Thomas Brodie-Sangster spoke at the Cambridge Union this termTobia Nava with permission for Varsity

On first meeting Thomas Brodie-Sangster I was struck by two things: first, his outfit. A vintage-looking, patterned, yellow, collared shirt, framed by a blue suit and accessorised with one small gold hoop earring. This is a man who, much like the subject of his newest series – the Sex Pistols – is not afraid to make a statement. The second thing I noticed was his manner. His fashion statement could have suggested a gaudiness and ostentatiousness to his character. This wouldn’t have been out of place given his rise to fame as a child actor appearing in films such as Love Actually (2003) and Nanny McPhee (2005). But he was, on the contrary, sincerity itself, treating each one of my questions with no hint of ego or self-importance.

Despite receiving wide-spread acclaim in recent roles such as the Maze Runner film series and Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit for which he was Emmy-nominated, it is clear Brodie-Sangster has managed to stay grounded. Despite his trademark youthful appearance, there is a wisdom that emanates from him beyond his years. He is a man that has been formed by both passion and an innate understanding that quality work takes time and effort, and chiefly, patience.

I was eager to learn if Brodie-Sangster had a favourite past role. “No, not really,” he answered, noting that “They are all very unique and special. I suppose because I’m in a different place – in my own personal life – at the time I embark on one of them. I’ve been [acting] for 20 years, so I’ve grown up doing this.” He feels like he still learns a lot on every single job, and tries to bring that new knowledge to his next role.

Therefore, “to compare them is quite hard” he says, as “they’re different sorts of jobs and characters.” He’s always the most excited about his latest roles, however, noting that Malcolm McLaren, Brodie-Sangster’s newest character from the Sex Pistol biopic is “quite a push, so I would have to say Pistol.” When watching him enact Malcolm’s dastardly manipulations of the unwitting band members in Pistol, I wholeheartedly agreed. The flamboyantly provocative Malcolm, eager for a cultural revolution no matter the cost, is as far as it is possible to get from the polite, considered man that I was sat opposite.

“I like to mix it up as much as possible”

I asked if there are different kinds of characters he preferred to play. “It depends on my mood, I suppose, and what the previous job was. I like to mix it up as much as possible. I’d get bored too quickly otherwise, so I’m quite happy to just change it. I haven’t had much experience playing villains, Malcolm is probably the most villainous character [I’ve played], but I try not to think of him as a villain [...] most villains don’t think of themselves as villains,” he astutely remarked.

What he wants from a role is “something that challenges definitely: something that challenges myself and hopefully the viewer as well [...] Anything that’s interesting. Anything I can get my teeth into.”

Brodie-Sangster isn't afraid to play a villain. Pictured, as Malcolm McLaren in PistolInstagram:@pistol

The Sex Pistols’ short-lived career was pointedly controversial. Brodie-Sangster’s character was repeatedly accused of encouraging the band towards dangerous behaviours to garner press attention. I asked what his process was for filming darker scenes. “It’s so much easier – particularly those harder moments – when you are surrounded by talent. We have Danny Boyle, who’s a fantastic director, and who’s passionate about emotions, and is able to capture something that is genuine. He allows you to be very free. And also to have a cast who really feel confident in experimenting; it creates an atmosphere on set that's productive yet liberating. You feel very comfortable to let yourself go and see what happens. And in those dark moments that’s imperative.”

I asked whether he ever watches his own projects back. “I like to initially,” he said, “because I love to see how it all comes together, because what you do on the day isn’t necessarily what ends up on the screen. The edit, for example – the edit alone – could change the whole story.” Does he often gets to see things he has acted in before they go out to the rest of the world? “No [...] I like to see it when it’s polished. I like to watch it at the premiere for the first time.”

"The flamboyantly provocative Malcolm, eager for a cultural revolution no matter the cost, is as far as it is possible to get from the polite, considered man that I was sat across from"Instagram:@pistol

For actors, sometimes the final cut can come as a surprise. “Quite often, if you had a scene cut that you loved it’s kind of annoying because you think Damn, I spent ages doing that!’ but it’s not mine at that point, it’s the director's.” Brodie-Sangster has a healthy relationship with how his shows are produced, saying “It was mine on the day, then it’s the director's, and then once it’s out it’s not his anymore it’s the audience’s. So you have to just let it go and realise that it’s good for the project.”

“People come up to you all the time and say how brilliant you are but you need to be careful to keep your head screwed on”

A lot of young students idealise ‘fame’ and equate it to success. I wondered if Brodie-Sangster had any advice from his years in the industry about living in the public eye. “It’s hard, it’s a very unnatural place to be. People want to be accepted, people want to be viewed, people want to be heard, but then to have [attention] constantly, and from people that you don’t know personally is quite overwhelming. People come up to you all the time and say how brilliant you are, which is lovely, but you need to be careful to keep your head screwed on and your feet on the ground, and accept that the thing you love to do results in a product that people love and invest in, and then relate that to you, personally.”

“Although those people admire you, they don’t know who you really are. You can kind of conflate and mix up the two and believe that you are your public persona. I have to remind myself that their reaction to me is genuine to them, but not something I should take on board as being really me.”

“Real acting is seeing the truth in something and trying to believe that yourself”

Many Cambridge students wish to pursue a career in acting, alongside their academic degree - which is often wildly different, for example if they're primarily studying a science-based subject, such as engineering. I wanted to know what advice Brodie-Sangster had for young people that want to break into the business whilst also managing academically demanding degrees. “I have always said that a way of doing acting is to exercise your mind in many different ways as acting is a very strange thing: you pretend to be other people for a living," he said, continuing that "I think doing, for example engineering, is a wonderful way for your mind to just be active."

"As advice: real acting is seeing the truth in something and trying to believe that yourself. [...] Even in an audition for something that’s really crap, just try and find the element of truth and the casting director will see that.”


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Finally, I asked the question I had been burning to ask the entire time: whether Brodie-Sangster really learnt how to play the drums as 10-year-old love-stricken Sam in the iconic 'All I Want For Christmas is You' scene in Love Actually. “Yes!” he replied proudly, “My dad taught me: My dad was a drummer, funnily enough in a punk band, and he was a bit of a punk rocker, so I sat in my grandad's basement – my dad set up his old drum kit – and for weeks we just listened to that song over and over and over and over, and of course it wasn’t Christmas - trying to get that intro. And funnily enough, I only got it on the day of filming.”

Music is something that has been an important influence throughout Brodie-Sangster's illustrious career. From learning the drums, to now appearing as the manager of the most famous punk band of all time in Pistol, it’s clear that Brodie-Sangster is back with a bang, and I for one can't wait to see what project he takes on next.