it’s not yet well-known in the States, "Rev." has become a genuine phenomenon in its home country, a focal point for discussions of the Church’s fallibility as well as the all-too-human limitations of its clergy. In Hollander and co-creator James Wood’s conception, Adam is a man first and a man of God second, prone to self-doubt and petty vanity, worrying about the health of his marriage (to the ever-fabulous Olivia Colman) and sweating the pressure to boost attendance from his insinuating Archbishop (Simon McBurney). There’s never been anything quite like it, a humane, profoundly funny exploration of the perils and comforts of fostering religious faith in the modern world.
Hollander, whose C.V. includes "In the Loop," "Gosford Park," "Pride & Prejudice" and "Bedrooms & Hallways," spoke with Indiewire on the phone from London about the sex life of a clergyman, how "Rev." updates the tradition of British TV vicars, and why playing a cold-blooded pedophile assassin in "Hanna" was like stepping into “a fun machine.”
"Rev." is a show about faith, but it’s also about someone being in over his head, doing a job that he’s not sure he’s suited for. What angle did you approach it from initially?
We came into it from the human angle, the angle of how an ordinary person could do that job. We wanted him to be an recognizably ordinary figure, with no hocus-pocus or mumbo-jumbo about it. The vicar would be an everyman; we’d allow him to believe in God without that seeming weird, but without having to prove that God existed. We’re not trying to answer that. An everyday tale of someone who believes in God — that’s the idea.
The first six-episode season of "Rev." ends with Adam in a tailspin, thrown into a profound, and deeply funny, crisis of faith when one of his Sunday sermons is criticized on a blog. Anyone who’s read something bad about themselves on the internet — which, at this point, is just about everyone — can relate to that.
Even people who believe in God find that God doesn’t answer their prayers all the time, or even ever. James and I talked a lot to people in the church who have dedicated their entire lives to God and have had a real, tangible experience of him. Comically, the reason he questions the existence of God in that episode is not famine in Africa or the AIDS virus but getting a bad review for his sermon. So he is foolish, or at least human, in that respect. He’s speaking for God in the sermon, trying to represent God’s interest, so he’s like an advocate who’s just been sacked by his client.
In a way, the question becomes not, “Does God exist?” but “Am I doing this wrong?” Is He out there and I just can’t see him?
He’s a self-piteous guy, isn’t he? But it’s also comic. It’s an episode in which you get the man of God behaving as badly as he possibly can. He’s having a huge sulk because things aren’t going very well for him, and in that way he’s just like we all are: He has a bad day at the office, and he thinks, “Fuck this, I’m going to throw the towel in.”
We wanted an excuse for him to be unpleasant to all the regulars, all the people he spends every day of his life being nice to. We wanted to find an excuse for him to treat them all very badly and tell them to go away. The only extraordinary thing that happens in that episode is that he gets to be present at somebody’s death. That’s what redeems it.
You co-created "Rev." with an eye towards playing, as you say, “an ordinary person.” Is that not something you’ve gotten to do a lot in your career?
I suppose so. I wanted to be the hero, I suppose. I didn’t want to do too many jokes at his expense. I didn’t want to just be a silly person. He is a silly person, obviously, but he’s not a clown. That’s how I think we ended up with this comedy-drama kind of tone. There’s a tradition of British TV vicars being clownlike figures. So this is an attempt to ring the changes.
In the UK, "Rev." is invariably compared to "Father Ted" and "The Vicar of Dibley," which are much gentler takes on the life of a clergyman.
We were trying to do something that was, in quotes, “realistic” — not a spin, but rather a reflection of the world as it really is. Me wanting to play it as straight as possible, that was one element, my agenda. But when we started to research it, we discovered that the world of vicars was quite as fascinating and bizarre in reality as it would be in a made-up version.
"Father Ted" is a strange environment in which you never really leave one room: It’s farce. "The Vicar of Dibley" is a fantasy of a rural England, bunny rabbits and Technicolor. Ours is a gritty, urban version of that. All of the stories in it, in the first season, all of them are taken from real research.
We know that clergy are allowed to get married, and part of sustaining a marriage is maintaining a sexual relationship. But it’s still shocking to see your character in bed with his wife, discussing their sex life, especially when she tells him to take off his collar because when he’s wearing it, “It’s like you don’t have a cock.”
That was almost a direct quote from a vicar’s wife. That’s a good example. She said she couldn’t tolerate his piety in the bedroom and she found it a complete turnoff. That’s James’s comic version of that. Nobody wants to think of vicars having sex just like nobody wants to think of their parents having sex.
We’ve been repeatedly praised, or at least credited — completely accidentally and without intention, but nevertheless — by people in the clergy for making them appear to be normal, and not like weirdos. It’s like a classic sitcom, set in a middle-class environment, and then this person happens to put on a funny white strip and a black shirt and go off and do good and talk a certain amount of metaphysical stuff when he goes to work. That’s his job.
In “Ever Been to Nando’s?” Adam embarrasses himself by flirting with the headmistress of the local Church of England school, letting her use the church for a fundraising party and then trying to lure her onto the dance floor. It’s a hilarious and deeply uncomfortable moment, but it’s also telling, because while he’s awkward and out of his depth, he’s not an entirely terrible dancer. You get the sense he’s done it before. And we know he likes Rihanna.
There are all sorts of priests who had lives before they were priests, long enough for them to go to a disco. We think him and Alex met probably at university, him doing theology, her doing law. They both shared a common interest in making the world a better place. They’re both socially concerned. We know that. She decided to go into the world, in a practical way, and he goes in a lofty, philosophical way.
The first season of Rev. was highly praised by critics as well as those in the church. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury is a fan. How did it effect going back to shoot another season knowing you were getting that kind of attention and praise?
You can imagine that the community of vicars and priests are generally benighted by a press that variously depicts it as pederasts or peculiar or always corrupt, always weird, always doing what it shouldn’t be doing. On our show, the vicar is the hero, for better or worse. He does the right thing. In that episode, he behaves rather badly all the way through it, but he is redeemed at the end because he does the right thing. He’s humiliated constantly, but he’s not corrupted.
You played a key role in "In the Loop" as the tongue-tied politician whose gaffe sets off an international incident, and then turned up at the end of the third series of "The Thick of It" — which is also now airing on Hulu — in a different role. What was it like coming into such a finely-honed improvisational ensemble as an outsider?
That was daunting. Fortunately, it suited my character, so that was useful. The film is called "In the Loop" and the character I played was always out of the loop, so the fact that I was just about clinging onto their coattails helped. Peter Capaldi and I had worked together a decade earlier in a play on Broadway — in fact, when we flew to New York to shoot "In the Loop," we went up the same escalator in Newark that we’d been up 10 years ago, almost to the day. That relationship was there, so even though it was Peter that was torturing me all the time, he was actually the sweetest person on the set.
What was it like being on the receiving end of one of the profanity-laced tirades Peter Capaldi’s character, Malcolm Tucker, is famous for unleashing. Do you emerge with your eyebrows signed?
Funnily enough, it was never Peter, because I knew Peter and he was so funny. I did sometimes feel a bit low at the end of the day. When I see the film it’s terribly, terribly funny. But I did feel sometimes a bit sad, just because you’re being bullied all the time.
"Hanna" was kind of the other end of the spectrum, a stylized, almost Gothic thriller in which you’re a cold-blooded assassin.
Playing a homosexual pedophile with peroxided hair. That was informed very much by "Rev.," because we had just done the first season. I hadn’t been able to use any of that as a vicar — unusually, you would’ve thought I’d be able to. So it felt like going on holiday. It’s quite a crazy, crazy film, with Saorsie Ronan being brilliant in the middle of it.
"Rev." is a passion project. It’s become a great success for everyone. I suppose it’s more than that — it’s now become an event. "Hanna" was going to work conventionally as an actor, learning my lines and putting the costume on and doing what I was told. "Rev." was very hard work, fulfilling but also exhausting. "Hanna" was just a fun machine.