At 30, Mr Thomas Brodie-Sangster Is Still Playing Make-Believe

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At 30, Mr Thomas Brodie-Sangster Is Still Playing Make-Believe

Words by Ms Molly Isabella Smith | Photography by Mr Charlie Gates | Styling by Ms Otter Jezamin Hatchett

18 February 2021

If you need proof that famous people are just like us, just ask them how they’ve been spending their days during the pandemic. Mr Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s umms and ahhs are as familiar a reply as a friend’s, when they scramble to recall a single thing they’ve achieved that isn’t watching Netflix or just, you know, stuff. His list of lockdown hobbies is, nevertheless, extensive. He’s been tinkering in his shed. Restoring one of his dad’s old guitars. Doing the occasional bit of drawing and painting. “I don’t mind living a somewhat quiet life, I’m not a big go-er outer anyway,” he tells me in early February. The solitude might suit him nicely, but he does miss what he calls “general interactions with people, with strangers in particular.” That, and his local pub. It’s perhaps the aptest summation of the normality the British populace is craving right now: a pint and a spot of awkward small talk with a fellow patron.

Not that Mr Brodie-Sangster is your average barfly: in fact, you’d likely clock him immediately as “the cute little kid from Love Actually”. For better or worse, his big break as Sam, the star-crossed stepson to Mr Liam Neeson’s recently widowed Daniel, is still how he’s commonly identified and, until recently, recognised on the street for. “I don’t think Love Actually is going to go anywhere. I don’t mind that, that’s fine,” he says with a small smirk that suggests he really is, actually, fine with it, before quickly moving on.

And move on he has. Nearly two decades after the rom-com’s release, the spectre is finally waning after Mr Brodie-Sangster’s swaggering, swashbuckling performance as Benny in Netflix’s bingeable chess drama The Queen’s Gambit. The show was watched by a record-breaking 62 million households in its first 28 days of release. “[It’s been] more successful than I think anyone thought it would have been,” he says. But he’d rather heap praise on his fellow cast and crew than laud his own work in the series. “The acting was spot on from everyone. The lighting was gorgeous, the costumes were spot on, the sets were amazing, direction and writing, I mean it all just kind of came together. I think it’s very much an ensemble piece in the biggest sense of the word. So, everyone that’s recognised me from that so far has just been like ‘really good job: yeah, you were great in it, but the whole thing was really good.’”

The complexity of Benny’s character – his heady mix of arrogance and vulnerability – made the role a welcome challenge for someone who played teenaged characters throughout his twenties. I’ll state the obvious: Mr Brodie-Sangster looks younger than his age. It’s something strangers on the internet often feel the need to point out to him. For the most part, those barbs don’t annoy him anymore; the only time it bugs him is when he’s nailed an audition and the feedback is based on his fresh-faced looks rather than his acting chops. As far as he’s concerned though, it’s more their problem than his to worry about.

In fact, you don’t get the impression that anyone else’s negativity could visibly phase Mr Brodie-Sangster. As he ponders my questions from an airy white bedroom, he appears self-assured between sips of his morning coffee, though he has a tendency to shift in his seat as if he can’t quite get comfortable. When he turned 30 last year, much to the internet’s shock, instead of experiencing the cliche of a quarter-life crisis, he says he was fairly level headed about leaving his twenties behind. “I think I already got that out of my system a bit, I’d spent enough time thinking about that so when it actually came to it, it was actually fine.” he says. And, though not a momentous shift, he did feel his age. “I felt at least a kind of, yeah, a certain change, nothing huge, nothing big… it was good thing.”

Though he’d usually ring in another year with a low-key affair, he was persuaded by friends to host a big blowout party, but coronavirus restrictions meant those plans were scuppered. Instead, he celebrated with his mother (and, it should be noted, ex-bandmate), who was turning 60 a few days later, and who he describes as “quite good at giving me a kick up the arse every now and then”.

“I don’t think Love Actually is going to go anywhere. I think I’ll forever be known as ‘the cute little kid from Love Actually.’ I don’t mind that, that’s fine”

And just as well really, because, again, proving celebrities are just like us, Mr Brodie-Sangster recently fled his own abode – like scores of young people did when the pandemic hit – and moved back in with his mum. Although, truthfully, his decampment has less to do with global economic uncertainty and more to do with the fact that an army of builders are currently gutting, renovating and extending his own house in London. It’s not his dream home, he says – which, if you’re wondering, would include “an underground car park and a workshop and a helipad and all that” – but it is his first. He’s had to make decisions about everything, right down to the precise tiles, in a process he enjoys but, funnily enough, sounds as stressful as being a director on a film set. “I’ve got all sorts of builders and contractors relying on me,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like a little kid with a new toy; I feel like I’m putting on my professional 30-year-old hat and conducting a team of people to do my bidding.”

It’s just as well he’s used to donning his serious cap. As a child actor, he concedes he had to grow up fairly quickly. It’s something that’ll happen when you’re expected to be the consummate professional at just 10 years old on a set full of adults. And while he acknowledges that that path doesn’t end well for some screen prodigies, he seems confident it was the right one for him. “I hated, hated, hated being spoken down to in any way or mollycoddled as a child. So, when I’d go on set, everyone would just treat me as just another person hired to do a job and I loved that sense of responsibility. But, I mean, that must affect how you develop and grow as a person,” he says on a more serious note.

Trying to separate the world of childish things from not-so-childish things is hardly a recipe for success when you’re barely in double digits. So he didn’t, really. Instead, he approached acting, for all intents and purposes, as playing dress up. “I could be the professional… then come home and still surround myself with toys and sit for hours in my room and just play. That’s how I looked at acting: it is just playing around, it’s not that serious; it’s just putting on voices and pretending to be someone else for the day, which is all I did at home with my sister anyway.”

It’s still how he thinks he works best: when he can fully immerse himself in a world of pretend and make-believe, as he did in Netflix’s Godless, a previous project with The Queen’s Gambit director and writer Mr Scott Frank. “We built a whole set for that. And not just a crap set, I mean it was a proper sturdy set,” he says. Even the jail cells, he explains, locked with real keys, in what sounds very much like a grown-up’s toybox (or a slightly less sinister version of Westworld). “It didn’t take much imagination to take yourself away into what it was like to be out in the West and be a cowboy... I think that’s why I hate green screen stuff so much – because there’s not that raw, tactile world to play with.”

Even so, on projects like these it seems he found another, subtler, way to get to grips with a character tangibly: costume. He still has Newt’s shearling jacket from The Maze Runner trilogy and counts it among his favourites. Since it was the stunt version, his mum was kind enough to sew up the seams for him, but the harness clip remains inside. “That’s just something fun to play with,” he says. Like a sartorial fidget spinner, I posit. “Yes, exactly! That’s what it is.”

“I’d go on set, everyone would just treat me as just another person hired to do a job and I loved that sense of responsibility”

He wasn’t so lucky when it came to Benny’s costume, though. In hindsight, he wishes he’d fought harder to keep a select few items: he had his eye on a green, floaty shirt, but it was his knife (you know, the one the chess whizz carries “for protection”) he was really gunning for. “His knife was really nice. It was a kind of old old knife,” he says. “I’ve always had pocket knives as a kid and they travel with me all over.” At this point, he reaches into a drawer to briefly brandish a red Swiss army knife as proof. “Other than that, I don’t think I actually wanted anything – not really quite my style.”

He has found a new appreciation for clothes in general, having previously dismissed fashion as somewhat pretentious. “It’s a language, I think it’s a bit rock ‘n’ roll that way – it’s a way of communicating with other people,” he says. As well as the impression you leave on the outside world, it’s also dawned on him how much what you wear influences your own mindset. “The difference between waking up in the morning and putting on a suit versus some tracksuits and a nice woollen jumper or something – that physically makes you feel differently, makes you stand differently and sometimes even makes you talk differently,” he says. Though, come to think of it, that sounds a lot like dressing up…

In his latest film, Dragon Rider, an animated feature for Sky Cinema, he voices Firedrake, a plucky young silver dragon who sets out on a mission to find a dragon paradise before humans destroy his family home. They recorded everything they needed in two or three days and he didn’t get to don a scaled suit or roam around a forest, but that didn’t matter, because playing a mythical character afforded him the opportunity to really let go creatively.

True to form, it was Firedrake’s childlike qualities that he was drawn to and saw himself in. “His kind of wonder of the world I love.” Certainly, Dragon Rider is cheerful, charming stuff, but it also carries a subtle message about our own impact on the natural world, something Mr Brodie-Sangster has become more attune to in recent months. “Especially during lockdown, my thrills of the day have been focused on the small things. Hearing the sounds of the parakeets outside and watching the squirrels and listening to the trees and the sky and the much smaller things of life. Nature has been something really lovely to watch in this time of unrest.”

While getting to be a dragon for a few days might be high on most people’s list of childhood dreams (including, as I helpfully point out to him, this writer’s), Mr Brodie-Sangster has been steadily ticking his own off throughout his already long career. Voicing a Tracy brother in the Thunderbirds reboot, for example, as well as a cameo in every young boy’s favourite film franchise: Star Wars, have already been squared away. But there are still a few things he hasn’t gotten to on his boyhood bucket list. Namely flying and racing cars or motorbikes. Like every little boy who can still recall the precise names of WWII fighter planes, he thought he’d have his pilot’s licence by now, but what about that other thing that comes with leaving your twenties, you know, two-point-four children and all that? It wasn’t part of the plan: “I never thought about kids at 30. Or settling down and marrying at 30. It was all fun and adventurous things to do at 30, I suppose.”

For now, clocking flight time is necessarily on hold until “the world settles a little bit more” but it hardly comes as a great shock that the appeal of flying for someone who likes to hold onto boyhood things, in particular, is its associations with freedom. “[It’s] the escape thing of going up in an aeroplane and literally dancing with the clouds and being able to go left, right, up, down and upside down in any direction you want. To not to be confined by anything,” he explains. It starts to make sense why, as we’ve been talking, his focus often drifts skyward, to the side or peers in the direction of his window, as if he’s looking for an escape hatch.

Locked indoors, listening to the birds outside and talking to writers through a screen from his desk, Mr Brodie-Sangster’s flights of fancy are, he says as our conversation comes to a close, a regular occurrence. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’ll pretend to be different people and characters and my voice sounds different – sometimes that’s just for fun and sometimes it’s intentional – I don’t know,” he says. “Life can sometimes feel make-believe but you make-believe along with it to make it feel more fun. Sometimes.” And for a man who still yearns to dance with the clouds, what’s the sense in coming back down to earth? At least until the pubs in London reopen, anyway.

Dragon Rider is out now on Sky Cinema