Having performed in the hugely successful West End production of MAMMA MIA!, Tom Bowen joined the UK tour of Dirty Dancing last year as Ensemble and Lead Role Cover. In the recent release of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, starring Lily James, Tom appeared in a scene as lead dancer. Sitting down with us recently, Tom chats about performing with the EastEnders cast on Children In Need, receiving advice from James Earl Jones and his many stage show appearances.
You joined the cast of the UK Tour of Dirty Dancing last year as Robbie and first cover Johnny Castle, how did the run go?
It went awesomely, it was brilliant, the whole Dirty Dancing tour was just the best. I did the last six months of the UK tour and it’s a weird family feeling when you’re on tour because you’re all together in a different place every week. The tour life is brilliant. When you’ve done a five-hour journey in the car or train, you just want to relax and you just want to be around really nice people. It’s a certain mindset you have to have when you’re on tour, when you’re relaxed into it, everyone is just wonderful, and it’s very supportive and it’s very loving.
I remember in North Wales I had really tragic news and it really affected me, so much so that I couldn’t actually emotionally do the last act of the show. I was an emotional wreck. Every single person was so supportive and so lovely. I couldn’t have asked for a warmer environment to have been in for the news… it was such a shock. The whole tour was just incredible, it was lovely, they’re all great.
Before booking your role in Dirty Dancing, you made your West End debut in MAMMA MIA! at the Novello Theatre, how different were the two shows to appear in?
It was different because when you get a contract for the West End, you’re there for a year, and it’s not going anywhere, you don’t have to think about anything, everything’s extremely well thought out – every circumstance and every possible event has been thought of. In the West End, the professionalism is so precise. On tour, the size of the stage varies so dramatically too, in one week you’re literally like a greyhound flying onto the stage to get there for your mark, because you have to enter and get to that mark at the same time every show. Then one week you walk on and you literally are at a snail’s pace to get there and you don’t have to worry, but you do have to worry about the set when it rotates, it could knock you out, haha! I love being in the West End, it’s great, and it’s so close to home. I love London, it’s my core.
We understand you played Fred in the Scooby-Tour tour, when was this and what was it like performing to a younger audience?
Scooby-Doo was the hardest job I’ve ever done! It was February 2017, a nine-performance tour, and we were literally jotting about the place. Everyone bar three of us were returning cast members, I was the only new one out of the mystery crew, so everyone else knew all their lines from the beginning, they all knew the harmonies and they knew all the songs. There I was, just been handed the script about three days before we started rehearsals, and I’m like, “*mehehe alright kids*”, then all of a sudden you’ve got thousands of screaming children in front of you, who are so believing that this is actual TV and you’re not an actor – you are Fred Jones, and Scooby has just run through the audience!
You cannot lie to children, you have to 100% commit otherwise they clock it. Especially now with kids, they slightly grow up quicker and they’re even more clued on to the world around them. If you don’t do something that Fred does, they’d be like, “no, that’s not real” or “oh, Scooby-Doo wouldn’t move that way” or “he wouldn’t laugh that way, his laugh is like this ahahahah, not that!”. It was incredibly challenging, but again, like any tour, the family environment, working with the actors who knew what they were doing, made it so much better.
How different was it performing in theatres around the country opposed to the West End?
This is quite a hard question. I think it depends on the actor. For me, personally, I think you should always give 100% of yourself on all performances. You should have 100% dedication to every performance, no matter what, no matter if there are twelve people in the audience in a 2000 seat theatre or whether it’s crammed to the rafters in a tiny theatre, there is no difference. I’ve heard actors backstage who have been like, “oh no, there are only a thousand people in, I don’t care, I don’t give it unless there are 3000 people”. Or there are people who absolutely stress out because there are too many people, and they fear the huge stage. To me, all you need to worry about is if you are investing 100% of your attention into the moment of the play or the performance.
In the West End, where everything gets so thought out, all you have to do is invest 100% of your attention into what you’re doing because, for example, the curtains are going to come down at a certain time, after you say a certain line someone’s going to walk on stage, so you don’t have to worry about any of that stuff, whereas on tour, because you never know what’s going to happen, it brings an extra spark of attention you need. There are some actors who are very easily distracted, and no actor is immune from distraction because we’re all highly energetic people, so obviously, if someone falls over on stage, and variably it does happen and it will happen, how you react depends obviously on your character. If your character is jack the lad, laughing would 100% be acceptable, but if it’s a character who would never crack and laugh, then it wouldn’t be, so it depends on the actor and depends on the part.
You have also performed in pantomimes, what’s the experience like and would you like to do more?
Panto’s brilliant. It’s one of the oldest forms of theatre, it goes back to Shakespeare – women dressed as men, men dressed as women – and it’s so British, it’s ridiculous. Pantomime is weird because you’re basically becoming someone’s ultimate imaginary boyfriend. Everyone dreams of Prince Charming, or dreams of dating Cinderella, and every child wants to see Buttons fall over and see the Dame throwing custard pies in their faces, or the ugly sisters being evil. You want someone to hate and you want someone to boo and you want someone to cheer, that’s extremely gratifying when it might be that child’s first experience of theatre.
I think some actors who I’ve met forget that it can really decide whether a child wants to get into acting or whether that family wants to see more theatre. I think in Britain, theatrical plays are the best and theatrical actors are the greatest, and going to theatre is something we’ve done for hundreds of years, it’s encouraging younger generations to get into the theatre, to get into acting and to get into watching plays and musicals. It’s very important that pantomime is done well and done correctly and respectfully, so that it encourages the next generation of actors.
I remember as a kid seeing Oliver! and thinking, oh my god, I want to be up on stage, I want to do that, I want to do what that kid’s doing. Luckily, a few years later, I fulfilled that dream and was up there, and I was like, oh my god the stage is awesome. That was where I learnt to act and all I wanted to do was be up on stage.
Will I do another one? I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it. I have a vision of where I want to be in the future and it doesn’t rule out panto. I think, if the script is right, if the director and the cast are right, if the crew’s right and if it’s timed well, 100% I’d do it.
As a dancer, you recently appeared in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, what was it like on set and how long were you filming?
I was on set for a day. My agents sent my headshot over to them and they just said yeah ok great. I turned up at 3:30am for the film day because they promised breakfast! I woke up at 2am, had myself a breakfast that I made at home, I got on the train and the underground, got into London and got over to Russell Square. They’d said we could turn up at 5am/6am to get into costume and makeup, but if we got there early, we could have breakfast. I was like, this is awesome, of course I’m going to get there early for breakfast! No army marches on an empty stomach, I’d definitely have a free breakfast anytime, hahaha! I think we wrapped that day at 8pm, so I was there for a good while, it was brilliant.
We filmed in Russell Square at the back of the British Museum. There’s a building called Senate House, it’s been in hundreds of movies from Batman Begins to pretty much, I think, every James Bond film – each one has filmed there for offices or walkways, or a Soviet Union building. It looks very Soviet Union kind of looking on the outside, you’d absolutely 100% believe that there was some Soviet Union general up there for James Bond to go and vanquish! It’s a great film location and once you’ve been there you’ll all of a sudden go, oh my god that was filmed there, or you’ll be waiting in a room, but then ten years ago that might have had Pierce Brosnan shooting someone in it, and only once you’ve watched that movie back will you go, oh my god I was literally there when that happened. I’m a massive geek when it comes to stuff like that, I lose my rag absolutely when I notice something like that.
How were you involved in the film and did you get chance to see it before it was released in cinemas?
I was one of the lead dancers for this one amazing ballroom scene, I think right at the end of the first act. I didn’t really have to do much training for it because they wanted just natural partner work from the dancers. I was paired with a lovely dancer on my agency and she was suffering from a cold, bless her, on the day, so we kind of just underplayed everything and we just danced as if somewhat brother, sisterly and I guess it came across well. The first assistant director kept coming up to us to move us in front of the camera, we just kind of hugged danced instead of all the twirls and twists and turns that everyone was trying to do. You’d see all the extras going full out, and the director being like “calm down, just do what the the professionals are doing”, hahaha! There were about five groups of professional dancers with us and we were all pretty much around the camera a lot, so we kind of led that whole day. After a little while, because it gets very hot on set, we started sweating, and all the makeup ladies came rushing over to powder us and you’re like, “oh god, I’m greasy… minging!”
I actually haven’t even seen it yet, I’m going with my family this weekend to see it. The premiere was a few weeks ago but I was busy so I couldn’t actually go, which was a shame, but it looks like an awesome film.
What do you remember most about filming for Children in Need with the EastEnders cast?
I remember Danny Dyer playing a trick on me, little git, hahahahaha! It was a Grease medley they were doing for Children in Need, and everyone threw themselves into it because it’s an incredible cause. Rich Marcell (our choreographer) put me on the bar with Danny Dyer. While they’re setting up the shots and saying to the other actors and dancers what to do, Danny turns to me and goes, “ah yeah, mate, do you want a pint? You alright? Have you had a good day?” I was like, “yeah, mate, I’m fine”. I’m not going turn down a pint from Danny Dyer, so he pours me a pint and he goes, “Go on, mate, have a sip. I think you’ve earned it, mate, you’ve earned it”. I’d taken a sip and I immediately spat it out. All the crew and Danny just wet themselves laughing, I think it’s a running joke because they’ve laced the beer with TCP to stop the actors from drinking on set and getting drunk! Beer and TCP is the most disgusting thing ever… so that was fun!
I remember being in a tank top and it being -1° on site, it was only the actors and dancers, everyone else was in Canada goose jackets and thick wooly jumpers, and there you are in a tank top, step clicking and stuff and you don’t feel the cold because you’re purely running on adrenaline.
So, yeah, thanks, Danny!
You were a dancer at the London 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony, what was this like to do?
Awesome. I can recall the smell of the arena in my memory. I distinctly have a memory of watching Brian May shredding his guitar, absolutely killing a guitar solo, walking in a straight line and every ten metres a massive explosion pyro would go off behind him. It was the We Will Rock You guitar solo he was playing. I just sat there thinking every soul on the planet is present in this arena, whether it be emotionally invested in being there, or watching it at home in Brazil or Australia or Peckham… people were watching you. All of Great Britain did their best on that whole Olympic ceremony, the whole Olympics in London, everyone put their best foot forward and it really showed. There was this massive sense of pride backstage, you could just see people walked with an air of confidence, because it was so wonderful to walk around and be a part of it.
There was a mix of celebrities. I remember Emeli Sandé, Russell Brand and two of the Spice Girls (I think Baby and Geri) were just casually chatting to all of us dancers. I had some banter with Russell Brand when I met him quietly for a moment, he was like, “you alright? How you doing, mate hehehehehe,” I was like, “ah you alright, Russ, you good?”. Everyone was awesome, and when everyone really wants to give it 100%, it really just lifts the stage. The sound of what I can only imagine as giants fighting, coming out of these speakers as Brian May is killing it and you’re just like, what am I watching? I’m literally watching the greatest show on earth, and that is what it felt like, just awesome.
Was this event your first professional job and how did it come about?
Yes, my first professional job was the London 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony, and it was my first job with Kim Gavin. I got that through my college when I was still training and one of the teachers came in and said, “we’re looking to boost you up the ranks with a few more lads”, so three other lads from the course and I went and worked professionally.
We got placed with Annie Lennox first, and then we got passed to a Fatboy Slim set, and then we got pushed over to right at the beginning with One Direction. I managed to end up working with the Spice Girls as well! It was a kind of baptism of fire in my first professional job. Ever since then, I worked as a commercial dancer because it was such a great credit. It was from that one job that something I never intended to became a huge part of my life.
How did you get into acting and dance and what dance styles are you trained in?
I was introduced to acting when I started pretending to be ill from school… I hated school! My mum was like, “you should be an actor, you’re always pretending to be ill!”, so I asked what that was and she said it was someone in the movies and up on stage. I was like “ok yeah, that sounds cool!”. I remember pretending to be ill one day and watching a Norman Wisdom film called A Stitch in Time. I must have been about six, and I cried and laughed at the same time, in the space of ten minutes, so I was like that’s something worth my time and effort, and that’s when I decided to really pursue it as a career.
Dance followed when I was told, as a child actor, that I was rubbish at dance and I should do my three years at drama school and learn to dance, so I could meld the three disciplines into one and become a working actor in musical theatre.
Through my three years of college, you get guest teachers and you learn hip-hop, street, all different styles, so basically, I did every style under the sun, just till it got into your body!
Have you been given any advice over your career so far that has stuck with you?
I have two people that gave me great advice. In my first week at drama school, our jazz teacher, Matthew Cole, turned to the class and he was like, “Fundamentally, guys, you’re first and foremost an actor, but the beauty is that, as a dancer, you have to convey the story with your body and your moves. You have no lines on a page, you have no music, you have no underscoring and no orchestral to tell you to influence the music, to influence the mood or the emotions – you have to do it all with your body. Even if you turned the music off, watching a dance, you should be able to see what the point of the story is, if that be two star-crossed lovers or a horrible breakup, you should be able to convey that message”. It’s stuck with me through my whole career, and it’s helped me so much. I was probably the only one who really took it in when he said it, but when I came to drama school, I wasn’t a dancer. I’d never done a plié before in my life, it was hilarious to watch actually, I was quite embarrassing.
The next bit of advice came from James Earl Jones, who is the voice actor of Darth Vader and Mufasa, he’s an awesome actor – the voice of God, in my opinion. I saw him at The Old Vic in Much Ado About Nothing, I waited outside stage door and waited for him to come out. Everyone had asked him for photographs and signatures, and I said to him, “I don’t want a signature, I don’t want a photograph, I want to be up there with you as an actor, I want to be up there on the stage and I want to be on set with you. How do I get from a graduate out of drama school to where you are, as a seasoned professional?”. He said, “Do it all, do everything, take a risk. My agent gave me a call and said, “I’ve got a young filmmaker here who wants you to be a part of a space opera, some really weird sci-fi. I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere, no one really wants it, but he really wants you to do a week in the booth as a voice actor for one of the characters. I don’t know if it’s going to be very big.”” He accepted because once he’d read the script, he really liked it, and he said he took a risk with this guy, and that was George Lucas from Star Wars, and he was Darth Vader. That character is so iconic now and he took a risk on it.
He’s done so many great jobs for Disney, he’s been Mufasa in The Lion King and you can hear the gruffness of his voice, it’s awesome. So, when he said take risks, he said start small, start taking small roles, start from the bare basics and keep doing good work. That really stuck with me because I felt like, from him, it came from decades and decades of experience. I had nothing of that because I’d just graduated, so he was looking back on his life, giving me advice. He didn’t have to give me that advice, he could have just said “do anything” and walked away, but he actually took the time out to mention that. I greatly appreciate it and I remember it every day.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into dance and acting?
There’s a great quote by Les Brown that says, ‘tough times are going to come, but they’ve not come to stay, they’ve come to pass’, and when you’re a professional actor and you really want something, you have to wait for it. There’s a lot of waiting around, there’s a lot of unemployment and there are a lot of financial struggles, but there’s also a stupid amount of rewards to come from it.
Advice I’d give to people is – hold on to your fundamental dream that drew you to that in the first place. Whether you really wanted to play that character, whether you really wanted to work with that actor, whether you really wanted to work with that director, or maybe there was a role that you saw and were completely moved, and decided you wanted to move people like that. Remember that when you’re standing in the middle of a car park at 2am waiting for an open call for Star Wars, which I saw about 11,000 people do outside Twickenham Stadium. And I was one of them. I had to keep reminding myself, even though it was around -7°, just keep holding on to that dream because it will happen. There will be dark times and it is hard, it’s never easy, just keep the faith, keep the love, be pro-active, learn a new skill, it’s going to help you – learn a language, learn another Shakespeare monologue, read another Shakespeare play, learn the guitar, master that and then learn something else, learn to juggle, once you’ve done that, I don’t know, learn to ski, learn to horse-ride, learn skills that you can transfer into acting. You never know when you’ll need those skills. All of a sudden, you’re going to be on the set of Game of Thrones and if you’ve never ridden a horse before, it can be the difference between you getting the part or not getting the part, so why give a director the opportunity to not hire you?
That comes from 100% dedication, some people believe that where you trained defines where you go as an actor, where your career goes. I think about what you can offer to the character, to the director, what you can offer to the production, pure determination, that this is exactly what you want to do. If you’re not right for something, and you’ve been put up for it, just go. Even if you’re like, “oh no, I know I’m not going to get this part, it’s a waste of time”. It’s never a waste of time to be seen by a casting director, it’s never a waste of time to have a meeting with a director, it’s never a waste of time to shoot a scene, to shoot a short film, it’s never a waste of time to get new headshots. Keep busy and keep dedicated.
Having previously worked on short films, how do you find working on these?
There’s no messing around when it comes to short films. There’s little time to prep because predominantly you’re working with people who are looking for their big break as a director, filmmaker, writer or producer, who normally come from student films, and people who are just trying to be noticed for the short film, trying to tell a story in as quick a time as possible. You’re essentially breaking quite a complex story down to twenty minutes, sometimes even two minutes, so you have to just cut the cake and get on with the story, you can’t powder anything out. It’s really interesting because there’s no messing around and it’s a lot quicker filmmaking. When you’re on a set for a big movie, you do your three shots a day, whereas you try and do about ten shots an hour on a short film, to try and get it all done in a maximum of a week, maybe two weeks if they like to take their time.
Have you seen any theatre shows recently that you would recommend?
Absolutely. I’ve seen two in the last four/five months and both were incredible. I saw RSC’s Coriolanus at the Barbican. It was so incredibly acted, it was so well directed, it was so well produced, and I just fell in love with it. The leading actor of this production deserves an Oscar, he deserves a Tony, he deserves every bit of success. You could see how 100% dedicated he was to the character, physically and emotionally, he really took the audience on a journey, and he absolutely commanded that stage. It is so easy to be lost on the stage, to not know what you’re doing, every vowel, consonant, every syllable that came out of his mouth, he was commanded and it was an absolute lesson in acting he gave.
People are scared of Shakespeare, I don’t know why, you should embrace Shakespeare, he still, to this day, resonates stories that we need to be told, whether it be about corruption or love or war. I’d recommend, if ever Coriolanus comes back with that cast, go and see it. Go and see any Shakespeare play period actually, no matter what, if you can, sit through Shakespeare and just appreciate what he still does to this day, 400 years on.
Another recent production I saw was about two, three days ago, it was The Play That Goes Wrong at the Duchess Theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that much in a play. It was brilliant, it’s so slapstick! Again, they were so invested in their performance, they engaged with the audience, they engaged so much energy, it just ignites in me, wanting more to be up on stage, and knowing that acting is exactly what I want to do and where I want to be.
Are you currently working on any projects and is there anything coming up in your acting career later this year that you can tell us about?
I’m currently writing my own short film and learning the guitar, weirdly, hahaha! Any project where I can discover, I can learn something new about myself, I will do. I want to be challenged, I want someone to go, “ok yes, we know you can play that part but can you do it this way?” or “can you come at it at a different angle?”, just something a bit different, something a bit outside the box. The projects that I’ve got lined up, that I can’t talk about yet because I don’t know whether I’ve got them or not, if they happen, if it all goes my way, it should be an interesting few years to come.
Later this year, I can’t say yet. I’m waiting to hear back from two completely different jobs at the moment, both of which I’m not allowed to talk about because I don’t know whether I’ve got them, and obviously it’s down to the producers and directors from the studios to release any details. One’s stage and one’s screen, and both I want with all my fibre, I hope I don’t have to choose between them because I want to do them both. If neither go my way, then bring on the next thing, one day I had nothing on, and then the next day I was on set for Guernsey, so it could be, on Monday you’ve got nothing on, and by Friday you’re booked up, so that’s why you’ve got to have faith because days and weeks change so quickly.
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