In the bittersweet BBC tragic-comedy mini-series Us, Tom Hollander plays Douglas Petersen, a stuffy biochemist whose marriage is on the brink of divorce. To prevent the decoupling, he decides to take his estranged wife (Saskia Reeves) and son (Tom Taylor) on a European vacation. Can Doug dissuade the missus from leaving him?
Based on the book of the same name by David Nicholls (One Day), Us is “a rom-com in reverse,” says 53-year-old British actor who’s known for The Night Manager, Pride and Prejudice and more recently as Queen’s manager in Bohemian Rhapsody.
“It’s really about a break up rather than them getting together,” explains Hollander, who’s also the producer. “It has a particular humour to it, which is David’s writing. It’s not a story without hope, it is a story about hope. It almost sounds a rather depressing premise but it really isn’t.”
Hollander is speaking to 8days.sg from his London home where he’s been spending lockdown gardening and recovering from a bout of COVID-19. “It’s been a time of thinking and reflection and anything that involves papers and books and solitary exercise,” he says.
Here, he tells us what it’s like to be filming in scenic spots around Europe in a pre-COVID-19 world, his travelling habits, and the countless times he’s been mistaken for fellow actor Tom Holland.
8 DAYS: What attracted you to Us? The chance to play a character as complex as Douglas Petersen or the opportunity to go on a European tour?
TOM HOLLANDER: Definitely the character of Douglas. At the time, I took the opportunity to travel entirely for granted. Though, obviously now, I would be taking the part for the opportunity to travel because it’s impossible now. [Douglas] is an interesting, conflicted, amusing, irritating character. You are lucky if you get complex characters like him.
Douglas is incredibly annoying, but also very endearing. How do you find that balance?
I think he’s annoying, but he needs to be. He is a bit of a pain. That’s quite sophisticated writing because your central character is not an anti-hero; he is a difficult character to spend all that time with. There’s a temptation for an actor to want to be liked by the audience. Some characters you play are obviously liked by the audience and they are with you all the way.
If you are playing James Bond, you assume your job is to keep the audience with you at all moments because you are playing a hero. With a character like Douglas, however, I think you want the audience to see the story at various points from the other characters’ point of view. It’s complicated and that’s why it takes four hours to tell the story, I supposed. The son is very important. The wife is very important. It is about a family.
I personally didn’t like Douglas that much. I don’t want to be Douglas in a way you might want to be Superman. I don’t want to be Douglas Petersen and I was glad I wasn’t Douglas Petersen.(laughs).
He is a meticulous planner when it comes to travelling. Are you like him?
Well, I’m not as organised as Douglas. Nor have I ever booked ahead like Douglas. I tend to buy a ticket probably to a single-destination and hopefully there are some friends and places I can explore when I get there. I would I say that I am a more laid-back traveller than Douglas.
What are your fondest memory shooting Us?
I don’t remember anything funny but it was very enjoyable. The cycling stuff in Amsterdam was great fun to do. Anything where you don’t have lots of dialogue and action is fun because it’s less stress. I’ve cycled a lot as well because I grew up in Oxford which is not as flat as Holland but still pretty flat. It was very fun cycling to the Rijksmuseum and down the canal. [We were privileged to] go into galleries without many people in them. We had a certain room cordoned off for us for a day.
You’ve travelled a lot for work. Do you make it a point to go sight-seeing when you’re not filming?
I have enjoyed the experience of travelling over the years enormously. That has been one of the wonderful things about being an actor is all the places I have filmed. It’s one of the best things about the job. I also feared these days, with or without COVID-19, we should be travelling less. Jumping on air planes at the drop of a hat is no longer acceptable really given the state of the climate.
In terms of places I won’t want to film again, I can’t think of anywhere that was particularly horrible. It’s generally good to be working, so I don’t want to complain (laughs).When I was filming Us, I was in most scenes, so I didn’t have any time off. When I did have days off, I spent them learning lines. We were often filming at the [touristy places]; sight-seeing was part and parcel of acting.
On a different job, one that springs to mind would be [the 2016 mini-series] The Night Manager [which was shot in Spain]. I was in that very third day, so I had plenty of time to go sight-seeing. That was brilliant fun and wonderful. Sometimes you find yourself being paid to be in a special place and that’s amazing. I love doing that.
Given your extensive body of work, what do people recognise you for when you’re abroad?
It depends on their age and gender. Men around the age of 30 remember from a show called In the Loop. Women of a certain age have watched Pride and Prejudice, with Kiera Knightley, recognise me from that. Children recognise me from Pirates of the Caribbean. All the people in the UK recognise me from Rev.
African-Americans chiefly recognise me from Bird Box. Before Bird Box, I’ve never had so many African-Americans coming up to me and say they’ve seen me in something I did. That was interesting.
Same in Mexico. Everyone seems to have seen Bird Box when I was there recently. It’s a strange thing. Generally, it’s very nice when people say they’ve seen you in something you’ve done. It is a lovely feeling.
How often have you been mistaken for Tom Holland?
Sometimes when you around young kids and if someone say my name to them, they would look around me as if they are expecting to see Spider-Man — with a face of absolute wonder, which is then immediately replaced with a face of confusion and disappointment.
Then they look back towards their parents who’ve just told them that Tom Holland just walked in. They often look at their parents accusingly. I think that is one of the first moments of real disappointment similar to when they discover Father Christmas isn’t real.
Catch Us on BBC First (StarHub Ch 502) and BBC Player.
Photos: TPG News/Click Photos; Netflix, BBC Studios