Joe Thomas interview: No more Mr Nice Guy for the Inbetweeners star
Joe Thomas is on a train as I’m trying to interview him over the phone and the call keeps cutting out. But as you would expect from a man who always plays the nice guy in every show from The Inbetweeners to student comedy Fresh Meat and the BBC sitcom White Gold, he’s extremely apologetic.
“I have slightly bungled this arrangement,” he says. “It’s all my fault.”
He is on his way to rehearsals for his new play - What’s in a Name - which is adapted from the award-winning French film and stage sensation, Le Prènom. The French show received six Molière Award nominations and ran for over 300 performances.
In it he plays father-to-be Vincent who has been invited with his partner Anna to dinner by his sister Elizabeth and her husband, Peter. They are joined by childhood friend Carl for what is supposed to be a mature and sophisticated gathering.
But tonight, a startling revelation about the name chosen for Vincent and Anna’s expected child becomes the catalyst for a destructive argument which spirals hysterically out of control.
His character is, Joe says, pleasingly ‘naughty’ and he’s relieved to have been offered the role as he’s been feeling a little stereotyped as a ‘beta male’.
“I never usually play these kinds of cheeky characters. When I read it I assumed I would be asked to play the other part, the one who is offended and decent and a little bit sweet and pathetic. But it's very nice to do somebody who is more of a rogue.
“What's really nice about theatre is you do get cast against type a littlebit more and I think maybe because you are on stage with people looking at you fora huge amount of time there's a bit more time for them to see you differently. You don't have to hit them over the head with a character immediately.
“The bottom line is I’m grateful to have the chance to do something different.
I’m very happy to play nice people who are vulnerable but I would like to show I can do more stuff, that I can do these naughtier parts.
“It's possible that in comedy there's a trend towards a kind of beta male. I assume that was a reaction to a previous generation of comedy but it is actually quite hard to find male parts where it isn't basically about being a bit hopeless, and I get that men are hopeless but they are not only hopeless.
“Vincent is not without vulnerability but at the beginning of the play he just bowls in and is incredibly brash, confident and utterly unapologetic and he doesnt think about what he is saying. I think there is an entire genre of comedy which is about hopeless men reading back over what they just said an apologising for it.”
He’s also relishing the chance to play an adult character as his youthful looks have often seen him portray teenagers or university students.
“I usually play schoolboys and students so it is nice to play someone who is my own age. It means you don't have to pretend to be falsely naive and wide eyed and like you haven’t experienced anything. it's nice to be able to draw on your whole life rather than pretending that things haven't happened to you yet.”
Another benefit, he jokes,is he doesn’t “have to shave twice a day and research moisturisers.”
In the play, Vincent is most definitely a grown up: a father to be going to that most mature of nights out, a dinner party. He arrives at his sister’s house before his partner Anna and announces they have chosen a name for their unborn baby - Adolphe. The child is going to be named after the French novel of that name by Benjamin Constant.
Of course it doesn’t go down well with the other guests and just as the row is escalating, Anna arrives. Joe says: “My character begins this argument out of sheer mischief making - itis just to wind up his friend.
“And then his partner arrives and she hasn't been told what is going on. The other couple say we have heard about what you are going to call your son and we think it's a disgrace.”
“I remember an argument at one dinner I went to that got very heated about whether Britain had lost touch with its rural cuisine... by the end of it people were literally going **** you!"
In fact they have really chosen the name Henry and Anna doesn’t know about the joke, but now it’s too late as Anna has some things to say about her in laws’ choice of names for their kids. That’s where to wide-ranging argument starts.
“The play begins with what you expect to be a sociological exploration of whether you could ever call a baby Adolf but then it moves laterally and by the end that isn’t being talked about any more,” says James.
However, he is keen to point out it is still a comedy, not a harrowing experience for the audience.
“It's not like a kitchen sink drama; it's not like a bunker where there's just one person in the corner shivering at the end. It doesn't reveal the beasts within us, it's about a dinner party and how the things most profound to us are about our relationships with each other.”
Joe reckons that dinner parties can often have a very strange atmosphere and that people behave differently at them than elsewhere.
“Dinner parties are weird. Sometimes I honestly think people don't know how to end a dinner party unless its by an argument,” he says. “It’s like they have agreed to meet up just to have a row.”
“I remember an argument at one dinner I went to that got very heated about whether Britain had lost touch with its rural cuisine, that was a good one. That became incredibly personal. By the end of it people were literally going **** you! None of us are peasant chefs, you would have thought that none of us would have a dog in that fight. I think maybe someone knew someone who was good at making jellied eels. All I know is literally you can't talk about it any more, one of the subjects we can't bring up is whether or not Britain has a more urban food culture than other countries. That is a topic that in my family we don't talk about any more.
“What's funny about dinner parties is they are so inherently pretentious because people have these high-falutin debates, but in the end they are just in their living room talking to a few people. Nothing is actually happening. People behave like they are statesmen and act like it matters and I suppose it doesn't really matter.”
I wonder if he ever has dinner parties with the cast of the E4 show The Inbetweeners, which made his name. Starring opposite him in the show was Simon Bird, his close friend whom he met while he was studying at Cambridge, where they were both members of Footlights.
Joe says: “We have had dinner together but they are quite fussy, it would be quite hard to do the menu. They are rather particular. I think we would have take away probably. I used to have pizzas with James Buckley when we were filming and we would get a Dominoes and almost just for the sake of it we would get a litre of Coke each which was completely unnecessary that's the level of cuisine we would eat together.”
Returning to Cambridge after living here as a student will be “lovely actually. I’m really looking forward to it.”
He adds: “I really liked all the people I met at university - they were thoughtful and interesting and nice and I’m still friends with a lot of them.
“It took me a long time to realise there isn't really one thing that defines the Cambridge student. There are too many people there to say this is what they are like there isn't really a stock example there are different types, for me Cambridge meant the theatre and the Footlights.”
Are there any misconceptions about Cambridge students? He thinks for a while and says: “I certainly think no one ever went hunting or rode around on a bicycle with a load of books on the front or went around in a gown.”
One misconception that did bother him was that all students used bikes: “I used to get so fed up of photographs of bicycles against a wall. Just think of something else! Stop photographing bicycles!”
- What's in a Name is at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from Monday, October 28 to Saturday, November 2. Tickets from £20. Box office: cambridgeartstheatre.com
More by this authorAlex Spencer