Tom Ellis, the Wales-born star of USA’s new drama Rush, is, most unexpectedly, talking about the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had been invited by Dodgers president Stan Kasten to throw out the first pitch of Saturday night’s game against San Diego, and is still charged by the experience when I talk to him the next day.
“This job has been strange in terms of just how things have worked out and stuff in a kind of sort of ‘hashtag-destiny’ kind of way,” Ellis says. “I got a call from the Dodgers saying, ‘So you’re pitching now on Saturday. What do you want on your shirt? Your name will be on the shirt—what number do you want?’ And I was like, ‘Seventeen would be great for me, because that’s my birthday and that’s my Twitter account—@tomellis17—and that’s kind of like me; bearing in mind that I’d never been to a baseball game in my life, so I didn’t know any of the Dodgers players or whatever.”
“So I get to the game last night, I throw out the first pitch wearing my shirt: ‘Ellis 17.’ And then the game went into the ninth inning and there had been no score, and the bases were loaded for the Dodgers, and the guy that came out and hit the winning run was number 17, [A.J.] Ellis. It’s hilarious, and I was literally right behind him when he hit it. And then Stan came and got me and took me onto the field afterward, and I spoke to the guy, Mr. Ellis—we’ve both got ‘Ellis 17′ on our shirts. It was quite amusing. And the show premieres on July 17, so there we go.”
The Dodgers win secured so dramatically by A.J. Ellis is not a scenario that could be contrived to correspond with a TV-show premiere, surely—surely? I neglected to ask if Ellis practiced the pitch, but given his provenance, let’s just assume someone gave him a few lessons.
For the role of Will Rush, Ellis also needed lessons in pronouncing medical terminology. He plays a Los Angeles–based bad-boy freelance surgeon to the rich and sketchy, people who have medical emergencies they need kept on the down low—no police escorts to the hospital or paparazzi shots of entering a plastic surgeon’s office—and have the money to buy Will’s silence.
I keep saying “Will,” but both Ellis and executive producer Jonathan Levine, who writes the series and directed the pilot, uniformly call the character “Rush.” Ellis is generous in expressing his admiration of Levine, known for his films 50/50 and Warm Bodies. But of course he would be, seeing how Levine’s latest creation gives the actor—who is better known in the U.K. for his numerous TV roles there—a meaty character to dig into. And the food metaphors continue:
TOM ELLIS: Did you chat with Jonathan last week?
DEBBIE DAY: I did. (Read the interview.)
TOM ELLIS: He’s cool, right?
Yes, he’s very, very cool.
I love that guy. I feel very, very blessed that our paths crossed.
How did they cross?
How did we meet? So basically I was doing this play in London, and I had this script come through for this pilot called Rush, and I was like, “Well, all right. I’ll give it a read at some point.” I remember the moment I started reading it, by about the third page, I was like, “Oh my God—I have to do this.” It was great. It popped off the page to me, and it was something that I just thought, I’d just love the opportunity to do this. So I made a tape the next day and sent it to the casting people, and Jonathan saw it, and within 24 hours of me sending the tape, he called me, and said, “I love your tape, and I want you to do it.” And I was like, “What?” And he said, “I love your tape, and I want you to do it, but I need to convince the studio.” The next day, via Skype, he directed me, and I made another tape at a studio in London, and we just kind of workshopped for about an hour over Skype. And then we made this tape, and he took it to the studio and said, “This is the guy I want to play Rush,” and they went, “OK.” And that was it! It was kinda crazy how it happened, but it was cool. And then from that moment onward, we spoke on the phone a few times, then I came out and met him, and we just got on really, really well—we’re the same age, and he just had a cool enthusiasm for life and the way in which we wanted to work, and it was great.
That’s a great story—being directed over Skype.
I know, it’s crazy, right? But that’s Jonathan: He’s kind of wacky. He’s out there. He’s just like, “Well that’s how we’re going to do it.” I was like, “Great.” And to work with a writer-director, it doesn’t happen very often, but it’s a real joy, because it’s a much more singular vision of how he sees things and how he wants things to happen. Quite often the case—certainly in TV—is that there’re a lot of cooks making that broth. And it often doesn’t taste very nice as a result. But the head chef on this was great.
Let’s talk about Will Rush: I’d just like your take on the character, on his backstory—how you’ve approached playing him.
Jonathan and I spent a lot of time sort of building a backstory. We didn’t want there to be this sort of complacent assumption that this guy has been this way his whole life. We wanted a tangible reason as to why he was there, so that could help me sympathize or empathize with him, so I could understand where he was coming from because, you know, he does some pretty despicable things, yet you still kind of love him. For me to understand him was a process of me just sitting down with Jonathan talking about how Rush lost his medical license years ago, and how that came about—we explore that through the season now, which is great.
Also, it became very apparent from reading the pilot script that Jonathan was really into music, and that sort of transpired into Rush’s character as well. And I’m a huge music fan too, so in terms of my approach to the character point of view, over the past few years when I’ve been playing characters, I create a playlist that sort of helps me set the tone for that character. It’s my kind of in in many ways, because I’m quite instinctive in that respect. Jonathan said, “That’s cool, man—I do the same thing. Just know that Rush has terrible taste in music.” And I was like, “Brilliant! So do I.” So I went and created this playlist and played it for Jonathan. And I use it myself—if I’m working on the script or whatever, I just have it on in the background, and it just helps me just get inside the character again. (See video of Ellis talking about his music-based character preparation.)
As the season’s gone on, I find myself asking more and more questions about him, but realize that I’m probably the person who can answer the questions as well, now. Now that I’ve been given the background, I’m sort of running with it. But I do still check in with Jonathan and go through stuff, and talk to him about tonally how we pitch things in the show, because there is some pretty hardcore dramatic and soulful stuff that happens, but also set against this—there are some pretty ridiculous and fun situations in it as well. It’s a fine line all the time, but I’ve never worked with someone who’s so collaborative as Jonathan. He really asks me to bring something to the table as well, which I revel in, really. It’s a beautiful thing.
What kind of music do you listen to?
In real life? I’ve got very eclectic music taste. I grew with music around me—my mum was a music teacher, and me and my sisters all played instruments when we were growing up—so I’ll listen to anything from classical right through to hip-hop and not miss anything in the middle. I use Spotify a lot these days just to—whatever mood I’m in, I’m like, Oh, yeah, I remember that song. Music takes me to places and reminds me of points in my life. I listen to anything. What I listened to last night before I went to bed was probably Kanye West.
And I guess your guilty pleasures now will have to be some of those terrible songs on your playlist.
My guilty pleasures are all ’80s euphoric songs. Katrina and the Waves and, you know, Debbie Gibson, who actually contacted me this week to say that she’s really looking forward to seeing the show. “Only in My Dreams” is on in the pilot, and we name-checked her, and she was thrilled.
Let’s talk about your character’s relationships with some of the other characters, starting with Alex.
All of the relationships in the show, we worked really hard giving them solid backstories. And so Alex and Rush met at Harvard at med school. They roomed together from day 1, but they’re from two completely different places in society. Rush is from a very privileged background; his dad is a very successful doctor. And Alex is from a very working-class background. They’re two guys that for whatever reason really bond—probably because they both want what the other person has or they both have an air of aspiring to what the other person has. Alex wishes he could be the kind of person Rush is sometimes, and lives vicariously through him. And I think if Rush was honest with himself, he’d see what he really craves is maybe what Alex has in his life, which is love and consistency.
That relationship in itself, with Larenz, is so much fun; we have a lot of fun playing around with the scenes that we’re given, finessing them with our own sort of—which is another thing that I just loved about Jonathan: He was like, “We’ll do it as scripted and then we’ll do it however you want to do it. Improvise.” And we’ve taken that philosophy and that’s how we film the show. For an actor, that’s kind of a privilege on set—on a TV show especially—to be given that kind of free rein.
The relationship with Eve (played by actress Sarah Habel)?
We will find out actually the storyline as to why Rush and Eve came to be together. There’s a clue in the pilot where he’s kind of being hard on her about not caring, and she says, “Well, if that were true, then we never would have met.” And that storyline comes out in the series. We have a lot of fun with that relationship, because there’s an element of romantic tension there, but Sarah and I think of it more as like a brother-and-sister relationship.
What I love about the show and about playing the character is the dynamic of all these different relationships. He’s a different person with each of these people, and they all get a different thing from him and he gets a different thing from them. In a cast of not so many regulars, it’s nice to have that sort of differentiation.
Do you think that’s how people are normally in real life, or do you think that’s a trait he has to overcome?
Again, this is something Jonathan and I talked about early doors [early on]: This is a guy who embraces every situation that he’s in and is a guy who really enjoys playing to the room, playing to any audience of the situation that he’s in. It also dictates how he is in his friendships and in his relationships. The relationship with Sarah (Odette Annable’s character) is very different, because she is one of the few people who look right inside Rush and down into his soul, which is a very exposing place for him to be and maybe not a very comfortable place for him to be. Sarah, the character played by Odette, is the one person he’s ever loved.
So Will’s dad—I’ve seen the pilot—he hasn’t shown up yet. I was just wondering if you could hint at how that relationship will appear.
That relationship is a huge part of why Rush is the person he is. His relationship with his dad is a lot to do with why Rush is where he’s at in his life at the moment as well, and how his practice came to be and all of that. And my dad is played by Harry Hamlin, which is even better, which is great! … He’s a top man.
I was talking to Jonathan about our mutual love of Harry Hamlin.
Yeah, I know. Crazy! I was like, “Oh my God. You have no idea!” He’s just—like the best-looking dad anyone could ever imagine. We’ve got some really great additions to the cast as the season goes on.
I’ll tell you what’s really nice about the show: That thing I was talking about, we have this freedom on the floor to sort of act and invest and have a say about our characters. And I think that what’s really nice is we forget that sometimes, then we have guest characters come in and they say, “Oh my gosh. This is not like filming a regular TV show,” and really enjoy the experience. So I’ve got to remind myself not to take that for granted and just embrace it.
What is your experience like doing television in North America versus the U.K.? (Rush is filmed in Vancouver.)
Principally, it’s all the same. When you’re on the floor and the cameras are rolling, it’s the same approach. The one thing that I’m certainly finding different is this end of things—you know, the promotional side of stuff is just a completely different ballgame over here. And it’s exciting to me to be in a show that I’m really proud of and that it’s being publicized and put out into the public conscious as it is: billboards and posters everywhere, and endless chats with people about the show. It’s exciting. (See video of Ellis discussing adjusting his accent to play Will Rush.)
Are you working on any other projects? Do you have anything else coming around?
I’m going to go back to the U.K., and we have a couple of Christmas episodes of Miranda to film. And then—I don’t know at the moment. I’m biding my time. I did a play last year for the first time in 10 years, and it made me realize that I need to go back and do theater at least once a year or once every two years. It’s good for my acting soul.
That’s a nice sentiment.
And certainly Broadway is on my to-do list.
I’ll make that the headline: “Broadway: On his to-do list.”
Rush premieres Thursday, July 17, at 9/8C on USA.