Tom Prior on LGBTQ representation: 'Do you feel you can truthfully represent this experience?'

"If there’s something which I can relate to and I believe I can represent truthfully, then I think all I can do is my best and hope that people believe me."


Interview and words: Alastair James; pictures: Pip

The star of the Cold War gay romance epic, Firebird, Tom Prior says the debate around who should be playing queer roles in film and TV is a "slippery slope" and diversity should be balanced with truth and talent.

Appearing on the cover of the Attitude February issue - out now to download and to order globally - the 31-year-old discusses what matters when it comes to representation and how tricky the conversation on the subject has become. 

When it comes to representing the LGBTQ+ community in Firebird, which he also co-wrote and produced, Tom reveals he didn't feel pressure from the community, "but more from the truth of the story which we based the film on."

"All I can do is my best and hope that people believe me"

Tom plays Sergey, who is based on a real man, Sergey Fetisov, who fell in love with a pilot called Roman during his conscription in the Soviet Air Forces. He went on to train as an actor before documenting his story in the memoir, A Tale About Roman.

Continuing, Tom says, "I don’t know if I could truthfully play somebody in the transgender community because I can’t honestly say what that experience would be like. But if there’s something which I can relate to and I believe I can represent truthfully, then I think all I can do is my best and hope that people believe me."

"I’m a great believer as an actor that the less you know about me the better because otherwise so much of the reality will inform the decisions in how somebody receives the character."

His view on transgender roles is interesting given his link to Eddie Redmayne, who Tom starred alongside in The Theory of Everything. Redmayne famously played trans-pioneer Lili Elbe in 2015's The Danish Girl, which he recently said was a "mistake"

Asked what Tom would say to Redmayne if he could go back in time, the Firebird actor says: "Do you feel you can truthfully represent this experience? If there’s been something in your life which you believe can help you embody the truth of this experience, then I’d say go and do it.

"But, if he doesn’t believe he played the situation truthfully, that would have been a situation for me as an actor where I would have gone, 'This is a phenomenal project, but I believe that you [the producers] need to cast somebody who can actually do a better job than me.'"

But Tom tells Attitude he's wary of how conversations around representation could work against LGBTQ actors.

"What’s going to happen if the industry goes: 'We’re only going to get straight actors to play straight parts'? Don’t get me wrong, that game has been going on forever and so many people have been having to pretend one way or another, or hide out of fear of losing parts. I think that it’s a slippery slope...

"To an actor who is not out but has had experiences with other people of the same sex, but they don’t identify a certain way, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be the best person for the job. It’s different with trans representation because that’s such a specific and personal transformation. So, I think that it’s [got to be] case by case," he adds.

He offers a thoughtful take on a controversial topic - that while diversity standards are important and necessary, there could be a backlash if people think actors are cast in roles solely to check a box.

"If the performance doesn’t hold up, that’s when people get upset. So, that’s the struggle which is going on. I think it’s necessary to put in diversity standards. But I think it must be as equally balanced with the talent and the truth."

Read the full interview in the Attitude February issue, out now.

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