Warning: Spoilers Ahead
I think everyone’s heard the infamous tale of how Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at the White Horse Tavern in New York City. But what’s the real story? What drove one of the most brilliant and accomplished poets of his generation to his premature death? The creator of some of the most memorable lines in the English language, Dylan’s popularity and electrifying tours made him a much-loved celebrity in the US. But his failing marriage, heightened fame and wild, hard-drinking lifestyle led to his untimely death in 1953 at the age of just 39. Marking the centenary of his birth, A Poet in New York, written by acclaimed screenwriter Andrew Davies, explores the adored poet’s final days in New York City.
I had the chance to talk exclusively to Tom Hollander about what drew him to his project, the challenges of filming so quickly and playing such a deeply flawed man.
TV GOODNESS: You’ve had such a wonderfully varied career. What made you want to do this project?
Tom Hollander: “I have had a great career, but I’ve relatively rarely had the opportunity to play a stomping great central part in something written by someone as good as Andrew Davies. It happens once every 5 years, I daresay, in a single film. The last time it happened was probably in In the Loop. In terms of television, I do my own show called Rev in London, which I created myself so that’s different. I got to control that one, but in terms of it coming out of the blue, which is one sort of job, this was conspicuous by being such a great script and such an amazing character, the amazing, extreme personality — the sort of thing actors need every so often, ’cause it gives you a good run around the park, as it were. You get to shift some gears, I suppose. And Andrew Davies, amazing. The only downside was it was quite a small budget and a very tight schedule, so it was quite intense to do it. We didn’t have the luxury to shoot a scene all day. It was rush, rush, rush. But the experience of doing it was fascinating and it was a great privilege getting to know a little bit about Dylan Thomas from the inside. I didn’t know much about him and I learned as I was doing it. His family was around. They were all very kind and open. I had an anxiety about not being Welsh. I heard his voice, his real voice — which is much recorded and he doesn’t sound very Welsh at all. He sounds English with a Welsh lilt. Once I established that that was within my reach vocally, I was thrilled. And then it was just the question of getting fat.”
TV GOODNESS: Besides that, what other research did you do for the part?
Tom: “It was mostly the sound of him. I think I’m that sort of actor, maybe. I feel if I know what voice to do I feel everything else comes from that. I believe myself if I’ve formed a relationship with a voice, a sound. It was just about listening to him and listening to him and listening to him. There were these amazing recordings of him in the Heideman Collection, which is a great archive of recordings of him performing his own work in New York and elsewhere and I used to listen to that in the car and I had it on my phone. There’s loads of him performing and far less of him just talking. That voice was harder to get hold of. He’s obviously quite a performer and quite a good actor and a show off, but I thought there must be just a natural day-to-day voice he must have around his family or buying a pint or something, that would be different so I tried to differentiate a bit between one and the other.”
TV GOODNESS: Since Dylan Thomas is so well-known and so well-loved, what was it like to perform some of his most iconic words while you were filming?
Tom: “That was the great challenge of it. Though I was trying not to do an impression of him, like a parrot. Though you’d think that was the most difficult thing, it was actually just wonderful doing those poems. I loved that. The stuff where I was just standing on the stage and reciting the poetry, in a way was easiest to do, because I was somehow buoyed up by the writing itself and also I could hear it, I could listen to it and hear the way to do it. So, in a way I was copying him but I managed to find enough of myself in it to put that in as well, so that the emotion is real.”
TV GOODNESS: Dylan Thomas had quite a few vices, as we see in this film. I felt like you portrayed him in a very sympathetic way. Can you talk about that?
Tom: “To me his bad behavior…people’s bad behavior, I think, generally comes from humanity or at least anyone who goes into treatment for substance abuse or alcohol abuse, the treatments start with the notion that they are human beings in pain who are substituting their pain with alcohol or drugs or sex or whatever it is. That’s an essential tenant of recovery, isn’t it? Obviously, Dylan Thomas was not in recovery, it was almost a pre-recovery. Anyone that famous who was living like that now would almost certainly in Cottonwood or somewhere. Their agent would send them in. There we are in the early ’50s and that’s just not happening. All you’ve got is that doctor injecting him with amphetamines or cortisone or whatever it was to keep him going, which is [what happened] to Elvis, I seem to remember. So that’s what they did then. Nobody was addressing the root causes of him self-destruction, on the one hand. On the other hand, I did think the story was about someone who was very sad, someone who was lost and lonely and depressed and borderline suicidal. It was a slow suicide, wasn’t it? He knows he’s killing himself and he doesn’t stop.
So for me it was about that and I have seen people who do that, I know people who’ve done that. We all know people who’ve done that. Philip Seymour Hoffman, there are shades of that in there. Same age, same physical type, same genius, same talent and same lonely death. I didn’t find it hard to find him sympathetic. I think it’s an actor’s job, isn’t it, to find the humanity in characters who on paper are unlikable. I mean, I daresay if you bumped into Dylan Thomas on the wrong evening, he would’ve been a pain in the backside in the very least. Or if you lent him money or if you got too close to him and he let you down or if you had the misfortune to fall in love with him or any of those things, he would’ve let you down badly. But he probably would’ve occasionally been the most charming man, the most lovable man, the most brilliant, witty guy or a terrible old bore depending on the day you caught him.
I heard from somebody in Oxford whose family knew his family. I’m from Oxford and he was in Oxford for a time as a guest of A.J.P. Taylor, an academic. He flirted with his wife a lot, Margaret Taylor. That’s how they got the cottage in Laugharne. This family, who were a Welsh family, they said that he was just terribly spoiled. He was spoiled by his mother and he was indulged by all the women in his childhood. He never had a chance. That was their take. I didn’t think of him like that, but it’s an interesting, old-fashioned diagnosis of someone. It’s literally someone who can’t control their appetites because no one’s ever said no to them. And then it’s too late.”
TV GOODNESS: They’ve already learned that bad behavior.
Tom: “So they don’t understand it later in life when someone says, ‘No, that’s wrong.’ They don’t understand it. They just feel rejected and miserable. They can’t compute.”
Tom: “They were all wonderful in their own ways, as you say. I hadn’t worked with any of them before. Phoebe Fox is a newcomer. She’s a really talented actress. She’s the star of Woman in Black 2, which is coming out soon. Essie Davis, I had seen offstage and I knew she was brilliant but nothing quite prepared me for quite how good she was when I saw the film. I hadn’t realized how amazing she looked on camera and how she, in her eyes and in her face, she just got the rage and the passion of Caitlin. I think she was amazing in it. Ewan I’ve known ever since Trainspotting and I was thrilled to meet him and work with him. It was very well put together by Aisling Walsh, who’s a really great filmmaker. She had very limited time and money and she was totally, utterly dedicated to the subject matter and story. She cast those people and she loved it and made it what it is.”
TV GOODNESS: I think she did a great job. And the look of the film, the time period is spot on. It looked great.
Tom: “Yes. It does. It looks even better on a big screen, which is a pointless thing to say but it’s lit very beautifully. On a cinema screen it looks amazing. It looks like a proper movie. Martin Fuhrer, the DOP, a very talented chap. They did great things. She was inspired partly by a book of photographs taken by Rollie McKenna. She went to Laugharne and took all these photographs of them. She was a friend of John Malcolm Brinnin and her book, which isn’t for sale anymore, is full of images that Aisling recreated. If you find the book and look at the film, you’ll find there are scenes where we’re literally recreating their body language. Rollie’s in the film. She’s the girl who hardly speaks, but is taking photographs.”
Edited for space and content.
A Poet in New York premieres Wednesday, October 29th at 8/7c on BBC America.