An Interview with Tom Walker

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The man behind Jonathan Pie

The actor and creator behind fictional news reporter Jonathan Pie talked to London Calling about his overnight success, life as a struggling actor and playing a 3,000 seat venue - and, of course, we got him to rant about politics!

London Calling: Introduce us to Jonathan Pie, the character you created

Tom Walker: Jonathan Pie is a news reporter who between takes says what he really thinks and normally does it through anger and swearing.

LC: Was there a specific catalyst that made you that angry?

TW: It all started when Jeremy Corbyn got elected as labour leader and I remember the minute he was elected it cut outside to this journalist and the first thing she said was: “How long do you think he’s got?” And I really found it very shocking that the media had signed and sealed his death warrant 50 seconds after he’d been elected. So I wrote a little thing about it and that was the first video I did. It went quite well so I thought I’ll do this for a few weeks. And then about three weeks later it went completely viral and overnight I had a career as a political satirist.

LC: How does your life change when you are a sudden internet sensation?

TW: I was travelling to a christening in Somerset and someone phoned me and said:” Your video has been viewed a million times.” By the end of that weekend it had been viewed 8 million times and by then I kind of knew. I woke up that Monday morning thinking: This is it. This is an opportunity. I thought it would last a few weeks; it might help me move forward as an actor, which is what I am first and foremost. And as a few doors opened, I stuck my foot belligerently in them. Because I had been out of work so long, I quickly recognised it for the opportunity that it was, so I’ve taken it and ran with it.

LC: And now you will perform at the iconic Apollo Hammersmith.

TW: It’s crazy. I did a few large venues on my last tour, the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and the Palladium. Generally I was playing these 300 people venues and then one night I was thrust in front of thousands of people. This time round, I am playing bigger venues generally but I think the leap to the Hammersmith Apollo will be pretty huge, it’s 3000 seats. I’m just going to keep my cool and enjoy it rather than panic.

LC: In drama school they always say you have to make your own work

TW: For years everyone was telling me to make my own work and I kind of did this to show them that it doesn’t work. And then it did. I had gotten to a stage where, in your twenties, you are supposed to fail and be poor and skip meals but when forty is approaching, it was getting a little bit stupid. So I kind of decided to give up. And the minute you give up the jeopardy is gone.

LC: Some people think Jonathan Pie is a real, genuine reporter. Is that intended?

TW: I hope the first time you meet him you think he’s real because that means as an actor I’m doing my job properly. But I find it quite bizarre when people get annoyed when he says something they disagree with. He is a satirical character; I can put whatever words in his mouth I see fit. Sometimes I deliberately take the contrary view. When Trump got elected, I wrote a piece about how it was Hillary’s fault, because that was an interesting angle. The amount of shit I got into for that, from little lefties going “Oh my god, how dare you!” Pie is a fictional account of a particular political point of view. Sometime he contradicts himself and sometimes he’s wrong, I think, but I find it very weird when people take genuine offence to them not agreeing with him. He doesn’t exist. Don’t worry about it.

LC: Is it exhausting to play someone so angry and frustrated and quite self righteous - or is it actually really satisfying?

TW: It can be satisfying. The show is an hour and fifteen minutes long and that is exhausting because of the physical and the mental concentration it takes. Sometimes, doing the three-minute videos can be exhausting too. It may look like it’s just made up as you go along but it’s taken a me a day of writing and a half day of learning and if I trip up on my lines, it can take 10 or 15 takes which is horrendous when you’re out in the middle of a street but I guess that’s the job.

LC: Tell us a bit about Tim, the fictional cameraman who probably doesn’t exist. Is he your voice of reason?

TW: Not really a voice of reason. He is a Tory, the political opposite to Pie, that was important. From a technical point of view, I got someone to bounce off, someone to ask me questions. People always ask me about Tim and again I feel really bad telling them he doesn’t exist, he is a fictional construct just like Pie himself.

LC: What you do with your videos is unmasking the double-face of the media and how all news is kind of fake in the way it is fed to us

TW: The live show is about that really. How one or two people being offended on Twitter becomes a news story. That is not journalism. And how quick we are to hang someone for something they wrote on Twitter in an unguarded moment seven years ago. People can lose their jobs now for writing something that at the time was politically correct but now isn’t. That is the theme of the show, unmasking the hypocrisy of how news has become entertainment rather than fact.

LC: One of the reasons for the popularity of Trump or Farage or all these populists is that they are “saying it as it is”. People feel like they are not free to speak their mind anymore

TW: Especially on the left. We are so censorious, so anti freedom of speech on the left, which is bizarre for me. It should be the other way around. If you say these days that you are pro freedom of speech you are considered right wing by many left-wingers, which is an appalling state of affairs. I do think things like UKIP and Trump are a response to left wing politics being obsessed with diversity, as long as it’s not diversity of opinion but our version of it and I think it’s really dangerous.

LC: One of Pie’s lines is “I want hateful rhetoric out in the open”

TW: You do though. It is actually not illegal to be a racist, because that would be thought crime, like in Orwell’s 1984. It’s actually better if people express their views openly because then you can see them in plain sight. People should be able to express their opinion no matter how horrid, that’s what freedom is, that’s what democracy is. And you can only dispel someone’s argument if you hear it. Banning people from voicing an opposite view is not healthy debate. It’s deeply troubling. You have to engage with people that think very differently to you to win the argument. You wont win an election, unless you listen and talk to people that you don’t like.

LC: But at least the turbulent times got people interested in politics again

TW: I guess so. I’d take not having Trump and the Tories. The show is a lot funnier than this by the way!

Jonathan Pie - Back To The Studio is at the Hammersmith Eventim Apollo 9 & 10 March. Tickets from £27