Shy and reflective, with an unaffected manner and a nervous laugh — it’s difficult to imagine Will Payne stepping into the role of the overly-confident toy boy, Tony Travers, in the new PBS Masterpiece series, Mr. Selfridge. Yet Payne does it, proving himself the right man for the job with devilish persuasiveness, a credit to the actor’s talent.
Originally aired in the UK on ITV back in January, Mr. Selfridge was unveiled to North American viewers at the end of March, and has since wrangled an impressive audience base and keen anticipation for its second season, already confirmed by ITV. The story of American retail tycoon, Harry Gordon Selfridge’s establishment of Selfridges, the eminent London department store, the series takes the audience through the founder’s eventful personal and professional history, skipping over none of the lavish displays or acts of ambition speckling the original story. Starring Jeremy Piven (Entourage) in the title role, the show’s supporting roster includes Frances O’Connor (Mansfeild Park) and Zoe Tapper (Cheerful Weather for the Wedding).
Still new to the scene, Mr. Selfridge is Payne’s first series regular role. Previous to this, the actor was flexing his vocal chords as a young George Harrison in London’s West End production of Backbeat, directed by Broadway heavy-hitter, David Leveaux. Wet behind the ears though he may be, the actor’s star is on the rise. Boasting a spot in Nylon magazine’s 2012 “Young Hollywood issue,” the popularity of Payne’s new British period drama has alerted audiences’ radars on either side of the Atlantic.
In the role of Tony Travers, Payne is showing off his less than scrupulous side. The handsome play thing of actress Katherine Kelly’s (Coronation Street) Lady Mae, while Travers is a kept lover, he is not a man happy to be perceived as under anyone in stature, a bone of contention that sees the character stirring up trouble in Lady Mae’s illustrious social circle.
Currently living in Britain, and removed from the buzz of the North American premiere of Mr. Selfridge, an unassuming Payne chatted with FILLER about the devil that is Tony Travers, collecting acting tips from co-stars and navigating the vastness of L.A. on a recent visit to California.
I imagine you must be excited about the PBS Masterpiece premiere of the show?
I haven’t really thought about it to be quite honest. We’re quite removed from it over here. I just hope you’re going to enjoy it.
It seems British period dramas are becoming more mainstream as of late, with the popularity of TV shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock Holmes in North America. How much of a draw is the actual historic aspect of the shows like yours do you think?
There’s definitely a bit of a resurgence of period dramas, I mean there has always been a lot of period dramas in the UK. I think though on the back of something, especially like Downton Abbey that’s been such a huge success, I think people have fallen in love with period drama again, especially in the UK, and obviously, it was a big success in the US as well. I think with Mr. Selfridge audiences will enjoy it in the same kind of way…we hope…they have over here.
I think it’s safe to say they already do. When developing your Tony Travers character, did you work on any period affectations at all? I imagine everyone to be a little more formal in demeanor back then, it seems like everyone had perfect posture.
I’ll tell you why everyone had perfect posture back then…because of the clothes! (laughing)
Yeah they were horrible to wear — a nightmare. (laughing) That’s probably the worst bit…I mean I feel awful for the women who have to wear these corsets that are terribly uncomfortable, but for me and the rest of the guys, the shirts we have to wear essentially have a piece of cardboard on the front, so you have to sit up straight because if you don’t there’s a big flap that comes out, and it’s ridiculous. (laughing) That’s uncomfortable.
Let’s talk a bit about your character Tony Travers. What role does Tony play in the story’s action, is he a catalyst or more an onlooker?
To begin with he’s very much on the outside, he’s look in on what’s going on. He’s just a young guy who’s being look after by Lady Mae. He’s a toy boy, so he’s just kind of witnessing everything first hand, and probably not enjoying it very much.
How do you mean?
I mean, he enjoys it to an extent, but as things progress, he thinks he’s better than everyone else…so he becomes…well, he’s not the nicest of blokes…but at the same time, I think he’s just a young guy exploring.
You actually described him as “despicable” in a previous interview.
Yeah, he is a bit despicable. Some of the stuff he eventually does is…not nice…let’s put it that way.
Is he doing that because he wants to move forward to an ultimate goal? Is Tony motived by anything in particular?
That’s a very good question. I’m not entirely sure…I think he wants to gain respect you know because everyone sees him as this young frivolous little boy, essentially. And, he wants to stand on his own two feet and kind of put two fingers up to everyone else, really and go, “actually, I can be the man if I want to be.” I think that’s probably it.
You’re still quite early on in your career, was working as a series regular everything you expected?
Yeah, I mean it was my first series regular role, and it was an amazing experience for me and it was a big learning curve working with such great actors. And being on a proper amazing set — they practically built Selfridges, which was amazing to be in — that obviously helps as an actor…you walk on to set and you’re there. It was very daunting, and quite scary, but more than anything, I think I learned a lot from my surroundings and the people I was working with including the crew, it was all a very big learning curve.
How was it working with Jeremy Piven?
It was good. Jeremy is a guy who has been around for a long time, and has done a lot of different things. I learned from him by watching his performance — and not just from him, from Katherine and from Zoe and all the other actors that have been doing it for a long time like Sam West — you just pick up all these different little things that they’ve picked up over the years that help their performances. So it was lovely to work with all of them.
What about working opposite Katherine Kelly?
She’s lovely. Because I spent quite a bit of the series with her, it was really nice chatting to her. She a very well-respected theatre actress as well as a TV actress, and the stories she has and the techniques she’s picked up…she gave me a lot of tips and taught me a lot.
Now, we can’t talk about a show about Selfridges department store and not talk about fashion. Do you keep track of fashion trends, or are you more about stocking your wardrobe with enduring staples?
I think (laughing)…I guess I have an interest in fashion, but I don’t necessarily follow any specific trend. At the age of 15, I got pretty obsessed with vintage shops and picked up old jackets.
Yeah, that’s the one thing I’m really obsessed with is coats and jackets, so my wardrobe is full of those. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. (laughing)
What do you make of this season’s bold prints, they’re on everything from shirts to suits to jackets.
I have seen those…it’s not really me, I mean I’ll wear the occasional thing like that, but I guess I’m kind of boring (laughing). I kind of like dull kind of colours. I don’t like being overly flamboyant, I like to blend into the background a bit more, but still have my own style.
What about the style of clothes from our shoot, was it anything like what you usually wear, did you like anyone of the pieces?
I did actually, there were a couple of outfits that I wore that I really liked. There were a couple of quite grungy outfits that were very much me.
You gave our model Franki a little dance lesson on set, are you a big dancer?
I’m absolutely not (laughing), I got dragged into it. I do not claim or never have claimed to be a dancer in anyway whatsoever. I think I just showed her a couple of moves I learned in grammer school…I taught her how to do the jive and I taught her a box step (laughing), and that’s about as far as my talents go. I’m no Swazye.
Do you have a particular hobby or activity you like to do after a long shoot or when feeling stressed to unwind? Not dancing I’m guessing…
I’m actually a really big chess player. I play a lot of chess; that’s the one thing I do to relieve stress or just chill out after a long day’s work. Although, to a lot of people that’s quite contradictory, a lot of people will go, ” surely you’re making it worse because you have to think a lot harder to play chess,” but actually for me, it just makes my brain work in a different way and it’s quite soothing.
Aside from Mr. Selfridge, what else do you currently have on the go?
Well, I just finished a film called Fright Night 2, so that’s out this year I think. And I was just in L.A. for pilot season, doing all the usual rounds.
How did you like L.A.?
That sounds unsure!
I don’t know what I think. I mean I liked it, it was new and exciting. My brother lives in Los Angeles, so it was nice to have someone like that to show me around, and obviously there were a lot of my friends and a lot of people I knew out there at the time because it was pilot season, but I think…if I didn’t have my brother out there or people I knew, I’d find it a very difficult town at this point in my life. And also, it’s such a vast place (laughing)…it’s so big…and also I can’t drive either, so it’s a bit of a nightmare.
Yeah, you sort of have to have a car if you live there.
Exactly, so I think I would have been at a bit of a lost if I didn’t have people around me that I knew. But no, it was a great experience and I hope to be out there again sometime soon.Styling by Skye Stewart-Short Model, Franki at Next Models Stylist’s Assistant, Ryan Lennon Hair & Makeup, Erica Sauer at The Wall Group Published April 12, 2013