Last year, you were the face of Solomon Northrup in “12 Years a Slave” which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. What was that experience like? Do you think that’s changed what roles are offered to you now?
Yeah, it’s an incredible experience. To go through the process of getting a film out there like that and to be talking about it in that way. The first time I saw it, I was deeply proud of it and had a feeling that everybody involved had done really extraordinary work and yeah, there’s a sense of it being very gratifying to get to the point — even to be on the [nominees’] list — to get through the door. And for the winners, it’s just a surreal experience, a moment of elation, which does continue for a little while. And I suppose, in a way, that does change the nature of your relationship to the business and the business’ relationship to you, which is great and there is always that kind of — as an actor, a director, and then there’s a producer — there’s always the kinds of levels that you reach and the stages that you get to, but definitely feels like it’s a state of change in temperature.
With “Dancing on the Edge,” you were campaigning for the Golden Globes last year, and now here you are again for Emmys season. It’s been…what? Two years since you shot the part? Does the interview process and awards circuit get harder or is all the material still fresh in your mind?
I don’t know. It’s kind of surreal. I’ve never had to do that before with a project. I’m still talking about it long after I’ve actually made the film. It was just the way that it worked out. So you’re right, it’s been a couple of years since we shot “Dancing on the Edge” and funnily it is still pretty fresh for me. It was a pretty unique experience shooting London from the 1930s, but really exploring all of the grandiose events of the 1930s, this incredibly wealthy period for England, and really uncovering all the pieces, all the bits of architecture, all the interior that still exists between London and Birmingham. Some of them are in their original form. Some of them need to be reconverted back in terms of production design to create this time of extraordinary wealth and decadence prior to the Second World War. So the experience itself was pretty extraordinary, so it’s still kind of vivid for me.
“Dancing on the Edge” carried a lot of heft to it as an actor, being that you were a musician who was also dealing with the bigotry and segregation of the time. What were the positives you pulled out of it? Certainly getting into the character and working in that period setting had to be an exciting element.
Yeah, I think it was just a combination of things, and I think overall I was fascinated by this period of history that [writer/director Stephen] Poliakoff uncovered and wanted to talk about. It was based on real people, on Leslie Hutchinson and his relationships to — you know, he was a black jazz musician — the British upper-classes and I suppose overall it was kind of discussing the period of history where in the end nobody really knew which way Europe was going to go at that point, and they were very liberal elements and very deeply conservative elements and the sort of rise of the more nationalistic elements through Europe. But there was no sense that those were the elements that were going to take over, so everything stood on the kind of brink. It’s just fascinating to look at that period of history, seeing as we always think about things moving and getting periodically more liberal or whatever. But to go back to the point which was an age that in some ways was much more advanced in a way than even our period now and the sense of everything changing between 1939 and 1945 and really my understanding and a lot of our understandings of the modern world come from basically 1945 on. So all of that was fascinating for me.
Did you do any specific research into the music that Louis, your character, played to prepare for the role? Or was it more about what was in the script?
My sort of musical historical knowledge, especially with jazz, is on the slightly later period, so the ’50s and ’60s. But I’d always had a kind of a romanticized fascination with Duke Ellington, so it was nice to go back into that period and look at those sorts of elements, the earlier jazz influence, certainly the stuff that would later influence Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and to sort of piece together where some of that came from and some of those blatant and antagonizing influences, which I always expected strangely, between the early jazz period and the later jazz period — which is something to do with the way that jazz was an interpretation of class and of elegance and style and later would become something slighty different. [It] would become a way of talking about emotions and anger and passion. And so that was an interesting thing to really start to look at, at that early jazz movement and how people all through all the social classes in England, especially the upper-classes responded to this music that was an essentially American sound that was spreading through Europe.
I like that you touched on that aspect of emotions. Louis kind of keeps his in check. Do you think he expresses himself more through his music than in his day-to-day life?
Well, I think it’s part of the same thing. I think that music is a relief definitely, but the music is there in a sense to not bring any introspection in a way, that kind of early jazz performance. It’s [meant] to deliver a kind of sense of euphoria, a sense of joy in the people listening to it and to be both intellectually and sexually arousing and make people want to dance and gyrate at whatever and grab there partners and so on. I suppose bringing that to people is a kind of relief of all these things. I suppose that’s what I mean, but in the sense of that earlier jazz, sound is kind of repressed as well for the musicians themselves. Because they’re sort of following scripture in order to create elation in the audience. But then as soon as you get into the later jazz sound and you get into Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who start to veer off that into real expression of self, and much later on you get into John Coltrane, where the pure self-expression [to] an audience began
Did your appreciation of jazz grow outside of the context of the film?
I suppose so. It didn’t, in a sense, stick with me because, you know, I listen to like Leslie Hutchinson at the time and the Big Bands — because a lot of different people started to get involved. It definitely expanded beyond being a black music form. A lot of big white bands would play jazz, and it’s a very interesting sound and it was a nice sound to tap into. But it’s not really an era of music that I’ve carried with me because it’s very specific to that period, and I guess you kind of listen to it within the context of the history as opposed to purely the sound and the direct enjoyment of the music. For me, I was always more taken with the later period and the sort of detailed and eclectic esoteric sounds jazz developed in the later period and I guess right up to and including the genius sounds of Thelonious Monk and the really kind of neurotic ideas and music that developed in conjunction with all these other artistic movements that were happening at the time. That’s generally a period of deep fascination and progress, so in a way it never kind of derailed that essential quality. What it did do [is] give it context for the history of that and history of that sound and the evolution of it.
You’ve worked on a few TV series and miniseries before. Do you think that it’s evolved from back when you did “Trust” in 2003 up through “The Shadow Line” and “Dancing on the Edge”? Have you noticed an evolution in how those miniseries are treated once they come out in comparison to films?
Not really. I mean, in a sense, it’s quite a standard form in the UK, in a way. I suppose in the States it’s sort of a new form, that kind of miniseries idea — that it’s a short limited series where there’s not going to be the possibility of a second season or whatever. By definition, it’s just inherent in the thing and everything’s shot in one go, so there’s just a really sort of developed history of it. It’s been really gratifying seeing that become sort of more and more part of the scene here in the States.
Do you have theories to why it’s becoming more popular in the US or just in general? You know, we’ve seen a lot of very credible, very well known actors like yourself taking larger roles on TV when it’s a shorter series. Is that something that appeals to you, the brevity of it?
Yeah, that’s definitely — I’ve never felt that working on film prohibits me from working on television. I’ve always seen it as being project led. If it looks good, do it. If it feels good, do it. But there is something that can be slightly interesting about studying the arc of character and how many years of commitment is it going to be. That kind of limitation can be kind of difficult sometimes, but I think that’s why this form is really interesting. It’s a fairly limited period and you’re shooting everything, say six episodes, in one go, almost in the way that you’d shoot a film. It’s pretty extraordinary. It’s all consuming. You can develop characters in a way because you’re doing it for six or seven hours, [and] that’s not kind of possible to do on film [that’s] 90 minutes or two hours. So I think there were some great advantages to it and they are very distinctive forms. And I’d always wondered why things weren’t shot like that in the States more often, so it’s been quite interesting recently that that is beginning to happen.
Would you ever consider, if the right project came along, taking on a longer TV commitment like a 13-episode or even a 20-episode series?
I would, yeah. I’ll definitely consider it. I don’t suppose I’ve had a really active resistance to that in a way, but it’s just something that’s never happened, that I’ve never got into that place where I’m like, “This is what I’m going to do now and this is the part that I kind of want to develop over that period, however long it takes me.” But I definitely wouldn’t close the door on it, but we’ll see. That’s just something — I think it’s part of the form. It’s something that is definitely at some point worth exploring and should be explored as an actor, and I’d be excited to see those developments come together at some point.