Known, primarily, for portraying Shaun in the breathtaking film/TV series This is England, Thomas Turgoose can be seen in Butterfly Kisses, playing snooker club manager ‘Shrek’ in Rafael Kapelinski’s debut production. The film, showing at the Berlinale, gets into the head of its teenage protagonist (Theo Stevenson), who is harbouring dark, perverse sexual desires.
We had the pleasure of chatting to Turgoose about the production, and how brave a piece of contemporary cinema it is. We also went on ask about This is England (naturally) – as the young actor describes just how special the experience has been to him over the years, and the incredible friendships he’s formed with his fellow cast members and crew. He also speaks briefly about his forthcoming collaboration with Margot Robbie in Terminal, and candidly discusses his career, and how he’s overcome a difficult period in his life.
It was the script, which was obviously amazing. You sort of feel sorry for Theo Stevenson’s character by the end of it, and you think, how can you feel sorry for someone like that? It was a brilliant read. Working with Theo as well, I love Theo, he’s a really good mate of mine now, and when I saw he was attached to it I was buzzing to work with him. Raf as well, the director, he was super cool. It all sort of fell into place really.
Yeah, it portrays the lead character’s paedophilic fantasies as an illness. It’s a brave piece of cinema.
It is, it’s a risky thing to do. I know Theo was worried about it and what people might say, because he did Horrid Henry, which is a children’s show, so he’s got a big fan base from that, and I remember we were sat in the pub talking about it and he was worried. But I said, what you have to realise, is that if people believe you are that person, then you’re doing a fucking good job. If people walk down the street and believe that’s who you are, then you’ve done so well in making people believe you are that character. He pulled it off too, he can have a long career ahead of him.
But yeah, it’s a weird thing, it’s the same as alcoholism as well, I lost someone really close to me and he was an alcoholic and took drugs, and a lot of people would see him in a certain way, a pisshead, a waste of space. But watching the way he was, it was an illness. He didn’t want to wake up and think about vodka and do the things that he done, it’s an illness. And what Theo’s character is doing, shows it is an illness, and you feel for him in a way. It’s such an interesting film, and there needs to be more help out there for people like that. It’s a very touchy subject and I don’t want to say the wrong thing, but it’s something that does need to be dealt with, otherwise where are we going to be in years to come if there isn’t the help out there?
There must be more of an element of risk when working with a first-time filmmaker, as you haven’t got any previous work to go on?
That’s exciting I think. You don’t know what you’re getting, it’s a risk. But it was a strong script and I felt that because of that, I couldn’t see the writer letting that go to anyone he didn’t trust Raf did a great job of it, he’s made it look amazing and Theo is destined to big things after this. All the young kids are. It was a bit strange for me, because I was the older one on set and I’m not used to that, when we’re doing This is England I’m the kid. But it was nice to be working with people, even behind the scenes in costume and make-up and that, who I’m older than.
Did it have an affect on the dynamic of the set for you, being one of the oldest?
I know Theo has been doing this a long time, I think one of his first roles was In Bruges with Colin Farrell. But a couple of the other kids hadn’t acted much before, so it was nice, it was good to watch from the outside what it would have been like to watch me when I was a kid, if that makes sense. I’ve never been the kind of the person to turn around and say ‘follow what I’ve done’ because I’ve made a few mistakes growing up, and things could have turned out differently if I just had my head screwed on, but it was nice to have young people on set who have seen what I’ve done when I was their age, and to see that I’m still doing it, it’s hopefully a bit of hope for them, that once you’ve got your foot in the door, if you work hard you can keep doing it. I had to take on a more grown up role on set rather than be the knobhead who is knicking the cameraman’s pens and shit.
You’re never too old to do that.
I was still doing it, don’t get me wrong. We went through a stage during This is England where we’d play this game where you have to get one of the runners’ radio mics, you had to be stealthy, unplugging it and taking it out of their holster without them knowing. Then by the end of the day we’d have this big pile of radio mics and everything goes to shit cos they don’t know what’s going on. It’s fun doing that cos it keeps everyone on their toes, and it doesn’t feel too much like work when everyone is having fun, it’s not as stressed out on set.
Was it like that on Butterfly Kisses? Is there an infectious energy that derives from having a first-time filmmaker?
Raf was enthusiastic, definitely. You knew what he wanted, but he wasn’t phased by the people who have been in the game a long time. He didn’t feel like he couldn’t speak his mind and tell people what he wanted. Everyone just came together as a group, it’s low-budget, shooting in rough areas of London, and everyone just came together and we all got on really well. With young people around there is a lot of enthusiasm on set, everyone wanted to do stuff, which helps massively for getting things done.
As for your character ‘Shrek’ – we don’t learn too much about his history, how much of a back story do you create for him? How did he come to be in London managing a snooker club?
I didn’t really think too much into it, this was quite rushed, the offer came in quite late, it was so last minute. I remember when I played Shaun in This is England, we sat down with Shane Meadows and wrote down what we think the characters have been through, and what they’re interested in, what football teams they support, everything down to the tiniest details. But other than that, I’ve never really been a character actor. Even Shaun, I was thrown in at 13 years old and I was buzzing, I wanted to run around and annoy people, to be the centre of attention, and that’s how I grew as an actor, just learning on the job cos I was thrown in at the deep end.
The film is presented in black and white, is that weird when you watch it back? Because when you look at a scene you’re in, do you not see it in colour, given you were actually there?
To be honest mate, I don’t even know what I did yesterday [laughs]. The black and white works though, it makes the film that little bit more mysterious. Somers Town, a film I did with Shane Meadows, he decided last minute he wanted it to be in black and white and everyone thought it was weird, but because he’s Shane Meadows, nobody will ever doubt him cos he’s a fucking genius in everything that he does. But yeah, I think it adds a real, gritty feel to a film. London looks beautiful in black and white too, all the estates and high-rise buildings. But I’m not a very artistic person, so I would never question Raf – he’s where he is for a reason, you know.
It sounds like the atmosphere on set was good, but with This is England, what you lot have is rare – you’re so tight, and you all socialise outside of work, if you can call it that. Given that’s where you started, it’s sort of all you’ve known – but it must be hard to replicate in other projects. Can it make them quite underwhelming in that regard, realising that This is England is more the exception and not the rule?
Yeah definitely, it’s not a job. When you go on another set for a couple of days, that’s when you realise, fucking hell – this aint This is England. But you spend so much time on set, 12/13 hours a day, with people that you do sort of become a family together, on any job, if you have the right group of people, which Shane does amazingly. He’ll bring the right people in, and on any set you need to have a lot of trust in everyone, and suppose trust comes with spending a lot of time with people. You become this weird family overnight.
This is England is different because we’ve all grown up together off set. I see a lot of the guys, I’m an usher at Gadget’s wedding in a couple of months, he stays at my house, I go and stay with him. Woody is always sending pictures of his shit to me on Whatsapp, you know, we all stay in touch. We’re all busy, everyone is busy doing their own thing, I still spend time at home playing football with my group of mates I grew up with, I spend a lot of time with my missus, we’re all busy, but then we see each other again it’s like we’ve never been away. We’ve got this amazing bond where we are all family.
I mean, some of these guys are my oldest friends. Gadget and Milky are my oldest friends, if I have any problems in life I’ll ring them. I’ll always remember the day my mum passed away, I was sat in the hospital and I didn’t know what the fuck to do, I was a mummy’s boy. So when she died I didn’t know what to fucking do, and the first thing I did was ring Stephen Graham, who plays Combo. Before I’d even got off the phone, him, Shane Meadows and Gadget were in a cab at six in the morning to come and be with me. Shit like that you can’t buy, and things like that will always make me realise how special these people are, and not just work colleagues, they’re family. I’d like to think that if any of them had problems, they’d call me.
That’s reflected in the show. There’s a genuine argument to be had that it’s the greatest piece of TV this country has ever produced.
You don’t think that’s The Inbetweeners?
[Laughs] I do like The Inbetweeners. But honestly, the friendships you all have comes through into the project. But my question is, are we done? With that world, with these characters?
This is England has been a major part of my life and I would never, ever change anything, it’s been beautiful and I’ve made some of the best friends. But we’ve maybe got to that point where we don’t wanna kill it, people are still buzzing about it, we don’t want it to become a thing where it’s like “Oh, not another This is England”. You know, like Shameless. Series one was amazing, everyone loved it, and that was the same for series two, three, four. But then five came, and it was still okay, then there was six and oh, fucking hell. Then it got to series 10 and you think, this is fucking dead now. And that is not what we want to do with This is England. It’s like Shane’s baby, that series is his baby and he put into the care of us lot, we look after that, and every couple of years he wants to come back and make sure it’s doing alright and see what’s happening.
Maybe he’ll make another one, maybe he won’t, but we’re all going through this stage now where we all want to go on and do different things. When I walk into casting room now people think ‘ that’s Shaun from This is England’. Which, I’d never change cos it’s the best thing I’ve ever been able to do, but I want to be able to walk round the streets and people come up to me and say, ‘I loved Butterfly Kisses’. It’s constantly This is England, and it’s a major part of my life and I know that and i’m grateful for that, but we all want to spread our wings a bit, to do other things.
Do you ever think about Shaun? Beyond where the last series ended – just where he is?
Yeah he lives in a big house in Nottingham and he’s got 15 bastards and his name is Shane Meadows. It’s obviously based on Shane’s life, and to see what he went through as a kid, which he’s put into This is England, on screen for everybody to see, and now you think about him and see his beautiful house, and beautiful wife, and beautiful kids, and all the awards, it just goes to show that no matter what you go through as a kid, and for me as well, I went through a lot of shit, you just have to get through to the other side, it’s not the end of the world, there’s always tomorrow. That’s why This is England is so special to us all, because during the making of it we’ve all been through some shit and we’ve all come through the other side, and anyone can do it.
You have a role in Terminal – what’s that all about?
That’s a crazy one, I got an email from my agent saying “Margot Robbie is making a film, do you want a part in it?’ and I was like, yeah, she’s so amazing. And Mike Myers?! I was stood on set with fucking Austin Powers. It was surreal, and I was nervous, and I was with Matthew Lewis from Harry Potter, so he’s used to it, and we got flown over to Budapest, and stayed in unreal apartments, and we got to shoot with Margot Robbie and Simon Pegg and Mike Myers, it was a surreal thing to look at the call sheet and see you’re on the same sheet at them. It was a small part, but I just went out there and licked arse for a couple of days, sometimes you gotta go out there and do that. It was an amazing script too. It was a real experience. Margot Robbie had her own trailer on set and we’d all be chilling outside, and she was always out with us, sometimes you imagine people that big will always be on their own, but she would chill with us. Really nice, and same for Simon Pegg, a lovely, lovely group of people.
Finally, you mentioned you’ve been doing this since you were so young. When did acting feel more like a profession and not a hobby or a dream?
When I realised I had a mortgage to pay. For me, from a young age I was on set for hours a day, and I grew to love what I was doing and I was lucky enough to work with Stephen Graham again after This is England on a BBC thing, so from 13-18 it was non-stop. I was a little shit when I was a kid, if I could go back and change the way I was with my mum I would love to do that, but her passing away was my wake-up call. I don’t want my mum looking down on me thinking ‘oh he’s still a little shit’. I want her to think I turned my life around, and I’ve got my big tooth stuck into summat, that I’m enjoying what I’m doing. The job that we do is about being grateful and knowing how lucky we are to be able to do it. I struggled to get my head around the fact I was being paid to be in Budapest with Margot Robbie, it’s mad.
My missus as well, Charlotte, she’s unbelievable and I’d be fucked without her. She’s got my head screwed on for me. When I was 18/19, I had this bad patch where I was on the booze all the time and I didn’t give a fuck about anyone or anything and we were together at this point and she turned around and said, ‘I don’t want this, to just be there when it suits you’ and that for me then, was the wake-up call. I’m still with her now, seven years on, and we have our own house, we’re fortunate enough to be able to do the things that we want. So just having my family around me makes me realise you need to have your head screwed on and you need to be appreciative.
Butterfly Kisses premieres at the Berlinale on February 11th