Tommy Jessop on his Line of Duty breakthrough and why he went to Hollywood
Tommy and Will Jessop spoke with Radio Times magazine about their new BBC One special Tommy Jessop Goes to Hollywood.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Tommy Jessop has spent his life surprising people. He surprised his mother when he was born one month early. He surprised the doctor who warned his parents that, because Tommy was born with Down’s syndrome, he might never learn to read (in fact, Tommy went on to not only read but to write his own memoir). And he surprised his family when he told them that he wanted to be an actor.
Tommy, 38, made his TV debut in 2004 sibling drama Coming Down the Mountain, while his performance as Terry Boyle in the fifth and sixth seasons of Line of Duty catapulted him to a new level of success and celebrity.
"When Tommy was in Line of Duty it felt as if that was an incredible breakthrough," says his older brother Will, 40, a documentary director. "Fifteen million people watched it, and Tommy was at the centre of all the attention."
Unsurprisingly, Tommy thought the phone would be ringing constantly with the offer of more acting work.
"I kind of expected to get more TV and film roles," he tells me. But the calls never came.
"I went to my agent to see what the problem was," he recalls. The problem was more of a question: was there a lack of offers because Tommy was an actor, or because he was an actor with Down’s syndrome?
Tommy and Will decided that, instead of getting frustrated, they would get busy. Which is why we’re sitting in a light-filled house just outside Winchester, where Tommy lives and where the siblings are preparing for RT’s photoshoot, to discuss their new BBC1 documentary Tommy Jessop Goes to Hollywood.
The programme follows Tommy as he tries to pitch his own movie, featuring a superhero called Roger (named after his teddy bear), in Hollywood.
Why a superhero? "I want to play a character who makes his presence felt and saves the day," says Tommy. "It’s about being someone with agency in control of his own story."
Will adds, "The thing about being a superhero is that it’s about acceptance and representation and giving people a version of themselves on screen."
This exchange is typical of our conversation: Tommy responds first with a fairly brief answer, then Will offers a helpful supplementary. The love and tenderness between the siblings is palpable. When I ask Tommy to name his real-life superhero, he points to his brother. "He is," he says, "because his past work in the film and TV industry has really inspired me."
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One of the most powerful scenes in the documentary is when their mother, Jane, recalls Tommy’s birth. The hospital staff couldn’t bear to tell her that her son had Down’s, but she remembers seeing a young midwife walk past crying. Tommy’s parents didn’t know whether their son would live or die.
"Mum and Dad would cry at night," Jane tells Tommy in the documentary. "We didn’t know how to make you better." But Tommy did get better, and went on to attend a mix of mainstream schools and schools for those with special educational needs.
When he was 18, his mother assembled a group of friends to eat pizza and ask Tommy what he wanted to do with his life. The assumption was that he would want a job in his local library, but instead Tommy said he wanted to be an actor. "I love being the centre of attention," he says, "and making the viewers laugh and cry."
Will recalls that "there weren’t any opportunities for people with Down’s Syndrome, so my mum, being the wonderful woman that she is, said, 'OK, we’ll start our own theatre company.'"
In 2005, Jane started the Winchester-based Blue Apple Theatre to give people with learning disabilities opportunities to perform in dance and drama.
"That’s how Tommy and his friends were exposed to acting," says Will. "I helped out as a writer and started making films with them at the same time." His credits have since included Investigating Diana: Death in Paris, 25 Siblings and Me, and Growing Up Downs.
Watching Tommy Jessop Goes to Hollywood and seeing the role Jane and Will had in supporting him, it’s clear how much Tommy’s success is a family affair. "It’s definitely true that most people with Down’s who are doing really well have a very strong relative who is helping them to do well," says Will.
Tommy enjoyed the fame that came with Line of Duty – being photographed, attending awards ceremonies, meeting famous people. When Line of Duty won best drama at the 2021 National Television Awards, he stole the show by breaking out into a dance while accepting the award.
"Being the centre of attention and having people applaud is about acceptance," says Will, "and that’s something that Tommy and people like him don’t necessarily find in other people."
That brings us back to their new documentary. In his career, Tommy has often broken new ground – the first actor with Down’s to play Hamlet professionally, the first actor with Down’s to star in a major TV drama (Coming Down the Mountain).
"Being the first to do things is exciting and it carries its own responsibility," adds Will, "but, really, we’re desperate to live in a world where he no longer has to be the first, where it becomes routine that other people [with Down’s] have the opportunities. The roles that come through [can feel] typecast; victims, people in hospital beds, people who need support."
Alongside his acting, Tommy has become an activist and spokesperson. "I want to be a voice for people with Down’s," he says.
He spoke in support of the Down Syndrome Act, which became law last year and requires the government to publish guidance on the specific needs of people with Down’s syndrome. This comes as optional prenatal testing means that expectant parents can now detect Down’s earlier in their pregnancy, with about 90 per cent of women choosing to terminate a pregnancy after a diagnostic test confirms that the baby has Down’s.
Tommy might be part of the last generation with Down’s; it is perhaps not accidental that the villain in his superhero story is a scientist trying to eradicate anyone with the anomaly.
There are some 40,000 people with the syndrome in the UK. I ask Tommy what he thinks of a future world without Down’s. "A mixture of anger and sadness," he replies. If he knew a mother who was pregnant and she was going to have a baby with Down’s, what would he tell her? "Go for it," he says, "because it really is a life worth living."
Tommy Jessop’s life and career is a testament to the rewards that come from going for it. He and Will are currently working on a script for their superhero movie that they hope will eventually be funded and produced. A Hollywood superhero movie starring an actor with Down’s might sound far-fetched, but I suspect Tommy Jessop might just surprise us all again.
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