“What is it, 12 and a half years before it’s irreversible?” Tom Goodman-Hill and I are sitting on a park bench in east London. It’s a glorious day and the unseasonable warmth has prompted thoughts of climate change and the imminent destruction of the planet. “It’s terrifying!” he says. “Waaaargh!”
He performs an actorly shake-out of his features. I’m sure you would recognise them – the pale eyes and red beard – even if the name doesn’t trip off the tongue. The actor has had prominent roles in Humans and Mr Selfridge – mildly exasperated nice guys are a speciality. He has done acclaimed theatre work, too: Spamalot, Enron, Earthquakes… It was during that last production in 2010, Mike Bartlett’s play about climate change and intergenerational conflict, that he met his wife Jessica Raine, a former star of Call the Midwife and more recently in Baptiste. They married in 2015.
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The fact that the relationship spelt the end of his marriage to his first wife, Kerry Bradley, the mother of his two children, and the fact that adultery is the central theme of his new four-part ITV drama, Cheat, might account for Goodman-Hill’s slight twitchiness today. He’s keen to stress how much “fun” Cheat is, which is strange as it’s actually rather dark.
“We’re so happy with it,” he says. “It was such a lot of fun to do and, usually, there’s a weird law where the more fun you have, the worse the project turns out!”
ITV has high hopes of the campus thriller, written by newcomer Gaby Hull and directed by Louise Hooper. It opens with sociology lecturer Leah (Katherine Kelly) and student Rose (Molly Windsor of Three Girls) talking to one another through prison glass. Later, we see the body of Leah’s husband Adam (Goodman-Hill) in a morgue. “You don’t know who did it or how or why,” he says. “There are two women facing each other in a prison interview room and you don’t know who pushed whom too far.”
Cheat centres on the mutual toxic obsession of the vulnerable but vicious Rose and Leah, who takes a little too much pleasure in humiliating the student when she plagiarises an essay. Rose fixates on Leah’s husband as a means of taking revenge and Adam becomes a pawn in their psychological games.
When I remark that it’s usually the wives and girlfriends who are bumped off, he says, “It’s about bloody time!” All the same, the “hapless husband” is now a familiar figure in TV drama. I wonder when male actors will start complaining that there are no decent parts for middle-aged men – all they can be is useless or murdered.
Goodman-Hill laughs. “I would never ask for the male character to be given more intrigue,” he says. “I’m more: ‘Who is that man and why is he like that?’ There are plenty of fathers in the playground who like to divide their time between parenting and work, and plenty of couples who do that successfully. The annoying thing is that we haven’t seen more of it on screen sooner.”
Goodman-Hill, 50, grew up middle class in Northumberland and still considers himself a northerner, even though he doesn’t sound it. “I’ve always enjoyed playing with people’s expectations. People see my double-barrelled name and assume I’m posh.” In fact, it comes from his parents splitting up when he was 12.
His mother had a variety of jobs – speech therapist, domestic science teacher – but her passion was amateur dramatics. He followed her into the People’s Theatre in Newcastle and then London’s National Youth Theatre, before training to become a teacher. His tutor there was the now bestselling author Sir Ken Robinson, who spotted Goodman-Hill’s true passion: “He assessed my final practice and said, ‘You’re a fantastic teacher. Now go and be an actor.’”
Goodman-Hill’s first professional role was in Stephen Daldry’s An Inspector Calls – and while theatre is his first love, he’s picky. “I’m too long in the tooth to do something I don’t feel is exactly right,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like a bit of an arse for thinking like that – but theatre is incredibly hard. You have to love it. For me, it has to be new writing, and it has to be relevant.”
Earthquakes was just such a play. It was also responsible for his relationship with Raine, now 36. “It works brilliantly,” he says of being married to another actor. “You understand each other, the pressures you’re under and the rejection involved. You support each other. And we’re both on very different trajectories, which helps.
“It’s amazing watching Jess go from role to role. I…” He dabs a tear away. “I get rather emotional talking about her, I’m so sorry. She’s away filming and I really miss her.” He composes himself. “People have started to see, with Patrick Melrose and Informer and Last Post, that she can be mercurial. It’s fantastic to see her do that.”
The couple live in south London, not too far away from where his first family still are. His son, 22, recently graduated as a graphic designer, while his daughter, 20, is studying fashion.
“They’re both fantastically talented. I have to say I’m quite pleased they’re not actors.”
Raine is also now pregnant. “It’s the most exciting time and we’re both thrilled,” he says.
He acknowledges that the end of his first marriage was messy. Details ended up in the Daily Mail. Goodman-Hill was reportedly organising a surprise 40th-birthday party for his wife, but cancelled it at the last minute; a friend of the couple claimed Bradley remained “furious” even two years later. “It was painful enough without it being all over the papers,” he says. “But it’s all good now. It’s in the past.”
Still, wasn’t it awkward making a drama that centres on adultery? In Mr Selfridge he also had an adultery storyline, as did his character in Humans. “I was very conscious of that when I picked up the script,” he begins carefully. “But it’s inevitable as an actor. If you understand the map… If you know how that feels, you’re going to bring something of that to the part. You draw on your experiences and choose moments from your life that resonate with your character.”
Overall, he says, it’s been “healthy”. Explain?
“Part of your job is to help people understand what emotions people go through in any given situation so, inevitably, someone who can access it and understand it is going to, perhaps, do that more successfully than someone who can’t.”
So, there was something redemptive in playing an adulterer? “I don’t think it’s redemptive, no! That implies some kind of martyrdom. But it is cathartic… And it’s therapeutic.”
Turning 50 last May, he says, has led to a reassessing of priorities. “I suppose it also comes from your children being independent adults. You’re like: ‘I need to find something else to do with my life.’ When you’re breadwinning, there’s an onus on you to accept whatever comes in. But the moment that stops being your primary concern…”
He’s now developing a drama for Channel 4 and co-writing a sitcom. “I feel like if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.” And on screen, he is fine with playing hapless husbands. “At 50, you realise you’re not going to be James Bond. If you’re an average-looking character actor, red-haired and pale, you struggle to find a tone you’re happy with. When you find it, it’s like a weight off your shoulders.”
Cheat will air stripped across the week, every evening at 9pm on ITV from Monday 11th March until Thursday 14th March.