Q: What was your reaction when you heard you had got the role?
“It was exciting to be playing someone who, at least on paper, reads as a pain in the backside. Something I hadn’t really done before. The opportunity to work in the UK and with such brilliant English actors was also hugely appealing.
“I was filming season one of Salvation for CBS in Canada and I jumped for joy by myself in my Toronto hotel room. I had been away from home for about six months and still had more to film on Salvation. Then Vanity Fair came through and it was exactly what I wanted and needed.
“American network television is an entirely different world. I’d been working in America mainly for the past three or four years. So it was really wonderful to be back in London.”
Q: Had you read the book?
“I hadn’t read the book. I knew about Vanity Fair as I studied English at A-level – so I knew of Thackeray but I’d never actually dived into the book. I also knew there had been previous film and TV adaptations.
“Obviously when I got the job the first thing I did was buy the book. I read it over the next couple of months and loved it, laughed out loud and got a copy for my dad and my mum. But I stayed well away from the 2004 film and the 1998 BBC adaptation.
“I didn’t want to see other people’s interpretations of George. In a way he’s a bit of a villain in the story, but it was my goal to change that. I wanted George to want to do the good thing. I hope we don’t hate George completely and realise he just doesn’t understand anything else.”
Q: Who is George Osborne?
“George is like a petulant child. He is completely entitled, has been spoilt his entire life. He has a father who has told him what to do every single day and has given him everything he has ever wanted. George knows nothing else.
“Nothing has ever gone wrong for George. Ever. So when things start to go wrong for him in Vanity Fair it is particularly interesting. I don’t think George means to be a terrible person. He just lacks experience.”
Q: Does George love Amelia (Claudia Jessie)?
“George does love Amelia. He has been told all of his life to love her and she loves him too. They have been able to see their future for a long time. It’s almost like an arranged marriage. They have been in each other’s houses since they played together as children.
“When his father tells him not to marry her, that’s when everything starts to go wrong for George. He doesn’t understand and it’s like his entire life falls apart in front of him.
“George stands up to his father which is an extremely difficult thing for him to do. That’s the moment where everything changes for George. When he realises he can stand up to his father and can finally be with the person he wants to be with.
“There’s one scene with Robert Pugh as George’s father where they have a confrontation. You’re left with the impression that George and his father will never speak to each other again. George’s father is a cut-throat businessman and he is no different with his son, which is pretty terrifying!
“But it’s very exciting for George. He’s going to live his own life. When I was reading the scripts and then filming the scenes I felt very pleased and pleased for George. Taking that step and standing up for himself and realising his father isn’t very good for him.”
Q: What does George make of Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke) when they first meet?
“George can see right through Becky. This girl coming from a different class and social upbringing. An orphan from Miss Pinkerton’s school in Chiswick. He suspects Becky is there for the money which, of course, she is. He doesn’t give her the time of the day. But George later changes his mind.
“When she arrives back at the house with the Crawley family in this lavish horse and carriage, George realises Becky is getting somewhere. Maybe she isn’t who he thought she was? Becky is also a flirt. She’s giving George all of the looks he thinks he deserves. It gets him very excited and confused. She smells of money and Becky is suddenly very desirable.
“Becky knows where she wants to be. She wants to be wealthy and in the upper class. I really respect Becky’s brashness and boldness. She climbs society brilliantly well, especially considering the conditions of those times were nothing like they are today. Becky had to get to where she wanted to be as a matter of survival.
“Olivia is so strong in the role of Becky. I remember doing scenes with her and being hugely impressed.”
Q: How would you describe George’s relationship with Rawdon Crawley (Tom Bateman)?
“Rawdon is a powerful figure. Tom Bateman is huge compared to me. Rawdon sees George as weak and the only reason Rawdon hangs out with him is to take his money. Beat him at the billiards and cards’ tables.
“But George is excited because he’s with someone of a higher rank and he confuses it with friendship. All the while Rawdon is simply taking all of his money, which is sad. Thankfully I didn’t have to be very good at billiards as George loses. In fact, I was pretty terrible at it.”
Q: What world do we see in Vanity Fair?
“Vanity Fair is this place where money rules over love. You see all of these relationships burn down. Everyone confuses money for love. Then you have Becky who wants to be like these people who are drenched in wealth and upper class. That’s her dream. But all of these people around her who already have that are failing and falling every step of the way.
“Vanity Fair is a story of a brilliant female character making a mockery of everyone around her.”
Q: Thackeray describes Vanity Fair as ‘a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having’. Do you think it is a story with relevance to today?
“Vanity Fair is totally relevant to today. I think a lot of young women will identify with Becky. Period dramas can alienate people, so I’m very excited by how modern this adaptation looks and how modern it felt, while still retaining the traditional elements.
“Becky’s story is very relatable to how people think of success today. The way people use social media and can gain thousands of followers to become these online entities. To have this unique personality online that is different to who they are in real life.
“I think of that as a modern Vanity Fair. That’s where Becky Sharp would be today. A person that can craft this genius story online and appear at all these different events.
“People today expect fame to be this thing that when they get it they have arrived. But in reality life continues and all the thoughts in your head are exactly the same.”
Q: Are you wary of the negative aspects to both fame and social media?
“I’ve got a lot of good people around me who won’t let me get an inch from the ground. A lot of good friends from home who just constantly take the mickey out of me, which is very helpful. And a mother and father who are constantly making sure that I am who I am.
“I grew up with social media. I was working when I was 14 and I was on social media then. In a way it has helped because I feel like I’ve grown out of that phase now. I don’t really spend too much time on social media anymore as I know it can become unhealthy. But you have to accept the fact that it is a different world, and for what I do, it can be extremely useful. So I need to know why it’s useful and why it’s not.”
Q: What does George look like on screen?
“He’s mainly in military uniform with different stages of military uniform. When he goes to the opera he puts on his white satin trousers and he pops his collar on the red uniform to show the gold lining. It was very peacock-like. ‘I’m going out so I put my colours on and I let my buttons shine.’ It’s a strong look. But try going to the bathroom in a costume like that!
“I found getting dressed in the uniform each morning extremely important. There were so many layers and buttons and you’re starting from scratch each day. By the end you really felt as though you had built George Osborne. Stepping out of the trailer you felt ready. You stand a couple of inches higher and your chest pokes out. You feel regal. Getting dressed was a very important part of my day.
“George also has sideburns. They were not mine. I can grow them but our director James Strong didn’t think mine were proficient enough. So what my brilliant make-up artist decided to do was stick them on hair by hair. I’d spend over an hour in make-up every morning getting these fake sideburns put on, a couple of hairs at a time. I could totally imagine George really crafting these things on his face and really caring about them. So that also became quite a useful part of the morning in terms of getting into character.”
Q: How would you describe ‘assistant to the author’ Gwyneth Hughes’ scripts?
“Gwyneth’s scripts are fantastic. They are beautifully crafted. And they retain the wit of Thackeray which is insanely hard to do because in the book there are these long rambles of his funny thoughts and commentary. Gwyneth has managed to retain that aspect but within a delicate drama. You can tell talking to her just how much she loves Vanity Fair. It’s a story very close to her heart.”
Q: What was it like working with the director James Strong?
“We shot the Battle of Waterloo in a field near Reading with 400 supporting artists, 50 stunt horses, three units and somehow it felt calm and collected. That was James’s ability to make us all look fantastic and feel comfortable at the same time and to beautifully link these units together. It was a good crew and they did a great job.”
Q: Can you tell us more about those Battle of Waterloo scenes?
“George doesn’t expect to ever go into battle. It’s a mixture of naivety and ignorance. He simply doesn’t think about it. George is too busy thinking about what tie he is going to put on and who he is going to go to dinner with. But then he finds himself going into battle.
“Filming the Battle of Waterloo was one of the most exciting weeks of shooting I’ve ever had. We were lying flat on the ground as this army of French Napoleonic soldiers walked through the smoke towards us. Your heart starts to race. It was completely terrifying. I’ve never felt that before and I was genuinely scared. And that was just filming the battle. You can only imagine what it would have been like for real.
“The weather was brutal when we were filming. It was raining and the wind was so strong that the rain was coming down sideways hitting the sides of our faces.
“I did all my horseback scenes myself. I had a number of horse riding lessons. First of all just getting comfortable on the horse, trotting, cantering and galloping. And then the next few lessons were target practice – hitting objects with swords while cantering around on horses. I felt like a little action man.
“The horses are fantastic. They are so composed and know what they are doing. They can even cope with all the sound of the gunfire. The trainers had such amazing relationships with the horses.”
Q: George dances with Becky at a Brussels Ball. How was that for you?
“It was lovely. I can move, but I couldn’t cha-cha for you. Olivia and I had dance lessons. I went training with the choreographer and learned all of the moves, so we were prepped and ready. These jobs are a dream because of the things you get to learn. The horse riding, the waltzing, sword-fighting.”
Q: What were some of the other memorable locations?
“We filmed the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens scenes at Syon House. It was extremely loud as we were right next to Heathrow on the flight path. There were planes flying over us every 50 seconds.
“They built this entire world there, with a huge fair, fire breathers, jugglers, dancers, a little monkey dressed as Napoleon. It was fantastic. And Michael Palin was there too as Thackeray.
“My favourite location, excluding filming the Battle of Waterloo, was shooting in Fitzroy Square where the Osborne and Sedley homes were located. It was so thrilling to be filming in London and in such a historic square.”
Q: How do you reflect back now on the making of Vanity Fair?
“I loved working on such a long shoot with so many characters in a story that spans a number of years. It was really exciting for me. And to play a character that felt very different to who I am.
“There are dark aspects of the story. And I found playing this angry character made me angrier in my day to day life. Although George’s absurdity is quite funny. His dislike for everything. But we did have a lot of fun making Vanity Fair. We all got on really well and had a little gang. I miss them all – they were all golden.”