Tom Ellis: “My biggest fear growing up was people not liking me.”

Lucifer star Tom Ellis on the real reasons he got into acting, giving his younger self a good talking to and making it big in the America

At 16 I hadn’t even stumbled across acting. Drama was not something I did at school, I was just so focused on sport. I wanted to work in sports rehabilitation. I would have loved to be a professional footballer but there were kids who were just so much better than me at school. But I still wanted that kind of adulation of running on to the pitch. So sport was very much my focus. But then I kind of stumbled across theatre studies – my teacher said to me, we need boys for drama. I’ve got 12 girls and one boy. And as a 16-year-old with other interests, girls being one of the main ones, I quite enjoyed the maths of that. So I probably didn’t join theatre studies for the right reasons. But I absolutely fell in love with it – I don’t think I’d really ever felt like that, outside of sport. It seemed to just really appeal to something inside of me.

I can say this now ’cause I won’t get arrested… at 16 I spent a lot of time in pubs. I felt like I was a bit older than a 16-year-old. I was always taller than everybody and I hung out with people who were older than me and I had jobs outside of school, at Tesco and in various restaurants. And I went to the pub all the time. We would drink and we would smoke and that was the Nineties for me. I had zero responsibility outside of my education. I had nothing continually playing on my mind like I do as an adult now. I was confident, outgoing, very social. I was a social butterfly, I loved being around people. My dad always said to me he thought my love for acting and my love for people probably started the moment I was born. My twin sister and I were born in Cardiff at the University of Wales hospital, and word got out that these enormous twins were being born – we were basically the heaviest newborn twins on record in South Wales at that time. So there were about 25 medical students surrounding my mum’s nether regions when I popped out. I came out to an audience. And that’s where it all started.

If I could go back and talk to the 16-year-old me now I’d say look at what you can achieve if you really believe in yourself. Just cut all the shit out. Because there were a few times in my teenage years when my social life felt more important to me than anything else. I actually missed a few classes in my first year of drama school, which is a big no-no. I was out drinking and I couldn’t get up in the morning. I was like, I’ve suddenly got money in my bank from a student loan – I’m gonna spend it all on beer. I got a stern talking to at the end of my first year; they said look, you need to work out what you want to do, because we believe you’ve got talent but you need to apply yourself. Part of me thinks that if I’d worked harder in the early part of my career, I might have achieved what I’ve achieved now earlier. Because I’ve certainly had moments in my career where I’ve had to check in with myself and say, you can do better. And that means staying up all night and learning those lines and being much more prepared than other people going into the process. My self-discipline has changed a lot in 20 years. I now feel like I reap the benefits of being a really hard worker.

There are parts of my character I’d work on harder if I could go back in time. I’m good with people – part of that is down to growing up in the church and being the son of the pastor and having to say hello to everybody. But I think sometimes my wanting to be diplomatic and not ruffle feathers gets in the way of standing up for something that I believe in, having the strength to do that. Because I’m scared about someone else’s reaction. That’s something I’m working on a lot at the moment. Though I’ve often thought it’s good to bring people together, I now think with real, personal things it’s much more important that people know the truth. How you genuinely feel. It took me a long time as an adult to check into how I genuinely feel, because I was so used to saying, I’m fine, and I just want anyone else to be fine. My biggest fear growing up was people not liking me. But I’ve realised now that it’s inevitable that some people are just not going to like you. And I have to expect that and be strong about that, and own my own truth and my own mistakes and try to learn from them.

DID YOU KNOW…

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I don’t like bullies, I’ve always stood up when I’ve seen other people being bullied. But actually I’ve allowed myself to be bullied sometimes, in my personal and professional life. Coming to work in America, it’s been really strange. It’s been a really amazing hunting ground on the work front. I’ve got on really well here. But one of the things I’ve had to get to grips with is self-promotion, because people do that unashamedly over here. You have to walk into a room and talk positively about yourself. The UK, I feel, is culturally different. If someone goes into a room and bigs themselves up, they’re seen as arrogant. I don’t know necessarily if it’s about arrogance. It’s about backing yourself. That’s OK in America. In the UK it’s like you need other people to affirm you.

My grandad just died. If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be him. He died just a few months ago and it was during the lockdown so I couldn’t be there. He was 99, just a few months away from being 100. There’s so many things I never talked to him about. He never talked about the war because it was a deep sense of disturbance for him. He was a Christian, and he didn’t take any pleasure in having to fight, even though it was for the right reasons. So there was no recounting glorious old war stories. I felt like he carried that burden of having to be involved in conflict, and never talked about it.

He was the most wonderful person. And it was really strange, losing that sort of figurehead in my family, and not being able to be around him at the time. My grandparents didn’t live in the same town as us, so when they came to visit they stayed for about a week. It was so exciting, we were spoiled and treated. My granddad would make people laugh and he was just a really, really kind person, and really thought about other people. Even to the extent that, when my mum came to pick him up from hospital and told the nurse she was here for Arthur, the nurse’s face lit up. Because this guy, who was 99 and struggling to breathe properly because his heart was giving up, still made time to say please and thank you and “I’m so grateful” to everyone who was looking after him. And I just kind of feel like that’s a big part of who I am. And I was never able to properly say goodbye to him.

If I could relive any time in my life… I have very fond, romantic memories of my holidays when I was a kid, which is weird because I didn’t get on an aeroplane until I was 21. We didn’t have a lot of money so we drove a caravan around the UK. There was one place we used to go to every year with our family and friends, which was a working farm in the Brecon Beacons in Wales. We used to pitch up in this field, then the kids from the other families and I grabbed our bikes and just disappeared for the day. We went to the river and built rope swings and dams, skimmed stones, all that Enid Blyton stuff. That is a time I remember just feeling free and happy and feeling just like, this is the most beautiful place in the world. I went back there a few years ago, and it brought it all back. I still felt the same. That is my happy place.

Season Five of Lucifer is on Netflix now