Arts & Culture

Actor Tom Brittney knew his calling before 'Grantchester'

Tom Brittney (left), Robson Green, and James Norton costar on the “Materpiece Mystery!” series, “Grantchester,” return for a new season on PBS. (PBS/TNS)
Tom Brittney (left), Robson Green, and James Norton costar on the “Materpiece Mystery!” series, “Grantchester,” return for a new season on PBS. (PBS/TNS)

PASADENA, Calif. — There’ll be a new vicar in town when “Grantchester” returns to PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” Sunday. And while he’s ministering to his flock and coping with his own truant feelings, so’s the guy who plays him.

Even though actor Tom Brittney seems born to the backward collar and the pious calling, he’s an atheist. “I wish I believed in heaven and wish I believed in God,” he says.

“It would mean there’s something after death, and I would see the people I love again. But I know in my heart that’s not true. All power to people who do. I love the idea of spirituality,” he says.

“I think that’s separate from religion. It’s organized religion I’m not a believer in. I just disagree with organized religion being used to oppress people — that’s the thing.”

It took Brittney six ragged years to work his way up to playing the Anglican priest in “Grantchester,” beginning with an Intel commercial, moving on to several fruitless visits to the United States during pilot season and ascending finally to roles in “Outland,” “UnReal,” “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool” and the upcoming Tom Hanks movie “Greyhound.”

“Playing a vicar was interesting,” he ponders. “I got to find out how the mind works of someone who has this calling from God that they believe so strongly in that they’re willing to give their life to it.”

It’s not so different for the British-born Brittney, who’s always known what he wanted to devote his life to. He longed to be an actor. But he is also a rebel, bucking tradition when it’s not wise to do so.

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“I was a bit of an angry, rebellious teenager,” he admits. “I made everything a lot harder for myself and probably made school a lot harder for myself because I was a rebel without a cause,” he says.

“I did well academically, but I made it harder for myself because I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be in this (acting) so I played around ALL the time. I’d sneak out of lessons to go and help with acting classes, stuff like that. I got in trouble a lot — almost got kicked out of school a few times.”

His mother, who was his elementary school drama teacher, was fairly patient with his antics. “My mom said, ‘You need to get good grades; you need the grades to get into drama school.’ And for some reason, I still managed to get good grades even though I wasn’t putting the effort in,” he shrugs.

“I’m not proud of that. I wish I had, because now that my dream is coming true, I actually wish I had more academic things. Because in school I picked media studies, film studies, making films, acting, photography — everything around being in this industry. Now in hindsight, I wished I’d done something like criminal psychology or something else, because I have interests in those fields, or philosophy — something a bit different.”

His dissension didn’t end at high school either. Brittney, 29, also stirred up trouble at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. “I just hated drama school,” he says emphatically.

“I just think it was a room full of people with too big of egos that were all massaged by the teachers, in a way. They picked two people from the first day whom they decided were going to be leads. And, if you weren’t one of them, everything was a little harder. You knew the roles weren’t going to go to you. So I gave up. It wasn’t until we started getting seen by agents and doing independent plays, that’s when I kicked into gear and said, ‘OK, I want to do this.’”

He thinks the school’s autocratic methods destroyed his acting ability for a while. “Now I’m starting to use some of the tools I learned, but it has taken me a long time,” he shakes his head.

“Before, what got me in and made me good at what I was dong was instinct. I did ‘Hamlet’ the year before I went to drama school, and I didn’t know anything about the iambic pentameter or the form of Shakespeare. But it made sense to me,” he says.

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“I went from my gut. And I loved going from my gut because it helped me so much. They start trying to ‘straighten’ you out as an actor and make you almost a cookie-cutter version. You start losing your instinct and start losing what made you you. I think drama schools need to allow you to bring yourself into roles.”

Brittney was nearly booted out of drama school too. “I almost got kicked out because I failed the play,” he says. “Art is subjective, right? But they objectively thought I was so bad they wanted to kick me out.”

The play was “The Country Wife,” a Restoration comedy written in the 17th century. “There was something about the role I just couldn’t connect to, so they failed me,” he recalls.

“They failed me TWICE. And, if you fail twice, they kick you out. But they kept me on because I think they thought I was better than that. If they thought I was that bad they would’ve kicked me out. I probably made things harder for myself and do regret not taking things more seriously.”

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