“Actors do this nonsense all the time.” Do they, Rob Brydon? Do actors really spend weeks learning synchronised swimming routines before showcasing them on the big screen all the time?
Brydon leads a cast comprising some of the country’s best actors and comedians in British film Swimming with Men. The film charts the misadventures of a group of oddballs, misfits, isolated or lonely men who form a synchronised swimming troupe and end up representing the country.
Sounds implausible, right? Yet Swimming with Men is based on a true story that was turned into a documentary in Sweden and shown on the BBC in 2011 as Men Who Swim. It was wonderful, and translates seamlessly into the comedy-drama genre.
“It just caught my imagination,” says Brydon. “I could imagine myself playing the role. It sounded intriguing, like the sort of film you tell people about – and this has proven to be the case – they immediately smile and are interested. At the very least, no one can say: ‘Not another middle-aged-man-synchronised- swimming film.’”
The story begins with Brydon as an unhappy accountant, great with figures but not exactly highly evolved emotionally. A changing room conversation with the men he sees in the pool each week follows, and before he knows it he’s performing -underwater pirouettes, learning how to do ‘eggbeater’ legs and sculling arms with a crew including Jim Carter (Downton Abbey’s Carson), Daniel Mays from Line of Duty, Adeel Akhtar (Four Lions), Rupert Graves (Sherlock’s DI Lestrade) and Thomas Turgoose of This Is England fame.
But Swimming with Men is not about synchronised swimming. The characters could just as easily be part of a knitting circle, a book club, a pub quiz team or a brass band. The movie is about belonging, male bonding and being part of a team that can keep you afloat when you feel like you’re sinking.
“Absolutely,” says Brydon. “The men in our film are all in need of something – the sense of community and the sense of belonging is very important to them.
I would be a simpleton, wouldn’t I, if I said, ‘Oh, we laughed. Every day we would look at each other and say, Look, you’ve got trunks on’. Actors are always dressing up.
“It addresses where we are in 2018 and where men are because of the gender politics. There are such huge changes going on. And I do think that there are a group of men who find themselves slightly adrift and not quite sure what role they are meant to fulfil.”
For Brydon, understanding his character’s emotional repression was key.
“It’s one of the acting challenges. Thinking about how all the men relate to being part of this group and the awkwardness they feel. As an actor, generally, you don’t feel that.
“Because I’m told most men as they get older, their social circle dwindles. Apparently this is a fact. But for me, because of the nature of what I do, my social circle is constantly regenerating.
“Also, there’s his awkwardness at the physicality of reaching out and grasping someone’s ankle. Again, as an actor you do all sorts of strange things and get used to it. It becomes your life. For Eric, who works in an office job that isn’t satisfying him, it is a little intimidating.”
Talk turns to trunks.
“People ask me about The Trip [the improvised comedy series in which Brydon stars with Steve Coogan] and what was my favourite meal. Well, I’m not really thinking about the food,” he says. “I am thinking about how am I going to be funny. The food is just there, a bit like the trunks in this.
“I would be a simpleton, wouldn’t I, if I said, ‘Oh, we laughed. Every day we would look at each other and say, Look, you’ve got trunks on’. Actors are always dressing up.”
He missed out on team sports at school but found his people elsewhere. “I was not in the football team or the rugby team beyond when it was compulsory,” he says. “My team was drama. I was always in the drama studio and rehearsing the school show – that is where I got my communal, group feeling.”
All these years later, although he didn’t need lessons in emotional openness or physical intimacy from his new role, he did acquire some skills to unleash on his next holiday. “It is very physical and very difficult. When you look at what real synchro swimmer women do, it beggars belief,” he says.
“By the end we could do it. But comparing us with the proper women who do it at the Olympics is like comparing someone who jumps off a ladder to an astronaut.”
Swimming with Men is in cinemas from July 6.