Tom Hollander interview: “I’ve never got over being bullied”

Actor Tom Hollander talks unrequited love, the mind-twisting effects of fame - and why he was a 'Marmite' teenager

I had blonde hair when I was 16. I dyed it with Sun-In; I thought I looked prettier with blonde hair and eyeliner. I looked quite young. My voice broke very late, I think deep down I knew that once it broke my self-esteem would plummet as I’d never be head chorister again. So my balls stayed resolutely tucked up for quite a long time, knowing they’d only bring bad news.

I was pretty miserable at school. I found it difficult to make friends and I was bullied quite a lot, which I’ve never been able to get over actually. There was a social kingpin in my year who decided I was not acceptable to the gang. Perhaps because I’d done a bit of acting on TV and he was jealous. It was psychological torture rather than physical. It left me with a slightly lifelong persecution complex. Which I probably had already but it didn’t help.

At 16 I did make a breakthrough. After a few lonely years I found some friends. These quite sleepy kids who were into heavy rock. Very uncool – we were supposed to be into New Order. So the best times were spent mucking round the South Downs, getting stoned, listening to Pink Floyd. I had a big crush on a friend who was a girl but that was unrequited. She was the first to say, we better not go out together, it’ll spoil our friendship. A standard line but it was true in that case – we’re still friends and I’m godfather to her child.

The best times were spent mucking round the South Downs, getting stoned, listening to Pink Floyd

I was quite a gregarious, confident, fun person, really. I just couldn’t understand why that didn’t work at school. It worked everywhere else. I had lots of female friends more than girlfriends. I was into them but they thought I was the cute small one. I don’t know what the fuck I was really. Some people thought I was marvellous and some thought I was obnoxious. I was Marmite.

As a teenager I was filled with boundless confidence and now when I see that in young people I often find it… Well, perhaps I’m just not in a very positive frame of mind today. I don’t want to sound negative. I’ve had a very fun and interesting, amazing, adventurous life. But if I met my younger self today I’d be worried for him, that his sense of naive confidence at his own marvellousness was going to take some knocks. Then again, I was aware then what my vulnerabilities were and they haven’t changed. I think I knew what I’d be like when I got older but I assumed it would still be alright. I just remember thinking, I must be an actor. It’ll be so difficult but I must do it. I imagined it would be full of big highs and lows – on that I was right.

DID YOU KNOW…

Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.

What piece of my work would I show off to my 16-year-old self? Gosh, I don’t know. There’s a scene in Gosford Park where I eat some jam. That was a good scene. I saw In the Loop the other day and my character just gets horribly humiliated the whole time. I don’t know if I’d want to show him that. There’s a part of In the Loop (pictured below) which is just about Scottish people telling English people what they think of them in fairly strong terms. It’s where most of the best jokes come from. Peter Capaldi goes through the corridors of Westminster like chemotherapy, slashing and burning. There’s something abusive about In the Loop, which people seem to find hilarious but I find quite distressing. Though saying that, as someone who was bullied at school, I could be quite unpleasant myself sometimes. I could give it back. And I did that briefly afterwards on The Thick of It, when I played The Fucker.

If I was forced to try to inspire my teenage self I’d rather show him other people’s work than mine. But instead of pointing him towards any actors I’d point him towards people of character. There’s a nun I know in Oxford, Sister Frances Dominica, who founded a hospice called Helen & Douglas House, for severely ill children. People in the arts don’t actually do anything except express themselves. People farting are expressing themselves. People who set up hospices for crippled children are actually doing something.

Acting can make it hard to have profound relationships if you’re not careful

If I had children, I’d be desperately hoping they didn’t become actors. Showbusiness is not conducive to mental stability. It’s a constant rollercoaster of adrenaline spikes and devastating let downs. Your sense of who you are is constantly shifting. People come up to you in the street and are incredibly flattering and you feel both you and they are being made fools of by fame. There’s something about seeing a face from the telly in real life that makes people deranged. It happens to me too. I slightly lose my mind. Actors have this power which tends to give them this imposter syndrome. There’s a story about Elvis standing in his garden looking into the sky saying, what do you want me to tell them Lord?

Like lots of actors, it’s the thing of pretending to be other people I like best. Going from one set of fictional emotional circumstances to the other, avoiding our own lives, which are insubstantial. Or mine has been, too often. But that’s because I haven’t had a family yet, probably. If I had, there’d be an imperative grounding, having to care for children. I think more about it as I get older. Acting can make it hard to have profound relationships if you’re not careful. You get into this pattern of three-month, four-month jobs, and what’s the next adventure. A life lived in tiny little episodes. I regularly think about betraying my car, getting a replacement. But I actually can’t because it’s like a friend. I’ve had it longer than any relationship. I can’t move house either because of the same thing. I did have a dog with a girlfriend for a few years who I loved very much but she’s dead now. The dog I mean.

If I could relive a great moment in my life it would be the day I got into Cambridge. I was lying in bed, aged 17 – I’d definitely tell my younger self to get up earlier and stop being such a lazy fuck. Anyway, my sister, who’d got into Cambridge the year before, ran up the stairs into my room and threw this letter to me on the bed. We opened it together. And that was the start of three lovely years, and she was there for two of them, a wonderful time. Those early days of uni were pretty golden. Walking down the main street, seeing my sister cycling towards me with a basket of flowers. Everything seemed to be very blessed. I just wish I felt a bit more perky today. I’m aware that I’ve had a wonderful life. It’s just that sometimes it feels a bit… empty.