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.