NUIT sits down with Tim Downie to discuss his latest project War Machine where he acts alongside Brad Pitt. The actor and writer from Hertfordshire tells us where he thinks Britain stands in the world of film and television and where all his writing inspiration comes from.
Having worked with the likes of Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz in The Mercy, do you ever feel nervous when presenting your own acting style?
Yes, yes I do. The one I got most nervous about was when I did War Machine. On my first day I was doing a scene with Brad Pitt and the build-up it to it was very nerve-wracking “Have you met Brad?”, No, I haven’t met Brad… “Oh, you’ll meet Brad”. Then you’re sitting and waiting and waiting in the middle of the desert and then it’s suddenly “Quick! Get on set!” and there’s this huge sprawl amongst loads of tanks and suddenly Brad Pitt is there and you’ve got to do this scene. That was very nerve-wracking. You do it a couple of times, we did a comedy improv. We were just two actors playing a scene, that grounds you. Making a scene as good as it possibly can get. Playing the scene, rather than playing the event.
As an actor, how do you create your footprint and make sure it’s you being noticed and recognised?
I think it’s tapping into who you are and drawing that out depending on what the part its. How to choose what to bloom and display. It’s finding those little bits, there’s little bits of ridiculousness in all of us and you kind of find that and push that through the writing and create something out of it. There are some scenes where you’re like – I know what I want to do with this, I know what this is. There are others which have to be moulded and found. Yeah, that’s the kind of creative process for me. Play around with it, see where it sits and where it wants to be. Sometimes if you force it, it never quite gels. You have to let it be as loose as you can, with your actors and directors you can agree that’s the way. You can find a really good track to go on and decide to go with that. That’s one thing comedy teaches you, to be open and not be fearful. It frees you up a bit.
Having worked in some major British creations such as Peep Show and Paddington, though very different – what do you think it is about British Film and Television that draws in an international audience?
That’s a tricky one. It has its own unique placing, this country is a very old country. It has a weight of history and we all have that in us. Every writer has the weight of Shakespeare or Chaucer, like every actor has the weight of some of the greatest actors there have ever been, like Olivier or Daniel Day Lewis, it’s all in your world. I think that there is an honesty to it. We have an air of being self-deprecating and self-analytical. Americans don’t really have that, but we really do have that – because we have ruled the world, lost it, got it all and lost it again. We have a transient view of the world and we as people are like that. We are not world leaders anymore but we are on the periphery. It’s creative, it has humour and its view on the world is very unique. Wonderful, I absolutely adore it. But in equal measures it frustrates the hell out of me… but I love it. I’m equally as guilty of having a stiff upper-lip “it’s all right dear, don’t create a fuss!” where one should probably say “this is outrageous!” But I like that.
You’re also a writer! Where do you draw your inspirations, where does it begin?
I draw a lot, recently – from where I grew up. In a village in the middle of nowhere. I spent a lot of time denying where I was from, as in as much as – I never liked growing up in a village. Particularly as I had nothing to do. Now with the weight of age, I suppose – I look back and go “what a bizarre place I grew up”. A land with a lot of myth and local things to it. As a kid I thought it was boring, but now I look back and think it’s fascinating. A place with Saxon burial grounds and this deep history that is fascinating. A lot of comedy stuff I have written is to do with that Britishness, Englishness almost – rural, pastoral kind of view of things, transposed onto modern settings or period settings and things like that. Some other things I write draw on all those aspects.
When you have a lot of projects to be across, whether it’s being on camera or playwriting – how do you switch your mind to be able to go from one thing to the other?
It takes a little while, especially if I’m acting in something serious but writing something comical. You’ve got to have a little bit of breathing space to just get yourself back into where your head is at. De-compartmentalize “Right, that’s what this part is – now I’m going to focus on the other things”. Sometimes you just have to do it.
Your latest project is “War Machine”, what took your interest to be involved? What ticks your boxes to draw you to something?
David Michôd, who is a brilliant director. I had never been in a war film and wanted to. To work with someone like Brad Pitt, that was great. Its satire and a comedy style I adore. I also think it’s desperately important to hold people accountable for the stuff that they do. Comedy is a great way of doing it, it’s an accessible way for people to question things. Not to accept what you are fed by media or politicians and that kind of thing. People need to be held accountable and this film – through satire is a brilliant way of doing things. It was great fun to travel round, it was very nice. I would like to do more stuff like that, satirical things to make people question. Comedy is great like that, its fun but poses questions that need to be asked. This day and age, of all times.
Last question, you say you grew up in a small village – how did you get into acting?
My Dad especially, only watched comedy. So I grew up on a diet of classic, black and white British comedy. I think it creeps into your DNA, that way one views and interacts with the world. I look for “the funny”, how it can be twisted and manipulated. It becomes part and parcel of who you are. My Mother, who was my greatest champion – when I told her I wanted to be an actor she said, “You want to do it? Then you go and do it!”. So she did everything she could to facilitate that even though its possibly one of the precarious jobs you can think of! She was my absolute champion and she said “You should follow that, if that’s what you want to do! See where it takes you, see what it does”. As I said to my wife “The idea and dream I had at seven years old, is the same today”. I never thought in a million years it would take me all over the place and I’d still be trying to tell stories to people, trying to make them laugh. “Playing Dress Up” as my daughter says. Putting on silly voices. It takes a lot of work, but you can do it. The world will do all it can to deviate from that. But it’s about being constant, constant, constant and battering at that. It is possible, it’s not easy but it can happen. I’m doing what I want to do, how many people in the world can legitimately say that? I’m lucky, I go to work and figure out how to make people laugh. It’s a joyous thing to do. It’s something that I am proud of.
Tim is an ambassador of Blue Sky Autism, the only place that provides pivotal response therapy for children in Scotland and London. www.blueskyautism.com
War Machine can currently be viewed on NETFLIX. The Mercy will be released in theatres on the 27th of October, Upstart Crow will be aired on BBC Two later this year.
Interview by Ian Casey
Photography by Andrea Vecchiato
Grooming by Gloria Penaranda
Styling by Valentina Tiurbini