Anarchy in the UK

Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Emma Appleton on becoming punk royalty with Danny Boyle
Film+TV | 14 March 2022
Photographer Josh Hight
Stylist Keeley Dawson.

all clothing and accessories ZEGNA SS22

In Danny Boyle’s new Sex Pistols miniseries, Pistol, Thomas Brodie-Sangster is Malcolm McLaren, the punk band’s notorious Svengali ringleader who manufactured an attitude of provocation and disruption. In contrast, minutes before this interview, the British actor was getting his green fingers dirty in the great British countryside, where he’s currently residing. And yet, despite the juxtaposition, there is certainly a touch of the McLaren about Sangster: it’s there in the debonair arrogance of his Queen’s Gambit bad boy chess maestro; in the actor’s old-school British sophistication; and that intrinsic ability to plot unexpected routes with utter conviction.

Causing anarchy in the UK alongside Sangster was British actor Emma Appleton, cast by Boyle as Nancy Spungen, Sid Vicious’ ill-fated lover. Fresh from filming and wearing Zegna throughout, Sangster reconnects with Appleton as this pair of post-punks riff together one more time.

Emma Appleton: So, what’ve you been up to since Pistol?
Thomas Brodie-Sangster: Have you seen it?

EA: No, have you?
TBS: Yeah I’ve seen it, it’s good, it’s cool. You’re very good in it, everyone is. I thought there would be some stand-out performances but everyone’s so good that it’s all at the same level.

EA: It’s a strong ensemble.
TBS: Yes, everyone’s very good at what they do. Since then, I’ve been living quite a simple life really, I’ve been enjoying being out in the countryside. Been gardening, bits and bobs like that really, quite different to the punk lifestyle.

EA: I don’t know about you, but when I was doing very punk things around Pistol, the next day I’d have to like, bake a loaf of bread, do really wholesome things. [both laugh]
TBS: I’ve been doing that for six months now.

EA: So the punk has been shaken off. [laughs] What are you gardening, a vegetable patch?
TBS: Ideally yes, a vegetable patch would be nice. But at the moment everything’s dead because it’s winter, so I’m doing a lot of clearing, building a bonfire and marking out flower beds and things.

EA: Sounds very relaxing. This is really fun [interviewing], I feel like a rookie detective. [laughs] I wanted to ask you about transitioning roles as your career has progressed, what’s that been like for you? Have you looked for anything in particular or has it happened quite organically?
TBS: It’s always happened quite organically. For a long time I didn’t really grow up, physically at least, I was forever getting cast as the little kid in things. Even when I was sixteen I was still the smallest in my class. I went through teens playing little children, and then slowly have started playing more adult roles, but that’s only quite recently. In some ways, it’s quite nice because I’ve been able to bring a certain amount of adultness to a younger character. Also when I was a teenager I could work adult hours but look like a kid. It’s been gradual and quite organic, I’ve never strived to play a particular role or person.

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EA: Is there anything particular you look for in a role or project? Is there a common theme that grabs you?
TBS: The main thing I’ve learned is that it has to be good writing. If it’s good writing then it doesn’t matter what it’s about or what the character is. If it’s from a place of truthfulness and reality that’s the perfect springboard, and good people as well. If you’ve got that, you’ve kind of got everything.

EA: I do find that if something is hard to learn and not sticking, it’s like…
TBS: Yep.

EA: It doesn’t have that flow to it.
TBS: That’s a good way of explaining it because I am dyslexic and it’s not always easy for me to figure out if something is that good. But if I can learn it really easy, I go, “It must be good.”

EA: Exactly, especially when something has a rhythm and your brain already kind of knows what’s coming, it makes sense. Have you ever had moments filming when you’ve had some sort of revelation or seen things from a new perspective?
TBS: I try to see things from everyone’s perspective as much as possible, but that’s not always possible. There have been times when I’ve gone into a scene thinking that it’ll be done this way and the director has come up to me with a confused look on their face and seen it completely differently to the way I’ve done it, and it’s taken me a while to even understand their direction. But that’s quite rare, normally we’re on the same page, normally you figure that out in casting. But I enjoy spinning it and playing with the scenes so that they move in a different way – I try to always get my take in there so that they have options. Although they’ll obviously pick theirs. [laughs]

EA: You’ve got yours in the locker.
TBS: And then I feel satisfied.

“I enjoy spinning it and playing with the scenes so that they move in a different way”

EA: So do you enjoy being able to adapt quite quickly to someone else’s vision? Do you find a lot happens when you get in there and start rehearsing and blocking as opposed to… obviously you can only do so much on your own?
TBS: With Pistol, we had loads of rehearsals. I’ve never done rehearsals like that before, I haven’t really done theatre at all so haven’t done rehearsals properly. I’ve always really blocked it out on the day and just gone for it. For Pistol we really needed it and I enjoyed the whole rehearsal process, we were all playing such mad characters with distinctive features, accents and mannerisms, so it was needed. But sometimes I’ve found myself getting a bit… even if we do a lot of takes on the day I start getting bored. I like it to be fresh and spontaneous and be able to find at least something new every take. I do enjoy the challenge of having someone else’s ideas being thrown around in my head and seeing if I can do them justice.

EA: It’s always exciting in that respect in terms of other actors, because I’ll read someone else’s lines, another character, and it’ll be what I’d do with that character. Then someone throws something at you that you’d potentially never have thought of. It’s like all these little fireworks going off at once.
TBS: And that’s great, I love that. You bounce off one another, and that’s when the magic happens.

EA: Someone said once, “It’s like bottling lightning.” This amazing thing that happens all at once and all comes together.
TBS: And when it happens you can’t really explain it or hold onto it, you just have to let it happen, enjoy it and then let it go.

all clothing and accessories ZEGNA SS22

“If it’s from a place of truthfulness and reality that’s the perfect springboard, and good people as well. If you’ve got that, you’ve kind of got everything.”

all clothing and accessories ZEGNA SS22

EA: Do you think that’s something we end up constantly chasing? This feeling you can’t really explain but I think other people can feel it at the same time.
TBS: Yes, and say you go on lunch break, and then you have to come back and try to get back into it if you haven’t finished the scene, to get back to where you were, it’s like, “Oh shit.” [both laugh] Sometimes it’s really hard to get back there.

EA: Especially if you’ve just eaten a baked potato or something. [laughs]
TBS: It’s just part of it and sometimes you’ll think it was much better on that turnaround but they didn’t have that coverage… But I think you also have to surrender some of that when doing something artistic. The spark is either going to be there or it’s not, and you’re going to be the most critical of yourself. If you start hunting, chasing things too much, you begin to push them away and you begin acting and it becomes a bit naff.

EA: I guess a lot of it is the art of letting go, isn’t it?
TBS: Hugely. It’s like when you can’t remember lines, usually, it’s because you’re trying to remember your lines. Because you know them, they’re there, but you just have to let go. It’s a very hard thing to do in life in general.

EA: But it does feel like this constant balance, a bit of a tightrope situation.
TBS: Maybe that’s what makes actors such strange creatures, just all over the place. [both laugh]

EA: And it can tip one way or the other sometimes.

TBS: When you’ve done it and you’ve felt it and the camera people have also felt it, and you know the focus person was like, “It was sharp.” Everyone has done a great take, I love that feeling.

EA: It’s the pinnacle of creative collaboration.
TBS: Yes. That’s my favourite thing about it.

EA: How do you perceive success? I think that’s an interesting question.
TBS: In a simple answer, just happiness really. Being content in yourself and what you do, I think that’s it really, it’s the way in which you get there that’s the complicated thing. Having good people around you, a support network, and feeling free to do what it is you feel you should be doing. That’s how I measure success, it’s not necessarily what I’m doing, it’s how happy I feel inside. But when I feel happy and good, it’s usually when I’m doing something very good and productive – whether that’s acting or not. I also think it’s about having a good mix. If you focus on one thing, day in, day out, I don’t think that’s very good exercise for your brain. I think you should exercise your brain in different ways, have different hobbies and activities. A fast-paced life has to be mixed with a slow-paced life, that’s why I’m here out in the countryside because at the minute I fancy a slower pace, but I love riding motorbikes really fast and I love the London atmosphere as well – it’s a balance.

EA: Leading from that, you’ve been doing this longer than I have so I’m interested to know. Having those intense periods of filming where you do three months back-to-back and you don’t have much room in your life for other things, and then you’re suddenly dropped back into the other world that we live in of cooking, putting on a wash, how do you find that transition – is it something that’s got easier?
TBS: It’s something I’ve always known. I’ve never known a 9–5 job, I’ve never known weekends really, well we sometimes get weekends. I love the feeling of being worked, I feel very satisfied by the end of a shoot if I’m physically, mentally drained and I know that I’ve put everything into it, but that’s not sustainable all year round, you can’t do that. I really like working in short, sharp bursts of passion and then I feel like I’ve earned my time off. I enjoy slowing right down and focusing on cooking, art, guitar, walking the dog and being with friends. I think that recharges your batteries until you get the itch again and want to go off and have some other mad adventure. Every single project is completely different to the next one. I’ve done projects with basically the same crew and they’ve still been completely different, just a completely different soul to each project, so it doesn’t ever really get boring. It’s never repetitive because you’ve got another story to tell and another perspective to see life from, so the downtime is very important to be able to see your own life from different perspectives. I really enjoy that pace of life. I never aspired to be an actor, I just thought it looked like fun and wanted to give it a go – I’ve never been desperate for it, but I do love it.

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“I really enjoy that pace of life. I never aspired to be an actor, I just thought it looked like fun and wanted to give it a go – I’ve never been desperate for it, but I do love it.”

EA: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t acting?
TBS: I don’t know, there are lots of things that I like to do but not as an everyday job. I trained as a mechanic for a bit, I used to work on old vintage cars.

EA: Really?
TBS: Yeah, when I was fifteen through to about eighteen I’d go after school. I used to love that, but not as a daily job. I also love flying, I thought it’d be cool to be a bush pilot and deliver aid to random places in the middle of nowhere, but I also think that would probably be quite lonely. To be a cook is just way too intense, I really don’t know.

EA: We get to do different things within our job, I’m never going to be a surgeon but to play a surgeon is incredible.
TBS: Yeah and then you learn as much as possible about what it is to be a surgeon, it’s fun to do a deep dive into someone else’s life.

EA: You are constantly on an education into other people’s lives and skills. What are some of the skills you’ve learned on jobs that you’ve absolutely loved to get under your belt, or anything that you never want to do again?
TBS: Learning to play the drums for Love Actually. That stuck with me and I can still play the drums now, I haven’t played in years but once it’s in, it stays. I got to learn how to spin guns when I was playing a cowboy, on both hands.

EA: Double-handed spinners. [laughs]
TBS: Double-handed spinning – I can still do that. I can’t really ride a horse properly, but whenever I’ve done horse work I’ve always been really grateful. Being a city boy, it’s just not a thing at all. I had to learn how to play the guitar left-handed and that was horrible, so I’ve never tried that again.

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EA: We only had one scene together when filming Pistol, which is mad, we always saw each other in passing and waved in the corridor or costume. But I find Malcolm such a fascinating person and character, what are the things that intrigued you about him?
TBS: He’s quite something, I really enjoyed playing him. He’s just one of those people who could make things happen, it doesn’t matter how bad things got, he always seemed to spin it around and turn something bad into good. He was completely insane too, it seems. [both laugh] But he was also an actor, I think he put on acts all the time – well, he’s got about three or four different accents I’ve heard him do.

EA: Really? What accents?
TBS: He goes really American when he’s talking to the press about the Pistols. He can go quite posh, and then with the boys he seemed to be quite London as well. So it was really fun to play around with all those strange sounds. Then he had this thing where he would throw his pitch all the way up and then all the way down again, croaky bits and then really loud and loads of hand gestures. It was really fun to just look over all the material we had and try to take some of those things that, if you’re not careful, could turn into a bit of a caricature, and really make it real. That was the challenge, to try and do him justice and pull out all these weird ways in which he went about living life and put it through me but make it not over-the-top-stupid and clown-like – I think it worked. [laughs] Also we were surrounded by loads of other really over-the-top people, me and Anson [Boon] would often look at each other and go, “God, I hope this works,” because we were being so over the top.

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EA: Do you think when everyone is doing that it becomes the baseline?
TBS: I suppose so. The camera work is also that, it’s mad – all canted angles and weird zippy stuff going up, down, left, right, so it does all work. I mean you always trust in Mr Boyle, obviously.

EA: If you’d been able to sit down with Malcolm what is something you would have liked to have asked him or spoken about?
TBS: I’d like to ask how much of it was planned and how much was him just completely living on a whim, is that how he actually went about his life or was he quite planned? Did he orchestrate and really have a vision or did he hope for the best and just throw himself in there, get in the room with the producers and just use his gift of the gab to make stuff happen? Because since playing him I’ve met movie producers and fashion designers who have all come up to me and gone, “Oh I met Malcolm, we had this weird meeting where he tried to get me involved in this thing that he was going to do, something to do with clothes pegs and a shoe or something?” He just seemed to always have loads of ideas, always in meetings and always trying to make something happen out of nothing. Ideas that everyone else would probably not even consider, he would take a chance and probably the riskier the more fun.

EA: It’s something to admire – that scattergun approach when something is bound to hit.
TBS: Everyone loved him as well. Everyone I’ve spoken to said, “Oh he was absolutely mad but there was something about him, I was very tempted I just never heard back from him.” He definitely made an impression.

EA: How interesting. Are you quite a deep researcher when it comes to a project? As soon as you knew you were playing Malcolm did you go headfirst into research or do you think because you’re doing an interpretation there’s only so much research to have that space for creativity?
TBS: I’m more the latter, I enjoyed the research with Malcolm and I did then get to a stage where I found enough for me to play with. Then I think the rest just has to come from me. It could be endless, you could just keep going and going, like Anson, he just kept going and going, every day he came up with something new, some new story he’d found.

EA: He could also retain it all along with his lines, that’s an incredible amount of brain space.
TBS: If I didn’t know something I’d just ask Anson and he’d know. [both laugh]

EA: He was the A–Z of the Sex Pistols.
TBS: Research can start to clog me up a bit if I have too much to think about. When you’re playing a real person that existed, you owe them a certain amount of research, you have to. There are going to be people watching who met him, knew him and they’re not going to be happy if you do a bad job.

EA: There is a certain weight of responsibility that comes with playing a real person.
TBS: Definitely. It’s a challenge but I enjoy that challenge of trying to then make it you. A good amount of you and a good amount of them in one – it’s a funny mix.

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Interview originally published in Issue 27 of HERO.
All clothing and accessories ZEGNA SS22.

tools; videography GEORGE NICOLAIDES; photography assistant PHILIP BANKSY; stylist assistant JOSEFINA MARTIN

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