Cowbridge comp alum and Hollywood up-and-comer Rhys Thomas reveals his path to success to Carl Marsh – from treading the Sherman boards to directing American comedy giants, and now, a major superhero show in Disney Plus’ Hawkeye. And the only thing it cost him was his accent…
When you see people on film and TV doing well, you always think they’re out of reach. But you’ve been a Cowbridge high school boy and got to where you are now. It’s quite inspiring. Could we talk about your story?
I did my A levels of Cowbridge [Comprehensive] and studied English Literature, French and History. But during my teen [years], I started doing theatre – I wanted to be an actor but also didn’t quite know a path. So locally, I did amateur dramatics in and around Cowbridge and got involved with the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff. Film was always the draw but growing up in that part of the world, it seemed out of reach – I didn’t know about things like film schools. Cowbridge sort of had – though it’s probably changed, in all fairness – quite a traditional landscape of subjects: there wasn’t even drama or anything like that.
So, I always have done [acting] outside [of school] from the age of 12. And every now and again, I’d do some extra work on Welsh language [productions] because I grew up speaking Welsh. That was the closest thing to seeing how that all works. Even going to university in Trinity College in Dublin, there was no film course, so I studied drama, and kind of landed there with the desire to act very quickly. But whereas I was in a small pond in Cardiff, I was suddenly in a room with a bunch of people that looked like me and, and also wanted to be active and were a lot more competitive than I was. I had none of that.
So, I’d say it was in university that I started drifting more towards directing: I started focusing on theatre that incorporated video and film. It became my speciality. Well, the old, very wonky and pretentious stuff – as you do in university! But again, I still had no clue how to get into the industry and so after university, I headed to New York with my future wife. That felt like a step towards film or TV: I kicked around New York for about a year doing all sorts of part-time jobs and as a PA on little amateur films. Within this year, I basically found a way to live through a number of fortuitous little moments that all kind of happened in quick succession.
Film was always the draw but growing up in that part of the world, it seemed out of reachRhys Thomas
I was working in an ice cream shop and saw an ad for a job as a receptionist at an editing company. And I was like, anything will be better than this. I went, got that job and within two weeks of being at this editing company, a film director firm came in. Within a month, then, I went from basically tossing ice cream to basically becoming a PA to this director on Saturday Night Live. And that was kind of the beginning.
Did SNL happen because you had a chance meeting with somebody or was it because you had done some work already?
I did an internship at the Conan O’Brien Show in my third year of university. Conan is produced by the same person as SNL so I sort of knew the building – it was having some familiarity, an acquaintance with that world. I honestly think getting in there was really [to do with] my accent at the time. I think they just liked the idea of having a British assistant. But then the goal was just staying there and learning because it was really like a film school in that I’d never really been on a film set properly – professional films – especially in America.
When SNL finished for the summer, Graham Norton was taking a stab at America at that time for Comedy Central. And so I got a job there as an office PA, and it was great. It was a completely different set than others I’d been on, which were very hierarchical, very political; old, historic. Graham Norton was more informal, fun and a kind of ‘everybody in it together’ environment. Then, when it came around to September, again, Graham Norton was finishing and SNL was starting up again. And so I called up the guy that I’d been working for and asked if there any chance of [me] coming back, and I sort of lied a little bit about what I’ve been doing over the summer – I made it sound like I’d gotten more experience and boosted my CV. When I came back, that time as a Production Coordinator now, I started moving up the production ramps a little bit.
Obviously, you’re very tenacious. What is the pace of work or was it just not getting well paid that got you wanting to move up on SNL?
My goal in that first year in New York was that if I could make $500 a week then I felt like I would be completely made up. It’s funny. I delivered newspapers when I was 13 and always worked. That was when I realised what the benefit was of doing that. Getting to New York and suddenly being in an environment like SNL where I was around people who had maybe grown up with very privileged backgrounds, I felt like my willingness to work helped – I really didn’t mind doing whatever.
It sounds like a really clichéd thing to say but the money was never a thing. I knew what I wanted to do. And I was kind of willing to just figure it out – to put my foot into the door. There was no job I wasn’t willing to take to just be there and learn and because New York’s one of those places where you always feel like there’s something going on around the corner, it’s hard to relax. You’re constantly getting home and feeling like there’s a fun party probably going on somewhere. It was the same with work. I think that’s what carried me through those first couple of years doing crappy jobs. At the same time, I felt like I was on the right path, at least.
With transitioning to directing, essentially I got to a place where I’d been producing long enough that and I felt confident enough that I felt like I knew how to at least take a crack at it. And I think I was lucky to have worked up to a place where someone would allow me to do that. Though it definitely didn’t escape me that my first time directing was for national American television. The first piece I did ran on [the SNL episode that] Paul McCartney was the musical guest for. It was all pretty wild. I took over as a film director that following year.
Well, here we are now with Hawkeye, which isn’t a comedy at all, though it might have the odd bit of fun. And it’s the Marvel Universe. So you haven’t been, say, pigeon-holed into comedy then?
It’s something I’ve always been aware of very early on, that it was a brand that sort of hung around my neck. I would get sent scripts from time to time, and they were just always kind of in that realm of college comedies, fraternity boys trying to meet women and all that kind of stuff, which I knew wasn’t me. And it really wasn’t stuff that I did very well on SNL. I really enjoy comedy that has a tinge of sadness to it as well, like some of the stuff in Documentary Now [miniseries with Bill Hader and Fred Armisen]. That helped me, I think, move away from just the straight comedy branding, because Documentary Now has episodes that are more dramatic than they are comedic. There’s a real human story to them.
Marvel is a great world. I enjoy those movies and it’s kind of a dream to be able to do what I never thought that I would again. [Hawkeye] was a random meeting that happened right before we went into lockdown – literally, the day before everything shut down in LA. Sometimes you have these meetings where there’s no specific topic, you just meet with the executive and maybe one day in the future they’ll remember you. Or I thought that’s what it was. But they sort of brought up Hawkeye as something they were doing and that they were expanding their worlds now into Disney Plus [series] that will dive deeper into certain characters and I said, ‘oh, that sounds really cool.’
So I got some of the Hawkeye comics and [found that he’s] really an amazing character. The part that appeals to me is that he’s one of the most ‘human’ members of the Avengers. I don’t know if this is a weird thing to say but I think with the pandemic, I had the time to sit and look at it. Maybe Marvel would have moved a lot faster if it hadn’t happened but everything slowed down for them.
It must have been quite daunting because you’re quite new to the universe. Were you nervous or did you think ‘Well, I’m just gonna go for this?’
Oh, no, I mean, everything’s daunting. Even if it’s the smallest thing, I don’t approach anything, I think, confidently, but part of that’s the fun. I’ve sort of drifted around different things and you realise, ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s the same every time: it’s a camera, some actors, the same sort of core. Sometimes you turn around and they are hundreds of people, sometimes there are five people.
What about the cast. Must be a bit of a dream, I guess?
Oh, yeah. That’s what’s really fun, isn’t it? When you’ve got access to people like that, it makes a world of difference.
Once this is all done and dusted, do you think you’d want to stay in the Marvel Universe? Or have you got some other projects you can talk about?
Marvel? No. I mean, who knows? Again, I’m definitely having a great time. I got into film because of the fantasy of it so it’s definitely fun to be in this universe. But who knows on that front. We have another season of Documentary Now to do at some point that. I think that will be a fun chaser to this experience because it’s almost completely on the opposite end [of the spectrum]. The joy of that show has always been that we’re making it for ourselves. We make things that make us laugh; we’ve never worried about having an audience and we’re very fortunate to be able to do that. I also did a children’s special with John Delaney who I don’t think many people know in the UK, but he’s a stand-up comedian. He’s very popular here in the States.
I’ve got to say before you go that your Welsh accent is definitely gone!
It’s funny. When I come home for a bit it starts to drift back, but I hate it. I hate the fact that it’s drifted. It’s something I’m sometimes aware of and sometimes I’m not. People pointed out the way I say things when I first moved here – like saying ‘rubbish’ instead of ‘trash’ and ‘pavement.’ And so you start adopting that just to stop people pointing it out. It’s quite insidious the way it creeps into your vocabulary, but I can’t do anything. I’ll move back to the UK eventually and reclaim it.
Hawkeye is currently streaming on Disney Plus.
words CARL MARSH
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