Tom Hollander’s first meeting with a theatrical agent didn’t turn out quite how he expected
It was the late Eighties and it paid to be brash. But I wasn’t brash I was green. Just down from university and wearing a second-hand double-breasted suit I had a meeting with London’s Most Powerful Agent. On Wall Street, Gordon Gekko. In Soho, Michael Foster. A man whose legendary temper had caused him, telephone in hand, to break his own finger while dialling. The extent of his rages were matched only by the size of the deals he got for his actors — deals rumoured to be so huge that other actors binge-drank at the thought of them.
A week before, I had received a note while backstage at Richmond Theatre, halfway through a performance of the amusingly titled Sheep Go Bare (the 1988 Cambridge Footlights Revue). It was the kind of note young actors want to get from powerful agents. It was scrawled in red ink. It said: ‘You’re great. Call me.’
I walked into a swanky office building on Wardour Street suitably named Paramount House and entered the offices of Duncan Heath Associates. At the switchboard sat an extremely attractive girl with no clothes on. I froze and stared at the floor. A life in showbiz was clearly going to be even more exciting than I had hoped. While pretending to study the poster for A Room with a View on the wall behind her desk, I sneaked another look at her. Actually, she wasn’t completely naked. She was wearing underwear, and an expression of complete indifference. Over her underwear was a ‘dress’ made from white string. Not very much string.
Once in the agent’s office I sat on a low chair in front of an enormous desk. It was difficult to see over it. I was excited but disadvantaged. Facing me from the other side of the desk was a striking-looking man in an expensive shirt and brightly coloured braces. He had intensity. He had charisma. And he had a state-of-the-art phone headset like Madonna’s.
‘You were great in that show. I didn’t see the second half ’cos I had to go but you were great. Right?’ His manner of speaking was very loud and rapid.
‘No, I said, “Do you write?”’ He was shouting for some reason. ‘’Cos if you do we can cover that for you.’
I was clearly an idiot. I needed to shape up. I needed to shout as well. ‘No!’ I yelled back.
He banged the table decisively and addressed the room. ‘A man who knows his mind. I like that!’ he yelled.
Various beautiful assistants simpered in agreement. This was great. This was like a film. Here I was in the big city and I was holding my own. I was a man who knew his mind.
‘What do you want to do?’ he demanded loudly.
‘Um, well…what do you mean…?’
‘Listen to me. You’re talented but you’re difficult to cast because you’re not tall. So what we’re gonna do is, we’re gonna make you famous and then you’ll be able to do anything you want.’
That sounded like an excellent plan. I was thrilled that the process of making me famous was merely a formality. I nodded seriously and tried not to look too exited.
‘Sally, what is there for Tom in the new Merchant Ivory project? Set up a meeting.’ He never spoke at less than full volume.
The assistant moved over to a wall of floor-to-ceiling shelving stacked with scripts for every play and every film and every TV show in the world. She grabbed one with Maurice written on it. And another one that said A Handful of Dust.
‘Call Celestia and tell her there’s a new boy in town and she needs to meet him.’
As he stood up and came round the side of his desk I saw for the first time that he was short. Shorter than me. Child-sized. He grinned and pumped my hand. ‘I’ll call you very soon.’
Clearly, we had a natural affinity and together we would conquer the world. He would be the architect and strategist of the campaign to make me famous. And in time I would bestride the globe. Like a Colossus.
‘Don’t chew the side of your mouth like that. It’ll lose you work.’
‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t know I was.’
‘People won’t like it. It looks weak.’
I felt weak. But I loved this man because I knew he could make me strong.
There then followed sleepless nights in which my heart pounded with joy at the prospect of my new life. My place in the firmament of the acting élite was clearly assured. I had Superagent on my side. I was clearly going to be fast-tracked past the queues of the less talented and the less deserving and into the VIP lounge of Air Showbiz. Where I would be led to the complimentary massage area and be rubbed with oils by Mistress Celebrity.
What actually followed was about a year and a half working in Hamleys as a toy demonstrator. Every day at about 11.30 a.m. I would leave my post and call Michael’s office from the in-store phone in the teddy-bear section.
‘Get off the phone.’
‘Oh, is that Michael? It’s Tom Hollander.’
‘I know who it is.’
‘I was just wondering if there might be any…auditions that I er…’
‘Thomas. If I get anything for you I will call you up and leave you a message about it. Do you understand that?’
‘Um…yes…I do…it’s just that when I first came to meet you, I thought that…’
‘Listen to me.’ Now he shouted as usual. ‘Do you know how many clients I have?’
‘A lot. If every one of them rang me up every day, do you understand what that would be like for me?’
‘It would be a f****** nightmare.’
‘You. Have. Got. To. Stop. Calling. Me. Every. F******. Day.’
The phone went dead.
I was out of my depth. And I was frightened. And I was having nightmares in which he frequently appeared. He eventually sacked me.
It’s now about 20 years later, Michael Foster’s not my agent and I can’t get him off the phone. We have become friends ever since I played him (not him, not him, loosely based on, loosely based on) in a pilot for Freezing. We have a lot in common. We have a past and now we have a present. He’s called ‘Leon’. It’s good for both of us at some level — drama therapy. It must be flattering to have warranted fictional representation. And, as for me, I can get my own back. And he’s really good — as a part, I mean. He’s a character who says and does things that I would never dare to do in my own life. Most people wouldn’t but Michael would. Which makes him an exceptional person.
And though the character of Leon is not actually Michael (he sounds completely different for a start, and Michael is obviously far more handsome and clever) the affinity which I felt might exist in the offices of Duncan Heath in 1988 finds its expression somewhere in Leon. And we’re also both older and a bit wiser. And we’re both single.
A new three-part comedy drama Freezing, about a middle-aged American actress (Elizabeth McGovern), her editor husband (Hugh Bonneville) and Leon, a theatrical agent (Tom Hollander), is on BBC2 on 20, 21 and 22 February.