British Actor Tom Prior talks to PASSPORT Magazine about Firebird, Dangerous Love In Russia, and Finding Used Underwear in Hotel Rooms.
UK-born actor and writer Tom Prior, 31 is perhaps best known for playing Stephen Hawking’s teenage son Robert in the 2014 Oscar-winning biopic The Theory of Everything with Eddie Redmayne. Recently, he found his true passion project in more ways than one with a gay biopic, Firebird, which opens theatrically in the US on April 29th, 2022.
Adapted by Estonian director Peeter Rebane and Prior from the late Sergey Fetisov’s 1990s memoir A Tale About Roman, it chronicles a 1970s Cold War-era love affair between a Russian military private, Sergey (Prior), and Russian Air Force fighter pilot, Roman (Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii), which is threatened by virulently antigay military and KGB commanders who could have them imprisoned for homosexuality.
Rebane and Prior, who first met in 2014, spent time interviewing Fetisov in Moscow during the two-plus years they fashioned the script (Fetisov died in 2017 following an illness-related surgery: more on his story can be read here). Firebird’s screenings overseas have already struck nerves back in Russia, where according to the press notes some headlines read “A Brit, an Estonian and a Ukrainian Shame the Moscow International Film Festival.” Bots have attacked the film’s website, and the filmmakers have received death threats from ultra-nationalists.
Currently dividing his time between England and Estonia, Prior was Attitude Magazine’s February cover boy. He trained at England’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), and also counts Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2014), Iceland Is Best (2016), and last year’s dramatization of the 1919 Sette Giugno uprising in Malta against the British, Blood On The Crown, among his movie credits. He recently spoke with PASSPORT via Zoom to discuss bringing Fetisov’s story to screen, shooting a love scene in the chilly Baltic Sea, and which fellow out actor he’d love to share an onscreen romance with.
How did you most connect with Sergey, both the real person and the onscreen alter-ego you portray?
It was actually his warmth, sunniness, and positive outlook which I was so honestly relieved to find in him when I met him in person. And that’s why I decided to play Sergey in the film in such a way that he’s not this tortured soul in terms of his identity, but more in terms of how he kept such a positive outlook; that resonated with me. I like to think I see the best in every situation no matter how hopeless it gets, so that’s probably the biggest trait I took from meeting him and used in the film.
You actually recorded some of the film in Russia. Was that dicey given how bad things are for LGBTQ people under Putin?
Yep. We had to be mindful of having a suitable enough cover story. We certainly couldn’t say, ‘this is the content of the film we’re creating.’ There was an awareness of unease, that’s for sure. In pretty much most of the countries I’ve been to most of my life you don’t have to worry about safety, but it’s a whole other game in Russia. Even if you haven’t done anything wrong they could find something and make you wrong for it. But the Russians as people are so warm and friendly and hospitable: the problem is with the system and the fear mongering that happens.
Even some states in the US are seeing fresh waves of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation. How do you feel about visiting places where homosexuality is actually criminalized or the politics just go against it?
It’s unbelievable. It absolutely baffles me that this is still an issue. Russia is to one extreme, but the extremes of what’s going on in African countries as well is to a whole other level. But I believe it’s something like a film that can create greater understanding. What Peeter and I intended when making the film was to do that very thing, and hope the film causes greater understanding and connection with people who actually aren’t members of the LGBTQIA+ community. We wanted to present love between two people. And it really saddens me that there are places on earth where being in love with a person can get you killed. It’s astonishing.
There’s a sure-to-be iconic, stunning love scene between Sergey and Oleg that takes place in the water. What was that experience like?
It was shot in the Baltic Sea in the beginning of September, so it was really cold. I spent eleven hours in the sea that day and it was actually our first shooting day together. We had some rehearsals, but there’s nothing quite like breaking the ice with a scene like that, with the crew as well, who were literally ladling warm water down my pants and over my body to keep me warm! As a writer, I wanted to see something I hadn’t before, and we wondered where their first experience would happen and I really take credit for that.
What is the most romantic locale for a little lovin’ as far as you’re concerned?
Honestly, I fucking love Iceland. I want to build a house in Iceland and I know this doesn’t sound romantic in terms of it’s bloody cold there, but I love the cold and snuggling up in the cold. They have thermal springs, and there’s northern lights. That’s beautiful.
In Iceland or otherwise, what’s the best thing you ever found in a hotel room?
Other than a previous guest’s underwear under the bed? (Laughs)
OMG, did you really?
Yeah. That was something. Either that, or an interesting snack somewhere, but I think I’m going to have to stick with the underwear for now. I’ve stayed in so many places. I had my hoody stolen in a hotel gym one time, because I left it in there. And I’ve lost many a pair of swimming trunks when I’ve left them, gone back, and they’re like, ‘nope there’s no evidence of them anywhere.’ I think I’ve had five pairs stolen.
What’s the best thing you have eaten during your travels?
Probably a massaman curry in Thailand. One of my favorite places to eat and fave breakfasts in the whole world is Kings Road Cafe in Los Angeles. They make the best breakfast burrito ever! I’m a huge fan of Tex Mex. Honestly.
I love Estonia and would love to know a reason or two why you think gay folks should visit/
You don’t go for the gay bars, because there aren’t any. They open and close, which is really sad. I honestly think there’s some great places to eat and it’s the nature which is amazing. The forests and quiet peacefulness of it. Tallinn’s old town is so beautiful and there’s such a romantic chocolate shop where everything is handmade. It’s like nowhere else I’ve ever been in the world.
What else are you working on these days?
Peeter and I will definitely work on another adaptation of a bestselling book about refugees during WWII and that will likely turn into a TV series.
Is there another story from LGBTQ history you’d love to bring to the screen?
One project I’m working on with another director, which I can’t really talk about yet, does deal with basically getting to be with the person you love at all costs. It will be in a much more contemporary atmosphere taking on a type of character you’ve seen in action films, but with a different type of love. A reimagining of a really great action hero who will go on missions and it will basically be more a pansexual Jason Bourne, or James Bond.
Assuming you plan to star, which other openly gay actor would you love to play your love interest?
Which others are there?
To name a few, Ben Whishaw, Wilson Cruz, Troye Sivan, John Barrowman, Russell Tovey, Billy Porter, and Sir Ian McKellen, if you want to get intergenerational!
[Bridgerton’s] Jonathan Bailey! I saw him in a play many years ago at the National Theatre and he was just fantastic in it and I was like, he’s also quite a looker!