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Tolkien star Patrick Gibson is on a quest

Tolkien star Patrick Gibson is on a quest

Patrick Gibson is an actor with a knack for standing out, even if – when we meet for lunch – his outfit of black jeans, black Carhartt tee and black Vans Old Skools does just the opposite. Consider, though, the 24-year-old’s career to date.

As a child he had recurring parts in several TV shows, including popular historical drama The Tudors, and this month appears in Tolkien, a biopic of the Lord of the Rings author, who’s played by Nicholas Hoult. In between there has been a breakout role in Netflix series The OA – more on which later – and a Rising Star award from the Irish Film and Television Academy in 2017, placing him firmly in that flattering (if somewhat burdensome) category of ‘one to watch’.

In Tolkien there is a scene in particular that illustrates why, in Gibson’s case, you’d be inclined to believe the hype. He plays Robert Gilson, a member of the ‘TCBS’, Tolkien’s gang of precocious, highly educated school chums who would meet to debate art and philosophy in a Birmingham tea room in 1911 (TCBS stands for ‘Tea Club, Barrovian Society’. It was, as you might have gathered, all rather posh).

In the film, Gilson’s father, who happens to be the school’s extremely intimidating headmaster (played by Owen Teale, last seen betraying Jon Snow at The Wall), comes home one night to find the boys drinking and messing about in his house. He tells his son to send his friends home when, to his (and our) surprise, Robert refuses. “I think it rude, father,” he tells him.

“When he’s with his mates he’s so flamboyant and out there. He’s the class clown,” Gibson says. “But with his father and he’s very subservient. This is the first time in his life that he’s ever stood up to him. It’s a turning point.”

Gibson plays it perfectly: the inner tussle between fear and defiance, the scared little boy and the emerging man. And when his father backs down and the others whoop and jump about the place, there's just the slightest recalibration in his eyes, an acknowledgement the world has changed. It’s only a small scene and a supporting role. But it stands out.

Gibson’s relationship with his own parents is, by all accounts, less antagonistic. The first time the 24-year-old saw Tolkien in its entirety he was sat in his mother’s living room in Dublin watching it on an iPad because they couldn’t find the cable to make it work on the telly. She loved it, partially “because she has to”, partially because it is rather good.

His father, meanwhile, is an actor himself – so was his mother as it happens, though she’s since changed profession to marketing – which probably helps explain why, when Gibson dropped out of university halfway through his philosophy degree to film a pilot for an American TV show, they understood. “They’ve been surprisingly supportive of all my rash decisions in life,” he says. “It’s never felt like I had to do something because of them and they’ve never put pressure on me. I appreciate that.”

The show in question was called The OA, and it was being made by a little-known streaming service called Netflix. Gibson says he felt an immediate affinity with his character Steve Winchell, a troubled high school drug dealer trying to better himself: “I really sympathised with him and empathised with him. Even though he was a massive dick.”

One intense audition in New York later – he flew there, read while wracked with nerves, then hopped on a plane and was back in Dublin within 24 hours – and the part was his. Much easier, he says, was deciding to leave Trinity College in Dublin. “I loved studying,” he insists, not entirely convincingly. “Although philosophy can be quite depressing. I think I found it, for a while, quite heavy. I don’t know how ready I really was to do the next two years. I always knew, if the moment arose, I’d leave.”

Deep down, he’d been waiting for the right acting gig to come along. His gut told him The OA was it, even though there was “no way of knowing if the show was going to go anywhere”. But it did. Landing in the wake of Stranger Things, it reimagined the high school movie with a sci-fi twist that transformed what might have been a by-numbers teen melodrama into must-stream TV. Good reviews followed, as did a loyal fanbase. The second season landed last month and ended in a way seems to guarantee a third, even if Netflix hasn’t confirmed it yet. And in the middle of the large cast, doing a pitch-perfect accent and stealing every scene he was in, was a barely 20-year-old lad from Dublin.

He is flawlessly polite and very engaging and, if being a handsome young actor on the brink of big things gives you an ego, he hides it very well. He has a quick sense of humour and a big, strong laugh, so you know he’d be great company over a few drinks at a party. But none of this means Patrick Gibson finds any of this – becoming famous or being asked questions by strangers in restaurants – particularly easy. Auditions – even those that don’t require him to cross multiple time zones – are still an ordeal. “It’s funny – on set, I find no problem at all. I’m completely in a bubble,” he says. “But with auditioning, I’ve found it difficult to get over the idea of being watched.”

His solution has been to face his fears in the most extreme way possible – being watched, live, every night on stage. Sweat, a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by American playwright Lynn Nottage, tells the story of a group of factory workers in Pennsylvania whose close bonds are tested by layoffs and picket lines. It opened at the Donmar Theatre in London last December. Playing the short-fused Jason, it was another ensemble and another chance for Gibson shine – this time in a world that felt entirely alien to him.

“I didn’t go to drama school so I’d never really been exposed to that side of things,” he says. “With film I’d learned on the job, and that was fine. But with theatre, there is a little bit more of a culture of: you’ve studied it, so you know your shit."

“But when I just read the play, Lynn’s writing is so incredible and conversational. It’s set in a bar so there’s a lot of overlapping and it’s fast-paced – it didn’t feel like traditional theatre, or how I would imagine that, anyway. So I knew then I had to do it. And I’m really glad I did.”

Sweat was met with almost unanimous five-star reviews and an Oliver nomination for Best Play. The Times singled out Gibson’s performance for its ‘terrifying intensity’. In fact, it all went so well the production is being brought back this summer for another run, this time as the much larger Gielgud. You could even say it’s backfired a little.

I did it originally because I thought, sweet: 270 seats, a nice intimate thing,” he says. “Now, somehow, I’m going to be doing it in front of 900 people…”

The plan worked, though. Auditions, Gibson says, are becoming easier.

Another part of the job Gibson is still getting used to is life on the front row. Over the last few years he’s become a regular at European fashion weeks. His name (and picture) is increasingly cropping up on ‘best-dressed’ lists. And unlike auditioning, he seems to be relishing it so far.

“I don’t consider myself particularly fashionable at all,” he says – again, not entirely convincingly. But then, he’s stumbled into this new role almost accidentally. His first runway experience came after he texted a stylist friend while he was on holiday in Paris. Turns out, Fashion Week had just kicked off down the road.

“Suddenly I had this itinerary of like, ten shows or something. It was really insane. I didn’t even know what a fashion show was. I was completely clueless. I showed up and there’s a hundred photographers taking photos and it’s like: Jesus, this is intense. I was straight on the front row sat beside people like Lewis Hamilton. I thought they had made some huge mistake. I was waiting for someone to say: ‘Sir, can you please get to the back row’.”

Gradually, though, that fashion week flamboyance has crept into his own wardrobe. Though he generally defaults to streetwear, joggers and bombers won’t cut it on the red carpet, an environment he’s becoming increasingly familiar with. So, he says, why not take the chance to have some fun? “There’s so much pressure on women to look good. Either we all accept we’re free to look rubbish, or men have got to step it up. There’s definitely more space now to be a bit creative.”

It helps that he has a pro in his corner. His partner of three years, the influencer Joanna Kuchta, has more than a million followers on Instagram and, as a professional wearer-of-clothes, she helps steer Gibson towards riskier choices.

“Some of the options [for what I can wear on the red carpet] are quite out there. Joanna is always the one going: ‘yeah, wear the white suit!’ She’s very fashionable. She’s actually a really talented designer as well. She has an opinion on what I wear and I respect it more than mine.

“But I’m not like one of those boyfriends you see in H&M, those poor blokes asking their girlfriend, ‘Are you sure these aren’t too skinny?’ It’s cool we’re both overlapping in this field, now.”

Like many before him, Gibson has been seduced by the glamour of a Saint Laurent tux or two. But even on the red carpet, he’s remained a skate kid at heart. “I like taking tailoring and making it slightly more like I dress myself. So the other day I wore a Hugo Boss suit but with a t-shirt and a chain on it and a pair of Vans. That’s when I feel most myself. The chain wasn’t even attached to anything. I can’t believe I just admitted to that. I’m going to have to start putting a fake set of keys on it or something.”

At the Tolkien premiere, Gibson stood out amid a sea of black a navy tailoring. Instead, he chose a cream, double-breasted suit by Dior, worn with trainers and, of all things, a mesh vest. On some men, it could have felt like a cry for attention. On Gibson, it was a style swerve that felt authentically him. But then, he’s always had a truly personal sense of style.

“Remember the Nike ID thing? Where you could design your own trainer?” he asks, a smile creeping onto his face. “I did that. They were neon green with a yellow sole and pink laces. I think I picked every colour possible. And – this is so embarrassing – they said ‘Paddy G’ on the back. I think I still have them. They’re in pristine condition, because they’re so rubbish...”

There you go. ‘Not particularly fashionable’? Pull the other one, Patrick.

Like most of Gibson’s anecdotes, the development of the Nike Paddy Gs™ is charmingly self-deprecating. But it also offers a kernel of insight into the single-mindedness it must require to keep going as a ‘one to watch’ in an industry as fickle as acting. The truth is, Gibson has been told his big break – the proper, big life-changing one all actors dream about – is just around the corner many times.

“You do something and someone, usually some guy from LA, goes: “Dude this is gonna be fucking everything! You’re going to be, like, everywhere!” And then it doesn’t,” he says. There’s no bitterness: that’s just how it is. I ask him, what’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever been given. He tells me that Riz Ahmed, of Star Wars fame and with whom he starred in The OA, said, “Work harder than you think you need to.” So that’s exactly what he’s been doing.

As a result, 2019 is shaping up very nicely indeed. There’s the new run of Sweat to come and of course Tolkien, which has just seen him appear on the side of buses and on tube posters for the first time (he’s been too embarrassed to take a photo – so far at least).

“It’s rare I have this much stuff lined up,” he says, beaming. “It’s the best thing ever. All I want to do is be working.” After that, in a project he can’t fully reveal yet, Patrick Gibson is finally going to play his first lead role in a film.

There are, of course, no guarantees in this life. All you can do is make the most of every shot you get. To stand out whenever you can. Whether it’s acting or making trainers, it’s what Gibson has always done. And he’s only just getting started.

Tolkien is in cinemas from 3 May

Words: Sam Parker
Photography: Neil Bedford
Styling: Millie Rich