“Tamara Drewe,” the latest from the brilliantly versatile non-auteur directing genius Stephen Frears, is a relationship comedy with tragic overtones based on Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel of the same name, in turn inspired by Thomas Hardy’s 18th century novel, Far From the Madding Crowd. The film pits three not-quite-alpha males against each other for the attention of its mercurial and not always lovable title character, played by the beautiful Gemma Arterton. Two of them, fast rising up-and-comers Luke Evans and Dominic Cooper, were set to meet at L.A.’s Four Seasons with a dozen or so entertainment journalists.
It was therefore more than a little bit amusing when the two fictionally competitive actors entered wearing near identical high-end v-neck fashion undershirts and tight-fitting low-rise pants. It was an apparent complete coincidence or perhaps not so random given the popularity of this ultra-casual look among today’s mod set. In any case, Cooper compared their combined look to “a boy band.”
Dominic Cooper made his first big splash in Alan Bennett’s Tony winning, “The History Boys,” starring in both the London and Broadway productions in 2004 and 2005. His film career, however, goes as far back as a bit part in another adaptation of a British graphic novel: the Hughes Brothers’ 2001 version of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s “From Hell.” Other key parts include a memorable role as disreputable Peter Saarsgard’s business partner/buddy in “An Education” and the lovestruck movie fiance to former real-life girlfriend Amanda Seyfried in “Mamma Mia!” Notable upcoming roles include playing the part of Howard Stark (Tony’s future dad) in the largely World War II-set “Captain America: The First Avenger.” In “Tamara Drewe,” Cooper plays self-involved rock drummer Ben Sergeant of the band Swipe, with whom the gorgeous protagonist dallies for large portions of the film.
With a background in such musicals as “Avenue Q” and the “remixed” “Rent” on the London stage, Luke Evans, who plays all-around good guy and potential once-and-future Tamara Drewe paramour Andy Cobb, has found his way into a number of big budget films, including playing Apollo in “Clash of the Titans” and an upcoming role as no-less than Zeus in Tarsem Singh’s “Immortals.” He also recently completed the role of Aramis in Paul W.S. Anderson’s 3-D version of the oft-filmed “The Three Musketeers.”
The first question was from a British journalist more familiar with Dominic Cooper’s career than most. It was about the band Dagmar, which the actor had played in as a teenager. Music by Ben Sergeant’s fictional band, Swipe, was written for “Tamara Drewe” by Cooper’s musician brother, Nathan, and the reconstituted Dagmar is reportedly hoping to play at the upcoming annual rock festival in Glastonbury this coming June.
“It’s good fun,” said Cooper. “It’s a pleasurable thing rather than anything we hope to go on tour with. It’s great to have the opportunity to play with my brother, who I’ve always watched in bands. It’s always fun writing music. It’s great.”
The next question went to Luke Evans, who plays the stereotypically heroic, salt-of-the-earth, Andy Cobb, in regards to how he felt, as per Stephen Frears’ characterization of him in the press notes, that he is “wonderfully rural”?
“I know exactly what he means. I am rural. I wouldn’t say I’m as rural as I used to be, but I come from the South Wales valleys and that’s as rural as you can get, basically. We’re surrounded by hills and sheep. My family are big gardeners, walkers. He obviously saw me and went, ‘He ticks all the right boxes.’ I got Andy. I understood his physicality and I understood where he was and who he was. He’s a really good guy. He’s a family man; he wants his own family one day.”
After a quickly disposed question about whether Dominic Cooper related to being chased by teenage girls in the manner of his rock star character, we moved on to the topic of the film’s semi-farcical style and if either Cooper or Evans felt they needed special guidance from their very experienced director.
“With comedy,” began Cooper, “number one, it’s very important that everybody’s on the same page with it, that there’s not too many different extremes of it. With this, the characters are very well drawn out. They verge on caricatures a lot of the time and you have to be careful that they’re also steeped in realism. You have to believe that these are truthful, real people. For me, what I needed Stephen to guide me in and help me with was to feel the confidence that you could go as far as you liked comedically, which made it more exhilarating to perform. The further you can go with it, and the more daring you can be, and the more stupid, in a way, and the more prepared you are to fail — because, ultimately, you’re trying to be funny and if you’re not funny you look like an absolute idiot. You need to feel comfortable in that environment, and he definitely made you feel like that. If he needed to, he’d pull you away or pull you back slightly.”
“It was very important also to understand how Posy [Simmonds] saw these characters and who they were, and then put our own stamp on them. I wanted to make [Ben] very different than the character I saw in the graphic novel and kind of give him a brighter personality, really, although he’s extremely dislikable. On paper, he’s so arrogant and egotistical — I wanted to make the audience still like him or basically feel sorry for him.”
There was another question from a British journalist, who confessed that watching the film made him feel a bit homesick. He asked if working in the idyllic surroundings of the countryside around Dorset made either of the actors want to buy property there “at the first chance.” Not surprisingly, the rural Luke Evans was quick to answer.
“I really did think that. When we finished, it was sort of November time and I went and hired a house down there for Christmas and took my family down there. It’s beautiful. The air is fresh. It’s just such a beautiful part of England. It’s really pretty. If I could afford a house there, I would. Houses there are expensive.”
Jokes about actors being automatically wealthy superstars gave way to the next question, which was about whether the two actors had any time to bond during the making of “Tamara Drewe.”
The problem was that Evans and Cooper didn’t have many scenes together and were therefore not often on the set at the same time. “I only got to really hate you on the press tour,” Cooper said to Evans to general laughter.
Evans added, “No, we really didn’t have a huge amount of time. The days are so long. My scenes were weather dependent. We were very fortunate with a lot of sunshine, but so many of my scenes were outdoors…the sun went, and that was it. We had to basically wait for cracks in the rainclouds for a flash of sunshine. And then we’d do the sunny scenes… I forgot what I was saying.”
“Something about you being weather dependent, which I liked a lot,” interjected Dominic Cooper. “I’d love to be weather dependent.”
The question of “hanging out” lingered and it was determined that the pair did share a game of pool at a local pub and that there were some dinners with Frears.
“Often you’d come in for the day and and then go back, because Dorset is only three hours from London,” Evans said to Cooper.
“In some hideous sports car that was even worse than the one I drive in the film,” Cooper said.
“I was very jealous of him because he’d come down in these sports cars, do his thing and then, just like Ben Sergeant, bugger off back to London and leave us all in this little village where there’s nothing to do,” Evans said.
Do either Evans or Cooper hang on to souvenirs from their movies?
“I’ve still got the dog,” Cooper joked, referring to Boss, who assays the crucial roll of Ben Sergeant’s canine companion in the film and actually won the highly coveted Palm Dog at Cannes for his performance. “Some things it’s always great to have,” he continued, a bit more seriously.
“I kept all my socks, ’cause they’re really nice socks,” said Evans.
“You didn’t bring ’em with you this time. You had to borrow a pair,” said Cooper.
“They’re woolen socks. I couldn’t wear them with my suit, but they’re really nice socks. I kept them all.”
After some teasing from the questioner about the plebeian nature of his choice of keepsake, Evans responded. “I’m a simple person. I’m Andy Cobb. What can I say? They were proper woolen socks from some proper woolen mill and they were great. I go camping a lot, and I go walking, so it’s perfect.”
“You’re very weather dependent,” said Cooper.
Then came the question about method acting, aimed more at Cooper. Since he was driving back and forth a lot, did he worry that he might need to use Method-like approaches to maintain the groove of his character.
“I don’t think with material like this it’s something that you need to [worry about that]. The writing’s there. I knew who this character was — it’s so brilliantly drawn out. It’s not something I’ve needed to sit in a dark room, wondering how to possibly portray a drummer. The beginning of the year, [however], I played Saddam Hussein’s son in a film about him and the guy he forced into being his body double. With that, I stayed in close proximity to the set. I didn’t really particularly want to stay in character for that, because the guy was a psychopathic killer. Still, with something like that I needed to be much more focused. Not that I wasn’t focused on this, but there are certain roles that you need to put your teeth into and submerge yourself in. [“Tamara Drewe”] is quite a lighthearted comedy, I don’t think I need to get into Method acting for it.”
Speaking of intensity, I mentioned his recent appearance with the timeless It-girl of the moment, Helen Mirren, in a production of the 17th century French classical tragedy by Racine, “Phèdre .”
“It was completely magical. We went to Epidaurus, to Greece, and performed at the oldest amphitheater in the world. It seats 14,000 people. That experience I’ll never forget. We televised it from London, so it went around the world via a live feed. So, we had to very much change our performances while we were doing it. I never really saw myself as a classical actor and dealing with language like that, but when you get hold of it, and when it’s inside of you. It took me a long time. And to work opposite Helen, using that language, the muscularity of that language, in front of an audience that you’re so immediate with — that’s why I love performing on stage. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I loved it.”
Since we were obviously switching between lighthearted and very serious moods pretty rapidly, it made sense that the next question, directed at Evans, was about differences in approaching different types of roles.
“Well, you should approach each one with a fresh pair of eyes and treat project like, well, it’s a different project. Different people. Different energy. Different dynamics. Different story. Different character. I think it’s part of an actor’s prerogative to be able to adapt and switch from one to the next. That’s what we do. I like that. The variety and the size of the film, which is part of the reason I do what I do, I think. It keeps me really active and keeps me mentally healthy. I’m always learning something or trying to get something else. There’s always something new to learn, which is great because I hate being bored.”
The next question was about costumes, props and the like. Many actors say they are a great help at “getting into character” while others say it doesn’t matter.
“Without a doubt,” said Evans. “Like with ‘The Three Musketeers.’ We did all the sword-fighting training in… sneakers and tracksuits. It was so easy, and I had to do a thing where I tip over on cart and slice up all these people. Then, we put the costumes on, and then we put the musketeer’s shoes on which there was a Cuban heel, the tight-fitting corset which the men wore underneath their tight collars, and then they gave you the real sword and the belt that goes around your waist. You’re slightly restricted but you look at yourself in the mirror and go, ‘I look like a musketeer now.’ It’s the icing on the cake when it comes to developing a character. You get on set and [you say], ‘I’m ready. I’m Aramis.'”
And what about working with the famously versatile and accomplished, but almost self-effacing, Stephen Frears?
Cooper took on this one. “I think he’s very specific with his casting. He wouldn’t have done this film unless he got the casting right. So, I think that’s half the job for him done, because he trusts what you can do and what you can bring to it. He was a man of few words, really, but what he really did say I often found incoherent and impossible to decipher or understand.”
This prompted a lot laughter around the table, though it wasn’t 100% clear that Cooper was completely joking.
“For some reason, something was going to click inside you and you’d change the performance that you were giving. Then he wouldn’t say anything, so you’d think ‘Oh, maybe that was right.’ You’re ultimately in the hands of someone who has got that many years of experience. It’s fascinating watching him develop and edit as he goes along. There was very little that he shot that wasn’t in the final edit. Which is great, he didn’t waste any time. We did very few takes. He’s often said, and many directors do, that actors do their best takes on the first three… and then it becomes quite stagnant. You’ve got to know what you’re going to shot and you’ve got to shoot it quickly. I think that’s half the talent — to know what you want and to shoot it and get on with it.”