A few years ago, Thomas Brodie-Sangster decided to take a sabbatical from the screen. The instantly recognisable British actor had become a constant in the public eye, starting his illustrious career in 2003’s ultimate Christmas romcom Love Actually, in which he played Liam Neeson’s endlessly cute stepson, before casually popping up in every major franchise going; from Star Wars and Maze Runner to Doctor Who and Game of Thrones.
After 15 years, it was time for a well deserved break, but last year he eased himself back into the business, taking a role as an ice-cool chess maverick against Anya Taylor-Joy in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, a Mad Men-esque take on the beautiful board game. But what Brodie-Sangster didn’t know was that after just one job, a global lockdown would force him back into work-free isolation.
“I took two years off just to chill out and focus on other things,” he explains over Zoom from his home in south London. “I went on to Queen’s Gambit and I felt a bit rusty, but I also left feeling like ‘I can’t wait for the next job!’ And then this all happened… Kind of annoying!”
“I can’t wait for the next job – lockdown is annoying!”
Terrible timing aside, if this is the only show we’ll see him in for a while, at least it’s a good one. In it, he nails the part of charismatic narcissist Benny Watts. Dressed like Crocodile Dundee with a knife always tucked into his belt, he shines in the six-part adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel about Beth Harmon, a troubled young woman with addiction issues who wants to become a chess grandmaster.
Filmed in Toronto and Berlin, the series reunites Brodie-Sangster with director Scott Frank, the pair previously working together on Netflix’s female-driven Western show Godless back in 2017, one of Brodie-Sangster’s last projects before he took his time off. From True Grit to El Topo, it’s almost impossible to stop a Western from being cool, but was there ever a concern that a show about chess might be a bit, well… boring?
“There was a worry for that, but Scott called me up and I trust him as a writer and as a director,” explains Brodie-Sangster. “He’s just very good at storytelling.” Part of Scott Frank’s approach was to get Brodie-Sangster to do something he’d never done before. “He said, ‘I want you to start growing as much facial hair as you can.’” Brodie-Sangster got to work, conjuring up a suave moustache and a whisper of a beard. “That’s all I could muster,” he chuckles. “But it was about six months of growth there.”
As well as a character he could really sink his teeth – and follicles into – one of the biggest pulls of The Queen’s Gambit was the decade his scenes were set in. “I’ve always wanted to work in the 1960s,” he beams. “I loved being there; the cars, the fashions, the styles, the hair. All of it. It’s very cool.”
“I love the cars, the fashion, the styles, the hair – the ’60s was very cool”
This isn’t just a low-key interest in the grooviest of all decades, but rather a fascination Brodie-Sangster has long held. Since he was a teenager he’s been obsessed with classic cars from the same era – not to mention his motorcycle habit – which all started when he was 15 and got a job at a local south London garage which specialised in vintage motors.
In fact, you can check out Brodie-Sangster’s beloved old school car in the video for fellow South London indie band Hotel Lux’s recent single ‘Ballad of You & I’. In it, Brodie-Sangster and his real-life girlfriend drive down to the Essex seaside for a socially distanced British beach day with the band, who are old pals. The real star though is his beautiful Citroën DS. However, that wasn’t the band’s initial idea. “They were like, ‘we’ve got this old transit van’,” says an appalled Brodie-Sangster. “I was like ‘No, that’s not gonna work. I’ve got an old vintage car that I’m gonna be driving down anyway.’” Hotel Lux quickly saw the error of their idea. “It’s the best ride,” he moons. “I’ve been in a lot of fancy cars, but nothing else rides like that. So comfortable. so smooth. And it gets people’s attention – they love it or they hate it.” When he’s not out driving them, Brodie-Sangster is cruising eBay for more vintage vehicles. “I’m looking for a little van at the moment, maybe a 2CV,” he explains.
His love of classic style extends to his wardrobe, too. Check out any red carpet or pap shots of Brodie-Sangster over the past few years and you’ll notice that he’s often found sporting a sweet pair of flares. “Oh, I’ve always liked flares. They’re great. Again, it’s like my car – some people hate them and some people love them!”
With a young face but an old soul – he was 13 when he played the primary school aged Sam in Love Actually and 22 when portraying the 13-year-old Jojen Reed in Game of Thrones – Brodie-Sangster actually turned 30 during lockdown. Plans for a big party with some mates in a house in the countryside were curtailed and instead it was a rather more lowkey affair, in which he celebrated with his mother, who was also celebrating her 60th.
It’s clear that family means a lot to Brodie-Sangster. One of his reasons for taking time off from work was to spend more time with them, and in a Haim-like twist, he reveals that they all used to play together as a band called Winnet, gracing the jazz clubs of south London with his mum and sister singing, his dad on drums and Brodie-Sangster on bass. After a good six or seven years, that all petered out, but he hasn’t left the bass behind, especially not during lockdown. “As a bass player you really need a drummer to jam, but a great mate, Dylan O’Brien, who was in the Maze Runner [films] with me, we send each other videos back and forth,” he explains. “He’s got a drum kit set up at home and I play bass to his tracks. Then I send him a bass track and then he’ll play drums to that. It’s kind of a transatlantic jam.” Pre-COVID they played together in real life too, but will their sessions ever be heard by the world? “No-one ever wants to hear a jam!” laughs Brodie-Sangster. “Jams are for going, ‘Yeah man, we’re great’, and then you listen back to it and think, ‘That’s awful, that’s terrible, that’s just masturbation’.”
The closest they’ve ever got to playing in public was when they were in South Africa filming the last Maze Runner movie and started an on-set band called The Apologies. “We always said our first album would be called ‘In Advance’,” he says with a well-timed eyebrow raise. “So, Apologies – ‘In Advance’. “We found this great little jam spot. We would go every weekend and we’d get other people from the crew; anyone that played guitar, anyone that played the tambourine, anyone that played anything. We ended up having the wrap party there.”
Maze Runner is just one of the phenomenally successful franchises Brodie-Sangster has been a part of, but anyone hoping for a revisit is out of luck. “Oh I think we’re done,” states Brodie-Sangster. “There might well be another film, but I don’t think we’ll be part of it.” Another is Game of Thrones, which he explains he hasn’t seen the finale of. “I haven’t even finished [watching] my seasons yet!” he reveals. “I’m still halfway through season four. I don’t have the right channel and just lost track of it a bit… I was thinking the other day I should probably watch it again, because it was really good. I did really enjoy it. Lots of people really like it, except no-one seems to like the last episode or the last season. I haven’t met anyone that likes it so far.”
Brodie-Sangster has spoken before about how he only discovered he was going to die in the show when he read the script while travelling to film what would be his last series. “It would have been fun to come back for one more season, but it was good and my death was cool.” What did he like about the way wise greenseer Jojen carked it? “Well, I get stabbed repeatedly and that looks a little bit comical, but then my sister comes over and tries to put me out of my misery and slits my throat and then a girl comes out the middle of nowhere and throws a Molotov cocktail at me and I explode.” Fair enough.
“I haven’t met anyone that likes the last season of ‘Game Of Thrones’
During his two years off, Brodie-Sangster asked himself a lot of questions, including if he still wanted to act, having been in the game since he was just a kid. “I did wonder, ‘how important is it to me?’ But I missed it,” he explains. “I missed the wonderful freedom of being able to explore all of those kinds of questions but doing it through a character. That by proxy allows you to explore an alternative version of yourself in some ways, through someone else, and you get to play and experiment with that on set. I think that’s the most interesting thing about acting.”
He’s had his fair shot at experimentation over the years, playing a vast variety of roles, including a number of real life characters, such as Rafe Sadler, Thomas Cromwell’s ward in BBC’s Wolf Hall, and a young Paul McCartney in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Nowhere Boy. Though he never got to meet Macca, he did find out what the real Macca thought of his portrayal via the film’s director. “The one comment I did get was that he didn’t like the fact that Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who played John, was taller than me, because he said that wasn’t the case!”
As the days grow shorter and the nights colder, we wonder if Brodie-Sangster starts to panic as we draw ever closer to what we can affectionately call ‘Love Actually Season’. “I do get recognised a lot more around that time!” he admits of what remains one of his most memorable roles. “But that’s fine, I don’t mind – it’s quite funny, really. It’s just part of it.” What does he think the appeal of the schmaltzy Brit-com is, almost two decades down the line? “It’s just about love and about companionship and togetherness,” he explains. “It’s a little bit cheesy and it’s a little bit unrealistic sometimes and the score is really lovey-dovey, but it follows several different paths and different people and different ways in which people can all find love. I think there’s something beautifully simple about that.” So when did he last watch it? “I might watch 10 minutes every now and again, but the last time I sat down and watched it all the way through? God, I don’t know, it might be the premiere!” It’s further proof, if any were needed at all, that Thomas Brodie-Sangster has come a hell of a long way from Love Actually.
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ arrives October 23 on Netflix