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Scene-Stealer Tom Hollander on ‘A Private War,’ ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and ‘Bird Box’

The holidays have come early for fans of Tom Hollander, with a plethora of new projects for the English actor who has emerged as one of the season’s favorite scene-stealers. Hollander has proven equally at home in period pieces (“Gosford Park”), wordy farce (“In the Loop”), action blockbusters (two “Pirates of the Caribbean” films), or even acting opposite himself (playing twins in last year’s “Breathe.”)

Hollander is now on screens in two films, giving advice and managing Queen in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and playing editor Sean Ryan to Rosamund Pike’s heroic journalist Marie Colvin in “A Private War.” Later this year he’ll bring his special brand of ambiguous menace to “Bird Box” with Sandra Bullock, which premiered Monday night at AFI Fest. He’ll also be heard as Tabaqui the hyena (don’t call him a jackal!) in “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” from his “Breathe” director Andy Serkis.

In both of his current films, Hollander continues playing to his specialty: portraying real people. Be it King George III, T.S. Eliot, Wilkie Collins, or Dylan Thomas, Hollander muses he may have played “more real people than fictional.” In fact, in 2003 alone he appeared in two roles that had previously been played by English actor Alan Bates – George V in “The Lost Prince” and Guy Burgess in “The Cambridge Spies.” Recalls Hollander with a laugh, “I remember meeting Alan Bates and he said, ‘You must stop playing my parts!’”

A Private War” holds a special place in Hollander’s heart, as he actually knew Colvin personally – something that shocks this interviewer, but not the unflappable Hollander. “It’s not that amazing,” he notes with a laugh. “She lived around me, we had some mutual friends. What’s amazing is that I’ve ended up in a film about her, that’s amazing. And I was able to express my feelings for her by playing the part. That’s one of the wonderful things about acting; I felt I could honor her memory in some way.”

Colvin died in 2012 while covering a military confrontation in Syria, but even before that, her adventures were legendary. She lost her left eye in 2001 covering the Sri Lankan Civil War and was the first to interview Muammar Gaddafi after the 1985 U.S. bombing of Libya. “Everyone was always telling her, your life sounds like a movie,” says Hollander. “Here was a kickass journalist in her field and better than all the men around her; a strong woman who was charismatic and inspirational.”

The film also reunited him with Pike, who he’s “known for a couple of decades” and worked with before, perhaps most memorably in 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice” where he played the potato-loving Mr. Collins. “There’s a familiarity we have with each other that informed the relationship,” he says. Still, even he was in awe of Pike’s transformation into the hard-drinking, tough-talking journo. “The film is bookended by the real Marie talking and it’s a testament to Rosamund that at the end, I didn’t realize it was the real Marie at first.”

He also has praise for first-time narrative director Matthew Heineman, who had previously directed documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated “Cartel Land.” Heineman brings a startling realism to the film, including casting real Syrian refugees in roles — one of which filmed his scenes just days after his nephew was shot off his shoulders in real life.

Though set in the recent past, Hollander notes that “the film could not be more contemporary in terms of journalism and truth and post-truth.” On the other hand, he calls “Bird Box” the “abstract horror version of what’s happening in the world today.”

Based on the debut novel by Josh Malerman, “Bird Box” is a post-apocalyptic tale of a band of survivors who hole up at a house after people are driven to madness and suicide upon seeing an unknown force. Hollander plays Gary, a survivor who comes across the established group (which includes Bullock, Jacki Weaver, and John Malkovich) and divides opinions as to whether he is an innocent or a threat.

The offer came to him via Susanne Bier, who directed him to a best supporting actor BAFTA Award for his turn as the suspicious (but not wrong) Major Lance “Corky” Corkoran in “The Night Manager.” Raves Hollander, “I would do anything she asked at this point because she’s so talented. And I loved how this feeling of being destroyed by something you can’t see chimes with the metaphorical anxiety in the world today with everything changing.”

Still, how does one react when someone who knows you wants to cast you in an ethically nebulous role? “It’s a difficult part and challenging, so I suppose that’s flattering,” he says with a laugh. “That someone says, ‘This needs to be high-definition but plausible.’ It can be a ride.”

Hollander uses the same phrase to describe “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Freddie Mercury biopic in which he plays Queen’s lawyer-turned-manager Jim Beach. While he admits the film “was complicated to make,” he’s happy to see audiences embracing it. “I genuinely was not sure how it was going to turn out, but it seems to give audiences a really good time. It properly entertains and people are enjoying it and Rami Malek is amazing and heroic, absolutely heroic.”

He also singles out movement coach Polly Bennett, who he worked with on the 2016 Broadway run of “Travesties” and “who needs to be name-checked as often as possible” for staging the film’s Live Aid end sequence. “It’s almost move for move for what Queen did. They literally tracked every footstep.”

Hollander met the real Beach, a producer on the film, before the character was in the script, and they worked with the writer to come up with ideas. It was Hollander who suggested Beach turn up the volume prior to Queen’s performance at Live Aid. “I remember the actual performance people said Queen was slightly louder than everyone else,” he notes. “So it seemed a fun thing to do to give Jim Beach a reason for being there and kind of have his own little superhero moment.”

With four films closing out 2018, one feels almost guilty asking Hollander if he’ll return to the stage anytime soon. His last foray, Tom Stoppard’s 1973 farce “Travesties,” landed him a Tony nomination for lead actor earlier this year, but also resulted in a labral tear in his hip. “I’m still recovering, I spent months in physical therapy so I’m a little nervous about tying myself down immediately,” he notes. “But I will do it, because I love it. Running around eight times a week with high energy is exhausting but also one of the best feelings in the world.”

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