As a regular fixture of British television since the early 2000s, Tony Way is one the UK’s most recognisable ‘don’t-I-know-you-from-that-thing’ actors. He’s appeared alongside comedy heavyweights Vic and Bob, Simon Pegg, and Ricky Gervais in a range of shows. It was one such comedy giant that gave Tony his first break into the world of movies – the millennium’s favourite urban simpleton, Ali G.
Having worked with ALI G IN DA HOUSE director Mark Mylod on Vic and Bob (for which Tony has also contributed as a writer) and THE FAST SHOW, Tony scored the part of Dave, one member of Ali G’s notorious crew, the ‘Staines Massive’, to whom the streetwise interviewer had often referred in his TV skits. Tony would also star alongside fellow homeboy Martin Freeman, better known as Tim from THE OFFICE, and soon to be Bilbo Baggins in THE HOBBIT.
‘After that there was a big gap in films for me,’ says Tony, ‘there were tiny little parts in CHEEKY and FINDING NEVERLAND, then I got back into film proper a couple of years ago with DOWN TERRACE.’
As the feature film debut from director Ben Wheatley, DOWN TERRACE has acquired a modest cultish following. Telling the story of a criminal family who try to uncover a rat within their decaying business, the film is something of a precursor to Wheatley’s already-notorious KILL LIST, which both terrified and divided audiences this year.
‘The part was written for me,’ says Tony, ‘It was a really good part alongside people I liked and knew, and it was basically just a good film. It made me think I would like to do lots more films, and it was around this time I got the part in ANONYMOUS, and I haven’t looked back really.’
That would be the ANONYMOUS currently doing the rounds at your local multiplex, co-starring Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, and David Thewlis, and directed by Roland Emmerich.
‘It’s a film about Shakespeare,’ Tony tells THN, ‘and it’s a film about Queen Elizabeth I, and government at the time. In the film, Shakespeare is an actor –he’s illiterate and a bit of a chancer. The actual writer of Shakepeare’s plays is the Earl of Oxford, who politically wants to subvert the court of Queen Elizabeth via the pen.’
It sounds as if the pen truly is mightier than the sword then – a poignant theme for a film that accuses Shakespeare of never writing a single word of his famous work.
‘The Earl of Oxford can’t publish anything because he’s an aristocrat,’ explains Tony, ‘It’s seen as a low profession, so he decides to give them to playwright Ben Jonson who, unbeknownst to the Earl, passes them to Will Shakespeare, who sees a money-making opportunity, and that’s how his name gets attached to the plays.’
Tony plays Thomas Nashe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and one of the Mermaid’s Wits, a group of playwrights who would collect together to drink in the Mermaid Tavern – friends, enemies, and intellectual sparring partners.
‘Most of my stuff is in the theatre or pub,’ says Tony, ‘being drunk and very jealous, complaining about how good Shakespeare’s plays are. The characters are a bit like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets – we spend a lot of time in the gallery, looking down and being sniffy about the shows.’
The film is based on a fringe conspiracy theory that has become very popular of late, and a number of books have been written on the subject. But what does Tony think there’s any weight to the controversial theory?
‘It seems like all fringe theories have suddenly become quite central,’ he tells THN. ‘For instance, no one believes that JFK was shot the way we’re told he was – and I don’t know if people really know why – it’s just that people love a mystery. But we have to remember it is a film, it’s entertainment, and I’d suggest that further reading is needed before deciding that all of it is true. But there is a strong case for some of what happens in the film…’
With all the political machinations of ANONYMOUS’ conspiracy theory, the film seems an unusual choice for director Roland Emmerich, who is best know for blockbuster movies INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA, and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. Until now, Emmerich’s career has been largely defined by epic action sequences, CGI trickery, and apocalyptic doom; as such, ANONYMOUS feels like something of a departure for him.
‘It is and it isn’t in a weird way,’ says Tony, ‘even if you look at 2012 or any of those other films, there’s always a government conspiracy and Machiavellian characters deciding whether everyone should die or not. That side of his work really comes through in ANONYMOUS, but there’s no robots or monsters, and the world doesn’t get destroyed.’
However, ANONYMOUS remains relatively small scale for Emmerich, particularly in terms of budget.
‘People always think that Emmerich spends a fortune’ says Tony, ‘but he always brings his films in under budget and early – he’s not James Cameron. The budget was around $30 million, which is really small these days, but probably not small for a film about Shakespeare.’
It’s easy to see where most of the cash went too; Emmerich and his production team have gone to great lengths in reproducing Elizabethan England, even going to the trouble of building a full-scale replica of the Globe Theatre, the famous venue where much of Shakespeare’s work was performed. Regardless of the budget, in terms of scale, ANONYMOUS is a big project compared to much of the TV work and low-budget film on which Tony has previously worked.
‘I had weird feelings about going to do it,’ Tony says. ‘You hear horror stories about people working on STAR WARS and things like that, and I suppose that’s comparable to Roland Emmerich with the amount of green screen used and CGI. I knew it wouldn’t be as heavy as that, but you hear about actors never meeting the director, because he’s stuck behind a monitor and might as well be in a different town, and it’s all done through a third assistant director. I went in assuming that might happen, and it wasn’t at all – he was really hands on, always involved, talking about what you should be doing and feeling. I was amazed, but it is an actor-driven film, not effects-driven.’
Now Tony is part of the inner circle, is there any chance of a part in Emmerich’s long-mooted INDEPENDENCE DAY 2? Tony is keen to be involved: ‘I could take over from Will Smith if he doesn’t want to do it…’
But until that particular alien menace returns, there a few projects to which Tony is attached, and he believes the British film industry to currently be in good health.
‘I think THE INBETWEENERS success means there might be lots of terrible comedies coming out,’ Tony says, ‘but hopefully there will be a few good ones too. It’s a brave new world because no one expected THE INBETWEENERS to make £40 million – it’s insane. No British films make that sort of money unless they have American producers attached. Hopefully now some of the money will be spread around and they’ll make some other good stuff.’
Tony himself has one such film on the way, SIGHTESEERS, which sees him once again under the direction of Ben Wheatly. ‘It’s dark funny, dark, and very British,’ Tony tells THN. ‘Hopefully films like that can do well.’
With the spotlight cast upon Wheatley following KILL LIST, SIGHTSEERS will undoubtedly have a reasonable amount of impact once released, and alongside the high-profile ANONYMOUS, it’s possible that Tony Way will soon become more than a ‘don’t-I-know-you-from-that-thing’ guy.
And let’s not forgot Tony’s next release – a little film by David Fincher about some tattooed dragon girl. Or something like that.
ANONYMOUS is in cinemas now.